Being Timothy Thomas’ son


CINCINNATI (AP) — Tywon Thomas knows what he likes and what he does not, in a typical, uncomplicated teen-age boy sort of way.

He does not like “Romeo and Juliet,” the book he is reading in freshman English class, saying, “All I know is he’s a boy who’s in love with a girl.”

He does not always like having to help look after his youngest siblings. He turns the TV to cartoons. He reheats food in the microwave. He checks homework and makes sure they get a shower. He said he understands that his mother works and is taking college classes.

Tywon obsesses about football and gym shoes. He watches New England Patriots and Ohio State football game on TV. He imagines himself playing professionally and making one-handed catches like his favorite player, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Tywon does not like Beckham’s blond dye job.

Tywon already looks like his dad. He has the same slow smile, dark complexion, high cheekbones and upturned almond-shaped eyes that shine from a photo of his father that most of the country saw 15 years ago.

It’s his father who makes Tywon different from other teen-age boys.

Tywon was 3 months old when Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer in an Over-the-Rhine alley. His death in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, touched off days of social unrest and violence and led to an agreement that changed how the Cincinnati Police Department does its job.

Tywon knows how his father died but not how it altered the course of the city.

“It’s like my dad is famous,” Tywon said during lunch in an Over-the-Rhine that is gentrified and far different than the one in which his parents and extended family members lived.

He paused.

“I wish he was famous for something different,” he finally said. With his mother’s permission, Tywon agreed to talk about growing up fatherless, a private pain that nonetheless is playing out in public because of the nature of his father’s death.

At 16, Tywon said he does not yet want to be part of the cause that Timothy Thomas still embodies — police reform and community relations. Tywon said he does not want to appear at rallies or make short speeches until he is comfortable. He plans to read more about his father’s death and its aftereffects once he turns 18. “I might be ready then,” he said.

For now he just wants to be a kid, finish high school, go to college and stay out of the kind of legal trouble that already has found him twice as a juvenile.

Just as the anniversary of Timothy Thomas’ death begins to fade from memory, the police shooting death of another unarmed black man somewhere in the country brings it back. Thomas was the 15th black man killed by Cincinnati police officers in the five years previous to 2001, a span in which police did not shoot and kill a white man. Thomas’ death was the tipping point. Over-the-Rhine erupted in violence.

The City of Cincinnati, Fraternal Order of Police and Black United Front were among groups in 2002 that signed the Collaborative Agreement, which brought sweeping reforms to the police department. It would change how it tracked and recorded its use of force, modify foot-pursuit policies and add computers to cruisers. The emphasis would now be community-oriented policing.

In August 2014, members of the Black United Front handed out copies of the Collaborative Agreement in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting death there of unarmed black man Michael Brown by a white officer touched off rioting and elevated the Black Lives Matter movement to the national stage.

Cincinnati again was in that unwanted spotlight in July 2015. A white University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Sam DuBose, during a traffic stop in Mount Auburn. In the days following DuBose’s death, city officials hailed the Collaborative Agreement for helping keep the fragile peace. They invoked the name of Timothy Thomas, as if martyred.

Tensing’s murder trial ended in November in a hung jury. He will be tried again in May in Hamilton County.

Like many teenagers, Tywon Thomas detaches from news coverage. He said he knew little about the shooting. When he learned that DuBose had children his age, Tywon said the case reminded him of the situation of a friend at Hamilton High School. A classmate there recently lost his father to street violence in Cincinnati.

Tywon is the oldest of Monique Crutchfield’s six children. She works as a home health aide and is taking classes to become certified as a medical assistant, which would increase her hourly wage.

This fall, she moved from an apartment in Hamilton and doubled-up with Timothy’s sister in her split-level house in Colerain Township. The arrangement is an economic necessity. Crutchfield wants to move her family back, where her children attend school. Tywon is a freshman at Hamilton High.

He has younger sisters who are 14 and 4 and brothers who are 10, 8 and 3. Crutchfield is married but said that her husband is serving jail time. Tywon said his step-father was involved in a shooting but that he still talks to him occasionally and likes him.

Crutchfield, 36, is tall and thin and speaks in a candid, unadorned manner. Tywon takes after her, too.

“I just try to help keep him on the straight and narrow, do the right thing,” she said of her oldest son.

Tywon started to ask about his father when he was 3.

