"The Sweetest Little Boy"

A Sister's Reflection on the Life of Michael Tyree

Editor's Note:

This month three former Santa Clara County Correctional Officers were sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of Michael Tyree, a 31 year old man who was beaten to death by them while in custody. The following letter by Michael's sister Shannon was read out loud at the sentencing hearing. Shannon shares her brother' story, from the time when she was changing his diapers to when she first got the call about his passing.

Dear Judge Cena,

A month after Michael was killed, I came to California to retrieve his ashes. His body had been cut open in three different autopsies. Holding the urn of his ashes was a relief – his body would never be battered again and no one would ever need to cut it open again.

I carried his urn in my carry-on bag to the airport and after going through the security scanner, a TSA agent yelled out, “hands,” and sent me to another agent who swabbed my hands and ran it through a machine.

He asked, “Are you carrying some sort of salt?”

“Salt? No,” I answered in confusion. Then I told him that I was carrying someone’s ashes.

He swabbed and tested Michael’s urn, said, “Yes, that’s it,” and let me go.

The trace amount of Michael’s ashes that I then knew had transferred to my hands left me not knowing what to do with them. I was afraid to touch anything, afraid to wash them, because a part of all that was left of Michael was on my hands. As I walked to my gate, the word “salt” kept repeating in my head. The little baby that I had held in my arms the day after he was born was now “salt” – no longer the figure of my brother, or even a human being. He was an element: salt.

Michael was my father’s only son, his mother’s first child, and my sister’s and my only brother. I was 13 when Michael was born, had never had my very own sibling, and thought he was the most wonderful little creature I had ever seen. I adored everything about him. His nanny and I were his primary caretakers in his first two years and I witnessed many of his firsts, changed a bunch of diapers, fed a lot of bottles and baby food and gave him a bath every night.

From the time he was a year old, I thought he was fearless, adventurous, infinitely curious, whip-smart and fiercely independent. I spent most of the second year of his life running after him as he ran headlong into some danger or other.

As he got older, it was clear he was special. He asked existential questions about life and subjects well beyond his years. He loved to read, wrote poetry and wanted to be a writer. Writing was a way of trying to understand what was happening to him as his mental illness set in, a way to try to be understood, and an attempt to try to tether himself to reality.

As a boy, he was particularly sensitive to other people’s feelings. Once, when our grandmother made a face in frustration at our grandfather, Michael asked, “Grandmonie, are you upset?”

She said, “No, I’m fine.”

“No, I could tell you were just mad,” he insisted.

“Your Grandaddy was just being a jackass. Not the first time, not the last. I’m not mad. I’m fine,” she said.

When Michael left the room, with such love on her face, she said to me, “He’s the sweetest little boy. He’s so sensitive.” He was like that with a lot of people.

Michael’s mental illness often hijacked his personality and made relationships difficult to sustain. The isolation he often reverted to was one of the cruelest effects of his illness. His illness was a source of confusion and torture for him and it caused pain, worry and immense stress for those who loved him.

While our family was dysfunctional and that caused Michael a fair amount of pain, our father and his mother loved him. The last years of my father’s life were devoted to helping Michael, sending him money, trying to convince him to get medical help. But any mention of doctors or hospitals usually made Michael disappear. His illness told him they were going to harm him. At times, he thought his family and friends were going to harm him.

Because my father and I had so many conversations about Michael, I knew the stress and worry that he could cause my dad and sometimes I was angry with Michael for it. I wanted my dad to put his foot down with him.

Ten days before my father died, I promised him I would take care of Michael. I failed. Michael’s dead. I failed him and I failed my father. For six months, I did everything I could to get money to him, meet him somewhere, sent bus tickets trying to get him out of Arizona and back to California and tried to get him to work with me to get his inheritance to him. Due to his paranoia, he thought I was part of a large conspiracy out to harm him, he would hang up or disappear for a while. I was frustrated and angry with Michael by the end of those six months and put my own foot down. I found a homeless center that could help him get an ID, which he would need to sign documents to claim his inheritance. I told him it wasn’t working his way and we were going to do it my way now. I thought if he got just desperate enough, he would work with me. I told him where to go to get the ID and said I would be on the next plane when he had it. I didn’t know until after he died that he thought someone was impersonating him and using an ID in his name. I didn’t know that he couldn’t do it my way.

I had no idea how desperate he had become or how badly his illness was spiraling after Dad died. He was always the smart, resourceful, fearless little boy to me, so it never occurred to me that he was terrified. When he would tell me people were after him, including me, I would dismiss it as delusion and paranoia and tell him no one was after him. But in the end, he was right. These three men were after him, maybe just on a whim that night, and maybe not intending to kill him, but they were after him. And he is dead.

I have a life sentence that started at 11 AM, August 27, 2015, when the coroner called to tell me Michael had died. Every day since then, I have thought of how forsaken he must have felt that night, how utterly alone, how terrified and I can’t forgive myself. I will never get a chance to make a different choice for Michael, to tell him I’m so sorry that I didn’t understand that he was so afraid and I’ll never have another chance to tell him how much I love him. I’m accountable for failing Michael. These three men walked into his cell and beat him to death. And they are accountable for that.

In Michael’s name,

Shannon Tyree

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