By the evening of June 1, 35-year-old Thomas Goodeyes Gay, a father of three who was in Bartlesville to visit family, would become the 11th person shot and killed by Oklahoma police in 2019.
The shooting and its aftermath are indicative of the difficult issues everyone faces when law enforcement and a person in crisis interact, Thomas’ sister Monica Stubblefield said. Thomas had grappled with substance abuse in the past, but was a good-hearted person who struggled in the same way many others do, she said.
Thomas was killed despite not being armed with a weapon — police later said no knife or gun was found on his body. Thomas was not fighting with responding officers, according to his father, Willis Gay Jr., but was trying to flee while under a drug-induced haze.
Stubblefield said Thomas needed help the night he was shot but was instead killed within minutes of police arriving.
Thomas had been doing maintenance work on the home that day with his brother, Willis Gay III, and his father. It was hot out, and they eventually went inside the home, a small house filled with trinkets and wall-mounted BB guns.
Rhonda Lomax, Thomas’ mother, said her son was a hard-worker who would excel at almost any job presented to him. In college, he joined a forest fire fighting team, she said. He could break horses as well as anyone, and he would often appear without warning at a relative’s house and ask if anything needed to be worked on.
“He was just that kind of person, he was good at so many different things,” she said. “In high school he played football, when he was even younger than that he went out on the rodeo circuit and rode bulls. He was good at whatever he tried.”
As the evening went on, Thomas began to behave strangely, his father and brother said. He was growing paranoid, and feared that police were coming to the home to arrest him because he had driven past his wife’s house earlier in the day. He believed he might have violated a protective order she had been granted in 2018 after alleging domestic violence.
Thomas later turned off the lights in the home and peered out the windows. He eventually moved to the home’s hallway, where he stood, arms crossed, unmoving.
Willis was concerned about his son’s behavior, but not afraid. Thomas was a big guy with a big personality and he sometimes behaved strangely. Willis Gay Jr. said he thought Thomas might have “been on something,” but was content to have his son“sleep it off” in an empty bedroom.
But just before 8 p.m., Willis decided to call the police. He told The Frontier that Thomas had begun to beat his chest, and Willis feared his son was having a stroke. Willis said he called his ex-wife, Thomas’ mother, and asked her what to do.
“Call for help,” she said.
Willis said he intended to dial the police non-emergency line, but he couldn’t find it listed in the phone book. Instead, he dialed 911, and told the dispatcher his son was “acting paranoid.” He wanted him removed from the house.
Minutes later, Thomas was dead. He was shot twice in a spare bedroom by two responding officers whose identities have never been released by authorities. Thomas died in a small bedroom, where a bloodstain still sits on the wooden floor. A medical examiner’s report would later show he had methamphetamine in his system. His body laid in the home for hours that night while the family huddled on the front lawn in the summer heat wondering why it all went so wrong.
About six weeks after Thomas was killed, both officers involved in the shooting were cleared by Washington County District Attorney Kevin Buchanan. Their names have never officially been released, and all that is known is that one officer is a man and one is a woman.
Buchanan, who did not respond to request for comment but did release the letter clearing both officers, does not identify police officers involved in shootings in his clearance letters. Following a fatal January 2018 shooting in which Buchanan cleared two officers who fatally shot 72-year-old Geraldine Townsend, he identified the officers in the clearance letter only as “officer #1” and “officer #2.”
In a letter Buchanan wrote clearing the officers in Thomas’ shooting, he said he based his decision on a 130-page OSBI report consisting of “scene photos, interviews, background information.”
When the Bartlesville officers entered the home prior to the shooting, Willis went inside with them. He said he saw Thomas in the hallway, holding a framed picture of two small cherubs.
“It was like he was using it as a shield,” Willis said. “He was just standing there with his arms crossed, holding it like he didn’t want anyone to get to him.”
Bartlesville police did not release records related to the shooting following a request by The Frontier, saying that the OSBI, which investigated the shooting, would have to release information. The OSBI denied requests for the 911 call and incident reports.
However a family member of Thomas’ sent The Frontier a copy of the 911 call as well as two incident reports written by officers who were at the scene.
The incident reports were presumably written by the officers involved in the shooting — both reports note that the officers arrived prior to Thomas being shot — though the police department has not released the identities of the two officers involved in the shootings and the names on the incident report are redacted.
One officer wrote that while Thomas was in the hallway, he held a “bow” in his hands “like a melee weapon.” The officer wrote that Willis said he “didn’t know” if Thomas had any weapons on him, stating “I don’t know, he keeps reaching for his back pocket.”
The officers told Thomas not to run, Willis said, but he was already moving backwards down the short hall, where he entered the back bedroom. The room is mostly empty, save for some boxes and a dresser that sits in the middle of the room. Willis said the female officer fell back into an open closet, while the male officer used a stun gun on Thomas. The medical examiner’s report said Thomas’ shirt still had the stun gun’s prongs attached to it at the time the autopsy was conducted.
Willis said the first shot from the stun gun sent Thomas to the floor instantly.
