Last updated: 9 months ago
Investigating law enforcement agencies have not yet released many details about Noel Aaron Russell's fatal encounter with police, but two day laborers who said they witnessed the shooting have given The Register a chilling account.
Isidro Chavez said that he was sleeping on a blanket on the grass beside the parking lot, just north of Home Depot, after 6 p.m. when Russell burst onto the scene.
“My friend – he woke me up, shaking me,” Chavez said. Russell was carrying a knife and “waving it around” at people in the parking lot. He was acting “crazy” and seemed like he might have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he said.
Police arrived within minutes, and three officers, guns drawn, formed a semi-circle around Russell. The day laborers and Russell were all told to lie face down on the ground with their hands behind their heads, Chavez said.
Blood was already on Russell’s knife when he stepped into the parking lot just north of Home Depot, said a witness who wished only to be referred to as “Guero.”
This is a parking lot where dozens of men gather each day looking for pickup jobs. Russell didn't appear familiar to them, Guero said.
From not many yards away, Guero said that he heard the three officers telling Russell to drop whatever was in his hands and get on the ground. When Russell responded the way he did, Guero said he knew he was going to die.
“He tell the police ‘Come on shoot me, mother****rs. I have something too,’ … then he put his hand into his jacket like this,” Guero said, reaching a hand to his opposite side. “When he do that, he’s dead.”
Officers fired immediately, Guero said. Most people in the vicinity say they heard three or four shots.
“You can’t say that stuff to police,” Guero said. “They don’t know whether you’re lying or not.”
Chavez said he saw Russell lunge toward the middle officer from about 15 or so feet away. He also remembered hearing Russell say “Shoot me, mother****ers” before hearing four shots. Russell fell back onto the dirt and was dead within a few minutes, he said.
Police said that a folding knife with the blade in the open position was found next to Russell’s body. Before walking into the day laborer zone, Russell had been brandishing a knife in the South Napa Marketplace parking lot, terrifying shoppers, police said.
Russell was a troubled young man who had drifted into Napa within the past year. Family and friends recounted a difficult youth in Contra Costa County where he was a basketball player and actor during his school years.
“I have a lot of feelings towards the situation,” said Noel’s brother, Eric Russell, 18, during a phone interview on Thursday. “I never thought police brutality would hit my family or reach my brother.”
Eric Russell, a senior at Mountain House High School near Tracy, didn’t find out about his brother’s death until Tuesday. The last time he spoke with Noel was nearly four months ago, he said.
"He was very funny but caring at the same time," Eric Russell said. "He always made somebody laugh, it’s just who he was – whenever somebody was down, he would bring them up."
The family knew Noel Russell was struggling with drug abuse and had tried to get him help, but it didn’t stick the first time, he said. Noel was probably trying to sell the knife to buy drugs, his brother said.
Still, that doesn’t mean he needed to be shot, Eric Russell said. “If you know a guy is high or crazy, then you should know how to handle the situation,” he said.
“They (police) should be trained to take him down somehow,” he said. “You have a Taser for a reason – why not use that instead of using something to permanently kill someone and take him out?”
Drug addiction was “in his blood,” Eric Russell said. Their birth mother was on drugs when she had them, he said, and continued to struggle with drugs. After being in foster care, the boys were taken in by separate families but were able to see one another as well as their mother, who died a few years ago.
“I have plenty of memories with him,” Eric Russell said of his older brother. Growing up, the two of them played video games and bonded over music. Noel even taught Eric how to play basketball.
“He was a big star in high school as a basketball player,” Eric Russell said. “His friends – they all pretty much looked up to him as a player.”
When Noel Russell graduated from Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord, he began taking courses at Pacific Union College in Angwin, where he planned to continue playing basketball, his brother said. It was not known how long he lasted at the college.
Marcus Stock, who coached Noel Russell in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball since he was 13, said that period is when Noel’s life got off track. “Somewhere along the way, he just went off the rails,” he said. “We needed to keep him on track and we sort of didn’t.”
Having spent most of his life “in the system,” Stock said that Noel Russell “should be that guy that’s standing up speaking to kids saying ‘Hey, don’t give up.’”