ARLINGTON, Texas — Christian Taylor was an honor student from a tight-knit family, a rising sophomore who seemed destined to make the starting lineup this fall for the Angelo State University Rams. Yet he had long shown signs of a roiling heart.
In December, he took to Twitter to condemn racist policing. And a few weeks before he died, friends and family said, a religious awakening left him talking obsessively about social justice and his desire to be a black leader.
“He said MLK, he was a peaceful-type dude, but Malcolm X, he was getting the business done,” his buddy J’von Varra, 20, said, recalling a recent conversation with Taylor at a local park. “He said he felt like sometimes you have to be destructive to get what you want.”
Days later, security cameras captured Taylor, 19, calmly casing an Arlington car dealership, patiently kicking out the windshield of a gray Mustang and deliberately crashing his Jeep SUV into the dealership showroom. He ignored blaring burglar alarms and, when police arrived, allegedly defied orders to surrender, shouting and advancing toward officers even after they fired a first shot.
Late Tuesday, Arlington police sacked officer Brad Miller, the white rookie who shot and killed Taylor, who was black and unarmed. But Taylor’s bewildering behavior just two days before the first anniversary of the notorious police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, has left grieving friends mystified and wondering if Taylor left home that night to stage some kind of protest.
The proximity to the Ferguson anniversary “kind of scares me,” said Jordan Smith, 19, a neighbor and football buddy who saw Taylor barely an hour before he died. “I don’t know why he had to go then. It ties so close.”
Of the more than 600 people shot and killed by police so far this year, Taylor’s death is one of only a handful in which the officer involved has been fired or charged with a crime. In a news conference late Tuesday, Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson said Miller, 49, a trainee with no previous police experience, had violated department protocol by pursuing Taylor alone into the dealership showroom without backup and without a plan for a peaceful arrest.
Miller’s actions created “an environment of cascading consequences that produced an unrecoverable outcome,” Johnson said, adding that he had “serious concerns as to the rationale articulated for the use of deadly force.” The case against Miller will be presented to a local grand jury.
But Johnson also portrayed Taylor as a suspect bent on physical confrontation.
“This is an extremely difficult and tragic case,” Johnson said. “Our community is hurting, our department is certainly hurting and, quite frankly, our nation is hurting.”
The firing brought little solace to Taylor’s family, who scrambled Wednesday to arrange his funeral.
“We are all human and make mistakes, and there isn’t a winner in this. You know what I mean? We are both losers,” his father, Adrian Taylor, said.
Asked what his son was doing that night, a 20-minute drive from home at the Classic Buick GMC dealership on Interstate 20, Adrian Taylor said he had no idea.
“I don’t know any more information than anybody else in the world,” he said. The person in that video “was not my son.”
The Taylors live in a middle-class suburban neighborhood of Arlington, a bustling city wedged in the middle of the sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Adrian Taylor is a community activist who founded a nonprofit to help young black men “become more productive in society.” His wife, Tina, is a supervisor with the Postal Service.
The couple have three sons: Adrian Taylor Jr., 27, was a football star at the University of Oklahoma and played briefly as a defensive lineman with the Seattle Seahawks. Joshua Taylor, 23, also had a brief college football career and recently graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Christian was the baby. Friends and family find it hard to reconcile his behavior in the security camera footage with the young athlete who recently seemed to have found deep purpose.
His religious awakening came about a month ago, while he was on a break from his job waiting tables. There could be no questioning its impact. In the last few weeks of his life, Taylor raised the subject of God in almost every encounter with friends, typically pounding a fist into his palm for emphasis.
“He said that on his break, God came to him and he cried and cried. It really changed his life,” said Smith, who had lived across the street from Taylor since the seventh grade and was his teammate on the Mansfield Summit High School football team.
“He said God came to him not only to get himself right, but to get us all on board. He wanted to save everybody.”
Friends said Taylor cared passionately about social justice issues, an interest apparent in his Twitter feed. “Every time I see a squad car I think about all the lives lost . . . I’ve never felt protected,” he wrote on Dec. 11, one of several such tweets around that time.
“He had a lot of knowledge. He knew a lot about went on in the world,” Varra said. “He did a lot of research about black movements.”
Varra and Smith said their friend was undoubtedly aware of the approaching anniversary in Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot to death last August by a white police officer, though they hadn’t discussed it. Nor did the topic come up when Taylor joined his family for what would be their last meal together two nights before the shooting.
“We all sat there and ate. Christian was there. We all had a ball,” Joshua Taylor said in an interview outside his home. “Everything was peachy perfect.”
As was his new habit, Christian spoke mostly about God at the dinner table and said he wanted to be his generation’s spiritual leader.
“He wanted everybody to know that he had changed his life, and he felt like he was going to be the next Martin Luther King,” Joshua Taylor said. “That’s what he kept saying. ‘I’ve just got to change lives. We don’t have any leaders right now, and I want to be a leader.’ “
Taylor’s evangelism spilled into social media. On Aug. 6, Taylor posted a series of tweets with reflective, spiritual themes.
“Is there such a thing as a perfect person?”
“God is beautiful in so many ways.”
“Devil get up off me, forever.”
Just after midnight on Aug. 7, Smith was driving through the neighborhood when he spotted Taylor for the last time. He was alone in the hot Texas night, leaning against the back of his Jeep SUV, which was parked in front of his house.
“It looked like he was just outside thinking, you know?” Smith said.
The two friends waved at each other and, about 20 minutes later, Smith said he saw Taylor drive off.
At 12:52 a.m., security camera footage shows Taylor’s Jeep pulling up to the locked barrier gate at the GMC dealership. In a T-shirt and athletic shorts, the muscular young man jumps out of his car and jogs across the parking lot, before pausing by a gray Mustang.
Eventually, Taylor climbs on top of the car, bounces on the windshield and methodically breaks out the safety glass, creating a hole big enough to slide through. He lowers himself into the Mustang and its taillights come on. Then Taylor gets out, returns to his Jeep and, at 1:13 a.m., slowly bulldozes the SUV through the barrier gate.
Seconds later, the Jeep crashes into the showroom. The police arrive. There is no footage of the shooting itself.
Later, police would say that Taylor held up a set of car keys and announced his plan to steal a car. He then ran to a different part of the building but failed to find an exit. Miller followed, and ordered Taylor to get on the ground. Taylor turned and, “while cursing,” police said, began advancing toward Miller, who fired one shot.
Taylor kept advancing, and Miller fired three times more.
Those close to Taylor have found it hard to watch the video.
“I wish there was an easy way for me to say, ‘Hey, what were you thinking or what was going through your head?’ ” Taylor’s brother Joshua said. “It was totally out of the ordinary, but I have no clue.”
At first, Smith said, he didn’t want to watch it. But when he finally relented over the weekend, it was good to see his friend alive.
“I just took it as a time for me to see him move again, for me to notice how he walks, notice how his shoulders are set, simple stuff that you don’t think about when somebody is here,” Smith said.
“He was calm,” Smith added. “It’s something I haven’t figured out. But I will.”
Asked whether Taylor may have been trying to provoke a confrontation with police, Smith said the idea has crossed his mind.
“Now that I sit back and think about it, maybe. But, no,” he quickly corrected. “That’s not me saying he did this on purpose, because I know he wouldn’t. We had too much fun. He lived his life too good to go give it away.”
“We won’t ever know exactly what he was thinking.”
Madigan is a freelance writer. Michael E. Miller in Washington contributed to this report.