Photo courtesy Babb Family

Failed by the System

How police response to a suicidal veteran cost the Eugene man his life and altered his family forever

Stephanie Babb marches down 8th Avenue in downtown Eugene, her dark hair tucked into a black hat. It’s nearly 11 pm and, despite the darkness, the air is still balmy with leftover heat from a sweltering July day. She and 10 others take to the streets, holding cardboard signs walking and shouting, “No justice, no peace!”

The group is small, but they aren’t focused on the numbers. They are marching for Black lives and other victims of police violence, they say, spreading out across the road and making their voices heard. 

“I think it’s powerful to walk by ourselves without so many people saying this is what we believe in, nobody’s telling us what to do,” Babb says. She walks alongside Jay St. James, a Black woman from Eugene who alleges she was stalked and raped by a Eugene police officer. That officer has since resigned and the charges are being investigated.

Now in her middle age, with kids of her own, Babb grew up one of three children in a pro-cop military family. But since her brother Brian Babb, a military veteran with PTSD, was shot and killed by a Eugene police officer on March 30, 2015, she turned to activism and helping other victims of police violence. In February, the Babb family lost a $9.3 million dollar wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Eugene, but they haven’t stopped working to change policing.

The Babb family — including Stephanie Babb, Brian Babb’s kids, Connor and Kaylee, and their mother Stephanie Woodcook, spent five long years fighting for justice for Brian Babb, their entire world turned upside down. They looked for closure in a system that failed them and the man they loved — a man who adored his children and tried to be better for them. A man with a larger-than-life personality who once jumped into a river to save someone from drowning. 

In Eugene, three more people have been shot and killed by Eugene police since Brian Babb. One of them, Charlie Landeros, a person of color, has become one of the focal points for some Black Lives Matter marchers, a name they say along with Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others. 

PTSD, alcohol and a gun

On a clear spring evening in March 2015, the day of Brian Babb’s death, he felt suicidal. 

The 49-year-old veteran continually suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and alcoholism following a traumatic brain injury he received from an exploding IED while serving in Afghanistan in 2006.

A captain in the Oregon Army National Guard, Babb re-enlisted in active duty after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He wanted to take action, despite objections from Stephanie Woodcook — his wife at the time and mother of their two kids. 

Babb was first sent to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, where he spent days digging through wreckage and tagging bodies. While they were driving through the humid state, the flies from the stench were so thick in the air that he and the other National Guardsman had to drive fast with the windows down to keep them out. His therapist said Babb had a lot of smell and eating triggers for his PTSD from Katrina. 

After Katrina, Babb was sent to Afghanistan. When he was wounded there, he received an honorable discharge. He and Woodcook eventually divorced, and lived separately in Eugene. Babb struggled cognitively due to his brain injury and suffered some amnesia.

On that day in March, Babb sat in his Eugene home on Devos Street, took out a gun from his safe and fiddled around with it, shooting one bullet in the house. 

Then he called his therapist.

Becky Higgins, who had been Babb’s therapist since 2014, wasn’t at the office that day, but she stepped inside for a moment and noticed Babb was calling her work phone.

Higgins is a licensed social worker, specializing in veterans and trauma for more than 20 years. Babb called her and said he had a 9mm gun to his head and had already fired a round somewhere in his house. She stayed on the phone with him, but pulled out her cell phone and briefly went outside to call a 911 operator. It was 5:02 pm. She said she couldn’t be on the phone with the operator for long, because she wanted to remain in contact with Babb in an attempt to talk him down.

Meanwhile, a handful of EPD officers were headed towards Babb’s house in the Bethel neighborhood of northwest Eugene, lights flashing, sirens blaring. CAHOOTS, Eugene’s mental health crisis response program, wasn’t able to respond because there was a weapon involved, which means the 911 operator sends the police first. 

Multiple squad cars and an armored SWAT vehicle — called a BearCat — arrived and parked near Babb’s two-story house less than 20 minutes after Higgins called 911. The house was down a long driveway off a dead end street. Several officers sat in the BearCat while others stood near the back of the house and on a neighboring roof. 

