PITTSFIELD — They buried their son and brother, Miguel Estrella, five months ago. But Marisol and Elina Estrella’s grief lives on.
On March 25, Miguel Estrella, 22, was shot and killed by a Pittsfield police officer. Every morning now, before work, Marisol Estrella prays for her son in a room at her home dedicated to his memory. An orange phoenix, drawn by friends at the nonprofit Manos Unidas, carries the words “hope,” “justice” and "peace" in Spanish above its wings, dominating one wall. A black-and-white poster with a photo of Miguel, and a few sentences in English and Spanish, hangs on another.
It reads “R.I.P. Miguel Estrella. Enough of so much injustice. Everything that surrounds us has the imprint of your dedication, your affection, and your love. Even though you left you are still with us.”
The room is a shrine, a monument, to a mother’s grief.
It's in her apartment, south of downtown Pittsfield, that Marisol prays that God is with Miguel. A smaller photo of him sits on a chair in the corner, surrounded by three lit candles: one yellow, one green, one red.
“A good person like him is now in a good place. It’s sad for me, because he’s not with me,” she said.
In recent interviews with The Eagle, Marisol and Elina Estrella provided what may be the fullest public accounting of how they are dealing with Miguel Estrella's death. The last five months have been filled with a sense of hopelessness and disappointment in official probes of shooting. But they nurture hope that activism can lead to improvements in how people, especially people of color, are treated in times of personal crisis when police arrive.
Coping by staying busy
Elina Estrella, Miguel’s sister, keeps herself afloat by keeping busy, splitting her time between her day job in Pittsfield and her nail salon side hustle. In her free time, Elina researches alternative ways to address mental health crises. She believes her brother was in the midst of just such a crisis when he was shot, a use of deadly force that was supported both by a Pittsfield Police Department internal probe and a separate inquiry by the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
Sitting outdoors at The Commons downtown, she unfolds a piece of note paper. In Boston, the Mental Health Crisis Intervention program has caught her attention.
“It’s a training program for law enforcement, community members, and advocates for de-escalation and crisis intervention,” she said. “It helps the police department not to intervene and have [co-responders] in place to go to these types of situations.” She hopes to present it to Pittsfield City Council at a future meeting. Elina has taken her perspective to that body before, in the weeks after her brother's death.
There are some days, though, when sadness submerges her.
Elina Estrella doesn’t think therapy could help her. “It’s hard to talk about grief if it didn’t happen to you the same way it happened to me,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a way of finding relief by talking to someone because I don’t like sympathy.”
Instead, she has found support from another survivor. Chaédria LaBouvier, whose brother, Clinton Allen, was killed by a Dallas police officer in 2013, reached out to her. “She helped me through what to do next, how to find out information, get reports, things like that. From time to time she’ll call me and she’ll ask me how I’m doing, and give me certain meditations to do to get my mind off if I’m having a rough day,” she said.
Elina Estrella feels connected to this approach to mental health crises. Being four years older than Miguel, she was always called when her brother was having a crisis at school.
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“Instead of yelling at him, I would give him a soothing touch. Let him know. ‘Hey, I’m here. I need you to breathe, I need you to calm down. You’re not in trouble. I’m here for you,’” she said. “If I was present that night, he would still be here.”
The family says that while growing up, Miguel was diagnosed with ADHD, depression and anxiety. Elina Estrella says he mostly grew out of it over the years.
Today, Elina Estrella is determined not to allow her brother’s death to have no meaning — or purpose. She hopes to create something out of it through activism. “I can’t let his death be just another death, another shooting. I have to make it mean something. If activism is what I have to do, so be it,” she said.
“In five, 10 years, I would probably want some type of legislation to have his name. To change a policy and procedure and how people with mental health are being helped in the community,” she said.
Their push for change is starting to yield results. The city of Pittsfield and the Pittsfield Police Department will each hire a social worker in the fall, as well as an unspecified number of co-responders within the police department.
Dealing with the district attorney's report
Elina Estrella’s cautious optimism contrasts with her mother’s indignation. And anger.
“There's freedom of speech, and I have so much pain, I have to let it out" Marisol Estrella said from her kitchen table. “This policeman killed me alive.”
“I feel helpless. Justice has committed a big abuse of power. I feel terrible, with a sour taste of the destroyed heart, because I’m ignored by society,” she said in Spanish. “Where is justice? I have been forgotten because I don’t have the resources. Because I’m a mother of color. Because I’m an immigrant of color.”
