In 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” what it would take for racial justice to be achieved in America.
It wasn’t about uniting blacks behind a civil rights movement. It wasn’t about converting racists. It was about awakening “White America,” particularly those folks inclined to be supportive of civil rights but not yet moved to get off the sideline.
“I think White America will determine how long it will be and which way we go in the future,” King said.
In the vernacular of today’s rekindled and renewed civil rights movement, consider Marlene Gebhard one “woke” white person.
Gebhard and her husband, Larry, are the grandparents of Tyler Gebhard, a 20-year-old man who was shot and killed by an off-duty St. Louis County police officer July 9 at a home in Lakeshire. Tyler Gebhard’s father is black. His mother, Angela Johnson, is white. She is the Gebhards’ daughter.
The night of the former Affton football player’s death, county Police Chief Jon Belmar was calling it a righteous shooting, saying the off-duty police officer had no choice but to shoot.
The narrative was set. It was a case of Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.
The story, according to police, was that Tyler got in a heated Facebook debate with the police officer’s family over recent police shootings, came to the house, broke in and was shot when the officer feared for his family’s safety.
But it’s a narrative that doesn’t ring true to the Gebhards. Four months later, the family is still seeking answers.
Tyler was unarmed. He had no criminal record. He was shot at a home he had been to often by a member of a family that had invited him to the house to go to church.
The Gebhard family has been unable to get an investigative report, or even a confirmation that one exists. They can’t get an autopsy report or a death certificate.
Marlene Gebhard, a longtime grocery store executive in St. Louis who is well-known in the business and civic communities, finds herself on the outside of the system she has long trusted.
“I always believed in the system,” she says. “Always. As this has dragged on and as we’ve been treated in such a nonchalant way, I’ve done a 180. I no longer believe in the system and I might not ever again.”
On Thursday, the Gebhards and Johnson went public with their complaints, holding a news conference at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, with their attorneys, Blake Strode and Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit public-interest law firm.
The day before, they shared their story with me, explaining the runaround they’ve received from the department that supervises the officer who killed Tyler.
“He was an awesome kid,” Marlene says of her grandson. “His life ended abruptly … and we really want to know what happened that night.”
The police narrative says that Tyler showed up at the house of the officer’s parents, threw a planter through a window, entered the house, scared the family and was shot and killed by the officer.
But Marlene’s investigation finds many holes in that story.
There were angry Facebook messages, she says. It was the week that both Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two African-American men, were shot by police, one in Minnesota, the other in Louisiana. It was the week five Dallas police officers were killed in a brutal ambush. Tyler, who was bipolar, appeared to be struggling emotionally that week, Marlene says. But none of the Facebook messages, she says, were directed at the family of the police officer.
In fact, she says, it was the police officer’s mother-in-law who invited Tyler to the house, so they could go to church together, which they often did, Marlene said.
When the family couldn’t get any answers from police, they started filing public records requests.
In September, they sought 911 tapes, but the dispatch center told them they couldn’t be released because of an ongoing investigation being conducted by Lakeshire police. A request to Lakeshire said that small municipality had no investigation, that it was being conducted by St. Louis County police.
On Oct. 25, the family was told by the county that “there are no such records” regarding an internal investigation into the shooting by the off-duty police officer.
From the moments after Tyler was shot, the family has been concerned with how the situation has been handled. Within a couple of hours of the first call being made to the fire department for an ambulance, the police department was tweeting information about the case and Belmar was giving television interviews. Since then, it has been radio silence.
“How can you do an investigation in 30 minutes?” Marlene asks. “We hadn’t even been told yet that Tyler was dead.”
After police knocked on Johnson’s door about 9:30 that night and told her that her son was dead, she asked to identify his body. She was told that she couldn’t. The body had been identified already, they said. By whom? The man who shot him.
Every step of the way, the family says, they had to beg for any nuggets of information.
“We called the police a few times and they told us they couldn’t talk to us because of the ongoing investigation,” Larry says. “Now we’re not even sure there was an investigation.”
County police spokesman Sgt. Shawn McGuire said Thursday afternoon that the investigation has been completed and forwarded to the prosecuting attorney’s office. “I was unaware that the family was confused and had questions,” McGuire wrote in an email. He said detectives had been communicating with Tyler’s father, who lives out of state. “This investigation was handled no differently than any other investigation out of the Bureau of Crimes Against Persons.”
Marlene says she doesn’t know what happened at the home where Tyler was shot that day, but she doesn’t believe the official police narrative. She doesn’t believe the case has been properly investigated. And now, for the first time in her life, she understands the feeling of helplessness often expressed by black families after their children, brothers, sisters and husbands end up dead in questionable police shootings.
“This stuff has got to stop. We have to stop killing black, unarmed men in this country,” Marlene says. “And we have to hold people accountable when it happens. This isn’t about being anti-police. I come from a family of police officers. I’m just disappointed that if this is what people have experienced in these situations, then the system is broken.”