At 5:52 pm the door to the apartment opened, and several seconds later a shot was fired. The officers didn’t know who had shot who until Officer Will Stutesman stuck his head down from the turret of the BearCat and said he did it. 

“Man down, rifle in right hand” was heard over the radio.

Fearing Babb was wounded and would retaliate against the officers, the SWAT team stayed inside the BearCat as it barreled forward, knocking down fences in an attempt to reach the front door. 

But Babb didn’t do anything. He lay dead in the doorway with a bullet wound in his left cheek and a black rifle several feet away on the concrete.

Less than an hour after his therapist called 911 for help, EPD had shot and killed the military veteran.

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Photo courtesy Stephanie Woodcock.

Slow, unsatisfying justice

In the last 25 years, the Eugene Police Department, Springfield Police Department and the Lane County Sheriff’s Department have shot and killed 40 people. EPD has killed 12 people, four of them in the past five years. Springfield has killed 16, and Lane County has shot and killed 12. 

Elborio Rodriguez, who was shot and killed by EPD during a scuffle in November 2019, has, like Landeros, become a rallying cry for local protesters. Some accuse EPD of escalating the situation that led to his death.

For 21-year-old Connor and 24-year-old Kaylee Babb, it was five long years since their dad died before the trial even began. 

“The kids will never come back to Eugene after this loss,” Woodcook said several weeks after the trial. Later she added, “My level of trust is no longer there.” And, she said, for her kids “to feel unsafe and judged in their hometown is just a hard pill to swallow.”

Since the trial, the kids both live in other cities. Connor Babb is now studying criminology at Central Oregon Community College, and Kaylee Babb lives in Portland, having graduated from Portland State University last year. 

The Babb family filed their wrongful death lawsuit in 2017 against the city of Eugene and EPD officer Stutesman. The case went to court last February, five years after Babb’s death. 

During the trial, Kalyee Babb, who uses they/them pronouns, testified about their relationship to Brian Babb and how that shaped who they are today.

Some days the courtroom was fairly empty, and other days it was packed, with about 50 people seated side by side. The Babb family sat near the front together, and the EPD officers who testified stood or sat near the back, whispering to each other as their colleagues took the stand. When the kids got up to testify, the room was still, anticipating the emotion in their testimonies.

Kaylee was close to Brian Babb. The two mirrored each other in many ways; both struggled with depression and anxiety. He understood his child.

“He helped me realize a lot of things were overwhelming and scary,” Kaylee said on the witness stand. Brian was someone they felt safe sharing their feelings with.

Both of them battled insomnia. When Kaylee would stay over at their dad’s house, they would often wake up in the night and wander into the kitchen for a snack. Brian was usually already in the kitchen making a PB&J sandwich.

“I had Cheerios,” Kaylee told the court, smiling.

Things changed after Brian Babb returned from Afghanistan. “My dad used to be outgoing,” Kaylee said. “A lot of him was left there.”

Kaylee and Brian frequently drove out to Florence to take out his boat, named Stress Relief. The father and child walked along the South Jetty and went scuba diving.

Through tears, Kaylee recalled in the court testimony that any day they went to the beach, the sun would always shine, even if the forecast said otherwise.

“I used to think he could make the sun come out,” Kaylee said.

Stephanie Babb has sunny memories of her sometimes troubled brother too, such as his love of dancing and sneaking out at night to jig frogs with him. She soon became an activist for victims of police shootings and for the Black Lives Matter movement since it started in Eugene in May. During the riot on May 29, Babb live streamed the event, supporting BLM protesters in their cause and joining them in telling the rioters not to break the windows and loot businesses.

On Aug. 30 Babb hosted a vigil at Alton Baker Park for families of people who were killed by police officers. KLCC was the only media at the small event, and the public radio station spoke with Babb about the BLM movement. 

“Because we know how this affects people and how disproportionately Indigenous and Black people are getting killed by police,” Babb said. “Somebody that looks like me, a middle aged white woman, saying my brother who was a veteran and he was in his own home got shot. We need those people, who aren’t thinking it will concern them, to wake up.”

