AURORA, Colo. — After years of homelessness and scraping by for six children, Sheneen McClain’s life has condensed down to an almost singular mission: defending her late son’s name while quietly fighting to reform the police.
It’s been two years since McClain’s son, Elijah, went out for iced tea on Aug. 24, 2019, and didn’t come home.
Aurora police officers received a call that night about a suspicious person walking down the street, waving his arms and wearing a ski mask. When they tried to stop him, he questioned them.
Even though McClain wasn’t suspected of a crime and didn’t appear to be armed, officers tackled him to the ground and placed him in two carotid chokeholds. When paramedics arrived, they injected him with the anesthetic ketamine at a much higher dose than appropriate for his size.
McClain had a heart attack on the way to the hospital and never recovered. He was declared brain dead and died a few days later.
At the time, his mother was homeless and living in a hotel with some of her other children. Sheneen McClain first heard from the police over a messenger app. She gave them her phone number. They insisted on coming to pick her up but wouldn’t tell her why. Three police cars showed up at the hotel, her children got in one, she got in another. There was also a victim’s advocate there.
They went to the hospital.
It took about an hour before she saw her son; she said the police had a conference first. When she finally got into the room, where officers were guarding the door, her son was puffy and almost unrecognizable on life support. He had bubble wrap around his torso and gauze around his head. Tubes and devices were coming out of his mouth and nose. His eyes were half open but he wasn’t alert.
A treble clef tattoo, representing his love of music, poked out above the bandages on his shoulder.
“They kept saying it was his fault. The first thing I heard was Elijah was running through the parking lot, beating on cars recklessly and he was making a lot of noise running up and down the street. And the first thing I’m thinking, of course, is, that’s not who my son is,” Sheneen McClain said. “I know how he walks out of the house — he wears headphones and doesn’t want to be distracted. But I did my best to keep quiet. I let them ask their questions.”
She and her children only got a few days with McClain in the hospital before his death. He was 23.
'How could the world be so evil?'
After her son's death, Sheneen McClain began to hold vigils near the spot where the officers stopped him. The actual location was on private property, so she had to cross the street to a weedy swatch of dirt alongside the highway. It was dusty and loud, with traffic roaring ahead. She called the city of Aurora and asked whether it was OK to be there. They said yes, so she went to Dollar Tree and bought solar lights and plastic flowers.
Soon, people she didn’t know started showing up, filming her on Facebook Live. Someone mowed the patch of weeds so there were fewer bugs. She started a GoFundMe and she hired a lawyer to sue the city.
Sheneen McClain was achingly lonely even though she was increasingly surrounded by people who said they wanted to help. Weeks after Elijah’s death, she spent hours a day crying in her car, so her kids wouldn’t see it.
“I'm trying to figure out how God allowed this to happen. You know, how could the world be so evil? How could people that are supposed to be hired to save lives do this?” she said. “It was lonely. There were people that wanted to stand beside me, but I couldn't trust it.”
Through all of this, her personal situation remained tenuous. She had been driving for Lyft, but had gotten in a car accident just a few weeks before Elijah was arrested and had lost the car and her job. One of Elijah’s co-workers gave her an old car. She continued to live in a hotel with her other kids, heartbroken.
For a long time, there was no movement on her lawsuit and no one in Colorado seemed to care that Aurora police had killed a peaceful massage therapist.
Within three months, the then Adams County District Attorney Dave Young, cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing.
“You know, Colorado was quiet. The politicians in Colorado were quiet,” she said. “To have politicians out here saying that it was a justified murder, you know, was, was, was very hard to deal with. There wasn't anybody I could talk to. I ended up trying to talk to a few people and it wasn't comforting because they, at some point in time, would end up leaving the scene.”
Elijah had dropped out of high school at 17, but his mother said right when he turned 18, he took the GED test and passed without studying.
He enrolled in a massage therapy school and worked at a Little Caesars Pizza. He started reading more. He loved music and had taught himself the violin. At the time of the arrest, he was a massage therapist at Massage Envy and worked at a chiropractor’s office. His ultimate dream was to live on a cruise ship and work in massage therapy — seeing the world while healing people at the same time.
“I thought maybe he could go work for the Broncos as a physical therapist and things like that,” Sheneen said, “But he's like, ‘no, mom, I want to travel the world. And I want to do it with massage therapy.’”
A national movement turns its attention to McClain
For much of that first year after her son’s death, Sheenen McClain felt like her entire life had been rejected.
“As a single mom, raising kids by myself, doing everything I could to make sure Elijah had a future so he didn’t become a statistic, and then him being a statistic anyway,” she said. “It felt like the world had rejected us … And then to have the police officers kill my son. Spiritually, I thought that was a rejection too.”
Then on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota. And as protests grew around the country, Elijah McClain’s death joined the many viral stories in America’s ongoing reckoning with police brutality against unarmed Black people.
For weeks across the metro area, protesters chanted his name, on the steps of the state capitol, in front of the Aurora Municipal Building and up and down Colfax Avenue. Vigils in his honor attracted hundreds and thousands of people. One march ended with demonstrators blockading an Aurora police station for hours.
Federal, state and municipal leaders launched a total of five investigations into McClain’s death.
