Three years ago Friday, a woman called a police non-emergency number when she came home to find her live-in boyfriend drinking and talking about harming himself. Justin Way, 28, was a newly recovered alcoholic who had just lost his job of five years.
His mother Denise Way talked to Oxygen.com about the fateful day that Justin was shot dead by police in St. Augustine, Florida. She shared her story with Oxygen because she said she is frustrated with what she feels is a lack of justice with her son's death and with others who have died in officer-involved shootings.
“Justin called us around 2 p.m. on the day of his homicide [by police.] He was hopeful that a grievance against his employer might result in reinstating his job. He talked optimistically about the possibility of maybe working part-time and going back to school to become a middle school band director. He was a gifted musician and singer and also loved working with young people.”
Their call was interrupted by a call on Justin’s other line, from her former supervisor. Denise thinks that call could have set Justin off and he began to drink heavily. In fact, later his blood alcohol content was later recorded at .294.
“Less than three hours later he was violently, senselessly, and unnecessarily killed by the very police called in to help him.”
Denise told Oxygen that his girlfriend who was at work at the time, received some troubling text messages from him, and he threatened to hurt himself.
“She came home to find him despondent. He had a black, serrated, fantasy-type knife with cut-outs that he had bought because he thought it looked cool, and he had talked about mounting it on the wall. He did not threaten his girlfriend, but she could not reason with him to put down the knife and was worried he would hurt himself. So, she called a non-emergency Saint Johns County Sheriff’s number to request help for Justin.”
She mentioned the Baker Act, which assists those in mental crisis who may want to harm themselves. She was familiar with the act through a close relation, Denise said.
“As soon as the receptionist heard the word knife though, she transferred her to 911, and the tone became completely different,” the mother reflected. “All thought of helping a man in crisis was superseded by the dispatcher's extreme concerns over the deputies who were responding. The initial plea for help for Justin seemed to have been completely forgotten.”
When the two SJC deputies, Kyle Braig and Jonas Carballosa, arrived at 4:30 p.m. with AR-15s drawn, they told the girlfriend to wait downstairs, the girlfriend told The Daily Beast, not long after the shooting.
“They entered his second-floor condo and briefly searched the other rooms before proceeding to the master bedroom in the back where Justin was lying face down on the bed, covered up with a blanket, only the crown of his head showing,” Denise said. “Justin was unresponsive. Braig's plan was for Carballosa to cover him as he pulled the blanket off. The knife was at Justin's right hand, and they requested he flick it away. He seemed to try but then took hold of it again. They were commanding him to drop it over and over, but he did not comply, probably could not see clearly or process what was happening in his impaired state.”
According to the deputies, he did not say a word and neither threatened them verbally nor did he lunge at them. They simply could not get him to comply and at some point, he allegedly attempted to sit up, Denise said.
“Because they could not get him to comply, they fired simultaneously point blank a total of nine times as he sat on his bed, massively and severely lacerating all of his major organs but one kidney, along with shattering numerous ribs and vertebrae in his spine—truly excessive force for a helpless, innocent man,” Denise said. “There was no hope of survival. The sheer brutality takes our breath away still today. Neither deputy offered aid. They fired at 4:36 p.m., and Justin was officially pronounced dead at 4:45 p.m.”
When Denise called police to inquire about why her son was shot to death, they told her he was not only threatening his girlfriend but also threatening the deputies.
“My husband's first impulse was to ask why did they have to kill him and why they had not used their tasers or mace on him instead. Smith's response was, ‘They told him to drop the knife. He did not comply. So they shot him. That's just what we do. That's how they're trained.’” They were told that possibly their son wanted “suicide by cop.” The mother said she felt dismissed by police.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan told The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville at the time that both deputies felt threatened.
The deputies' accounts differ about whether Justin actually stood up or not.
“We now believe he was sitting down because the two bullet holes from the bullets that went straight through him and into the wall on the other side of the bed were only 17 and 20 inches off the floor. Justin was 6'4” tall," his mother said. "All nine lethal shots were between his waist and his upper chest, body mass as they say in their training. The bullet holes in the wall would have been much higher had he been standing.”
She went on to say that one bullet pierced the exterior wall and exited outside.
“A child or an innocent bystander could also have been harmed.”
Denise said she never asked for monetary compensation.
“No amount of money could bring back Justin. We wanted an admission of guilt from the SJCSO, that their deputies erred in judgment, that (over)training their deputies in the necessity and magnitude of excessive force in this case and in other similar cases needs to be examined, that they created the tragedy by escalating the situation beyond a reasonable resolution,” she said. “We would like to see better screening of candidates for the police force. We would like to see training and tactics change to save other families the extreme sadness, anger, and loss we have experienced.”
Denise hopes that more people will continue to challenge the status quo when it comes to police shootings.
"We feel great despair and anger at the general lack of real justice that actually exists in challenging the police and their extreme brutal, militaristic practices and excessive use of deadly force."
Oxygen.com reached out to the St Johns County Sheriff’s Office for comment, but the request was not immediately returned.
[Photos: Courtesy Denise Way]