When Freddie and Karina Palacios arrived at their brother’s grave, they swept away old flowers and placed fresh roses and daisies. Then, they looked at the things others left behind.
They’ve found skateboards. Bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Soccer and golf balls. A rubber toy snake, similar to his pet python that still lives in a tank in Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal’s room at his mom’s house. When the family gets to the gravesite, others are often there paying respects.
But on this Wednesday night, it was just them.
It had already been a long day, with multiple interviews about what happened in the year since their brother, Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, was killed by Salt Lake City police, a shooting prosecutors later ruled legally justified.
Talking about the shooting is grueling, the siblings said, but worth it to get his story out. To keep it fresh.
Salt Lake City police killed Palacios-Carbajal, 22, after he ran from them with a gun in his hand in the city’s Granary District. It was two days before officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. Unlike the slow death Floyd suffered beneath ex-Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, Palacios-Carabjal was killed as he fled.
Last summer, as Floyd’s murder spurred the country to grapple with police violence and institutional racism, activists in Utah gathered night after night. They chanted Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal’s name alongside George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They called for justice for his family. They painted his face on a mural and his name on T-shirts and posters.
A rallying cry
“We just don’t want it to just go away,” Freddie Palacios said.
That “it” is a lot of things. It’s the scrutiny of police actions. It’s the calls for systemic change. Most important, it’s their brother’s memory.
In some ways, the family told The Salt Lake Tribune, very little has changed this past year. Laws around officer use-of-force remain mostly the same in Utah. Police here are still shooting people. And the family still grieves, finding more reminders of their loss than they do moments of peace.
That’s why they like to go to the cemetery. Because home is “weird” now, and empty. At the gravesite, Palacios-Carbajal at least feels close, Karina Palacios said.
For this family, like the families of others shot by police, moving forward is hard. Karina Palacios said it has been a nightmare.
That nightmare includes a late night traumatic encounter with police, where children begged for their lives. It includes a drawn-out bureaucratic process to get Bernardo’s headstone.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Karina Palacios said, “I wonder if there’s ever going to be a day where I feel like it’s OK.”
Salt Lake City police got the 911 call just after 2 a.m. on May 23. The caller was a man at the Utah Village Motel, near 300 West and 900 South.
“I was pointed a gun by someone that was just leaving Trails, a gentleman’s club…” the man said, “He pointed a gun!”
Police got another call, this one reporting an armed robbery. “Some guy just put a gun to my head… He took my wallet. He took everything I own basically.”
Police were given the description of a Hispanic man, about 5-foot-7, wearing all black with short black hair, according to radio traffic. There was another suspect in the robbery, described similarly, and dressed in red.
Officers Neil Iversen and Sarah Kilgore were among the first to arrive at the hotel. Iversen spotted Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who was wearing light blue jeans, a gray and black jacket and a black shirt, holding some bags outside the rooms. He yelled for Palacios-Carbajal to show his hands. Palacios-Carbajal, who was on probation from a 2019 robbery conviction, dropped the bags and ran.
About a minute into the chase, an officer reported Palacios-Carbajal had a gun.
A minute after that: “We got shots fired. Start medical rolling our way. Suspect down.”
Police had chased Palacios-Carbajal through an alleyway and north across 900 South, toward the parking lot at Granary Storage. He tripped, dropped a gun, got back up, and picked up the gun. He did this three times. Officers repeatedly told Palacios-Carbajal to drop the weapon.
Officers Iversen and Kevin Fortuna both fired at Palacios-Carbajal after he picked up the gun a third time and kept running. They continued shooting after he fell to the ground, as he raised his head and right arm, the one investigators say held the gun.
Iversen told investigators he feared he was going to be shot.
“There’s only one reason someone’s going to pick up a gun three times, being chased by the police, being told to drop it — he’s going to try to kill me,” Iversen said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill ruled the shooting legally justified in July 2020. Salt Lake City police also said the officers followed department rules.”What we can’t ignore is the number of times Mr. Palacios-Carbajal dropped the weapon,” Gill said. “The desire to retrieve the gun was greater than the desire to run away.”
While it was legally justified, not everyone agrees the use of lethal force was necessary.
Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief, is now a vice president at the Center for Policing Equity. He said it appears the officers didn’t consider all of their options as they chased after Palacios-Carbajal.
“You will get people who argue, in this particular circumstance, that, ‘Well, he committed a robbery, so obviously he is a danger.’ But there were no shots fired and there are mitigating circumstances to that from a moral or humanistic viewpoint,” Burbank said. “Why not let him run away?”
In all, Officers Iversen and Fortuna fired 34 times.
Palacios-Carbajal’s death changed the trajectory of dozens of lives.
His killing inspired a movement in Utah to reform policing, and for a subset of hardcore activists, a movement to abolish it. The day the prosecutor deemed the shooting justified, a group of demonstrators smashed windows and painted the street red. Some are now facing felony-level charges.
It had repercussions for police, too. Almost 60 officers left the Salt Lake City Police Department last year. Salt Lake City police contend many left because of the protests.
