Published: Sunday, August 10, 2008
Chapter II: Questions
(click to enlarge photo)
|Mylo Harvey with his aunt Nilah Devaney in a photo from the family scrapbook. Nilah collected police reports, medical records and legal documents dealing with Mylo's death.
Those who knew Mylo say they never will forget his smile. It was something he did with his entire face, his broad mouth stretched wide over even, white teeth, eyes squeezed nearly shut into crescents of amusement. It was the smile of a young man happy to be alive.
I never saw Mylo smile.
Instead, I was drawn to write about him because of what he'd left behind.
To tell Mylo's story, I need to tell a bit of my own.
I grew up south of Everett in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the air in Snohomish County still carried with it the sour tang of pulp mill jobs. My parents had a large brood. They packed nine kids and my maternal grandmother into a three-bedroom rambler. Dad worked for the phone company. Mom took part-time jobs. She was in the garden club and volunteered with the PTA. They kept a couple of milk cows, raised hundreds of chickens and each year coaxed bumper crops of beans, peas and squash from a vegetable garden that covered more than an acre.
My mom believed in working hard, nurturing strong opinions and never backing down from a bully. She loved a good argument, particularly about the hot button issues of the day.
Bob and Chris North subscribed to The Herald, and in their home I grew up reading articles by Allan May, who saw plenty of combat as a Marine in World War II and was unflappable in controversy; Ned Carrick, who set the standard for covering the people in his community as neighbors; and Jim Haley, the longtime Herald crime reporter who taught me much of what I know about the importance of compassion in ugly stories.
When I decided on a newspaper career, I wanted to write about the people and places closest to my heart. The Herald was where I belonged.
Last November, I marked 20 years at this newspaper. I've written about many subjects but the common denominator in those stories is a link to this place. Local news is all about the connection. One of the challenges of writing about my hometown is being close enough to see events from the perspective of those involved, while keeping enough distance to hear other truths.
The week Mylo died, his aunt Nilah Devaney went through each room in his Everett apartment.
She made an inventory of everything she found there, including of the contents of his wastebasket. There was an empty cardboard box that once held a frozen pizza. There were drained containers of orange juice. There were tubs for his favorite snack, chocolate pudding. There also was a half-smoked cigar.
Only three days before he died, Mylo left his childhood home on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and moved into this, his first apartment. His family said he was excited about the swimming pool and workout room. His wastebasket recorded his last meal.
Nilah's list triggered memories.
I left home when I was 19, too. I had the same wastebasket. That first night on my own I ate a frozen pizza and boxed pudding and washed it down with OJ. I also bought a cigar and smoked it about halfway. It made me queasy, but seemed deliciously grown up.
How, I wondered, had that first taste of independence ended so badly for this young man?
I started forming questions about Mylo's story while in a courtroom in Portland, Ore., in fall 2003. I was there reporting on the federal civil rights trial probing the death of another young man.
Damon Lowery of Lynnwood had collapsed in 1999 during a violent struggle with Portland police. He'd eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms and, irrational, attacked a friend. The police tried to control him with force. They shot him at least 10 times with stunbags fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. They doused him with five cans of pepper spray. They struck him repeatedly with steel batons. They piled atop him and wrestled him into handcuffs and leg restraints.
Experts for Damon's family testified he'd been smothered. Police experts said he'd bled to death from self-inflicted neck wounds after he crashed through a plate glass window.
I went to Portland because Damon's father, Ralph Lowery of Snohomish, had shown up at The Herald one day.
Ralph liked an article I'd worked on about a death at a Snohomish nursing home.
The story probed a hard truth that good people with good intentions sometimes fail to protect vulnerable people when they most need help. Ralph said the circumstances surrounding his son's death touched on that theme but in a horrific way he found almost impossible to understand.
I've covered hundreds of criminal trials, including dozens of ugly murder cases.
I understood Ralph's perspective when the lights dimmed in the Portland courtroom and a video screen filled with some of the worst autopsy photos I'd ever seen.
Much of the trial focused on the force used by police. Jurors also got a crash course on excited delirium, a state of mental and physical agitation brought on by drug use, mental illness or other health issues. Those affected behave irrationally, often violently. They get hot, so they begin removing their clothing. Many exhibit uncommon physical strength.
And they sometimes collapse and die, often while being restrained by police. Medical experts frequently find an explanation in untreated heart disease or the toxic effects of drugs.
Sometimes, though, it seems delusional people scare themselves to death.
The federal judge in Portland ultimately ruled officers had no justification for the force they used against Damon. Somebody in a medical emergency even when it's brought on by illegal drug use should not be shot at, beaten and doused with pepper spray, she ruled.
That ruling led to a six-figure cash settlement. Up until that point, the Portland officers had been found blameless in every legal review.
Over the years, I'd written several stories about deaths involving police in Snohomish County. Although there were a couple shootings that demanded close reporting, I hadn't felt reason to dig deep on most of the incidents. The facts appeared clear.
The story in Portland made me wonder whether I'd missed something closer to home.
When I got back to Everett, I pulled up an article about prosecutors absolving police of any wrongdoing in the 2002 death of Mylo Harvey.
There were similarities with the Portland case.
Both men were young. Both collapsed and died after struggles with police. A phone call to my police sources confirmed that Mylo, too, had eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms. According to expert testimony in Portland, the drug can make people irrational but is not laced with toxic chemicals known to stop a young man's heart or still his lungs.
The Snohomish County medical examiner concluded that drug-induced delirium and physical restraint contributed to Mylo's death.
Mylo's family was then marking the first anniversary of his death. They published a memoriam notice in The Herald.
Deep in the paper next to the obituaries was a photograph of a smiling Mylo and the dates of his birth and death. "Remember me?" the notice read. "Died tragically and too soon! Why? We will never forget how you left this earth. Although with us for only a short time, Mylo's gifts of love, smiles and laughter are with us forever."
Nilah Devaney had placed that notice.
I wrote her.
She grew up in Tulalip but she now lives in Portland, where she's married to John Devaney, an industrial equipment salesman. For 34 years she has been building a career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working on contract management with tribal governments.
She can be all business, with a keen eye for detail and a bulging briefcase.
It was she who had recorded the contents of Mylo's apartment. She also lovingly collected photographs, letters and stories about Mylo, even as she gathered her file of police reports, medical records and legal papers dealing with her nephew's death.
Nilah answered my letter with a phone call.
She was cautious, even cool to my inquiry. Who was I again? What purpose would be served by my asking questions? Why now? She wasn't sure her family wanted me nosing around in a deeply painful chapter in their lives.
I told Nilah about what I'd seen and heard in the Portland courtroom. I now had questions about what happened to Mylo, questions I didn't have before. I planned to obtain police reports and other investigative records, review them and go from there.
She was curious.
She wondered if the authorities would give a reporter anything she hadn't already received.
Before she hung up, she told me Mylo had been a wonderful young man, that the sum of his life was more than how he died. He was deeply loved and would forever be missed. If I wrote anything at all, she said, people needed to be told that much.
That was the reason I'd contacted Mylo's family.
Only they knew that part of the story.
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