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'It was another female calling for help.' Girlfriend of a man fatally shot by Pittsfield police in 2017 sees similarities with Estrella killing

PITTSFIELD — When a Pittsfield police officer shot and killed Miguel Estrella in March, Jacquelyn Sykes felt history repeating.

Nearly five years before, her boyfriend, Daniel Gillis, lost his life in an officer-involved shooting.

On Sept. 1, 2017, Gillis was intoxicated and incoherent. Sykes agreed to drive him to his mother’s house, but en route, he grabbed the steering wheel, prompting Sykes to order him out of her car.

Gillis was expressing suicidal thoughts, according to Sykes. Before 1 p.m. that day, police received a report of Gillis running into South Street and hitting cars with his fists.

Gillis then showed up at her house, prompting her to call police and tell a dispatcher her boyfriend was drunk. She requested someone to remove him from her property.

What happened next has stuck with Sykes for years, the aftermath rippling through her professional, personal and family life.

After the 911 call, several Pittsfield police officers responded to her home on Taylor Street.

loyalty without question tattoo

The tattoo on Jacquelyn Sykes’ forearm is a copy, with an added ‘DG,’ of the tattoo that was on the shoulder of her late boyfriend, Daniel Gillis, who was shot and killed by police outside of her Pittsfield home in 2017. 

Gillis had grabbed a large kitchen knife, but Sykes said she was able to snatch it from his hand. She said she went out a back door. Officers were outside, including at least one with his gun drawn.

Sykes ran across the street. At some point Gillis left her home, too. From her vantage point, Sykes saw Pittsfield police Officer Christopher Colello drive up Taylor Street, and after what seemed like less than two minutes on the scene, shot her boyfriend.

Sykes had known Gillis since high school. She said he struggled with substance use disorder, and turned into “another person” when he was drinking. That day, Gillis had put six 10-milligram Valium pills into his mouth, Sykes said, and kept repeating that he wanted to die.

Seeing similarities

Last Wednesday, Pittsfield police released a preliminary report saying the officer who shot Estrella on March 25 had followed all department protocols, and would be returning to limited duty after a period on paid administrative leave.

The day after the report’s release, Sykes was struck by what she saw as similarities between the fatal shootings of her former boyfriend and Estrella, whose girlfriend called police after Estrella reportedly injured himself with a knife.

“It was another female calling for help with her boyfriend who was going through a mental health crisis,” Sykes said. “I’m sure she didn’t know the outcome was going to be for him to die. I can tell you, I’m heartbroken.”

For a long time, Sykes said she felt burdened by guilt associated with having dialed police that September day. She said she sought psychiatric care the night after Gillis died.

In the wake of Gillis’ death, Sykes was among those who advocated for the creation of the Police Advisory and Review Board in Pittsfield. At the board’s meeting last month, NAACP member Kamaar Taliaferro suggested more must be done to prevent deaths like those of Gillis and Estrella.

Sykes late last month spoke at a meeting of the City Council, imploring members to press for Pittsfield police to be equipped with body-worn cameras. According to police, the trigger was pulled by Colello, whose actions were later deemed justified by an internal police review and then by former Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless.

Colello had said Gillis had held a knife to his own throat, then advanced on officers, extending the knife toward police. A state police investigator suggested Gillis sought to provoke police to use lethal force in a “suicide by cop.”

Despite the former DA’s findings, Sykes told the council she believed Gillis was murdered “in cold blood.”

Recently, she used her phone to watch a video of Gillis’ shooting that had been recorded by a neighbor standing across the street from her yard on Taylor Street.

On the recording, an unidentified voice could be heard calling out: “Please don’t shoot him.” Then, pops of gunfire are heard.

The video depicts the shooting more clearly than others Sykes has seen, but it was taken at a distance, with trees periodically blocking the view. She slows down the portion of the video where gunfire erupts, questioning whether what the camera caught matches the official version of the day’s events.

In an interview, she said that if police had been wearing body-worn cameras that day, she wouldn’t be in the position of questioning what happened in the final few moments of Gillis’ life.

“There would be no question about who did what,” she said. “We would have six different officers’ videos, and we’d be able to see it from each one’s point of view.”

After Sept. 1, 2017, Sykes said she developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. When Estrella was shot March 25, she said memories of her experience rushed back.

“PTSD is a real thing, when this happened with Miguel, it was like it was happening all over,” she said.

Gillis was shot seven times. He left behind two children, both teenagers now, and both around the age of Sykes’ oldest daughter.

Sykes said there are few aspects of her life not touched by his death.

“You know, my kids saw the worst of me. I didn’t get out of bed. My mom had to step up for me, come help me out for a while. It was hard,” she said. “But you got to pick yourself up at some point.”

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com.

w or 413-496-6296.

Cops and Courts Reporter

Amanda Burke is Cops and Courts Reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.

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