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Wudan Yan | Longreads | December 2019 | 21 minutes (5,400 words)

Around dinnertime last Christmas Eve, the Eyre family threw on their parkas, stuffed hand warmers into their gloves and pant pockets, slung strings of Christmas lights over their jackets, and went for a walk.

Outside their tri-level house on the northern side of Fairbanks, Alaska, they turned on to Farmers Loop Road, one of the main arteries of the city, and walked along the shoulder. The frozen snow crunched beneath their shoes. It was so cold — roughly 15 below — that your breath billowed back toward you even before you fully exhaled. Cars zoomed by, likely on the way to the homes of loved ones, or completing a last-minute run to the grocery store. Twenty-nine-year-old Samantha Eyre and her younger sister, Kassandra, walked in the front with a banner. On it, their mother, Jean, painted on the shadows of six people, a bear, a moose, and the words #KeepWalkingWithCody.

Christmas is meant to be an evening of gathering and celebration, but it’s taken on a new meaning for the Eyres: Exactly one year prior, police officers shot and killed the family’s youngest and only son, 20-year-old Cody Dalton Eyre.

Cody was having a bad day. He felt suicidal. He got drunk. He brought a gun with him — not uncommon, since many people carry in Alaska. He decided to go for a walk to clear his head. And when Jean called 911, hoping the police could calm him down and bring him home, the opposite happened.

In the months after Cody’s death, the Eyres have received scant information from law enforcement on what exactly happened that night. Cody’s death has raised not only questions for the Eyre family, but other concerns about how law enforcement officers do their jobs. Why is it that police are the first responders to mental health calls? In this case, why did they respond to someone going through a mental health crisis with deadly force? Why has law enforcement been slow to release any public information on this case? And in a place where tension between Natives and law enforcement run high, how could the incidence of these deadly interactions be reduced, or better yet, stopped?

On this walk, Cody’s family now was retracing his last steps, in memoriam.

* * *

Cody and his four older sisters were born in Juneau. Growing up, his parents Jean and Kyle brought their children to the family’s dry cabin — one with no running water — near Chena Hot Springs, during the summer months

Cody was so good at playing hide-and-seek that once, his mom had to call the police. (Cody fell asleep in the closet.) As a toddler, he was infatuated with Superman and the Speed Racer, which fueled his love for superheroes and cars later on.

The children spent their summers outside hiking, hunting, and fishing. Interacting closely with the land seemed second nature. “It’s a culture, it’s a way of life around here,” said Kyle. He and Cody would go out hunting; Cody shot his first moose when he was 12 and would regularly shoot ptarmigans in Delta Junction, a town approximately 100 miles from Fairbanks.

Cody knew he wanted to join the military at a young age, starting in grade school when he served in the Civil Air Patrol. But he never did well academically: In middle school, he was diagnosed with a learning disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — something he always felt self-conscious about. He graduated from the Alaska Youth Military Academy high school and served in the Air National Guard. But Cody didn’t disclose his ADHD until he had already arrived at basic training, according to information acquired from the Air National Guard. Having ADHD doesn’t disqualify a person from serving in the military, and those who disclose it can apply for a waiver to show that the condition doesn’t interfere with their work. Cody declined to file for a waiver and was ultimately recommended for separation. He returned to Fairbanks — where his family had moved — in the summer of 2017 and went back to work at the family construction company to figure out his next steps and nurse the rejection he faced from the one path in life he had really wanted.

Growing up around guns, Cody knew there was a time and place for each type of weapon. When he was 18 and could legally purchase a gun in Alaska, Cody picked out a shotgun. Kyle, who went with him, was shocked: He thought Cody would pick an AR-15. But Cody knew that he would get one from the military. “This showed that his head and mind was very rational when it came to firearms,” Kyle said.

One of Cody’s uniforms hangs in his bedroom in the Eyre’s home. The family says that the room is almost exactly how Cody had left it, save for some items from his funeral services. (Ash Adams)

* * *

Cody didn’t want to die: He just wanted help.

Shortly after he returned home from the Air National Guard, Cody got a loan to buy an almost-new Mustang. He made the down payment with money he saved up and started to pay off his loan for the foreseeable future. Early in December, Cody called a suicide hotline. But because he allegedly couldn’t get through to anyone, state troopers showed up to his parents’ house early in the morning, said Jean. When Jean and Kyle asked him about this, he simply said that he was feeling “stressed.” A few days before Christmas, he helped his mother put up Christmas lights outside the house. He also went shopping for his nieces and nephews and strategically placed the wrapped Christmas presents at their eye level on the Christmas tree.

