Zion, 8, used to bound into rooms with the madcap enthusiasm of a child, not looking to see who was inside before he would burst through an open doorway.
Since Saturday, however, family members have noticed he’s been more restrained around the house, according to their attorney, Lee Merritt. He’s approached rooms with more caution, Merritt said, waiting for an adult to enter first before he will follow.
About 2 a.m. Saturday, Zion and his “auntie,” Atatiana Jefferson, walked into a bedroom in her Fort Worth home. The pair had lost track of time playing Call of Duty — with the open doors of the house letting in a cool breeze — when they heard a noise coming from the back yard. They went to find out what it was.
Jefferson, as Zion remembers, grabbed a handgun from her purse, concerned, Merritt said. The child could hear a man’s voice shouting from outside but couldn’t understand what he was saying.
In a matter of seconds, Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean shot Jefferson through a window. She collapsed to the floor.
Days later, Zion can recall exactly what happened in the early morning hours Saturday, Merritt said.
And though he likely hasn’t processed his aunt’s death and he still appears to be upbeat most of the time, Merritt said, the trauma is there.
“His mom tells me that she can see little changes in his character,” he said. “Now when entering a room, he’ll kind of wait and watch the adults go in first. He’ll wait to see if the coast is clear and then he’ll enter.”
Dean was arrested on a murder charge Monday and later released on $200,000 bail, leading many black Fort Worth residents to complain the bond was too low and they don’t feel safe in their own city. Jefferson’s family has spoken out to demand an outside investigation into the shooting.
Amid all of the public attention, however, the family has privately been caring for the “wide-eyed” 8-year-old boy who witnessed the shooting and may experience lingering trauma, Merritt said. They feel the need to make sure he has a good support system moving forward.
Zion — the family didn’t want to reveal his last name — was taken by Texas Child Protective Services early Saturday after his aunt was killed, Merritt said. He had been living with Jefferson in Fort Worth while his mother, a Dallas resident, was going through home occupational therapy after open heart surgery.
Jefferson’s mother had previously lived in their home, Merritt said, but she has been in the hospital because she, too, is recovering from open heart surgery.
Zion’s mother picked him up Saturday from CPS, though she didn’t immediately knew why he was there, Merritt said. She asked him when she arrived.
“He said, ‘Because the cop shot my auntie,’” Merritt said.
Merritt has made plans for Zion to speak with a pastor and the family wants “to get him signed up for professional counseling as well,” he said. He also was set to launch a GoFundMe on Wednesday to support Zion’s future education and counseling.
‘The trauma comes in waves’
Sara Mokuria, a co-founder of the group Mothers Against Police Brutality, has been advising Merritt in regard to Zion. She was 10 years old when she watched two Dallas officers shoot her father several times, killing him.
“It has shaped my life in every possible way. The trauma comes in waves,” Mokuria said. “As a child, your brain is not even able to process the fullness of the trauma, and it shaped me developmentally. Even to this day, as a 36-year-old woman, I have been triggered and traumatized.”
On Oct. 9, 1992, her mother, Vicki Mokuria, called police because her father, Tesfaie Mokuria, had been holding a knife and threatening her, according to the Dallas Morning News. Police reportedly said he lunged toward them with the kitchen knife, though family has maintained the killing wasn’t justified.
It wasn’t until Sara Mokuria was in middle school that the reality of what happened fully set in, she said. The trauma came out in the anger and the rage she felt — the times she was mean toward her peers or acted out during class.
Witnessing police brutality first-hand, she said, affects everyone differently. Sometimes the trauma doesn’t manifest until years later.
When Mokuria met briefly with Zion the other day, he was talking about the video game Fortnite and wondering what he might be for Halloween this year.
“My heart goes out to Zion, knowing that even if he doesn’t fully comprehend all that he’s been through, he has a lifetime to have to understand and work through all the emotions,” she said. “He deserves to have all the counseling and support that he needs at whatever stage in life.”
Having to mourn amid the media attention and national interest is its own challenge, she said, and he needs to be supported through this.
Also, she said, she hopes he can be allowed to emotionally grieve in the way she — a light-skinned woman — did.
“As a young black man, I fear how this world will respond if his trauma shows up in the same way mine did,” she said. “I think there have to be systemic changes — at the school level, at the societal level — that allow black men to be fully human in public.”
‘A really sweet, wide-eyed, innocent kid’
Zion took to Merritt quickly, he said.
When they met, Zion noticed how his hair — short and with tightly coiled curls — looked like his own, unlike a lot of grown-ups. He also liked the orange beads around his wrist, which Merritt’s son had won at Dave & Buster’s.
Zion came to Merritt’s home Sunday along with his brother and cousin to paint pumpkins, he said. They never got around to painting the pumpkins, however, because the kids got caught up playing video games.
Merritt later took them to Steak & Shake to get some burgers and then to a vigil honoring Jefferson.
On the surface, he said, Zion has appeared to be unaffected “by this really extreme incident.” The 8-year-old is still himself, an easily excited child who loves music and dancing as well as sports such as basketball and football.
His family knows he still has a long road ahead of him, Merritt said.
And they want to be there to support him, every step of the way.
“He’s just a really sweet, wide-eyed, innocent kid,” Merritt said. “You hate to see him at all involved with this kind of incident.”