Die in public, and your body becomes a canvas for other people’s stories.
Man shot dead in scuffle with officer. Army vet shot after stumbling into buy-and-bust. Ex-con killed grabbing officer’s gun, police say.
In the hours after Shem Walker, 49, was killed in an encounter with the police outside his mother’s home in Brooklyn last week, many details made public had the durability of soap bubbles.
One has lasted: when he died, Mr. Walker was on parole after a drug sale conviction in Pennsylvania. That is fact. But it is not nearly enough truth.
“He did his time, but he also did his service to the country,” said Robert Collins, 23, a stepson of Mr. Walker’s. “I understand everything is under a microscope at a time like this. This detail is to desensitize or dehumanize the situation. Like it’s justification.”
On Saturday a week ago, a man who looked as though he was up to no good was sitting on the stoop of 370 Lafayette Avenue in Clinton Hill, a building owned by Lydia Walker, Mr. Walker’s frail mother. Family members said that Mr. Walker came to the building every weekend from Pennsylvania, where he lived, to take his mother to church.
Mr. Walker tried to roust the man, who was an undercover officer working as a backup. A fracas broke out. The police account is that it began when Mr. Walker spoke to the undercover, who may not have heard him because he was monitoring radio transmissions through headphones. Then, the authorities said, Mr. Walker kicked the man in the head, punched him and tried to grab his gun; the undercover’s partner jumped in at some point. No civilian witnesses have emerged, but one man who was working in a shop on the street has said he thought the men were speaking normally before the shooting.
Mr. Walker ended up dead. Two uniformed police officers who happened to be driving past drew their weapons on the undercovers, not realizing they were fellow cops.
It quickly emerged that Mr. Walker had been convicted of making drug sales in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and was released from prison in 2007. There is, inevitably, more.
Born in Guyana in 1960, he moved to Brooklyn with his family when he was 16, said Mr. Collins, the stepson.
In 1983, at 23, Mr. Walker enlisted in the Army. He qualified as a cannon crew member, served overseas and spent some time with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky., according to military records. He was honorably discharged in August 1990.
At Fort Campbell, he met and eventually married the mother of Mr. Collins. He had two daughters by an earlier relationship, and his wife, Sandra, had two sons. He worked for a time for Pennsylvania Power and Light, and then as a handyman. “A good husband, a good father, a good son,” Mr. Collins said.
In 1999, when the family was living in Wilkes-Barre, Mr. Walker was selling drugs. A mailman introduced him to a buyer who turned out to be an undercover investigator, and Mr. Walker sold him cocaine and marijuana.
The case was still unresolved in the fall of 2001. “Shem became enraged by what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Collins, a nurse in Harrisburg. “He decided to re-enlist with the Pennsylvania National Guard.”
“He was a good person, a solid performer, a good soldier, outgoing and well-liked by his unit,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Cleaver of the Pennsylvania guard, after speaking with Mr. Walker’s commander and another soldier in the unit.
The 1999 drug case, delayed by Mr. Walker’s military service, remained open until 2004, when he was convicted. At sentencing, he reminded the judge that the offense had occurred five years earlier. “I’m a changed person,” he said, according to The Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre. The judge was quoted as saying: “I don’t care if it happened 100 years ago. It makes no difference to me.”
He was sentenced to three to seven years. “He learned from it,” Mr. Collins said. “He would tell my brother and me, ‘Drug money is short money’ — meaning, if you sell drugs, eventually you will get caught.”
Not knowing the real identity of an undercover cost Mr. Walker three years in prison. Not knowing the identity of another on a stoop in Brooklyn probably cost him his life. To Robert Collins, there was no question about who Mr. Walker was.