Christmas Eve began as any other day. Cody and his girlfriend (whose name is omitted to protect her privacy) woke up at his parents’ house. They had planned to go for a walk with Samantha to get coffee later in the day. Mornings in December were leisurely: Because the sun doesn’t rise until later in the morning, nearly everyone took it as an excuse to sleep in.

But those plans never materialized. Early in the afternoon, Cody and his girlfriend were in his bedroom, breaking up. She left the Eyres around 4 p.m.

Frustrated, and wanting to get out of the house to clear his mind, Cody tried to get his work truck to start. But at 10 below, it didn’t go. He called his dad, who was at work that day, to see if he might have any advice. Kyle didn’t sense Cody was terribly upset, and for good measure, he asked — as he does with all his children — “You good?” Cody replied, “I’m fine.”

By 5 p.m., Cody had the house all to himself. The sisters had gone to a candlelight vigil for Christmas in downtown Fairbanks.

He downed a bottle of Crown Royal — something Jean had bought months ago for a barbeque. He grabbed his pistol — a .22 revolver — and went outside and started filming a video on Facebook Live.

According to public records, and Cody’s sisters who later viewed the video, he was walking around outside his parents’ house, drinking and crying. He was talking about wanting to meet up with an old flame — the reason why he broke up with his girlfriend — but that she didn’t want to get coffee with him. As he filmed, Cody showed viewers that he only had one bullet in the eight-bullet chamber of the .22 Magnum revolver, a gift from his grandfather, then put it back to his head. “I’m not going to do this until I have more viewers,” he said. Then he ended the video. His phone was about to die.

A man in Wasilla was scrolling through Facebook when he saw Cody’s video. He only watched it for less than a minute until he picked up the phone. He called Cody, but it went straight to voicemail. At 6:21 p.m., he called 911. “There’s a possible suicide in progress, I need you to [get there] immediately. He’s got a gun and he’s drunk. He’s only got one bullet and he showed it on Facebook Live,” he said. The man gave the dispatcher some details about Cody’s video. The dispatcher told the caller that they would send some troopers over.

As soon as Cody finished filming on Facebook Live, his mom pulled up in the driveway. Cody was distraught and insisted on going for a walk, so Jean followed him in her Navigator. The situation felt out of her control, so she called Kyle to deliberate on what to do: They’ve never had to make a 911 call to ensure the welfare of any of their kids before that evening, but decided it’d be the right move.

When the dispatcher picked up at around 7 p.m., Jean frontloaded the call. “My son has been drinking and he just broke up with his girlfriend and he’s walking down the sidewalk and he has a gun and I would really like you guys to come and pick him up,” she said.

The dispatcher asked for details: where Cody was walking, what he was wearing, and whether or not it was unusual for Cody to be carrying a gun.

“When he goes out hunting, he carries it with him all the time,” Jean replied. “Otherwise I don’t think he carries the gun with him.”

The dispatcher assured Jean that dealing with Cody was “the highest priority thing that we have going on right now,” then asked, “Has he ever done anything violent when he’s been intoxicated or sober?”

“He’s not a violent person.”

As Jean pulled to the intersection of the Old Steese Highway and the Johansen Expressway, two main roads in Fairbanks, she found it already blocked off by police cars. She and the dispatcher disconnected.

Richard Sweet and Tyler Larimer of the Fairbanks Police Department and Elondre Johnson, Christine Joslin, and James Thomas of the Alaska State Troopers arrived in response to the two 911 calls. None of the responding officers were Alaskan Native. When they approached Cody, he was growling with the gun pointed at his head. The audio from a body camera is unintelligible, but Cody seems to be screaming and yelling. He pointed down one path — toward a side road behind two churches. “I’m not going to shoot you,” Cody screamed, before continuing to walk.

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The officers walked behind Cody, AR-15 rifles pointed at him, yelling at him to drop the gun or put the gun down.

At one point, Cody started walking backward, to face the officers, gun to his head. “I don’t want to hurt any of you,” he said.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” said Trooper Thomas.

Lieutenant Brian Wassman of the Alaska State Troopers, who was on the other end of the radio, said, “If he starts to try and go into a house or anything you might have to use force on him.”

“Shut the fuck up, I’m fucking done!” Cody screamed. “I’ve tried to get help!”