Sheneen didn’t attend most of the protests, but she was busy online — Facebook, Youtube, Instagram — talking about Elijah’s death. At some point last summer, Sheneen McClain said an activist told her to look at her GoFundMe page, which she had nearly forgotten.
“Apparently they were watching the GoFundMe more than I was,” she said. “And when I checked it out, it had $2.5 million in there.”
The donations so long after his death confused her. Where were all the people before? Why didn’t anyone help when she could have used the money to bury Elijah? She’d had to cremate him instead. A burial would have made it possible to exhume his body for further investigations, but now it was too late.
“I appreciate it. You know, I definitely appreciate it, but I still didn't understand it,” she said. “He was already gone.”
The money did allow her family a new level of stability; she was able to buy a car and a house — she decided to move outside of Aurora.
The national attention continued through the summer; at the US Open, tennis player Naomi Osaka wore an Elijah McClain mask. The Denver Nuggets’ head coach wore a “Justice For Elijah McClain” T-shirt at a game.
“That was awesome,” Sheneen said.
She was also invited to help with a police reform bill in the works at the state capitol. Last summer, lawmakers passed it with bipartisan support — its political momentum came largely from the protests over her son’s death. That new law includes a ban on chokeholds.
It was a bittersweet moment for Sheneen McClain.
“I was told that they weren't able to pass that bill before Elijah's death,” she said. “And I think to myself, if that bill had passed before Elijah's murder, Elijah would still be here. So it just makes me think of all the bad people that are in very powerful, very powerful, seats that do nothing.”
Progress comes with a dark side
With so much happening at once, Sheneen felt increasingly uncomfortable in the spotlight. Word had spread about all the donations, which she called ‘blood money’; she started receiving cold calls from people, including members of her own family, asking for money. People wanted her to contribute to organizations that had nothing to do with Elijah. They wanted her to form a foundation. She was getting unsolicited advice from everywhere.
The protesters, too, she felt, were using his name for their own purposes. During one protest downtown, she said people linked his death to the fight over bathroom access for trans people.
“They said, ‘Justice for Elijah is justice for this group of people,’ ‘justice for Elijah is justice for that group of people,’” she said. “ I said they definitely need to stop saying it ... because they're not just out here for Elijah, right?”
She also discovered people profiting from his death. Someone was selling clothing on Amazon with her son’s last words. She found images of him that people had created — badly, she said — and were selling online.
Sheneen closed ranks even more. She was frustrated that there wasn’t any movement in her lawsuit against the city of Aurora and didn’t know who to trust.
Earlier this year, she switched lawyers. She donated money to homeless organizations that had helped her family throughout the many years they didn’t have a stable place to stay. She also donated to some after-school programs that Elijah had enjoyed — including the Boys and Girls Club.
“Progress comes with the good and the bad, you know, the pros and the cons,” she said. “I don't have any friends, you know, a lot of the people that were attaching themselves to me the first year, I don't even communicate with anymore because it ends up being they're only there for the spotlight or the payout. My kids are my best friends. They’ve always been there.”
Continuing the fight
Sheneen McClain’s civil rights lawsuit is now making progress towards resolution. Investigations probing his death are ongoing — they include a statewide grand jury looking into whether the officers did anything illegal.
One report, commissioned by the city of Aurora, found that officers had no reason to lay hands on McClain the night he was walking back from the convenience store.
Sheneen McClain’s new lawyer, Qusair Mohamedbhai, believes her son’s death has the power to move so many people, and inspire such a major culture shift, because of his innocence.
“In my entire career doing this for almost 20 years, I have never seen such an innocent young man murdered,” Mohamedbhai said. “It's really hard to understand. And [the family’s] fear and outrage and sadness has taken over our community and our country.”
Sheneen said she wants to continue to work on policy and has ideas to improve policing and police oversight, including conflicts of interest with coroners and police officers. McClain’s autopsy not only failed to determine what specifically caused his death, the pathologist also declined to determine whether his death was caused by another human or the result of natural causes.
CPR News reported last year that the coroner met with police before McClain’s autopsy and that police investigators were present during the examination.
Sheneen is also in contact with both Congressmen Joe Neguse and Jason Crow about bills they have pending in Congress. One would ban the use of ketamine during arrests. Colorado lawmakers put new controls on the use of ketamine and the state has a temporary moratorium on its use in law enforcement situations.
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson has also invited Sheneen McClain to talk to a graduating class of cadets. She hasn’t decided yet whether to say yes.
“I'm thinking about it,” she said. “I would have an opportunity to impact future police officers … it would be nice if they did the right thing but as a whole they haven’t been.”
She continues to defend her son’s name from misuse, while also planning to steer clear of protests from here on.
“I’m not that kind of person, you know, to get on the bullhorn and lead a bunch of people down the street, trying to fight for rights that we shouldn’t have to fight for,” she said. “I know my life matters, but it doesn’t matter because I’m Black … I don’t think going down the street talking about Black Lives Matter is a way to get things accomplished.”
Sheneen still talks to Elijah. She said sometimes when she’s talking to him, the TV will switch on. She knows he’s around and watching what happens. She said she has two goals moving forward.
“For me, it comes down to the policies and the laws,” she said. “And I’ll fight for the rest of my life to make sure people don't use his name in the wrong way.”