Through the peephole: What Charleena Lyles’ neighbor saw
“Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” Gunshots, no doubt, J.C. thought.
It was 9:49 a.m. on Father’s Day, and he was watching a soccer match on T.V. He jumped from the couch in his living room and ran to the front door. He looked through the peephole.
“I see through the hole that Leena is lying down,” he later told a detective. “But I didn’t see no cops. I didn’t see nobody. I just saw Leena.”
Leena was Charleena Lyles, his 30-year-old neighbor, a slight black woman who stood just over 5 feet and weighed 95 pounds. She had four kids, and she was pregnant with her fifth.
She had been shot by two Seattle Police officers who said they feared for their lives when she brandished a knife in her kitchen. An audio recording from the officers’ vests picks up rustling sounds leading up to the shooting and then Lyles saying, “Get ready, motherfuckers.”
But J.C. didn't know that. All he knew was that his neighbor had been shot. Fearing a gunman was at large, he corralled his children – daughter, age 7, and son, age 11 – into the living room.
“I tell my kids, whoever’s gonna come through the door is gonna open the door and then they’re gonna go after me,” he said. “I told my kids that they’re gonna jump from the third floor.”
But the body outside his front door beckoned him, and he opened the door, his kids at his side.
“I could still see the smoke from the bullet holes,” he said.
Officers were performing CPR.
“Until a cop, he said she doesn’t respond,” J.C. said. “That’s when I knew she was dead.”
Another officer held Lyles’ baby.
“He had a baby in his hands, full of blood,” J.C. said. The baby had crawled onto Lyles after she fell. The officer, in his own statement, said he had scooped up the baby.
“Maybe one year old. Just a baby,” he said. The officer addressed him: “Fucking close the door. Fucking close the door.”
“That’s when I closed the door,” J.C. said.
J.C. – these are his initials – gave his account of that Sunday morning, June 18, to Det. Jason Dewey of the Seattle Police Department. KUOW obtained a copy of the interview transcript through a public records request. This is just one witness statement.
An autopsy showed that Charleena Lyles was shot seven times by two white officers who responded to a call about a burglary at Lyles’ unit at Brettler Family Place. The low-income apartment complex is nestled in leafy Magnuson Park in northeast Seattle.
Several hours after the shooting, J.C. opened his door again, this time asking for permission to leave the building.
“Do you want something?’” an officer at the scene asked him.
“Hey, you know what?” J.C. said he told him, “I didn’t see shit.”
“I was afraid,” he later explained to the detective interviewing him. “I was scared to get shot.”
J.C. told the detective that the shooting changed his life.
“It’s still in my head, you know?” he said. “My life is so messed up. I have problems with my wife. I don’t sleep. I don’t know how to explain this. I went to this place for mental illness for four days because I was kinda lost.
“Like right now, I’m talking about this, like I’m over here in the hallway where it exactly happened and I’m sweating. I’m agitated again.
“It destroyed my life.”
J.C. isn’t the only one who says he saw Lyles lying in the hallway after being shot. Minutes after the shooting, a 12-year-old girl slipped by police and ran up three flights of stairs.
The girl, Makalah, saw cops outside the building and wanted to check on her friends – Lyles’ children.
When she reached the floor, she saw Lyles’ body in the hallway, covered in blood.
“I didn’t want to make myself noticeable, and I went upstairs and I saw her body,” Makalah said the day after the shooting. She said Lyles’ 11-year-old son lay next to her.
“He was crying,” Makalah said. “I was just talking to him. I didn’t want to get too close.”
Makalah asked if he was okay. He said yeah, but she knew he wasn't. “He was crying, looking at his mom,” she said.
The day after the shooting, Makalah told KUOW that she and her twin sister spent the day listening to the audio recording of the shooting. Makalah had listened to it 16 times.
“We’re still trying to figure it out, to make it okay,” she said.
An inquest into Charleena Lyles’ death is set for April 16, but could be delayed.
Kate Walters and Patricia Murphy contributed reporting.