Two families were thrust into the spotlight when Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile last year, and now the officer’s trial becomes a high-profile test case of police use of force and racial profiling.
The victim’s family stepped into a role they never asked for and became a beacon in the fight for the safety of black people across the country.
The officer’s family retreated into seclusion, vacating their suburban home twice to escape the media onslaught as their son was branded by some as a murderer before any evidence had been presented in court.
The nation will be watching the next few weeks as Yanez stands trial in Ramsey County for killing Castile, and so will two families forever linked through a shared tragedy. The Yanez family recently sat down to talk about the past 10 months, breaking their silence for the first time since their son stopped Castile’s car July 6 in Falcon Heights. Castile’s family declined to comment.
“We pray for … their family, too, you know,” Yanez’s mother, Maria Yanez, 61, said through tears at the family’s South St. Paul home.
Yanez, 29, a St. Anthony police officer, is charged with second-degree manslaughter for shooting Castile, 32, and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter, then 4, who were in the car. Reynolds used her cellphone camera to live-stream the shooting’s aftermath on Facebook.
Attorney Glenda Hatchett, who is representing Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, said the Castile family did not want to comment until after the trial. However, in an interview last year during Valerie Castile’s trip to Washington, D.C., Hatchett said Castile’s mother and younger sister were learning to shoulder their newfound responsibility.
“I’ve said to Ms. Castile repeatedly that this is now your role and will be your role as an advocate for justice for the rest of your life, and she’s accepted … with great dignity and strength, that her son’s never coming back,” Hatchett said last year. “But she also feels that her son’s death was for a purpose, in the sense that it will hopefully arouse consciousness and elevate this country to a new level.
“What she’s said to me since the beginning is, ‘This has to be bigger than my son.’ ”
While in D.C., Valerie Castile attended events and spoke at panels hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, National Black Law Students Association and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison. She also dined at an event featuring Barack Obama.
The Castile family is expected to attend Yanez’s trial, which begins Tuesday with jury selection and is scheduled to last three weeks.
Yanez’s family said he asked them to avoid previous court hearings due to media presence, but said they plan to attend the trial. They declined to address specifics about the case but expressed concern that media and the public have rushed to judgment.
“Jeronimo is paying a high price for being a police officer,” said his father, Jesus Yanez, 61. “He was doing his job. Every police officer every day, as soon as they go out of their house, they put their lives on the line for somebody else they might know, they might not know.”
The youngest of three boys, Yanez was raised in South St. Paul, where he played high school hockey, baseball and football and wrestled. He worked with his brother, Jesus Yanez, 37, erecting scaffolding for commercial buildings, and spent summers chaperoning and caring for a neighbor’s adult son, who had Down syndrome.
Yanez took the man out for lunches, movies and high school football games, forging a lasting bond, the Yanez family said.
“He was just always happy,” said his older brother, Gabriel Yanez, 34. “He was the only one [in the family] who went to a four-year college. I mean, talk about a hard worker.”
In nearby St. Paul, Castile graduated with honors from Central High School and went to work for the district in 2002 at age 19, most recently as a nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School.
Family members, friends and co-workers remembered Castile for his friendly smile, patience and keen attention to students’ food allergies.
“Philando was a man of peace and dignity,” Valerie Castile said last year.
More than 4,000 people attended a vigil at his workplace in the days following his death.
“He was a great guy, and a humble and loving person,” Kathy Holmquist-Burks, the retired J.J. Hill principal who hired Castile, said last year.
Yanez first expressed an interest in law enforcement in eighth grade. It grew as his brother Gabriel regaled him with stories about his time with the St. Paul police reserves.
After graduating from Minnesota State University, Mankato, he applied at the Minneapolis, Wayzata, South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights police departments, among others.
When he landed at St. Anthony in 2011, his mother rejoiced — he wouldn’t venture to Texas, where her family was from. It seemed fated; she prayed to St. Anthony, one of the Catholic church’s most popular saints.
“As a mother, I wanted him to get [a job] … behind a desk, you know, but he wanted to be out there helping people,” said his mother, the child of migrant farmworkers.
Yanez was on patrol last July 6 when he spotted Castile’s car on Larpenteur Avenue about 9 p.m. He called for backup. He ran Castile’s license plate and pulled him over about 9:05 p.m. for an apparently nonworking brake light and to verify whether he was the suspect in a recent armed robbery. (Authorities have said he was not.)
In a minute, Castile was dead.
Prosecutors believe Yanez acted unreasonably when he shot Castile seven times. Yanez’s attorneys have argued that he acted in self-defense because Castile voluntarily declared that he had a gun, and attorneys say Castile disobeyed Yanez’s orders and reached for it.
Jesus and Maria Yanez hope their son will eventually leave the courtroom a free man. At the same time, it doesn’t escape them that Valerie Castile will never see her son again.
“To the family of Philando, I’m sorry …,” Yanez’s father said. “Hopefully God gives the mother and the family peace in their hearts.”