“I’m not gonna fucking shoot you, I’m going to kill myself,” he yelled. “You guys don’t need to kill anybody. That shit doesn’t need to be on your conscience. I was in the fucking military. I got out of the fucking military. Because I had fucking ADHD! Why the fuck did that matter? You guys can fucking die right now, I don’t give a fuck!”

In response to this perceived threat, the officers fired more than 40 bullets.

Jean, who was parked in her Navigator about 1,000 feet away, started crying.

“It’s just fireworks,” said her daughter Nichole, who was in the car with her.

“I don’t think so. I think they’re shooting,” Jean said. “At first I was praying: God, please protect him. Then, please God, save him, and God, please take him. I was pretty sure they were shooting that many times. He wouldn’t survive that.”

Of the more than 40 shots fired at Cody, about a dozen hit Cody’s body. On January 6, 2018, pathologist Werner U. Spitz in Michigan examined Cody’s body. None of the bullets were fired from a close or contact range. Ten bullets went through below the waist. One other bullet hit his right arm, and another to the back of his head, a few inches below his left ear.

Spitz signed the document in a flourish, but before he did, the last line of his report summary read, “But for the shot in the head, CODY EYRE would not have died.”

Cody Eyre’s mother, Magdalena (Jean) Eyre, and father, Kyle Eyre, stand at the site of his death, where he was killed by police and state troopers on December 24, 2017. (Ash Adams)

* * *

Since 2015, law enforcement has taken the lives of more than three people a day in the U.S. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control from 1999 to 2015, Native Americans are killed by law enforcement at higher rates in the U.S. than black and Latino people. In addition to Cody, who was half Alaskan Native, at least 70 others who identify as Alaskan Native or Native American have been killed since 2015. Justin Fowler of Red Valley, Arizona. Paul Castaway of Denver. Saige Hack of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Tristan Vent of Fairbanks. Vincent J. Perdue of Fairbanks. Patrick Stephen Lundstrom of Rapid City, South Dakota. Herman Bean Jr. of Anchorage, Alaska.

But such stories are rarely reported on. Many of the Natives killed don’t live near city centers where news media would report on them, said Chase Iron Eyes, the lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project. “Native people are largely ignored when it comes to those statistics because the sheer number of us being shot are less, but the proportion per capita is greater,” he said.

Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding Cody’s death, his family is using it as a means to lobby for change.

* * *

Alaskan Natives and law enforcement have an uneasy history in Fairbanks. Some say these tensions have existed since whites colonized Alaska in the late 1800s.

Growing up, Misty Nickoli, a member of the Kaltag tribe, learned quickly that the police were not to be trusted. “We always knew that if the police came along, we had to run because the police were more dangerous than other people,” she said. “The people that most Americans would see as dangerous are maybe thugs. But they weren’t dangerous. The real thugs to us were police officers.” And when I asked her where that perception of law enforcement came from, Nickoli simply said, “There was no telling. There was just knowing. Calling the police is the absolute last resort.”

But this troubling dynamic has intensified in the past few decades. In the late ’90s, four Alaskan Native men were convicted of murdering a white teen, whose body was found in downtown Fairbanks. The police were quick to arrest four Athabascan men: Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese, and Kevin Pease — who were referred to as the “Fairbanks Four”. Despite there being no strong case for their guilt, they were convicted and incarcerated for 18 years. When a journalism student interviewed Alaskan Native women at one of the Fairbanks Four hearings, she learned that mothers were raising their children to fear the Fairbanks police. “Kids in households were being told, you don’t want to wind up like one of these four,” said Brian O’Donoghue, a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who has helped the Fairbanks Four pursue their appeals.

O’Donoghue pointed to two other cases that have been highly influential over how law enforcement perceives Natives and vice versa.

In May 2014, two Alaska State Troopers were called to Tanana — located more than 100 miles west of Fairbanks and a village where the majority of residents are Alaskan Native. The evening before, Nathaniel Kangas’s father was threatening a village police safety officer. When the troopers came to Kangas’s house to arrest the father, Nathaniel shot the two officers.

Then, in 2016, Anthony Jenkins-Alexie, an Alaskan Native, murdered a Fairbanks police officer, then allegedly stole his car. “That was absolutely a profound moment for members of the police department and the community as a whole,” said O’Donoghue. “Combined [with] how dangerous that job is in general, that [incident] I think left police on a hair trigger.”

Then, this past March, 25-year-old Alaskan Native Kevin Ray McEnulty reportedly fired shots at a business, before leaving and driving down the road to a McDonald’s parking lot. Troopers showed up to the scene and asked McEnulty to drop the weapon. When he allegedly refused, the troopers opened fire.