In a 2006 interview with The Enquirer, Timothy’s mother, Angela Leisure, said her grandson would ask where he was.

Leisure said she made a copy of her 2000 wedding video so Tywon could see his father on a happy day.

She said she would frequently find Tywon in front of a TV, watching the video.

After Thomas was killed, Leisure gave reporters a copy of a photograph of her son in a tuxedo from her wedding. A framed copy sits on a table in the house in Colerain Township. Another is in a thick album of family photos.

His mother told Tywon what has become his favorite story about his father. Monique and Timothy argued. He told her that she could have anything else if they split up but that he was keeping Tywon.

“That’s what made him get a little bit serious about life,” Tywon said of his father. “They both got serious about life when I was born.”

Thomas had finished his GED. Just a few days before he died, he’d gotten a job through temporary service. He was to start two days after his death. He aspired to a career in electronics.

Tywon knows that at the time of his death, his father had 14 misdemeanor charges against him, all related to traffic.

Shortly after midnight on Saturday morning, April 7, 2001, Timothy Thomas left his infant son and his mother in their apartment at 1319 Republic St. He said he was walking to a nearby convenience store to buy cigarettes.

Off-duty officers working security details recognized Thomas and knew about the traffic charges. Five were for driving without a license and three for driving with an expired one.

Officer Stephen Roach, a white, four-year Cincinnati Police veteran, joined in the 10-minute chase. Half a block from Thomas’ apartment, Roach surprised him in a dark alley at 13th and Republic streets.

Roach, who was later acquitted in a bench trial on charges of negligent homicide and obstructing official business, said Thomas ignored his order to stop. Roach said he didn’t know the warrants were all non-violent. He also said Thomas appeared to be reaching into the waistband of his pants for a weapon.

Thomas’ family said he had on baggy pants and was pulling them up. Roach had given a conflicting story, according to Enquirer reports, saying his gun “just went off.” He fired once, hitting Thomas in the chest. The unarmed Thomas died within the hour at University Hospital.

Tywon and his mother talk about the decision his father made that night to run. She tells him to comply with police. They also talk about police and the two legal scrapes that Tywon has already had as a juvenile.

When he was 12, Tywon went with a friend to a big box store and tried to steal pellet guns. Guards stopped them before they got out of the store. Police were called. The boys had to pay fines.

In 2015, Tywon and his mother said Tywon and some other boys were outside of their house in Hamilton when they were accused of throwing rocks at a passing motorcyclist.

Tywon insisted he did not throw the rocks but was found guilty by Butler County juvenile officials and sentenced to pick up litter as a way to pay restitution.

All that remains of the large memorial to Timothy Thomas are the faded letters RIP, spray-painted on the old bricks above the alley where he was shot. A back room, site of the shrine — candles, flowers, stuffed animals, empty bottles of liquor — is gone.

In the past month, Tywon has visited the site with Terry Thomas, Timothy’s younger brother. Terry, who lives in Pleasant Ridge with his wife and children, is 32.

Terry took Tywon to the Republic Street address where he lived with his parents.

Then they stood at the foot of the faded RIP graffiti.

On 13th Street, closer to Vine Street than Republic, someone fashioned a weather-proof image of Timothy Thomas to a sign and strapped it to a tree with bike chain. The two-sided image was adapted from the tuxedo photo that Thomas’ mother had given to the media after his death.

“It’s weird,” Tywon said while looking at the painting of his father. “It looks like me, like a mirror.”

Seeing the painting is another reminder of how much Tywon misses his father.

“I always say he’s in heaven,” he said. “I wish I knew my dad. If wishes were real, that would be my first wish.”

In May 2003, just two years after Timothy Thomas was killed, the City of Cincinnati agreed to pay $4.5 million to 16 plaintiffs in what was the largest legal settlement to date in the city’s history. The settlement ended the wrongful death case of Timothy Thomas and other complaints of excessive use of force and police misconduct. The city and police officers named admitted no wrongdoing.

Crutchfield said that Timothy’s mother, Angela Leisure, handled the case. Crutchfield said she knows little about the settlement, other than Tywon receives a small monthly payment and will get a larger lump sum when he turns 18 or 21, she’s not sure which. Terms of the agreements are confidential.

His mother said Tywon talks of wanting to do for other family members to lift them out of poverty.

Still, he said of the money, “I would trade it to have my dad, for real, all of it.”

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Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com