The Palacios-Carbajal family has filed a civil suit against the police, saying officers shot Palacios-Carbajal when he wasn’t a threat.
“If Bernardo’s case falls within the universe of things that are OK to do, everybody should be a little anxious,” says family attorney Brian Webber.
The case is ongoing. The police department declined to comment for this story because of the pending lawsuit.
[Read more: The police killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal: Where prosecutors and the family’s lawyers disagree.]
This death also shined a light on other, lesser known cases of Utahns killed by police, like Chad Breinholt and Bobby Ray Duckworth. Their family members often attended protests held by the group supporting Palacios-Carbajal.
It led to the formation of the city’s Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. The group’s goal is to examine SLCPD’s “policies, culture and budgets.” It’s already proposed recommendations to improve officer training.
Drive through Salt Lake City today and you’ll see reminders of Palacios-Carbajal and the protests. There are signs in business fronts and apartment windows. His graffiti crew has painted his moniker, Loske, on buildings. The street in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office is still stained red.
The reminders show people still care, but they’re hard, too, say his brother and sister.
“You kind of try to, you know, go on with your life and stuff…,” Freddie Palacios said, “but every single time it’s like something pops up, and it’s just like all [the emotions] over again.”
For instance, driving past the storage buildings where Palacios-Carbajal was shot “messes with my head,” so Freddie Palacios will avoid it, even if it makes his drive longer.
He’s also had a hard time moving past a confusing November raid on his home that has left his 4-year-old son even more afraid police will come and kill him.
An arrest warrant and a mistake
Around midnight on Nov. 17, the doorbell camera at Freddie Palacios’ home in West Valley City picked up movement. It was a group of armed men outfitted in tactical gear. One of them approached the house and put his thumb over the doorbell camera. The officers banged on the door and told the family to come out.
Freddie said he was skeptical it was police. It seemed odd to cover the doorbell camera. He worried it was counter-protesters trying to scare them after their civil lawsuit was filed, so his partner, Norma Solano, called 911 to verify.
“Someone’s at the door saying they’re police and they’re banging really loud,” she told a dispatcher, according to audio of the 911 call obtained by The Tribune.
The dispatcher, who couldn’t confirm it was police at their house, told her, “I’ve already got help started.”
Then, the men broke down the door and came inside.
“They’re telling us to come out with their hands up,” she said. “Should we do what they’re saying?“ ”Um,” the dispatcher responded. “Bear with me one moment. Stay on the line.” In the background, 4-year-old Aden, Freddie Palacios’ son, was saying he didn’t want to die. The adults tried to reassure him.
“Guys, let’s go,” an officer yelled. “Get out of the house.”
But the family refused. They asked again who the men were. The response: “We’re the f------ United States Marshals. How many times do I have to tell you?”
A child squeaked out a high-pitched, “Mom?” as the officer yelled commands. The woman told police they’re scaring the children and to stop swearing.
As Aden screamed again, the dispatcher asked, “So is it the U.S. Marshals? Are they legit the U.S. Marshals?”
They were, it turns out. But an agent had given dispatchers the wrong address for an arrest warrant.
Matthew Harris, with the U.S. Marshals, said agents were trying to arrest an undocumented person charged with a felony crime. The suspect was a cousin of Freddie Palacios’ partner, with a similar name. He never lived at the house, family said. He wasn’t there that night, although Harris said a vehicle he was driving was nearby. The man was later arrested.
He estimates officers spent 20 minutes outside before they went inside the house.
“I don’t pick places out of random just to come mess with people and break their doors in,” an officer said toward the end of the 911 recording.
“Well, apparently you do because...,” Solano, Freddie Palacios’ partner, said, and then the audio cuts off.
Harris said the Marshals are looking into the issue. He added, “We are not perfect, but my team does its best to get it right. We don’t compromise professionalism.”
Freddie Palacios said in an earlier interview that the officers downplayed how scared the encounter made the family.
“To me,” he said, “that wasn’t OK.”
Waiting for a break
The 4-year-old still brings up his uncle often, asking to call him on his cellphone in heaven. Recently, he told his dad he wanted to draw a picture for Palacios-Carbajal.
“And then he brings up the cops and stuff, and I’m just like, God,” Freddie Palacios said. “I just kind of have to step away and cry.”
The family still does a lot of crying these days.
“Everything’s just so much harder,” Karina Palacios said, “whether it’s like the kids’ birthdays, our birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving. That was all very difficult.”
As her children discussed their brother, Lucy Carbajal, the siblings’ mother, also cried. They were discussing Palacios-Carbajal’s headstone, which they’d like to place at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
Palacios-Carbajal is buried in a plot that doesn’t allow raised headstones without permission from the mayor.
The family’s pick is a full ledger stone, raised about 6 inches off the ground so they can decorate it with mementos.
“The least they could do,” Karina Palacios said, “is allow us to do a headstone that we want for him.”
Just two days before the first anniversary of his death, the family got the news that the city approved its request.
Karina Palacios said the family cried some more. This time, about some good news.
This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
FRONTLINE reporter Abby Ellis contributed to this article.