Tyeric Lessley believed it was life or death.

In town to celebrate his fiancée's birthday, the 22-year-old and his two cousins were leaving a downtown Minneapolis club early March 17 when they crashed into a pickup on Washington Avenue S. Lessley got out and started to walk away, but Darby Claar went after him.

Lessley's family claims racial epithets were shouted and punches thrown. As Lessley stumbled to the ground, he pulled out a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson handgun and fatally shot Claar in the chest. Within minutes, a random twist of fate shattered two families.

Lessley planned to turn himself in because he had no doubt the shooting was in self-defense, relatives said. Before he did, a SWAT team arrested him at his aunt's house. It wasn't until Lessley saw a news report on a jail television that he realized Claar, 32, was dead.

"He knew he would have had to pay the consequences if he killed that man on purpose," the aunt, Bessie Rodgers, said of Lessley. "If he didn't defend himself, he would have been the one in a body bag. Tyeric isn't a cold-blooded killer."

Lessley is the father of three children. He recently received an Applebee's employee of the month award because of his rapport with customers.

He was charged with intentional second-degree murder. Lt. Amelia Huffman, head of the Minneapolis Police Department's homicide unit, said she's not surprised he would argue self-defense.

"But in this scenario, we had only one person who was armed with a weapon of any kind," she said. "There are no other aggravating factors that I believe would lead a reasonable person to feel they were in a situation in which they would be likely to lose their life."

Rodgers said her nephew doesn't have a criminal history. Neither she nor his fiancée, Justina Owens, knows where he bought the handgun.

"He's good person and father," Owens said. "He's being portrayed as some kind of monster. I know two families have lost somebody, but I just hope he gets a fair trial."

A pair of shootings in Lessley's past may have prompted him to pull the trigger, Rodgers said. At 18, he was shot in his hometown of Omaha, and he was recently in a Minneapolis bar where a gun was fired.

"He carried a gun because he was afraid to go out unprotected," she said.

The car in which Lessley was riding hit Claar's pickup about 2:30 a.m. Monday near Washington and Chicago Avenues S. Claar wasn't driving. Rodgers said the pickup then rammed Lessley's car, four white men stepped out and one allegedly said, "We're gonna get us some [racial epithet] tonight." Lessley and his cousins are black.

Huffman said the investigation didn't indicate that the car was rammed or that race played a role in the shooting. Several of Claar's relatives couldn't be reached for comment.

Lessley said Claar and another man tried to stop him from walking away. The situation escalated. A court document said Lessley was 6 feet away from Claar when he fired two shots.

"Tyeric was afraid that if he fell to the ground, he would get beat to death," Rodgers said.

Shortly after the shooting, Lessley told his aunt he wanted to turn himself in. He was preparing to take a shower when police entered her south Minneapolis home.

Rodgers complained that officers mistreated her family. Guns were pointed at her 14-year-old daughter, and Lessley's face was bloodied even though he said he willingly surrendered, she said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465