“I was actually relieved when that happened, because I was standing right there basically next to the officer and once (Thomas) was stunned, I saw all the fight go out of his eyes,” Willis said. “I had been so worried but I saw his face and I saw the fight just go out of him, and I thought ‘Oh thank God, this is finally over.’”
But Thomas had one more burst of energy left in him. Willis said Thomas stood up and tried to run around the officer who had just used the stun gun. The room was much too small for maneuverability, and Willis said he watched as the officer easily stood in Thomas’ way and crouched, gaining leverage to use against the larger man.
Then it was “bam,” Willis said, clapping his hands for emphasis. Willis said the sound was deafening in the tiny room, and he turned and saw the female officer in the closet with her handgun drawn.
Thomas was collapsed on the ground. Willis said officers rushed him out of the room and down the hall, so he stood in the living room with his hands on his head, stunned. Less than 30 minutes earlier he had planned on Thomas sleeping off his paranoia in that room, and now he’d been shot twice?
The medical examiner report showed Thomas died at 8:14 p.m., about 20 minutes after police had arrived at the house.
Both Willis and Thomas’ brother say they had no reason to fear Thomas that night, despite his odd behavior. But Bartlesville police told the media that Willis called 911 that night asking to have Thomas removed from the house, and in a letter from Washington County District Attorney Kevin Buchanan, clearing the two officers of wrongdoing, he said Willis Gay III had a knife, “believing he might need to defend himself or his father from Thomas.”
“That’s crazy,” Willis Gay III said. “We both know Thomas would never hurt us. I wasn’t afraid of him, he’d never hurt me or our dad.”
“I just wanted help, I thought he was stroking out,” Thomas’ father told The Frontier.
Stubblefield, Thomas’ sister, has become somewhat of a shepherd for the family in the wake of Thomas’ shooting. When the family wanted to talk to a reporter about what happened, she arranged for a meeting with nearly a dozen of Thomas’ relatives.
When the family had questions about the shooting, she went to police, then to the district attorney.
She doesn’t feel the officers that night were prepared for the situation that faced them.
And in the shooting’s aftermath, she and the rest of Thomas’ relatives feel like they’ve been treated more like the family of a suspect than the family of a victim.
“It’s just hard because we’re grieving and trying to piece everything together at the same time, and there’s just not enough time to do both,” she said.
It’s hard for family members to hear Thomas described as a suspect, and the silence they say they have received from many of the authorities has spoken volumes.
“I’m still not clear on what he supposedly did to deserve being shot,” Stubblefield said. “He was in his father’s home, he didn’t have a weapon and he didn’t attack anyone, he was just trying to run away.”
In Buchanan’s letter clearing the unnamed officers, he said the officer who tried to stun Thomas was unsuccessful, though Willis said he has clear memories of his son falling to the floor after being stunned.
And Buchanan wrote that Thomas “reached behind him and pulled out an object, presenting it like a weapon.” At this point, Buchanan wrote, Thomas was shot in the leg, then “recovered and again presented the object.” He was then shot in the chest and died.
No weapon was recovered from the scene, police later said, and Thomas’ family disputes the suggestion that he had an item that he presented to officers as a weapon. Stubblefield said that after she obtained an incident report in early October that stated Thomas was wielding a “bow” like a melee weapon, the department gave her a small wooden bow they said Thomas had held onto that night.
“That report was the first time I had ever heard anything about a bow,” Stubblefield said. She showed The Frontier a picture of the bow, a 28-inch string bow with no string attached. It was returned to the family in an unrelated gun box, she said. On the box are the last names of two officers, Pitts and Lewis, an OSBI case number, the date the bow was collected as evidence (June 2, the day after the shooting,) and the location it was collected, from a chair in the living room.
At the time of the shooting, Bartlesville officers were not yet equipped with body cameras, so no footage exists of the shooting. In 2018, the agency released footage of the Townsend shooting, however that footage was captured by an officer who recorded a raid on Townsend’s house on his cell phone.
Today, the department’s 60-or-so officers all wear body cameras.
“Unfortunately at the time of (the Goodeyes) shooting, we were in the process still of acquiring the body cameras,” Bartlesville Police Department Sgt. Jim Warring said. “I wished we would have had them, but we were in the process of trying to figure it all out.”
Warring said the police department had tested out multiple different camera brands in order to determine which brand meshed best with computer software the agency uses. They settled on the “Watchguard” camera and distributed the cameras to their officers in July.
“We’re still trying to work out the things they can do,” Warring said. “We’re still trying to figure everything out, and make sure that officers are getting used to the cameras.”
Warring said the agency has had a dash camera system for years, but that system was often triggered automatically — the cameras were tied to the vehicle sirens, so if the sirens came on, the camera would begin recording on its own.
But body cameras must be activated manually, and Warring said it has taken time to get the officers used to the fact that they have to turn the camera on themselves.
“Overall it’s been way more positive than negative,” Warring said. “They’re good for training and obviously good for evidence. Most of the officers are all for it.”