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The Babb family gathers at Brian Babb’s home on Devos Street shortly after he was shot to death by Eugene police

Photo by Todd Cooper

Camaraderie, despite the struggle

Connor Babb had a difficult relationship with his father, he said during the trial.

Shortly before Brian Babb’s death, Connor and he had a falling out due to Brian’s ongoing struggle with alcoholism. 

One night, during a sleepover, Connor and a friend decided they wanted to barbeque some food. Brian was sleeping upstairs. The boys decided to cook in the garage so as to not make too much noise, but the smoke travelled up the stairs and woke Brian. 

He came to the room when both boys were asleep, pointing a gun at them. Connor had to talk him down, as Brian was drunk and was possibly experiencing a flashback.

Brian had told his therapist, Higgins, that he wanted to get treatment for his drinking. He spent several days at the Veterans Affairs treatment center in Roseburg, but ended up quitting because of the religious sentiments in the program. 

When Brian Babb returned to Eugene, he told his son he had quit drinking, but Connor found alcohol in his house. He told his mom that he didn’t want to go back to Brian’s house until he stopped drinking.

Despite their falling out, Connor told the court he still loved his dad. 

On Monday, March 30, 2015, Woodcook came home, followed by two police cars. She told Connor Babb he needed to come out and talk with them. He walked outside and saw CAHOOTS was there too. They told him his dad was dead.

“I just started crying and ran next door,” Connor told the court. “I had just turned 16.”

Connor Babb said one of his most vivid memories with his father was scuba diving at the Oregon coast. From deep down in the clear water, Connor and Brian could see all around them. They laughed and blew bubbles, watching them trickle up to the surface before breaking.

“I miss my dad a lot,” Connor said. “I wake up and want to call him.” Connor regretted that he and Brian would never have the camaraderie Brian had with his own father, Lee Babb. 

In honor of his father, Connor has several tattoos. One is on his ribcage for his dad’s birthday. He also got one that said “Stress Relief” in the same font as on Brian’s boat. The last tattoo is a portrait of Connor and Brian fishing. 

Branding dirty cops

The trial lasted four long, grueling days during which other Babb family members, Higgins and the officers involved in his death testified. The Babb family was represented by Action Injury Law Group, a law firm from Chicago that focuses its work on police shootings and police brutality. The family’s attorneys were Andrew Stroth, Amanda Yarusso and Carlton Odim, who argued Stutesman used excessive force when he shot and killed Babb.

Several of the SWAT officers who were present at Babb’s death had been reprimanded for previous incidents. 

Officers David Clarke and Judd Warden, who were positioned at the back of Babb’s house, took the stand on the first day. When asked about Warden, Clarke said, “He’s been on the force since the dawn of time.” 

Warden is known for a 2010 incident when he tazed a 19-year-old non-English speaking Chinese student who was in his own apartment. He thought the student was trespassing.

When Warden was questioned at the Babb trial, the attorneys played pieces of the video footage and audio from his car, asking him to interpret what people were saying. At one point, bystanders started to cross the street towards Babb’s house.

“People need to move! Please go away! People are shooting rounds!” Clarke was heard yelling. After the neighbors moved back towards their houses, Warden’s angry voice came over the radio.

“Fucking trailer trash. Fuck.” 

When the plaintiffs’ attorney asked, Warden confirmed he said that. Before moving on, both sets of attorneys said the comment was highly inappropriate.

Officer Joe Kidd testified that he was on a neighboring roof near Brian Babb’s house when Babb was shot. Several months after Babb was killed, Kidd triggered a lockdown at the Eugene Family YMCA and South Eugene High School when he was spotted walking down Patterson Street dressed in camouflage, armed, without wearing any Eugene police insignia.

After making it through all the witnesses, the attorneys gave their closing statements. “Brian Babb is in his house,” said Odim, the Babb family attorney, his voice quiet. “Brian Babb is trying to manage the effects of his service in Afghanistan.” The room was still.

“He is in his home when unbeknownst to him, the Eugene Police Department militarizes the perimeter of his home. He did nothing wrong.” 

