This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
On June 8, 2011, Whitney Duenez’s husband, Ernesto, was shot 11 times and killed by a police officer in Manteca, Calif. — a small city 80 miles east of San Francisco. Police dash-cam video showed Officer John Moody fire shots at Ernesto as he climbed out of a pick-up truck parked at his friend’s home. Police were responding to a domestic disturbance call, and the 34-year-old was also wanted for not checking in with his parole officer and for failing a drug test (Whitney says that reports of a domestic disturbance are untrue).
Police claimed Ernesto was armed with a knife as he stepped out of the truck, but the dash-cam footage was inconclusive, and defense lawyers argued the video proved Ernesto was not attempting to attack the officers.
In 2014, the Duenez family reached a $2.2 million settlement with the city of Manteca, which was divided between their attorneys, Ernesto’s infant son, wife, and parents. After the lawyers, Whitney and Ernesto’s son received the largest chunk of the payout.
You go to court and you're just sitting there at a long, shiny brown table like you see in crime movies. My family was in one room, and the police and the people who represented them in another. The mediator goes from room to room, and the process lasts all day.
Somebody puts an offer on the table, and then they bring it back to us in the next room, and then we go back with a rebuttal, and you keep going back and forth until you reach an agreement. If you don't, that's when you would have to go to trial.
Men in suits would sit there and actually talk about what my husband's life was worth. Like, "Oh, okay, well he was only a dad for a year, so he wasn't really that much of a dad. So that takes a little bit of money off.”
It made me sick to my stomach that that's how they really do it.
On the first day, neither side wanted to put the first number out. Honestly, I didn't care if I got $5 or $5 million, because either way my husband is dead. My son can still go on YouTube and watch his father die.
Sometimes I feel guilty because of the money, but at the same time, we were already struggling before he passed away. I was stacking shelves at a Dollar Tree; he was doing some tattoo work. We had just moved out of his parents house into a tiny studio apartment. I used settlement money to buy a house; I also bought a car. Since then, I got a new job.
My son gets money — about $750 every year on his birthday — and we call it a present from his dad. He gets that until 2021, and then the amount changes to over a grand. By the time he turns 18, he'll be getting lump sums every five years that are between $50,000 to $150,000, up and up and up. If he has the lifespan that they're expecting, he’ll get nearly $1 million total.
I'm thankful for what we got, but at the same time, my husband died for this. That's how I look at it: My husband died to give us what we have now. Yeah, things are better because we have a house, but they’re also worse because he’s not here. We’re living an oxymoron.
My husband, he wanted a kid really bad. He would struggle. He had issues like a lot of people: He had a drug problem — he was addicted to methamphetamine — and had relapsed for maybe a month and a half before he was killed. But he really wanted a kid.
Right before he died, my son was two weeks away from turning one, and my husband wanted to see him walk more than anything else. He died on June 8, and by June 25, my son had taken his first steps.
I don't know if you believe in God and spirits and stuff like that, but I do believe he's still here. He is probably always with my son.
It’s five years later and I don't think I've really mourned yet. It’s all I can think about. It's still so fresh, like it happened yesterday. It haunts me to imagine how life could have been if he was here. Everything reminds me of it, even stuff that shouldn’t. I’ll see an ambulance go by or drive by the house that he got shot at. I try to push it aside and act like I'm okay, but I'm not okay. Not at all.