Adrienne Blatchford, community organizer, at Native Movement plays with Grace while the Eyre family and supporters make signs for the walk the family organized to protest the lack of transparency and accountability in his death on the part of the Fairbanks police department and Alaska State Troopers. (Ash Adams)

* * *

After Cody was shot, the Alaska State Troopers and Fairbanks Police Department conducted their own investigation with the facts available at the time. Nine months after the shooting — during which the Eyres received no additional information about the case from the Fairbanks Police Department or the Alaska State Troopers — Paul Miovas Jr. of the Alaska Attorney General’s Office of Special Prosecutions reviewed the officers’ use of deadly force. In Miovas’s assessment, no criminal charges against the officers would be made. Under Alaska law, an officer can use deadly force for self-defense against death or injury, and once that officer has “some evidence” that they are justified in using self-defense, the state must then disprove that person’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

“That’s a high bar to cross,” said David Klinger, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, “but it’s crossable.”

The Alaska law that Miovas referenced was the result of two Supreme Court rulings in the 1980s, Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor. From Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court ruled that an officer can use deadly force to prevent a suspect from fleeing if the suspect might injure others. Graham v. Connor, on the other hand, established an “objective reasonableness” standard for when an officer can legally use force on a suspect and how much force is used, that is, the operative question is: Would another reasonable officer have made the same decision? But “people need to understand that these two rulings are talking about civil cases,” Klinger said. The prosecution in both cases survived.

“We have to abide by rules written down by the courts and that is our rule,” said Chad Goeden, who oversees training for the Alaska State Troopers. New officers receive eight hours of classroom training on use of force, then practice those skills for 16 total hours of training.

But when officers find themselves in life-or-death situations, are we supposed to trust the decisions that they make in those split seconds? Ultimately, these judgments are subjective, admitted Goeden. And if this means that the prosecution would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the use of force wasn’t justified, might that suggest our country’s laws are designed to protect officers over its citizens?

The reason why five officers showed up to the scene with Cody with assault rifles was that Jean mentioned Cody was carrying a handgun, which means her well-intentioned welfare call turned into a gun call. And in Alaska, every state trooper is issued an AR-15 assault rifle. “We encourage our troopers to take rifles to gun calls because it is the most effective tool we have,” said Goeden. “How that tool makes other people feel is completely beyond our control.”

* * *

Despite the internal investigation, the law enforcement officers didn’t release body camera or audio recordings from the shooting until ten months after the incident — an unusually long time, said Mark Choate, the Eyres’ lawyer.

Although Alaska public record law stipulates that government offices must respond within 10 days, this deadline only applies to the executive branch of the State of Alaska, according to the Attorney General’s office. Other public agencies, including those in the city of Fairbanks, can adopt their own procedures and regulations on how they decide to implement the Alaska Public Records Act. The Fairbanks Police Department took more than five months to release files pertaining to Cody’s shooting to me. The Alaska State Troopers first denied my request for public records because the case was actively being investigated. When the Alaska State Troopers did fulfill my request for documents pertaining to the Cody Eyre case, I learned that they gave the Eyre family — who filed for the same records — more documents.

The records from the Alaska State Troopers reveal how open to interpretation the laws governing use of force actually are. For one, the six officers who responded all used varying degrees of force by shooting a variable number of rounds. One officer, State Trooper Nathaniel Johnson, didn’t fire at all because his hands were too cold. Another cleared an entire magazine in his rifle.

These records also revealed that some of the bullets shot by the officers hit two homes located more than 300 feet behind where Cody last stood. Two .223 rounds hit a house directly south from the incident, and another live round hit an adjacent house. One family was in the living room when the shots tore through their home. One resident, who asked for anonymity for privacy reasons, went upstairs when he heard the sound of pressure building and saw bullet holes three feet above the bed where his son slept. “The bullet holes appeared like .223 rounds from assault rifles,” he told me. “It made me wonder why so many shots were required for someone who had not yet fired a shot.” Events like this, he said, can make people distrust law enforcement even more.

Cody’s Eyre’s family and supporters participate in a walk marking the anniversary of Cody’s death and following the last several miles he walked before he was killed by police. The family organized the walk to protest the lack of transparency and accountability in his death on the part of the Fairbanks police department and Alaska State Troopers. (Ash Adams)

* * *

The issue of race in this story is thorny but difficult to ignore. While Jean recalled the dispatcher asking about Cody’s race over the phone, there is no record of that in the call record obtained from a public record request, because any personal identifiers — including race — would have been redacted, according to a public records officer with Alaska’s Department of Public Safety. Nichole, one of Cody’s sisters, was in the car with Jean, and recalls her mom telling the dispatcher that Cody was Alaskan Native.

