Family of Anthony Alvarez struggles with his public death

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CHICAGO — It was just after midnight on March 31 when Anthony Alvarez’s brother reached out to him to see if he was OK.

Alvarez, 22, left his brother’s Northwest Side home with plans to grab food and head to his own house but had yet to check in as he promised.

“You home?” his brother texted at 12:05 a.m.

“Almost,” came the response from Alvarez.

About 15 minutes later, Alvarez lay bleeding on a Northwest Side sidewalk. His cellphone was still in his hand after he was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer, marking the second time in as many days that Chicago police had killed someone during a foot chase.

The back-to-back shootings touched off outrage and concern across the city about policing in Chicago, particularly in the city’s Black and Hispanic communities. The Alvarez shooting reverberated widely, though the first shooting that week, of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, drew more attention because of his young age.

The past month has left the Alvarez family distraught, beginning with those initial confusing and desperate early morning hours as they relied on news reports and an alert from a smartphone app for information about why Alvarez had never made it home. His mother even went to the block where Alvarez had been shot and waited for two hours, trying in vain to find out if it was her son; his father called police to report him missing.

Answers would not come for hours. And now, more than a month later and after the release of harrowing footage of his shooting, the questions have only multiplied about why police initiated a chase with Alvarez that morning as he walked across a gas station parking lot.

The footage appears to show Alvarez with a gun in his hand, but he does not appear to be pointing it at officers.

During a two-hour interview Saturday with the Chicago Tribune, several members of the family, wearing T-shirts demanding “Justice for Anthony” as they sorted through stacks of glossy photos, described the ordeal, including how painful it was to not only watch the video of Alvarez’s last minutes but to know that others were watching it too. Many of those viewers drew their own conclusions about the family’s loved one.

“I started watching. It was hard. It was so hard,” said his maternal aunt Norma Alvarez, her voice breaking as she struggled to describe how she forced herself to watch the video only after her sister told her Alvarez’s last words: “Why are you shooting me?”

“I was so mad. I was like, I have to see it, I have to see for myself what they (did) to him. … Nobody wants to see, their family, for everybody to see their last moments. But if this is to make justice ... ” she said before her voice trailed off.

‘You good?’

Alvarez grew up in Portage Park, part of a large, extended Mexican American family.

On Saturday, the group, including his parents, aunts, his best friend, the mother of his daughter, his brother and their youngest sibling, a 4-year-old sister, gathered in their attorney’s Loop office around a large conference table. They recalled watching Anthony score his first goal in soccer at age 4 and how he would go on to play the midfield position in several Chicago-area leagues, steering and guiding the teams through matches.

He dreamed of playing professionally and followed his favorite pro soccer team, the Mexico City-based Pumas.

The Alvarez family remembered him as mostly quiet, but a joyful personality who knew how to make his friends laugh. He played video games like many young men his age. And he loved cooking spaghetti, enchiladas and huevos con chorizo.

Alvarez attended Schurz High School and had his first job at 17, working as a busboy alongside his father, Oscar Martinez, 42. He also worked for a short time with an aunt, Teresa Martinez, 31, before taking the job he had when he was killed, working at a meatpacking plant just outside Chicago with his brother, Alex Martinez, and mother, Veronica Alvarez.

The three traveled to work together, and the brothers would often see each other at the plant, with Alvarez signaling to his little brother with a whistle.

Alvarez became a father at age 19 and started creating traditions with his daughter, Ailani, now 2. There were McDonald’s Happy Meals and Mickey Mouse pancakes on the Sundays they were together, and he already had told Ailani’s mother that he would be signing his daughter up for soccer soon.

Alvarez also recently started talking to his aunt Teresa Martinez about his future, maybe working his way up to manager at the plant. She counseled him that he would need to at least get his GED and should also consider junior college.

Alvarez was with his family in the hours before he was shot, they said.

Oscar Martinez said he was with him about 9:30 p.m. at his mother’s house, where the two of them discussed the coming weekend and spending time with Ailani. Alvarez showed his dad his new truck, a 2012 Jeep that he had bought after his car was stolen from in front of his house.

Then the two parted ways.

“I said, ‘OK, mijo. I’m gonna go’ and he said, ‘Me too,'” Oscar Martinez recalled.

At 11:40 p.m., Alvarez was outside Alex Martinez’s home, where the two “chilled” for a bit outside, sitting in his truck, Martinez said.

“We were making plans for the next day,” recalled Martinez, 20. “I think he was gonna pick up some food and he was gonna head home. And I told him, ‘Let me know when you’re home.’ He left.”

Martinez sent a text at 12:05 a.m. When he got no answer, he tried again at 1:11 a.m. but got no response.

“You good?” he texted again.

A short time later, a cousin told Alex Martinez he heard about a shooting near Alvarez’s home through a smartphone app. Martinez called his mother, and she first went to the scene at Eddy Street and Laramie Avenue and then decided to go knock on Alvarez’s door. When she got no answer, she returned to the block to show police a picture of him, Veronica Alvarez explained through a translator.

She told police, “I am looking for my son, can you help me? He is not answering my calls,” Veronica Alvarez said. “They said, ‘No, no, no. Go look somewhere else.’”

