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What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?

A nighttime raid. A reality TV crew. A sleeping seven-year-old. What one tragedy can teach us about the unraveling of America's middle class.

Update: On October 4, 2011, Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley was indicted on an involuntary manslaughter charge. A photographer with The First 48 has also been charged. Read more here.

IT WAS JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT on the morning of May 16 and the neighbors say the streetlights were out on Lillibridge Street. It is like that all over Detroit, where whole blocks regularly go dark with no warning or any apparent pattern. Inside the lower unit of a duplex halfway down the gloomy street, Charles Jones, 25, was pacing, unable to sleep.

His seven-year-old daughter, Aiyana Mo'nay Stanley-Jones (PDF), slept on the couch as her grandmother watched television. Outside, Television was watching them. A half-dozen masked officers of the Special Response Team—Detroit's version of SWAT—were at the door, guns drawn. In tow was an A&E crew filming an episode of The First 48, its true-crime program. The conceit of the show is that homicide detectives have 48 hours to crack a murder case before the trail goes cold. Thirty-four hours earlier, Je'Rean Blake Nobles, 17, had been shot outside a liquor store on nearby Mack Avenue; an informant had ID'd a man named Chauncey Owens as the shooter and provided this address.

The SWAT team tried the steel door to the building. It was unlocked. They threw a flash-bang grenade through the window of the lower unit and kicked open its wooden door, which was also unlocked. The grenade landed so close to Aiyana that it burned her blanket. Officer Joseph Weekley, the lead commando—who'd been featured before on another A&E show, Detroit SWAT—burst into the house. His weapon fired a single shot, the bullet striking Aiyana in the head and exiting her neck. It all happened in a matter of seconds.

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"They had time," a Detroit police detective told me. "You don't go into a home around midnight. People are drinking. People are awake. Me? I would have waited until the morning when the guy went to the liquor store to buy a quart of milk. That's how it's supposed to be done."

But the SWAT team didn't wait. Maybe because the cameras were rolling, maybe because a Detroit police officer had been murdered two weeks earlier while trying to apprehend a suspect. This was the first raid on a house since his death.

Police first floated the story that Aiyana's grandmother had grabbed Weekley's gun. Then, realizing that sounded implausible, they said she'd brushed the gun as she ran past the door. But the grandmother says she was lying on the far side of the couch, away from the door.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that the police threw the grenade into the wrong apartment. The suspect fingered for Blake's murder, Chauncey Owens, lived in the upstairs flat, with Charles Jones' sister.

Plus, grenades are rarely used when rounding up suspects, even murder suspects. But it was dark. And TV may have needed some pyrotechnics.

"I'm worried they went Hollywood," said a high-ranking Detroit police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the investigation and simmering resentment in the streets. "It is not protocol. And I've got to say in all my years in the department, I've never used a flash-bang in a case like this."

The official went on to say that the SWAT team was not briefed about the presence of children in the house, although the neighborhood informant who led homicide detectives to the Lillibridge address told them that children lived there. There were even toys on the lawn.

A dollhouse sits in an empty lot not far from where Aiyana was shot by the police officers storming her home.A dollhouse sits in an empty lot not far from where Aiyana was shot by the police officers storming her home."It was a total fuck-up," the official said. "A total, unfortunate fuck-up."

Owens, a habitual criminal, was arrested upstairs minutes after Aiyana's shooting and charged for the slaying of Je'Rean. His motive, authorities say, was that the teen failed to pay him the proper respect. Jones, too, later became a person of interest in Je'Rean's murder—he allegedly went along for the ride—but Jones denies it, and he's lawyered up and moved to the suburbs.

As Officer Weekley wept on the sidewalk, Aiyana was rushed to the trauma table, where she was pronounced dead. Her body was transferred to the Wayne County morgue.

Dr. Carl Schmidt is the chief medical examiner there. There are at least 50 corpses on hold in his morgue cooler, some unidentified, others whose next of kin are too poor to bury them. So Dr. Schmidt keeps them on layaway, zipped up in body bags as family members wait for a ship to come in that never seems to arrive.

The day I visited, a Hollywood starlet (PDF) was tailing the doctor, studying for her role as the medical examiner in ABC's new Detroit-based murder drama Detroit 1-8-7. The title is derived from the California penal code for murder: 187. In Michigan, the designation for homicide is actually 750.316 (PDF), but that's just a mouthful of detail.

"You might say that the homicide of Aiyana is the natural conclusion to the disease from which she suffered," Schmidt told me.

"What disease was that?" I asked.

"The psychopathology of growing up in Detroit," he said. "Some people are doomed from birth because their environment is so toxic."

But the SWAT team didn't wait. Maybe because the cameras were rolling, maybe because a Detroit police officer had been murdered two weeks earlier while trying to apprehend a suspect. This was the first raid on a house since his death.

WAS IT SO SIMPLE? Was it inevitable, as the doctor said, that abject poverty would lead to Aiyana's death and so many others? Was it death by TV? By police incompetence? By parental neglect? By civic malfeasance? About 350 people are murdered each year in Detroit. There are some 10,000 unsolved homicides dating back to 1960. Many are as fucked up and sad as Aiyana's. But I felt unraveling this one death could help diagnose what has gone wrong in this city, so I decided to retrace the events leading up to that pitiable moment on the porch on Lillibridge Street.

People my mother's age like to tell me about Detroit's good old days of soda fountains and shopping markets and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit and its suburbs were dying 40 years ago. The whole country knew it, and the whole country laughed. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. Forget about it.

When I was a teenager, my mother owned a struggling little flower shop on the East Side, not far from where Aiyana was killed. On a hot afternoon around one Mother's Day, I was working in the back greenhouse. It was a sweatbox, and I went across the street to the liquor store for a soda pop. A small crowd of agitated black people was gathered on the sidewalk. The store bell jingled its little requiem as I pulled the door open.

Inside, splayed on the floor underneath the rack of snack cakes near the register, was a black man in a pool of blood. The blood was congealing into a pancake on the dirty linoleum. His eyes and mouth were open and held that milky expression of a drunk who has fallen asleep with his eyes open. The red halo around his skull gave the scene a feeling of serenity.

An Arab family owned the store, and one of the men—the one with the pocked face and loud voice—was talking on the telephone, but I remember no sounds. His brother stood over the dead man, a pistol in his hand, keeping an eye on the door in case someone walked in wanting to settle things.

"You should go," he said to me, shattering the silence with a wave of his hand. "Forget what you saw, little man. Go." He wore a gold bracelet as thick as a gymnasium rope. I lingered a moment, backing out while taking it in: the bracelet, the liquor, the blood, the gun, the Ho-Hos, the cheapness of it all.

The flower shop is just a pile of bricks now, but despite what the Arab told me, I did not forget what I saw. Whenever I see a person who died of violence or misadventure, I think about the dead man with the open eyes on the dirty floor of the liquor store. I've seen him in the faces of soldiers when I was covering the Iraq War. I saw him in the face of my sister, who died a violent death in a filthy section of Detroit a decade ago. I saw him in the face of my sister's daughter, who died from a heroin overdose in a suburban basement near the interstate, weeks after I moved back to Michigan with my wife to raise our daughter and take a job with the Detroit News.

No one cared much about Detroit or its industrial suburbs until the Dow collapsed, the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington to grovel, and General Motors declared bankruptcy—100 years after its founding. Suddenly, Detroit was historic, symbolic—hip, even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what Detroit was like, what was happening here. They were wondering if the Rust Belt cancer had metastasized and was creeping to Los Angeles and London and Barcelona. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter?

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