Pittsfield community in grief after police killing of 22-year-old Miguel Estrella: “It's just a massive loss”
Friends, co-workers, and loved ones of Miguel Estrella are grieving after he was shot and killed by a Pittsfield, Massachusetts police officer Friday night.
What exactly happened on March 25th, 2022 at 279 Onota Street remains unclear. The incident is now being investigated by Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington. According to a press release from her office, the 22-year-old Estrella was visited by Pittsfield police officers multiple times in the midst of a mental health crisis where he had self-harmed using a knife. Just after 10 p.m., the situation turned lethal. Police say Estrella had a knife in his hand and did not respond when they tased him. One of the responding officers then shot him twice, killing him.
The DA’s office denied a request to provide a copy of the incident report from the night, and WAMC has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain it.
The officers are on leave and have not been identified.
WAMC has contacted Estrella’s girlfriend, who witnessed the incident but says she isn’t ready to open up about what she saw.
What is known is the magnitude of grief in the Pittsfield community following Estrella’s killing.
“I had got a call that night from his girlfriend that he was dealing with some stuff, and he wanted to come over [to] my house because we would confide in each other. I knew he dealt with depression, even though he was the funniest guy I knew. And he just never showed up," said Jawuan St. John, 22, Estrella’s best friend. “I've only had two best friends in my entire life. And I consider them like brothers. And both of them are dead now. But those two people were the only people who can make me sincerely laugh. I'm not the person who's always smiling. If I'm smiling, it’s just to be polite. But he was a funny guy. He was always smiling, always making other people happy. Always just cheerful. And I don't know a lot of people like that.”
“The thing that I really loved about Miguel is that he really he genuinely was concerned about his peers," Debbie Vall told WAMC. "So, you know, he never would turn his back on a peer or a friend or a brother, but he always was there trying to raise his friends up. He was just really a shining example to his peers.”
Vall is a social worker who was Estrella’s case manager for the past three years. She says Estrella had a history of mental health issues and psychosis – information the DA’s press releases acknowledges the Pittsfield Police had been informed of before responding Friday night.
Police Chief Michael Wynn has not responded to multiple interview requests from WAMC. Pittsfield Police referred WAMC to the DA’s office, which referred WAMC back to the police department.
But Wynn told the Berkshire Eagle it was too late for a mental health responder to head to the scene.
Vall questions why Estrella wasn’t transported to the hospital by authorities.
“In my opinion, Miguel was suffering from some kind of a manic episode at the time of the incident," she said. "And it's just really a shame that Section 12 wasn't implemented the first time that the police were called.”
She helped him pursue one of his major life goals: becoming an electrician.
“He and I would have to travel to Springfield to take certain tests and interviews with the union and things," Vall told WAMC. "He was just so kind and thankful. He had a lot of gratitude. We'd stop for lunch, and I would buy him lunch, and he would talk to me about his hopes and his dreams for his future. And, I mean, that's what really sticks out in my mind of that time that we had together, on those trips to Springfield and the plans that he had for his future.”
Many of the people who knew him told WAMC about Estrella’s passion for Pittsfield and the neighborhood he called home.
“The West Side neighborhood is the mostly residential neighborhood that directly abuts the North Street corridor, the downtown area of Pittsfield," said Dubois Thomas, the Neighborhood Revitalization Director for Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. “It was traditionally a residential neighborhood made up of a lot of mixed backgrounds and ethnicities, but was kind of one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the departure of General Electric, now three decades ago. And so there have been multiple attempts at revitalizing the neighborhood over the intervening decades, and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, having built a lot of their affordable homes in the West Side neighborhood, of late has really focused a lot of its energies on what the macro plans of revitalizing the neighborhood would be.”
Estrella first came in contact with Habitat through a workforce development program for community members to learn construction skills. He was the only participant who ended up becoming a salaried member of Habitat’s construction team. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Estrella was there for his community.
“Miguel and our construction manager were the only two people still keeping the construction going," Thomas told WAMC. "So Miguel was integral in providing affordable shelter here in Pittsfield.”
“All I could see was a really positive young person that wanted to help you and he wanting to learn. I enjoyed mentoring Miguel and training him and teaching him all I could. He wanted to do more and more and more and more for his community. He had his goals," said Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity Construction Manager Brent Getchell. “He kind of early on thought that he wasn't sure he could get those goals. But as we worked with him, he started feeling more positive about things and really had a good outlook on life, and how to help others and be a friend. We would have Taconic High School students come over. He would work with them and their instructor and mentor those students a little bit and give those students a positive outlook on the community that they all lived in. Personally, he became a very good friend to me. There's quite an age difference between him and I, but it didn't really matter as he was a very mature young person. It hurts a lot because he was such a good friend of mine. It's too bad he's gone, because it would have been great to see what someone like Miguel, or Miguel, would have done for the community in his life.”
Carolyn Valli is CEO of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. During his time with the nonprofit, she traveled with Estrella to observe similar revitalization efforts in Baltimore. It was his first time on a plane.
“He said, but can you imagine what it could be if we could do all that we want to do here, if we can have this training program that brings young people that have had barriers in their lives into the program and teach them in trade so they can make real money and they can- like, he wanted to be electrician," Valli told WAMC. "And he said, I'm going to be an electrician and then I'm going to do all the wiring for all the Habitat houses, and he said, and I want to buy a home in the West Side myself. And he said, I think that we could we could make the West Side the best place, where everybody would want to live.”
With limited information about the shooting available to the public so far, people who knew and loved Estrella are frustrated by how his death has been framed by law enforcement and local media.
“The police do what they want to do with who they want to do it to. I've had a lot of bad experiences with the police," said best friend Jawuan St. John.
St. John was accused of armed home invasion in August 2021 – to which he pleaded not guilty – and was held without bail through a dangerousness hearing. He is currently under house arrest.
St. John pointed out that just a day before Estrella’s killing, police in nearby Cheshire managed to peacefully end a stalemate with a man pointing a crossbow at officers.
“They negotiated him with him for six hours," St. John told WAMC. "As soon as they couldn’t do whatever they did with Miguel, they shot him, you feel me? They didn’t shoot the dude with the crossbow. So I just feel like there's no justice with police. They do what they want to do and that’s it.”
“I want people to know that whatever has been said in the media, through the police reports and things like that, they're not depicting Miguel as a human being," said Estrella’s former case worker Debbie Vall. "He was a human being who had hopes and he had dreams and he was kind and compassionate. He was always concerned about other people. He was a really good man, and I want that message to get out to the public. He’s not a criminal, and his murder was not justified.”
“He was a teddy bear," said Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity Construction Manager Brent Getchell. "He would never, ever intentionally hurt anyone. He just overall was a great person. And it's a just a massive loss for his friends, his family, and the community he lived in.”
“The account that that we saw from the police perspective is not Miguel," said Dubois Thomas of Central Berkshire Habitat For Humanity. "That is not the Miguel that anybody knows. And it's just heartbreaking that such a bright light in our community was snuffed out like that. In this time of change, we need people like Miguel. And now we don't have him with us. And that's heartbreaking.”
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer told WAMC she extends her condolences to Estrella’s family and friends, and that she’s been in communication with the DA and police chief. Tyer says she was contacted by the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP about participating in a community gathering in response to the shooting.
Estrella’s wake will be at the Devanny-Condron Funeral Home from 4 to 7 p.m. on Friday, followed by a private funeral service Saturday.
A fundraiser for his family has been set up to “secure a team and the right resources to fight for his justice.”