Since Miguel's death, the Estrella family has grown even closer. “We were involved in our own lives and we would get together here and there,” Elina Estrella said. “It’s very much the perspective of 'life is too short.' But it’s rough because I’m taking on this strong role of getting everybody together and having to be strong in front of everybody.”
The family disagrees with the conclusion in the district attorney's report, released Aug. 5, which found that Officer Nicholas Sondrini acted in self-defense.
Elina Estrella says she was disappointed by the findings, but not surprised. “I had a little hope that maybe under the circumstances, it would be different,” she said. “I kind of knew that was going to be the outcome. I just have to take what’s given at that point. I accept it, but I don’t agree with it.”
On Aug. 5, the day Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington announced the result of her office's inquiry, Elina Estrella walked to a podium in the DA's conference room, held back tears and said her brother, who was intoxicated and in a mental health crisis, should have been taken to a psychiatric ward.
“Miguel died because there’s something wrong with the way that we deal with mental health crises," she said, reading from a statement. "How can calls for help during a mental health crisis end up in the person needing help getting shot and killed?"
Marisol Estrella feels the police response, even though it has been upheld, wronged her son.
“Where were the crisis [co-responders] where a young person in a crisis needed to be taken by an ambulance into a psychiatric hospital?" she asked. "He was not helped. Where were his rights? That day he needed help from a friendly hand, with a big heart and patience. Stop all this unfair death, because this is an unfair death. Miguel did not kill or hurt anyone.”
She was expecting much more from the DA’s findings. “I was surprised because I thought justice would be done. Where is justice?” she asked.
The Estrella family was briefed in a private meeting a day before the findings were announced.
Through a translator who phoned in, Marisol says she questioned Harrington that day. “What happened the night of the 25th? Why did the police decide to take my son’s life away if he had a mental crisis?" she said she asked the district attorney. "She said she did not know what happened. She didn’t answer any of my questions,” said Marisol Estrella. “I also asked her why was a crisis co-responder not here.”
Asked about that meeting, Harrington provided this statement: "I thank Ms. [Marisol] Estrella for meeting with me and for sharing her questions. I wish that I could provide her answers, but my office does not oversee the Pittsfield Police Department, and I cannot speak for its policies, procedures, and staffing. I am hopeful that the investigation conducted by my office will support the Estrella family, the community, and the city to better serve people who experience a mental health crisis.”
Since the report came out, Marisol Estrella feels she has fallen into deeper sadness. “I am not in the mood for projects. Right now my spirits are low. I have no strength, I feel weak, unprotected and I don’t have the courage to do anything, to undertake anything,” she said. “The last few weeks have been very hard and depressing. I’m in a crisis, I don’t sleep, I have to take sleeping pills because of the anxiety, the despair, the agony, and the injustice.”
All the things she loved — the cooking and dancing she shared with her son — don’t provide the same joy and relief they once did. “I taught him to dance bachata and merengue,” she said, referring to two Dominican dance styles. “He wanted to know personally what the Dominican Republic is like. He was interested in his culture.”
At first, it was a challenge to find Spanish-speaking mental health counseling. She ended up finding a therapist through the local NAACP chapter. “Each session I burst into tears and despair,” she said.
When asked if she believes change is possible, she says she believes it is. “If every mother would speak the way I’m speaking. If we march and our voices are listened to, it is possible. If all mothers whose sons are snatched away get united, it is possible. Unity makes strength, but they are afraid of speaking.”
Small details keep reminding Elina Estrella of her brother. A blue butterfly, his favorite color, for instance. The Christmas gift he had already planned for her: an illuminated makeup mirror. Some of his favorite songs playing on the radio: Kanye West’s “Stronger” and Kevin Gates’ “Wishing in Morocco.”
She recently had an image of Buzz Lightyear tattooed on her arm. Miguel was born in 1999, the year "Toy Story 2" came out, and loved his Buzz Lightyear toy growing up. Elina Estrella said she used the toy to calm him when he had a crisis. At the time of the interview, she had just painted her nails to be "Toy Story" themes.
Marisol Estrella also bought a small Buzz Lightyear figure from a dollar store the other day.
In September, Miguel Estrella would have started an electrician's course at McCann Technical School in North Adams, his mother recalls, fulfilling one of his dreams. The last time she saw him, two days before his death, he brought her a new bed.
She remembers her son’s Wednesday and Friday visits, when, together, they planned for the future. “I would cook for him his favorite dish — rice, beans, and fried chicken — and he would tell me ‘Mom, I love you, mom. Let’s go to the Dominican Republic in December. I’ll build a future for you, and a house.’”