Family of police shooting victim wants answers

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Valarie Johnson knew just what to say to calm her son’s fragile mind when he was agitated: “I won’t let nobody hurt you.”

Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia since he was 12, Kevin Matthews needed to hear those words every day, his mother said. She and his siblings would add a simple “I love you” as reassurance that the world wasn’t out to get him.

Valarie Johnson said she broke down after learning her son bought her a coat that sat under the Christmas tree.

Now Johnson, 58, and her three other children, are full of frustration, sadness — and want answers — after her 35-year-old son was shot to death by Dearborn police two days before Christmas just a few blocks from their home on Detroit’s west side.

She acknowledges that her son was familiar to police for nonviolent issues in both Dearborn and Detroit, but she’s brokenhearted and wonders why her unarmed son ended up shot multiple times after what one witness told The News was a struggle in a yard as he was being chased by police.

“I’m so hurt inside right now, and I don’t even have words,” said Johnson, as a tear streaked down her cheek. She is burying her son Saturday. “We are really hurt so bad. I told him every day he was going to be OK. He’d say, ‘Momma, don’t let nobody hurt me.’ We were just so close.”

Funeral held for man killed by Dearborn police officer

The Matthews shooting comes on the heels of several police shootings across America of unarmed black men in what critics and civil right activists say is a result of overly aggressive policing.

Two protest marches have already been held in Detroit following the Matthews shooting and another “Justice for Kevin Matthews” protest is scheduled for Monday evening near Greenfield and Michigan Avenue.

Milton Greenman, the attorney for the Matthews family, said the “disturbing” facts as they come to light will show that “this was a preventable death.”

Greenman said the family is strongly considering suing the city of Dearborn and the unnamed officer.

“I think the evidence will support that this was a wrongful shooting,” he said.

Matthews’ death was ruled a homicide by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office. Witnesses have recalled hearing multiple gunshots. An independent autopsy done for the Matthews family identified his death as a result of several gunshot wounds, the family attorney said. Detroit police and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office are investigating.

The name of the officer involved has not been released, but Dearborn officials said he has been placed on administrative leave. In a statement, Police Chief Ronald Haddad called the situation “extremely tragic” and said his department will “fully cooperate with the Detroit Police Department as they investigate this incident.”

Dearborn police last week said Matthews was wanted for a probation violation and had fled from officers in the early afternoon of Dec. 23 after allegedly committing a larceny in that city.

The family says Matthews was a walker and was traversing the streets around Sussex Street, where he lived with mother, as he did in rain, shine or snow. The shooting occurred on Whitcomb in Detroit, a few streets over, off his normal walking route. Police say Dearborn officers followed Matthews into Detroit following the alleged larceny.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig told The News last week that investigators interviewed a woman who said she saw Matthews and the officer struggle before the shooting. Another witness told The News that Matthews’ last words were, ‘Stop it! Stop it!”

Family members were reluctant to talk about Matthews’ misdeeds, describing him as loving and “misunderstood.” They say Matthews was an affable, loving son and brother who doted on his mother and stayed affectionate with his sisters and brother while struggling with paranoia.

At 5 feet 9 and 140 pounds, the goateed Matthews liked to primp for social gatherings and would sometimes take hours to dress up for an event. At other times, given his mental challenges, family members say, he could also very childlike.

“It’s kind of funny because when he came over to spend the night he’d want to sleep with me,” said sister Kimberly Matthews, 36. “Because when we grew up, we would all pile in a king-size bed to go to sleep. My husband would say, ‘Why does your brother always want to sleep in the bed’ (with you)? And I’d say, that’s how we are.”

Although family members say that Matthews was the “life of the party” and had a loving spirit around them, there were times when he was sullen and withdrew because of his mental struggles.

“He wouldn’t come out the house for weeks at a time,” recalled his younger brother Lavell Matthews, 30.

Johnson added: “He always thought somebody was following him.”

“He just held that special place in my heart,” Kimberly Matthews said. “There was nothing that I wouldn’t do for him. We just want justice.”

Johnson said Christmas will be forever tainted by the tragedy. Matthews’ father was killed in 1987.

She said she broke down after discovering her son had bought her a multicolor wool coat that sat wrapped under the Christmas tree at his girlfriend’s home.

“I feel so bad because I wish I could have been with him to protect him from this,” his mother said.