Six months after college student Danroy "DJ" Henry was shot and killed by a New York police officer, the family is still searching for answers.
Henry, 20, a Pace University student athlete, was fatally shot outside of a bar while he was driving away from a disturbance. Pleasantville, New York, police say that he drove his car into officers when he was told to stop. But the football player's parents, Dan and Angela, have hired their own investigators because they say the police have not been forthcoming with the results of their investigation, and they are still unclear about what happened that night in October. They also question the autopsy results that indicate their son’s blood alcohol level was above the legal diving limit.
Earlier this month, the Henrys filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Aaron Hess, the Pleasantville officer who shot their son. The lawsuit also names the Village of Pleasantville as a defendant. It says the village contributed to Henry's death by failing to properly train and supervise Hess.
DJ’s father, Dan, spoke with BET.com about the lawsuit, the autopsy and his frustration with the Pleasantville Police Department.
BET.com: What are you hoping to accomplish with the lawsuit?
Dan Henry: We’re hoping to use the subpoena power that the civil process gives us to get access to information that they’ve been unwilling to share, including surveillance video and 911 audio.
What kind of support have you been getting from the community following the death of your son?
It’s been great. People are really rallying around this idea that we are all potentially DJ Henrys if we accept that something like this could happen.... I think people are outraged that this sort of a process is the process. They see the real inhumanity in that and part of the absurdity of it.
Were you surprised by the grand jury’s decision in February not to pursue an indictment against Officer Hess?
We actually expected it…. We believed all along that the evidence that was gathered through this investigation of themselves was not going to be presented in a way that would lead to an indictment.
Your family has hired their own investigators. What’s some of the new information you’ve found as a result?
That’s how we know what we know. All [the police department has] done is issue written press releases. They haven’t taken any questions from anybody.... If you look back over the past six months, you’ll see that. That’s what’s really regrettable, and that’s why we’re trying to fight the law here.
Anything specific from the investigation that you can discuss?
The evidence is the evidence. But if you’re looking at the evidence with a bias, you’re going to see things one way, or you’re just going to ignore things that don’t suit your case. And I think the central point, honestly, is that we took an inductive approach rather than the deductive approach that they used.
We started with the question, “What happened?” They started with a version like: “Here’s what happened....” And the problem is that when you start with that, you have to make sure that everything you do following that conforms to what you said happened, even if it’s not true. And that’s their problem. The evidence doesn’t match what they said.
Once we had the evidence, and we interviewed eyewitnesses and we talked to people who were there and we compared it to what we know about our son, we started to form an informed view about what happened.
[They didn’t release the autopsy results for nearly two months.] And we suspect that part of the reason it was held so long is because when we actually got it, it actually creates significant issues as it relates to this whole blood alcohol content issue. Because what it shows in the autopsy is that DJ had…no alcohol in his digestive system and a trace amount in his stomach, which is consistent with what people say they saw him do that night.
It raises this question (and we’re not scientists, but we know a little bit about human anatomy): If you don’t digest it, how does it get into your blood and your tissue and your urine? Basic human anatomy says you have to ingest to digest, and if you’re not doing those two things then it can’t be in your urine and in your blood. And they haven’t taken a single question on this. They haven’t explained it. Isn’t that crazy?
That’s what we’re discovering as we’re going through this with our investigators.
Do you believe race was a factor in the shooting?
I don’t know. We really honestly don’t know why they did what they did because they aren’t answering any questions. I wish they would answer that question. I wish somebody would be able to ask them a bunch of questions like: Why weren’t their dash cams working at that precise moment?
Instead of answering the questions, they’ll file a press release and not take any questions on it.
Do you think it’s all a big cover-up?
I think it is an unfortunate cover-up. I’ve never called it a cover-up directly…people aren’t interested in what we’ve been interested in from the beginning, and that’s just determining the absolute truth. And you can tell that from 10 a.m. the morning after DJ was shot when the police were already doing a press conference on what happened before any investigation had even started.
What are your thoughts on Officer Hess being honored as “Officer of the Year” by the Police Benevolent Association of the Pleasantville Police Department earlier this month?
I don’t really know what to say. The timing on it seems unusual given that he’s the subject of an ongoing federal investigation right now.
Has he reached out to you?
No one has. Starting that night, up until now, no one has.
Can you tell me more about the DJ Henry Dream Fund?
It’s a foundation we set up to honor him. Completely independent of anything else, it’s just what we’re doing for him. It will help kids up until the age of 18 in Massachusetts pay for equipment, sports camps, gym memberships…so that they can live healthier lifestyles, even if they don’t have the means to do it. It’s a way to tell kids to say yes to sports and fitness.
How do you hope your lawsuit against the officer and department will affect others facing a similar position in the future?
At a minimum, this is not about the lawful use of deadly force. This is about parents being able to ask legitimate questions about what happened to their child and having their questions answered.
We all want to know what really happened. And if, at the end of the day, [Officer Hess] was really justified, then so be it, he was justified. But what they did is they didn’t give us any chance to ask any questions. They literally said, “Trust us. We’ll look at it ourselves. We’ll run it through our own prosecution route, we’ll tell you how that comes out since it’s a secret process, and then you’ll live with it.
Why would any of us accept that? It’s just not good enough.
(Photo: Family Photo)