When the phone rang two days after George Floyd’s death, Oscar Lee Stewart Jr. told his mother he’d stopped on Lake Street to see the protests.
She expected the 30-year-old factory worker to come home later that night.
He never did.
For eight long weeks the family was left to wonder about his fate. They dialed area hospitals and county jails, begging officials to check its databases for him each day. They blanketed south Minneapolis with fliers of his face and combed local parks by foot. They scoured media footage hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Eventually, they tracked his car via GPS to behind a pawnshop. But it was empty.
“I think I became a detective,” said his older sister, Delois Stewart-McGee. “The police didn’t take us seriously.”
A break in the missing-person case came only when investigators discovered human remains among the rubble of Max It Pawn, at 2726 E. Lake St., on July 20 — nearly two months after the building was torched during riots following Floyd’s death in police custody.
DNA swabs taken from Stewart’s mother and child confirmed what relatives already knew. He was gone. Though no one understood why.
An autopsy later revealed that Stewart died of smoke inhalation and excessive burns. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
Montez Terriel Lee, a 25-year-old Rochester man, was federally charged with arson in connection with the fire. It’s not immediately clear whether Lee will face additional charges.
Family and friends are not aware of any connection between the two men, so the circumstances of Stewart’s death remain a painful mystery. Authorities would not speculate on why he might have been in the building.
The case remains under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
“I still expect him to walk through the door sometimes,” said Janie McGee, glancing toward the entrance to the Burnsville apartment she shared with her adult son for the past year. McGee wiped away tears as she described the frequent urge to pick up the phone and call him.
“When you did something for so long it’s just automatic.”
Stewart grew up in Jackson, Miss., the youngest of four siblings. He was a quiet kid with a big smile, whose charm seemed to pull people into his orbit, family members said.
By 12, Stewart started training alongside his father, Oscar Lee Stewart Sr., learning to build fences — a job he continued much of his adult life.
But in 11th grade, Stewart dropped out of high school to care for his girlfriend and their infant daughter, born two months prematurely following a serious car crash.
“He was a great father,” said Jalissa Stewart, who has three children with Stewart, her high school sweetheart she married in 2016. “He was more attached with her than I was.”
Oscar Stewart returned to school to earn his GED and, eventually, moved the young family to Minnesota, where his mother and sister had already relocated.
They settled in south Minneapolis, not far from Max It Pawn, the shop where he bought his wife’s engagement ring. But the cold weather didn’t suit his bride to-be, so they headed back down south.
He returned to Minnesota alone in 2018, after separating from his wife, and took a job working nights as a candle mixer at the Illume Candle Corporation in Woodbury. Relatives say Stewart excelled there, where he was promoted to a leader of the assembly line.
“He hustled,” said Stewart-McGee. “It wasn’t like him to sit around and do nothing.”
That’s why it raised alarm bells when Stewart failed to show for his shift four days after the family last heard from him. Dozens of calls to his cellphone went unanswered.
A variety of scenarios raced through loved ones’ heads. Had he gotten hurt somehow and wound up in the hospital? Could he have amnesia? Was he arrested following the turmoil on Lake Street? None of it made sense.
His mother filed a missing-persons report, but got the impression it wasn’t a priority for law enforcement because Stewart was an adult.
While they waited for police to get involved, relatives did some investigating of their own.
Lashonda McGee contacted the car dealership that sold the Buick she lent to her brother. It pinged to a location behind the pawnshop, but the inside of the car offered no clues to his whereabouts.
Next, the women tracked down NBC News helicopter footage that proved the car was already parked at the scene when the building went up in flames.
Stewart frequented pawnshops, relatives said, mostly to buy and sell electronics. In fact, family members learned that a $27 charge at a pawnshop was among his final purchases on the day he disappeared; however, the bank statement did not say which location.
They had a gut feeling he was trapped inside Max It Pawn and demanded that authorities search the wreckage again.
A frantic search
Videos depicting a frantic search effort made their way into his family’s hands this summer, stirring new emotions.
As smoke billowed out of the pawnshop, bystanders tried in vain to rip down the plywood panels and reach faint voices calling for help inside.
Then the cries suddenly stopped. By the time firefighters arrived, the building was fully engulfed and responders were forced to call off an initial sweep because of deteriorating conditions.
The footage brought no comfort to the grief-ridden family. It only proved what they’d been saying all along.
“Why did we have to fight so hard for [authorities] to check this building?” Stewart-McGee lamented. “After you put out the fire, why didn’t you go back and check again?”
In early September, Stewart’s mom and sisters piled in the car and drove 17 hours south for a memorial in their hometown. A minister presided over the outdoor service, where dozens had gathered to pay their respects, including all five of Stewart’s children, ages 12 to 1.
‘I really wish I’d been there’
But his remains weren’t there. Investigators hadn’t released them yet.
A life-size cardboard cutout of Stewart made for the funeral still stands guard in his 12-year-old daughter’s bedroom. Jerrika and her siblings talk to it sometimes, when they find themselves missing him.
Last month, before they headed out for trick-or-treating, the trio showed dad their Halloween costumes: a witch, mermaid and Spider-Man.
“Even after everything we’ve been through, I really wish I’d been there. Maybe if I’d been there,” his wife said, choking up. “I wish I was there to save him.”
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.