Odim paced in front of the jury, who watched him intently, saying that based on the witness testimonies of the officers, the jury couldn’t know for certain that Babb was pointing the rifle and that the shooting was justified.

Odim held up both hands even with palms up, like a scale.

“All you need to decide is if it’s more probable than not,” Odim lowered his right hand slightly.

Robert Franz, the city of Eugene’s attorney, closed by saying that if the jury decides Stutesman is in the wrong, they will brand him as a “dirty cop” forever.

“If you come back with ‘yes,’ your ‘yes’ just meant he killed somebody in cold blood,” he said. “If you find a ‘yes’ verdict, you have found he’s lied to you. You have found he has lied on tape. You have found he has shot and killed an innocent person. And you have found that he is a dirty cop, and for the rest of his life he’s a dirty cop and a dirty cop has no place anywhere in this state or in this city.”

A few hours later, the jury met back in the courtroom. Jurors had made their decision.

The court recorder handed Judge Michael McShane a piece of paper. He sat down, put on his glasses and read it aloud. Meanwhile, the people occupying the room held their breath, the seconds scraping by. 

“In answering the question ‘Has the plaintiff proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Will Stutesman violated Brian Babb’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force?’ the jury voted…” McShane paused for a moment. It was so silent it was as if he read the paper to an empty room.

“No.”

The Babb family and friends who filled the first several rows of benches let out a hushed cry of dismay, and their shoulders sank. Several officers in the back of the courtroom smiled, the relief evident on their faces.

This unanimous verdict marked the end of a trial five years in the making. It was over. The Babb family had lost.

McShane thanked the jury and the attorneys, releasing the spectators. People supporting EPD and the Babb family cleared out of the benches. Only Kaylee Babb and her mother Stephanie Woodcook, remained.

Woodcook held Kaylee as they sobbed. And the room cleared.

The search for social justice continues

Brian Babb’s sister Stephanie is still actively advocating for other families harmed by police violence by participating in marches, speaking on podcasts and reaching out to lawmakers.

“There was no safety net for us,” Stephanie Babb said after the trial. “No one reached out and said, ‘We will walk you through this.’” Babb got involved in Pacific Northwest Family Circle — a support group that started in 2016 for Oregon and Washington families who lost loved ones to police use of force.

She added that any time she comes across a report of police violence, she reaches out to the family and offers support. She also often speaks on a podcast about police violence and is now organizing marches to support survivors like Jay St. James.

The family keeps Brian Babb’s memory alive. On Facebook recently, Stephanie Babb shared a news story from a few decades ago about how Brian Babb jumped into the river to save someone from drowning in northwest Eugene. He pulled the teenager out of the water and pushed on his chest until he breathed again.

But EPD hasn’t changed that much.

In August 2015, EPD sent out a press release about its improvements to responding to veterans and others in extreme mental health crises. The press release cites Babb’s shooting as the reason for addressing the issue. 

The pledged improvements include better training for officers by VA workers, crisis intervention training and an officer-involved shooting review board. Now, whenever a mental health professional is involved in someone’s crisis situation, officers must do what they can to keep the conversation going — which didn’t happen in Brian Babb’s case. 

A few months later, EPD sent out another press release about an initiative where EPD officers who served in the military can wear pins to identify with other veterans they may come in contact with.

Today, Woodcook says, the Babb kids are trying to put the trial and verdict behind them.

“The kids are both living in different cities and are trying to get on with their lives as much as possible,” she says. 

Woodcook adds that she still believes in defunding the police in the sense that the money should be reallocated into different programs so that law enforcement can focus on violent crimes. She says there is no reason an armed officer should show up to a fender bender.

Although losing the verdict against EPD and the city was hard, Woodcook says it gave them a sense of closure.

“And you know, honestly, when we got the verdict, it was hard to lose, but on the other hand, it felt like, finally maybe some closure, maybe we could be done with this.”

The conversation around police violence has not faded. And Stephanie Babb continues to march, advocating for those killed by police and the fellow families left behind to grieve.