“When a person is identified as Native or a person of color, [the police] show up in full tactical gear,” said Adrienne Aakaluk Titus, an Inupiaq activist who worked with Nickoli on the Fairbanks Four case.

The Fairbanks Police Department and Alaska State Troopers declined my requests to interview the officers involved in the shooting because they are aware the Eyre family is preparing to file a lawsuit.

Instead, I posed this question to officers at a community event last December called “Coffee with a Cop,” an effort that law enforcement is making to get to know residents, rather than just showing up on “their worst days.” At the event, one white officer skirted the issue of race, suggesting that it “does not even come into play” in these instances. “I think Mr. Eyre knew that he was going to shoot, that’s why he pointed the gun at officers,” he said “I think that’s what he wanted to do. And it’s unfortunate, but that’s a mental illness issue.”

Alaska has the second highest rate of suicide per capita in the country; American Indians and Alaskan Natives have had the highest suicide rates of any racial group in the U.S. since 2003.

And when someone places a 911 call for family or a loved one because they are having a mental health crisis, like Cody was, “invariably, the police come,” said Ron Honberg, the former director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There’s no other medical condition where we have the police come.”

Honberg thinks we — as a society — are asking a lot of the police. Honberg reviewed the video recording of the Eyre case and said, “I didn’t hear, ‘And we want to help you,’ ‘We know you’re upset,’ ‘You have a long life ahead of you.’ He paused before continuing: “Would that have made a difference? I don’t know.”

But Cody’s case speaks to a national problem, he said. “There are so many people with mental health conditions who aren’t getting treatment. We put such a burden on the police, that there’s this perception that if you’re responding to a mental health emergency, that’s inherently dangerous. The chain of tragedy starts because the police were called and because the police were the ones that responded to a medical emergency.”

In Fairbanks, it’s a big challenge for Alaskan Natives to receive mental health services. “Suicide is an epidemic among Alaskan Natives,” said Titus. “It’s part of the assimilation trauma that we’ve experienced.” It’s the detachment from what Titus calls “our true identity” and “having to struggle to live in two worlds.”

“Our people are rooted in this land and who we are, the way we live — is our identity. Having this demand from the western world to get a better job, go off and finish school, get a bigger house, live in an individualistic mindframe is so hard for people because collectivism is what we’re taught from the beginning,” she said. “It really is a struggle for people that want to be providers for their family — as hunters and harvesters and people of the land — when you have to go to work every single day, pay the bills, and maintain a household that traditionally wouldn’t be done.” In other words, it’s applicable to Cody’s simultaneous desire to be connected to the land and the need to be independent and adhere to Western values to success.

Nickoli said that the mental health resources available to Alaskan Natives is “slim pickings.” The Indian Health Service, a U.S. government service, is responsible for providing federal health services to Natives, including mental health, but doesn’t have enough providers so everyone can be seen. And in many ways, it doesn’t make sense to see a Western provider, Nickoli said, because “first you have to explain to them and teach them native ways of being and understanding the world” — a feat of emotional labor, perhaps defeating the purpose of therapy altogether.

* * *

The Eyre family is still seeking justice. For one, Choate  recently filed a lawsuit for the wrongful death of someone with a mental disability against the five troopers who killed Cody.

“We would be doing something else, or working with something else. But now, we have to work and campaign against our fellow citizens. It’s very disheartening, but we don’t have a choice. I believe what [law enforcement] did it’s wrong. I believe it’s criminal. I believe that they reacted inappropriately, and have to be held accountable,” said Kyle.

But unlike other families that have lost loved ones at the hands of gun and police brutality, the Eyres are looking for change.

“We’re not the first family that this has happened to, and I’m sure we’re not going to be the last,” said Jean.

They are raising awareness about mental health crises within the community and meeting with state legislatures and Native organizations to discuss how to better train law enforcement officers to deal with mental health emergencies in culturally competent ways by making crisis intervention training mandatory for state troopers, municipal police departments, and village public safety officers across Alaska. All told, they say they’ve spent more than $20,000 of their own money on events, travel, and legal fees.

