From Atlanta to Ohio, Rayshard Brooks family members grieve over ‘a life that mattered’

Brooks was shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer Friday night in the parking lot of a Wendy?s restaurant along University Avenue in southwest Atlanta.

Larry Barbine says he knows why the Lord saw him through two open heart surgeries.

“I got to know my son,” said Barbine, 62, of Toldeo, Ohio. “That’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received.”

His son, Rayshard Brooks, is a national figure now, made famous by tragedy.

Brooks, 27, died following a brief altercation late Friday with Atlanta police officers. A 911 call summoned officers to a Wendy’s, where Brooks had fallen asleep in the drive-thru line. Video released by the Atlanta Police Department showed officers talking with Brooks for nearly half an hour.

As Officer Garrett Rolfe began to handcuff him, Brooks attempted to bolt free. He tussled with Rolfe and another officer, Devin Brosnan, before pulling away, Brosnan's Taser in hand. Rolfe fired three shots, hitting Brooks twice. Brooks suffered organ damage and blood loss caused by two gunshot wounds of the back, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner.

Barbine said he has not been able to watch the full video showing his son’s final minutes alive. He’s trying instead to focus on the memories of the time they spent together.

“Never met a stranger. And he made everything fun,” said his father. “He made the days go by so much nicer.”

They met for the first time in October 2018, when Brooks, accompanied by a sister had had just gotten to know, showed up, unexpectedly, at his father’s door.

“We just hugged so tight,” Barbine said Monday. “He knew I was his father and I knew he was my son.”

Over the next 14 months Barbine and Brooks made up for lost time, and became close. Brooks accompanied his father on doctor’s visits. Barbine taught him to fish. They even went sledding together.

“He was starting over completely,” Barbine said.

Ambrea Mikolajczyk, the owner of ARK Restoration & Construction in Toledo, which refurbishes historical properties, described Brooks as an exceptional worker and a bright light.

“He worked so hard and was so eager to learn new things,” she said. Brooks was the first one to show up at work, arriving 15 minutes earlier than his co-workers, she recalled.

“We will never have anyone like him ever again,” she said.

Mikolajczyk said she’s still struggling to comprehend Brooks’s death.

“I got a call from a client who said, ‘is this our Ray?’ and I said, ‘yes, this is our Ray,’ ” she said. “We sobbed together.’”

Brooks grew up in Georgia but thought about relocating permanently, his father said.

“He’d say, ‘Dad, I like it up here. It’s slow, I can get around where I need to go, I can be with you,’ ” Barbine said. “I think eventually he wanted to move his family up here.”

Brooks had three daughters, ranging in age from 1 to 8 years old. He was also helping raise a 13-year-old stepson.

“He knew he had to make some changes in his life,” Barbine said. “And that’s what he was doing. No one had a work ethic like he did. I mean, he worked all the time. Came up here with nothing, but before long he had saved up enough to buy him a car.”

“The sky was the limit for him,” Barbine added. “I truly believe that.”

Members of Brooks' family talked about him during an emotional Monday news conference.

“I can never get my husband back,” said his widow, Tomika Miller. “I can never tell my daughter, ‘He’s coming to take you skating or to swimming lessons.’ It’s going to be a long time before I heal.”

Niece Chassidy Evans said the family felt betrayed by their hometown.

“We stood with the Atlanta Police Department when (looters) were tearing up our city (two) weeks ago” after peaceful demonstrations to express outrage over George Floyd’s death gave way to episodes of destruction, she said. “And here we are, three weeks later, those same police took something away from our family that we’ll never get back.”

Cousin Tiara D. Brooks said trust with APD is broken.

“The only way to heal some of those wounds is with a conviction and a drastic change in the police department,” Brooks said. “We are tired. We are frustrated. Most importantly, we are heartbroken.”

The grief was felt just as sharply in Ohio. Barbine said he’s haunted by the continuous coverage of his son’s death, his anger masked by tears that come and go. He tries to focus on the good times, wearing a T-shirt with Rayshard’s smiling face on it.

“It just keeps going over and over in my mind,” he said. “I try to stay calm but it’s hard.”

Asked what, if anything, he’d like to ask Rolfe, Barbine paused, carefully choosing his words.

“Can you put a value on someone’s’s life?” he said. “What is it worth?”

He said several visitors have stopped by to pay their condolences.

“Rayshard never met a stranger,” Barbine said.

“Nobody deserves to die like this especially Ray because he was such an amazing person,” Mikolajczyk said. “Unfortunately, when something like this happens, the system tries to dehumanize black men, and don’t think about this man who was deeply loved and cared for. It’s not just one person lost but you leave behind a whole host of people struggling to deal with the loss.”

Miller said she takes some solace in knowing her husband would be pleased knowing “his name will forever be remembered.”

The family’s attorney, Chris Stewart, said a lack of empathy by police is epidemic. He noted Brooks was within walking distance to his sister’s house, as he told the officers at Wendy’s.

“It cannot be justified,” he said. “Otherwise we’re going to continue losing lives shooting at someone who should’ve never be shot at.”

Evans said she hopes Brooks’ death will mark a turning point.

“My uncle did not die in vain,” she said. “His life mattered.”

—Staff writers Alexis Stevens and Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.