Disappeared in Death 

Homeless and mentally ill, Joshua Pawlik was unconscious right before four Oakland police officers killed him in March. His family and friends are seeking answers.

click to enlarge Joshua Pawlik struggled with mental illness and drug addiction but didn’t have a history of violence. A friend described him as a “free-loving hippie.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY HOWE
  • Photo courtesy of Mary Howe
  • Joshua Pawlik struggled with mental illness and drug addiction but didn’t have a history of violence. A friend described him as a “free-loving hippie.”

Joshua Ryan Pawlik wasn't moving. In fact, even though he was armed with a pistol, the 31-year-old man appeared to be unconscious shortly before Oakland police officers surrounded him at gunpoint on March 11 and shot him dead in a barrage of rifle fire.

Rarely is there an officer-involved shooting these days that isn't intensively scrutinized by the public and media. But since that day, hardly a word has been said about who Pawlik was or the events that led up to his death. The Oakland Police Department continues to withhold information about the case, including crucial police body camera video of the fatal incident.

Other than a vigil organized by his close friends, there haven't been any protests. After his corpse was examined by the coroner, Pawlik was cremated, and the coroner's report is being withheld from the public pending completion of OPD's investigation.

The result is, in death, Pawlik — who spent his entire adult life on the margins, mostly homeless and suffering from schizoaffective disorder and a debilitating drug addiction — has been disappeared.

And because of where he died, in an alleyway between two houses with no one else around, there are no independent witnesses who can speak to what happened.

But the circumstances surroundings Pawlik's death closely resemble other controversial police shootings. For years, the Oakland police and other Bay Area departments have followed an apparent policy of surrounding unconscious and sleeping people who are believed to be armed. Then, at gunpoint, the police suddenly wake them up and order them to surrender under threat of lethal force. Several of these incidents, including another recent case in Oakland, have predictably resulted in fatal shootings. Other cases have stirred controversy, leading to protests, lawsuits, and calls for change.

But, so far, not in Pawlik's case.

"Nobody's around to advocate for him," one of Pawlik's friends said in a recent interview. The woman asked not to be named because she lives on the streets of San Francisco and worries about the police targeting her for drug possession. She said the fact that Pawlik has no family in California means that no one has been able to put pressure on the police for answers. She also thinks his stigmatized identity has allowed society to more easily ignore his death.

"Even if we protested, they'd just dismiss us as a bunch of homeless drug addicts," she said.

And some will find it easy dismiss Pawlik. Dependent on heroin, he survived by shoplifting and selling drugs in San Francisco's Tenderloin and Civic Center, say his close friends. His nickname, "Junkie Josh," was an affectionate jest. It was also bluntly honest.

Pawlik was reportedly carrying a pistol and a substantial amount of cocaine when the Oakland police surrounded and shot him. And then there was the money — around $110,000 — in his backpack. Rumors have circulated on the streets about why Pawlik ended up in West Oakland armed and carrying a small fortune, but the rumors conflict with the soft reputation Pawlik had among his friends.

"We never noticed any violent tendencies," said Amber Farmer, who grew up with Pawlik in the small city of Fredericksburg, Va. "He was a free-loving hippie. Why would he have a gun?"

"He absolutely did not have a violent history," said Chelsea Swift, a mobile crisis intervention worker who knew Pawlik. "Having a weapon, to hear that was shocking. Even the fact that he was in Oakland was shocking to me."

While Pawlik had been arrested twice for drugs in San Francisco, he did not appear to have a history of violence, according to a search of criminal records in several counties where he lived over the past decade.

He was also penniless most of his adult life. Pawlik relied on the occasional wire transfer of $40 from his parents, or food stamps and safety-net health-care programs. For those who knew him, the gun and money are a mystery.

"The shame and stigma around drug use and being homeless is layered and intense," said Mary Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance, a San Francisco harm reduction organization. Howe, who personally knew Pawlik, described him as "exceptionally intelligent" but psychologically tormented. He was always trying to get better, to quit using, Howe said. "He really wanted a different life."

"He wrote a poem when he was 16," Kelly Pawlik, his mother, told the Express in a recent interview. "It was called 'The People in My Head.' I cry when I read it."

Kelly knew more than anyone about her son's afflictions: his emotional volatility and self-sabotaging from an early age; his chronic drug abuse; the traumatic death of his close childhood friend; his suicide attempts. Through it all, he maintained a strenuous but ultimately unsuccessful resolution to suppress his delusions. Pawlik was conscious of his mental illness, but never able to overcome its tortuous effects.

"He struggled every minute of the day to keep it at bay," Kelly said. "He referred to it as something that held him back. 'My cursed brain,' he called it."

But for all of Pawlik's problems — his psychological torment and spiral downward into the criminalized world of addiction — his family and friends question why the Oakland police found it necessary to kill him. They wonder, couldn't they simply have disarmed him? As with other incidents where the police have surrounded an unconscious, armed person, it's possible that different tactics could have saved his life. This is what his mother, Kelly, wants to find out.

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