By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
EVERETT — At Christmas, many of their memories are placed on a small evergreen tree.
Ornaments represent what Dustin Willard most loved in life: cars, sports, barbecues, the outdoors and his family.
His brother made an ornament of a small crescent wrench, like the ones he used to fix automobiles. His mom made a bowling-bag trinket, a recollection of their time together at the alley. His grandmother transformed a toy car Dustin painted when he was a kid into something to hang from the tree. Willard grew up to paint cars professionally.
The memories are packed away now, waiting for the next holiday season, the third Christmas when a chair at the family table again will be conspicuously empty. The memorial tree is planted in the front yard of his parents’ home near Silver Lake.
The family’s grief is holding as firm as the tree’s roots. It’s been 15 months since he was killed by Everett police in what the prosecutor has described as a tragic shooting.
“How can you get closure on something that was so unnecessary to begin with?” said Debra Willard, 54, Dustin Willard’s mother.
Dustin Willard, 31, was shot while police were investigating a reported burglary at his own home on Nov. 8, 2008.
A neighbor mistook him for someone trying to break into the house on 23rd Avenue.
Willard greeted police at the door with a loaded shotgun. Three officers all said they opened fire after Willard failed to heed commands to drop his gun and instead leveled the weapon in their direction. He never fired.
Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe called Willard’s death “unspeakably sad and tragic” but determined that the actions of police didn’t amount to a crime.
The Willards have filed a claim for damages with the city of Everett. They could ask for up to $20 million but say they still are working with lawyers to determine if they’ll even file suit.
At least, the family deserves an apology, Debra Willard said.
“Dustin did not deserve to die,” she said. “He was scared and protecting his home and himself.”
Had he known it was police at the door, he never would have brought a gun, she said.
Police said they followed department procedure and didn’t announce their presence until Dustin Willard answered the door.
It was 1:45 a.m. and Willard had returned home after a night of drinking with friends. Investigators determined he was highly intoxicated.
His parents figured he had about three seconds after he answered the door to make sense of what was happening.
“I don’t feel he was given enough time,” Debra Willard said.
Larry Willard, 58, Dustin Willard’s father, said he’s concerned about Everett police policy.
“It’s hard enough that it happened to our son,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
He’s carefully reviewing the more than 800 pages of reports that document the death investigation. But there’s only so much he can take in a day. He’ll only read the file in the mornings; otherwise his mind races at night.
“It’s taken a lot out of me,” he said.
Dustin Willard bought the house in downtown Everett with his brother.
Since the shooting Clint Willard, 27, was forced to give up the house on 23rd Avenue because he couldn’t afford the payments on his own.
“He helped me out a lot,” Clint Willard said. “I was the younger brother. We were best friends, too.”
Debra Willard remembers her son as a sweet-hearted, generous and gentle soul.
He used to tease his mother, calling her a “bag lady” because she always was weighed down with groceries, gifts and other stuff. Once, he made her a huge paper bag held together with tape.
“He just used to make me laugh,” Debra Willard said.
Her tears flow often. She has trouble concentrating. She wakes up in the middle of the night, inconsolable.
“It’s just an open wound that’s not healing,” she said.
She’s sought solace by reaching out to others. Twice, friends have gathered to celebrate Dustin Willard’s birthday. In his memory, they have a barbecue — only Dustin, once the star chef, is missing.
It was his mom’s idea to invite friends and relatives to make Christmas ornaments in his memory and hang them on a living tree.
Around her neck she wears a pendant carved from maple in the shape of a heart. A fracture line zigzags through the center of the polished medallion.
The artist who made it said it represents a heart that’s healed. To Debra Willard, the amulet is an outward display of her grief.
“Hopefully, someday it will signify a mended heart,” Debra Willard said. “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, firstname.lastname@example.org.