by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on The C Is for Crank and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Vanessa Caver learned of her brother’s killing several days after Seattle police officers shot Terry J. Caver near an intersection in Lower Queen Anne on May 19. Her daughter called her unexpectedly to pass along the news. A few more days passed before she heard from a Seattle Police Department sergeant who called her to ask if she wanted to talk about her brother’s death. “I didn’t know what to talk about,” she explained when we spoke this week. “And the sergeant couldn’t tell me anything.”
Local news outlets covered the shooting only briefly on May 19. A day later, a post on the SPD Blotter identified Christopher Gregorio and Matthew Milburn as the officers who had fired at Caver and said that the department’s Force Investigation Team was looking into the incident. As is standard after most shootings by SPD officers, the department did not release the name of the victim. The C is for Crank first learned Caver’s name from the King County Medical Examiner’s office on Tuesday, nearly three months after his death.
According to the 911 calls and bodycam footage shared in SPD’s blog post, at least five officers arrived at the intersection of West Harrison Street and Elliott Avenue West in response to a series of 911 calls describing a man waving a knife at passersby. By the time the police arrived, there were no longer any pedestrians near Caver, who was still standing on the sidewalk. The officers stepped out of their cars and shouted at him to drop to the ground. At that point, he started to walk south on Elliott.
As the officers started to chase him, Caver broke into a run, shouting “you’re going to have to kill me.” He dropped a piece of clothing, revealing what appeared to be a kitchen knife. The officers fired a Taser at Caver, but they claim it did not have any effect. Caver suddenly stopped and turned to face the officers as his knees buckled (it is unclear whether or not this was in response to his being Tased), and Gregorio and Milburn shot him several times. Caver crumpled onto the sidewalk, and medics from the Seattle Fire Department pronounced him dead when they arrived. Based on the bodycam footage, the entire encounter lasted less than a minute. Terry Caver was 57 years old when he died. Like more than a third of all those shot by Seattle police in the past decade, Caver was Black.
When Vanessa heard that her brother had been carrying a knife and acting erratically, she knew what had happened.
Terry Joel Caver was born in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963. He was one of three siblings: Vanessa is his older sister, and his other sister died years ago from health problems. His mother was only briefly married to Caver’s father, and before he turned ten, she moved with her children to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.
By his sister’s account, Caver was lovable and bright. “Even if he hadn’t been my biological brother, he would have been my best friend,” she says. And even as a child, Caver was apparently generous to a fault. “He would do anything for anybody, anytime,” his sister recalls.
Caver’s trajectory took a turn for the worse after he was released from a stint in prison in 2010 and returned to his home in the San Fernando Valley. There, a drive-by shooting left Caver temporarily wheelchair-bound after he survived nine gunshot wounds. His sister, who lives in Everett, brought him to Washington to stay with her while he underwent further treatment at Harborview Medical Center; his sister says he left with a plate in his ankle to help him walk again.
According to Vanessa Caver, the shooting in California was the breaking point for her brother. In its aftermath, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She believes the shooting triggered the onset of his mental illness. Taylor shares that belief, and she thinks that his brief detention as a witness to the shooting only exacerbated the trauma. A doctor prescribed Caver a medication to help manage his schizophrenic episodes; it’s unclear whether he was taking his medication at the time of his killing.
As he neared his early twenties, Caver began to rack up felony charges, mostly for burglaries in northern LA County. According to his cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, Caver bounced in and out of jail for years, never quite finding his footing before he landed in court again. That cycle consumed most of his young adulthood.
Once he moved to Washington to be near his sister, Terry Caver’s mental health struggles overwhelmed him. His sister says he constantly feared that someone was following him “to finish him off,” prompting him to almost always carry a knife to protect himself. Though he often stayed in her apartment, she says he didn’t always feel safe there, either. “He would think there was someone else in the house,” she says. As a result, he periodically found himself homeless.
Court records show that he was charged with a few minor assaults in Seattle and Everett, which his sister believes stemmed from other mental health episodes. He was also arrested for non-violent incidents. His cousin recalls him being arrested in Las Vegas after breaking into an empty apartment and refusing to leave; another record from the Washington Court of Appeals describes an incident in 2016 in which Caver was arrested for possession of methamphetamine after he called 911 to ask to be taken to a mental health treatment facility.