What they’re proposing is not entirely new: Crisis intervention training (CIT) was first developed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988, after a police officer shot and killed Joseph Dewayne Robinson, a 27-year-old black man who had schizophrenia and was allegedly brandishing a knife. In response to the shooting and the subsequent public outcry, the mayor of Memphis formed a community task force to provide a safety plan for officers responding to incidents with those who have mental illness.

The task force came up with a 40-hour training program to train officers on understanding mental illness and how to de-escalate crisis verbally or using less lethal methods of force. And the number of police officers that need to be trained depends on how many mental health calls a department is receiving.

In 2001, the division of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Anchorage wanted to bring CIT to the city. Wendi Shackleford, an officer with the Anchorage Police Department at the time who spearheaded the effort, recalled that this was a proactive — not reactive — decision. On her day patrol, Shackleford found herself coming across more and more mental health calls, felt like she didn’t know enough about mental health–related interactions, and wanted to broaden her skill set. After Anchorage Police Department officers who were CIT trained started showing up to calls, Shackleford says, people started feeling better about knowing that someone would show up with an understanding of mental health issues.

“The crux of what CIT does is that it changes the officer end of the equation to give them more awareness to try and read something differently than they would have before, and catch some of those subtle clues to try some other things as safety of self and others allow,” she said.

Fairbanks has had a CIT program since 2004, according to Yumi McCulloch, a former spokesperson for the Fairbanks Police Department. But CIT programs around the country are not necessarily consistent in their training or program, noted Amy C. Watson, a professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the impact of crisis intervention training and mental health. “It might mean we have a few CIT trained officers. Or it could mean we have a full CIT program where we have a steering committee [and] partnerships, or a dispatch trained so when a mental health call comes in they actually get the CIT officer there,” said Watson. “What it means to have CIT is not well defined right now.”

In some cities, such as Chicago and Memphis, CIT has reduced officers’ use of force, according to work done by Watson and her colleagues. But it’s also challenging to make sense of the data: Not only do CIT programs vary by community but police departments also can define use of force differently. “While we hear about [deadly use of force] cases all too often and they’re horrible, they’re really really really low frequency events,” Watson said. Ultimately, it means that looking for a statistically significant impact of CIT in reducing shootings by officers where the victim has a mental health disorder will be very difficult.

Even Sam Cochran, who spearheaded CIT training for the Memphis Police Department cautioned that CIT is not a magic bullet: “If you’re trying to portray crisis intervention training to never have a shooting event, you’re mistaken, and, really, nobody can promise you that.”

* * *

Photographs of Cody, cards, a flag, and other memorabilia cover the table in the foyer of the Eyre’s family home. The Eyres never took down the Christmas tree that had been up the night of Cody’s death and now, in addition to other photos and mementos of Cody’s life around the house a large photo of Cody, sits next to the tree. (Ash Adams)

Jean and Kyle hosted all their children and their families at their house for Christmas Day 2018 — but they were running massively behind schedule in their holiday preparations. Presents were usually wrapped and stacked under the tree by Christmas Eve, but Jean and Samantha were still at work in the basement. After Cody’s walk the evening before, the family hosted a celebration of life for Cody with their friends and other members of the community. Jean danced, holding her grandson Cody tight, as if wanting another moment with her own child.

When I arrived, holiday movies played on the TV. The smell of bacon and sweet rolls filled the kitchen. People and pets slowly filled up the house, but there was still an eerie sense of absence.

Just up a short set of stairs and down the hallway from the living room and kitchen is Cody’s bedroom, which has remained untouched for the past year. Cold and drenched in the smell of a man who hasn’t showered for at least a week, the room is as unpolished and unapologetically Cody as it can be. The trash hadn’t been taken out. A guitar at the foot of an unmade bed. Video game controllers and a virtual reality headset strewn on the floor. An open can of Coca-Cola. A half-smoked pack of Newports. A copy of The Teeny Tiny Farm — the first book that his mother bought for him shortly after he was born. A black Under Armor hat, just like the one his dad wears. Two guns leaned up against the closet wall. Car keys on the floor — perhaps left in frustration after the car wouldn’t start.

For Jean, his room is a time capsule. Maybe, one day, she’ll clean his room — “once this is all over.”

* * *
For more on the reporting of this piece, listen to Wudan Yan in conversation with Longreads Editor-in-Chief Mike Dang on the Longreads podcast.

* * *

Wudan Yan is an independent journalist in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in California Sunday Magazine, Discover, Harper’s, High Country News, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others.

Editor: Mike Dang
Photographer: Ash Adams
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Special thanks: Brian Adams