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'I was numb': As Pittsfield considers emergency mental health needs, friends mourn Miguel Estrella

People left things to remember Miguel Estrella at his grave in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, including his hardhat, which he wore when he worked for Habitat for Humanity.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
People left things to remember Miguel Estrella at his grave in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, including his hardhat, which he wore when he worked for Habitat for Humanity.

In the aftermath of the police shooting of a 22-year-old Pittsfield, Massachusetts, man who was in the midst of a mental health crisis, the city plans to hire a social worker and mental health clinicians to work with officers.

In addition, the City Council this week approved funding to research emergency mental health services that do not involve police.

At the same time as these efforts, people close to Miguel Estrella continue to mourn.

Rob Jefferson lives about four blocks from Miguel Estrella’s grave in Pittsfield. He visits two or three times a week.

"I just come down for a couple of minutes and hang out, talk," Jefferson said. "So I know his physical carriage is gone, but he's still here. He's still around."

Estrella’s grave is hugged by a border of purple petunias. A pinwheel spins in the wind. A sign on a white cross says, “Look for angels in your life. They are everywhere.” And a big blue teddy bear holds an empty bottle of vodka in its lap.

When he met Estrella, Jefferson was an outreach worker in a program for Pittsfield youth.

"They come in after school. I made them food, I made sure everybody did their homework. I ran it with a kind of like an iron fist. But I loved them all," Jefferson said.

The 49-year-old former cook became a mentor and father figure to Estrella. He said he even had legal custody for about six months.

When he visits the grave Jefferson talks to Estrella, as he always did, about how to live a good life.

Miguel Estrella was shot and killed by a police officer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on March 25, 2022. He was 22 years old.
Courtesy
/
Robert Jefferson
Miguel Estrella was shot and killed by a police officer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on March 25, 2022. He was 22 years old.

“Trying to make moves the right way and trying to do the right things and seeing how hard it is out here to stay focused and continue to stay on that path. That was a thing for us both. We both wanted to stay going, moving forward. And it's hard. It's really hard," Jefferson said. "And I know that kid was stressed out."

Jefferson said Estrella had a tough time paying his bills. And he would warn Estrella not to get in trouble on the street. But the two also had fun together.

"He used to come to all my events, because I used to throw big cookouts during the summertime. He'll be like, 'Oh, Rob, I'm going to steal a burger.' 'How are you gonna steal a burger when you live with me?’" Jefferson recalled. "He's just goofy. He was this big, goofy, lovable teddy bear, man. He was a good kid."

At one point, Estrella went to Boston to study to be an electrician. He would phone Jefferson who would encourage him.

"'You can do it, man.' I'm telling him about the population of men of color doing those positions is slim. 'You're reaching a milestone, man,'" Jefferson would tell Estrella. "You don't even know you're about to make history doing this.'"

Miguel Estrella's apartment building in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. According to police reports, the 22-year-old was in the midst of a mental health crisis, holding a knife and moving towards a police officer near his building. The district attorney said the officer shot and killed Estrella in self-defense.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Miguel Estrella's apartment building in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. According to police reports, the 22-year-old was in the midst of a mental health crisis, holding a knife and moving towards a police officer near his building. The district attorney said the officer shot and killed Estrella in self-defense.

But on March 25, Estrella’s girlfriend called Jefferson, saying he was cutting himself and bleeding. Jefferson was out of town. He said he called emergency services.

"I explained to them Miguel had mental health issues and gave them a heads up because I heard he  had a knife and he was cutting himself, you know, but he's not trying to hurt nobody. And I said that — especially said that," he said.

They told Jefferson they would take care of it. A while later, Jefferson got a call saying the police had shot Estrella.

Then, another call.

"My homeboy called me and was like, 'Oh, he's gone, bro.'" Jefferson said. "And when my man told me he was gone, I was like — I was numb. I was numb." 

He said it’s just the worst.

"Pain. Just a lot of pain. Like I said, he's like my kid. So it's like losing a child," Jefferson said. "I helped nurture him. I helped him grow and develop. You know, I pushed him, I cheerleadered him, I rooted for him, always. Always in his corner when he was in trouble or when he was doing good, I was there."

Miguel Estrella, 22, was shot and killed by a city police officer near the corner of Woodbine and Onota Streets in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. According to police reports, Estrella was in the midst of a mental health crisis, held a knife and was moving towards the officer.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Miguel Estrella, 22, was shot and killed by a city police officer near the corner of Woodbine and Onota Streets in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. According to police reports, Estrella was in the midst of a mental health crisis, held a knife and was moving towards the officer.

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said the police officer acted in self-defense and will not face criminal charges. Jefferson said he’s not surprised by that outcome.

"The biggest gang in the world is the police, you know. And for me, it's just like they get to do what they want to do. Whether right or wrong, they actually get to do what they want to do," he said.

Jefferson said there’s so much that needs to change in Pittsfield, he doesn’t know where to begin.

And now, he said he can’t drive by the grave without stopping to salute.

"Man, I miss him so, so, so much," he said.

Among the things left on the grave to remember Miguel Estrella is his yellow hard hat. He wore it working for Habitat for Humanity, as he moved forward in his life.

Copyright 2022 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

Nancy Cohen covers southern Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Her work is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.
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