In the latter case, court documents show that Caver was carrying a pocket knife, but after talking to police, he placed it on the ground. In the initial trial, the arresting officer justified placing Caver in the Snohomish County Jail during a mental health crisis by explaining that “the jail [had] available mental health professionals and separate housing for inmates with mental health issues.” For his part, Caver requested that he be allowed to wear his jail clothes to the trial. “It represent[s] what’s really going on in my life,” he explained to the judge. “I don’t want these people thinking that I’m on the streets when I’m not on the streets.” The court denied his request, claiming that “it causes much mischief if the defendant is clothed in regular jail garb.”
His cousin, Taylor, says that no matter his mental state, Caver always gave her a call as soon as he was released from jail. “He somehow always knew my number,” she says. “He would lose his phone, his phone would break, but he always remembered it.”
As Vanessa Caver made clear, her brother’s life in Washington was not wholly defined by his mental illness. Her fondest memories are of his most enduring quality: his generosity. When he first arrived in Everett in the early spring of 2010, Vanessa remembers buying her brother a leather coat to help withstand the cold. Only a few hours later, her brother returned coat-less, having given the gift to a man at a bus station. “I had a sweater and a hoodie,” he explained to his sister. “The other guy looked cold.” His sister says he was also a regular volunteer at a local soup kitchen; she’s sure he had become well-acquainted with some police officers in the process. “He said they told him he was doing a good job,” she remembers.
Terry Caver also made some attempts to get on his feet while in the Northwest. After returning from Las Vegas, he moved into a substance abuse recovery house, only to return to his sister’s apartment after realizing his roommates had taken his clothing and shoes. Later, she remembers him receiving a voucher for affordable housing. “He went down to Seattle to look for a place to live,” she said, “because he wanted to continue helping the homeless.”
While in Washington, Caver also converted to Islam and became a steadfast attendee at a local mosque. His sister doesn’t know the name of the congregation, but she admired his piety. “He tried to convert me,” she said with a chuckle, “but every time we would just start talking about the Lord. He loved the Lord.”
But Caver was still regularly overwhelmed by paranoia and fear caused by his mental condition. His sister can only imagine how afraid he was when he was reported waving a knife at pedestrians in Lower Queen Anne just before he was killed. “I’m sure he thought they were going to try to finish him off,” she says.
She thinks his mental crisis was made worse when police arrived on the scene. “If there had been one or two officers, they could have talked to him. He always listened. If they had talked to him, got him to sit down in the patrol car, he would have felt safer. But there were too many officers, so he was scared,” she explained.
She hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch the video of the shooting, but she is sure that her brother didn’t have to die. “If they had to stop him, they could have just shot him in the foot, taken him to the hospital and then taken him to jail,” she says. “I don’t understand why they had to kill him. I guess in their mind, he was a nobody.” Over the phone, she drew a comparison between her brother’s death and that of Charleena Lyles, the 30-year-old Black woman killed by Seattle Police officers in Magnuson Park in 2017 in front of her children (Lyles was also pregnant at the time). “They knew [both Lyles and Caver] were having mental health crises. They just needed to slow down and talk,” she said.
The current SPD training manual does not provide specific instructions for responding to people with knives. The manual does instruct officers to de-escalate when “safe and feasible,” and the manual’s guidelines for de-escalation recommend that officers consider “whether any lack of compliance is a deliberate attempt to resist rather than an inability to comply based on factors including . . . behavioral crisis” and that they make an effort to slow down interactions and maintain a safe distance from suspects. In Caver’s case, the officers surrounded him on three sides (by the time officers fired, his only route of escape was into a dead-end parking lot) and repeatedly shouted at him to drop to the ground.
Both because of pandemic-related public health recommendations and because her brother was uninsured, Vanessa Caver and her family weren’t able to hold a proper funeral for her brother. His cousin paid for his body to be cremated and delivered to her apartment in an urn. “I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that urn was in the other room,” she says. The next day, her daughter arrived to drive Vanessa — and the urn — to her home in southwest Washington, where the family had a memorial dinner.
Vanessa Caver says her daughter has been in contact with a lawyer to discuss the case. For now, though, she is still trying to wrap her head around her loss. “I don’t have any siblings left,” she says.
According to Andrew Myerberg, the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the police department’s Force Investigation Team will present their findings about the shooting to the Force Review Board — an eight-member panel that includes both Myerberg and the City’s Inspector General as non-voting members — sometime soon. Myerberg says that his office did not receive or file any complaint that would trigger an OPA investigation.
Paul Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive Magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was recently hired on as the police accountability reporter for The C Is for Crank.
Featured image by Alex Garland