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Crime News Dateline

Chicago Mom "On Mission" To Find Successful Son's Killer

Courtney Copeland's March 2016 murder ended the ambitious salesman's dreams, but it also ignited a powerful mission for his mother to find his killer. 

By Jill Sederstrom

Courtney Copeland had big dreams. 

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The 22-year-old had already proved himself to be a successful and motivated salesman, winning a BMW convertible as a “bonus” for a job well done at World Ventures, where he sold memberships to a travel club.

Courtney had set his sights on his next big goal — earning enough for his mom to retire — when he was gunned down while driving his beloved convertible in March 2016. 

The bullet to the back may have ended Courtney’s dreams, but it ignited a new purpose in his mom, Shapearl Wells, who was determined to track down her son’s killer.

“I’m a mom on a mission,” Wells told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered. “The last thing his mom can do is go and find out who did this to him.” 

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Who was Courtney Copeland?

Those who knew Copeland described him as a vibrant go-getter who was always dancing, singing in the car or leaving inspirational messages for others. 

“He had the ability to make everyone feel like he was their best friend,” Wells said.

After a successful high school basketball career, Copeland spent a semester at college before returning to his Chicago area home to work.

Copeland began his job at World Ventures, earned his BMW convertible and set out to earn enough for his mom to retire. 

“He’ll tell you, ‘If my mom is still working, I’ve got to work triple,’” his coworker and friend remembered.  

But before he’d accomplish his ambitious goal, Copeland’s life was suddenly cut short in the early morning hours of March 4, 2016. 

A personal photo of Courtney Copeland

What happened to Courtney Copeland?

The night before Copeland died, he had been spending time with friends at a pizzeria before heading to his Cicero home. At some point, he must have decided to go visit his “secret” girlfriend Alma on the northwest side of Chicago. 

The two were keeping their relationship quiet because they worked together. Copeland texted Alma that he was outside her apartment, but he’d never make it inside. Instead, just 90 seconds later, surveillance cameras spotted his distinctive car rushing to a police station less than a mile away. 

Copeland, who had been shot in the back, flagged down an officer at a stop light, who called for an ambulance to help. But it would be too late. Copeland died from his injuries at a local hospital. 

“I remember telling him, ‘I’m so sorry mommy wasn’t there for you. I could imagine how you felt so scared. I don’t know what happened to you,’” Wells said of sitting with her son’s body. 

Courtney Copeland's Interactions with Police

In that moment, Wells made a promise to herself, and to her son, that she’d find out what happened to him. 

She began by meeting with Chicago Police. In a conversation she recorded, officers told her they were “doing everything we can” to “follow the evidence where it takes us to bring the person who did this — or persons — to justice.” 

“Everybody we’ve spoken to um— your son was a great kid, and nobody’s had a bad word to say about him,” one unnamed sergeant told her.

Police assured Wells and her husband Brent that officers at the scene had been “comforting to your son.” 

But when Wells got Copeland’s medical records from the hospital, she was shocked to learn that her son had been handcuffed when he arrived at the hospital. 

“By the time I make it back to the car, I’m like in tears and I’m like, ‘They did something to him, Brent. They did something to him,’” she said. 

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Wells began to suspect that police may have been involved in her son’s death and requested all the video footage police had captured of his final moments. It would take more than a year and public information requests, for her to see the videos. 

When she did, she learned that police did not have anything to do with her son’s death, but she was shocked by the treatment he received. The video showed an injured Copeland, laying face down on the ground as cops surrounded him. One officer seemingly knelt down to ask him questions.

In the footage, Copeland seemed calm and cooperative despite a paramedics report suggesting he had been “violent, agitated, [and a] danger to others.” At one point, he is seen reaching out for help as the officers continue to mill around him. 

“Could you imagine looking at a video and your son is reaching up begging them to help him?” Wells said of the unsettling video. “At that moment, I can imagine Courtney feeling the life leaving his body.”

She believes her son was treated more like a suspect than a victim, although a spokesman for the paramedics told Dateline Copeland was handcuffed for medical reasons not because he was in custody. 

As time went on, Wells also became increasingly frustrated with the police investigation and decided to do her own investigative work alongside the non-profit journalism organization the Invisible Institute.

The Invisible Institute's Investigation Into Courtney Copeland’s Murder

Using dispatch tapes and a past parking ticket showing the area where Copeland may have tried to park that night, Wells and Alison Flowers, the director of investigations at the Invisible Institute, tracked down the likely location where Copeland had been shot—just hundreds of yards away from Alma’s apartment.

Alma also told them she heard the gunshots that night, but never believed at the time that it could have been connected to Copeland. It was a detail she said she never told police. 

Although police did speak to Alma briefly after the shooting and told her they’d be in contact again, according to her, no one ever called again to get her full story.

"Mom on a Mission" Investigates Death of Courtney Copeland

Wells and Flowers also learned that one of Alma’s exes had been described as possessive and jealous, although Alma herself insisted her ex would not have harmed Copeland. 

During their investigation, the determined pair also discovered that on the night of the shooting a witness named Elena had called 911 to report seeing a car speeding down an alley with “two gangsters” inside not long after the gunshots. She told detectives her boyfriend Edgar had gotten a closer look at the men, who were driving a Grand Marquis, but police records don’t indicate that anyone ever followed up with Edgar. 

The information seemingly aligned with an earlier tip Wells had gotten on Facebook. A witness reached out to her claiming to have seen someone that night driving a Grand Marquis ditch a gun under a car. 

The witness called 911 that night and as a result two known gang members were arrested and charged with parole violations, but there’s nothing in police records to suggest the two men were ever questioned by detectives about Copeland’s death. 

“It’s almost like a willful, a willfulness not to know,” Flowers told Dateline reporter Josh Mankiewicz

Were any arrests made in Courtney Copeland’s death?

The Chicago Police Department declined to participate in Dateline: Secrets Uncovered citing the open and ongoing investigation. In a 2021 email, they insisted that all cases are investigated thoroughly and highlighted new investments in community policing to help the already stretched thin department. 

The year Copeland died, there were 778 murders in Chicago.

Wells and Flowers documented their investigation in the critically acclaimed podcast Somebody, produced by Topic Studios, The Intercept, and the Invisible Institute.

To date, no arrests have been made in her son’s case, but Wells remains on a mission. 

“I always feel and I still feel that, you know, that night that my son was by himself,” Wells told Oxygen.com in 2020. “He was alone and there was nobody to help him, to look after him, to protect him like a mom should and so I said, ‘In death, I have to be his voice.’"