It is a mother’s right to grieve and to wonder: Why didn’t the police take more time to know and understand her son before shooting him fatally in a downtown Modesto parking garage in December?
Why, Donna Fletcher questions, couldn’t they know that even though he carried a loaded .44 Magnum pistol and pulled it out of his pants just before the officers fired, he wouldn’t have shot at them?
Why couldn’t they have talked to him more extensively, to perhaps find out he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and didn’t expect to live very long, or that he has a 5-year-old son who wants to grow up to be a police officer someday?
All of a mother’s heartbreak, sadness and bewilderment poured out when Fletcher spoke to me last week. She concedes that her son, 24-year-old Christopher Fletcher, lived a troubled life that included juvenile hall, drug addiction, convictions on domestic violence charges, possession of burglary tools and a probation violation that sent him to state prison.
But she and her husband, Nathan, knew Christopher first and foremost as a loving son who began working toward his GED while in a 42-day juvenile lockup and finished it upon his release. He was a doting father, and had gone back to school to become a mechanic.
“He was our youngest child,” she said. “He was not always the easiest, but probably the most passionate.”
You see, Donna Fletcher unconditionally loved the child officers couldn’t possibly have known. Officers Tom Fara and Brent Salyer didn’t know until after the fact they were chasing a parolee. They only saw Christopher dart away on his bicycle when they tried to stop him on a traffic violation, Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll said.
Christopher led them into the parking garage at 10th and H streets before ditching the bike and trying to flee on foot. They didn’t know until he showed his gun that he had one. They had no idea he’d undergone surgery in prison to ease the back pain caused by his cancer.
Carroll understands the family’s pain and is sympathetic, which is why he met with Donna and Nathan Fletcher a few weeks ago. He showed them the body camera footage right up to the point where Salyer and Fara opened fire. He stopped there. No parents should see their child perish in a hail of bullets.
Fara and Salyer knew only that the young man gave them reasons to pursue him by his flight into the garage, where he continued to move away from them and began fumbling for the pistol, as body camera footage showed (and which I viewed in its entirety). They saw the gun and told him in no uncertain terms – twice – to drop it. When he kept trying to draw the weapon, they each fired multiple times.
The Fletchers want to know more, including why the officers fired so many bullets. Christopher’s death certificate lists “gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, left upper arm, back and lower extremities.” Carroll said officers are trained to concentrate their aim on the suspect, period. Once they began shooting, their focus was on Christopher, not the gun that went to the concrete about a foot from where he fell.
Donna Fletcher believes the officers could have – and should have – waited longer before shooting.
“The gun was pointed at the floor,” she said. “He never raised it.”
Carroll said the officers did what they had to do.
Later that afternoon – Dec. 17 – two detectives arrived at the Fletcher home and interviewed Donna Fletcher and her mother for several minutes, asking them about Christopher until she asked why. They told Fletcher and her mother there had been an incident, and that Christopher did not survive.
“It’s hard to put into words to hear your child is dead,” she said, “and to find out he was gunned down. It is unimaginable. It haunts us. We’ve had lots of sleepless nights.”
The hurt was compounded two weeks ago when the department honored the two officers for valor during the annual awards banquet.
“You feel bad for any mother,” Carroll said. “I don’t blame anyone for grieving. Losing a child would be horrible. But the officers didn’t choose this. (Christopher) starting pulling out (the Ruger pistol) five seconds before they (fired). I don’t know what else they’re supposed to do. They used extreme restraint. He didn’t give them a choice.”
Choices, Christopher’s mom admits, always were a problem for him.
“(When he was young), the pediatrician would tell us he was just busy, but we always felt like he was depressed,” Donna Fletcher said. “He was the shy one. The other two were social.”
Their other son works as a landscaper. Their daughter studies early childhood education at Modesto Junior College and works at a preschool. Likewise, Fletcher runs a preschool/day care at her home with the help of her husband, who is retired.
But within the family, Christopher lit up the room, she said. He played the saxophone.
“He brought excitement into the home, good or bad,” his mother said. “He had so much potential. But he just couldn’t grasp it.”
His problems began when he was arrested on burglary while a student at Grace Davis High School. That led to the time in juvenile hall.
Then, a relationship produced a son but turned bitter and violent. He faced misdemeanor and felony battery charges four months apart when he was 20. While on probation, he didn’t report to his probation officer, frustrating her to the point at which she finally sent him to prison. He served 10 months combined at San Quentin, Pleasant Valley in Coalinga and Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, where he was released in April 2015.
“We kept thinking things would change, we’d once again see the child we had before the relationship,” Fletcher said.
Instead, he began using methamphetamine again, his mother said. He wore an ankle monitor. Because she runs a day care business, his criminal record prevented him from moving back home.
“He was homeless,” she said.
Now he is gone, and she struggles to understand why.
“They couldn’t give him one more moment, give him one more chance to make a choice?” Fletcher asked.
Indeed, it is a mother’s right to grieve, as much for the way her son lived as how he died.