Two shootings stun Chicago

Just two days earlier, there was a similar crime scene miles away on the Southwest Side of the city in Little Village. A Chicago police officer shot Toledo on March 29 in an alley.

Both shootings were captured on body-worn cameras, which Chicago police officers now wear so that their interactions with the public can be documented.

Toledo’s shooting and the release of the video dominated the news and garnered national attention and outrage, mostly on account of Toledo’s age. Vigils and protests were held over several days, including a neighborhood march that drew thousands.

Video footage and other evidence from both shootings were publicly released by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the agency that investigates police shootings of civilians.

Both include footage of highly charged, frantic foot chases that quickly turn to disturbing images of a young person dying as officers try in desperation to save them. Both have also raised questions about the Chicago Police Department’s lack of a foot pursuit policy.

Security footage overlooking a nearby gas station shows Alvarez walking through its lot with what appears to be a plastic bag when an unmarked police SUV, with its emergency lights flashing, abruptly advances toward him.

His family believes he was cutting through the gas station after parking his vehicle nearby on a well-lit street, something his father advised him to do after his car was stolen.

Another third-party camera shows Alvarez running from the gas station onto a sidewalk while the police SUV follows him on the street. Alvarez then can be seen making his way through an alley, where footage captured the ensuing foot pursuit.

On the police body-camera footage released by COPA, officers can be seen running down an alley at first, then bearing down on Alvarez as they turn a corner onto a small lawn.

Footage from what appears to be a security camera from the home Alvarez was shot in front of shows him running into the frame, stumbling as the officer gains ground on him. The video is clear enough to see the muzzle flash from Officer Evan Solano as he fires.

“Hey! Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” Solano yelled, according to his body-camera video, and raised his own weapon to fire off five shots.

Alvarez collapsed to the ground in a tidy front yard, moaning in pain. “Why are you shooting me?” he said.

“Because you had a gun!” the officer responded.

The footage also shows Alvarez release a gun as he falls to the ground, and police have said they recovered a pistol at the scene.

But so far the only explanation as to why officers were trying to stop Alvarez came from Solano’s attorney, who said Solano and his partner had tried to curb his vehicle the night before, but he fled and officers decided not to pursue him.

When they again spotted Alvarez the night of the shooting, they tried to stop him and eventually chased him on foot, said the attorney, Tim Grace.

In a written statement, Grace said the officers could see Alvarez holding his side, indicating to them he had a gun.

According to Grace, Solano did not see Alvarez stumbling and was expecting he would be much farther ahead of him when he turned the corner at the end of the alley.

The officer saw Alvarez close to the ground trying to raise himself up. Solano feared for his life, Grace said in the statement, which also said that officers knew Alvarez to be a member of a street gang.

In the interview Saturday, Alvarez’s family rejected any suggestion he was involved in street or gang violence.

“We don’t know why they would think that,” said his aunt Teresa Martinez. “Anthony didn’t have a record. He didn’t have any issues with the police. One thing about the family, if one of us gets in trouble or one of us is going through something,, we all know. And we all try to get together and help the family member.”

The family attorney, Todd Pugh, said Alvarez has no convictions on his record, including for gang-related activity. They do not challenge the images on the video — that Alvarez was carrying a weapon that night.

The family and his best friend speculate that Alvarez was carrying the gun for protection in a neighborhood that has pockets of street violence, Pugh said.

‘It’s not Anthony’

The first indication that Anthony had died came around 7 that morning at the hospital, his father said.

Once news outlets reported the victim from Eddy Street had been taken to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, the family went there and spoke to a detective, they said.

That detective inquired about Alvarez’s tattoos — he has one of his daughter’s name. The detective had seen it and told the family Alvarez had died.

But because they were not allowed to view Alvarez and had not even been contacted by police, they remained unsure about whether he had really died, said Teresa Martinez, who fielded frantic calls from her brother, Oscar, that morning.

“It’s Anthony,” Teresa said he told her on one of the calls. “It’s Anthony! Anthony is dead!”

She asked if he had seen the body, and he said no.

“It’s not Anthony,” she concluded. “Until we actually see him.”

A Police Department spokesman, reached this weekend, said detectives informed Alvarez’s father at the hospital that he had been shot by police.

An attorney for the family arranged for them to go to the Cook County medical examiner’s office on April 1, where the formal identification was made.

The family said they believe city officials paid more attention to the Toledo shooting in the first days after Alvarez’s death. They were hurt to see a memorial of candles, flowers and photos erected in Alvarez’s honor partially dismantled by police, something that his attorneys said is documented in a video they showed the Tribune.

The department spokesman said the memorial was initially moved from in front of a private residence to a nearby corner, and that after the vigil, the family was asked to remove items from that location before an officer did.

Meanwhile, they are also reckoning with what justice for Alvarez would even look like. Several members of the family said they believed the officer should be criminally prosecuted, a decision that will be made by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

For his aunt Norma Alvarez, it will also come when the department addresses the failures that led to Alvarez and others being killed by police. As painful as it is, she does see that his death can make a difference.

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