Deborah Lilly said she felt like she'd been stabbed in the heart when she read the medical examiner's report and learned Tyler Hays, her son, had been shot in the back.
Hays had been "involved in an altercation" with Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jordan Long following a brief pursuit on May 18, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The incident ended with Long shooting Hays.
There was "no powder stippling or soot, no muzzle mark on the surrounding skin and no charring," according to the autopsy report. It was an "intermediate range" gunshot wound to his mid-back. The bullet was lodged in his right shoulder.
Hays was missing a shoe and had abrasions on his knees and left elbow. A Taser electrode was embedded in his shorts but hadn't touched his skin.
When she read the report, Lilly said, "I thought, 'My child was scared to death' and someone just shot him in the back."
"How does someone justify that?" she asked. "You cannot justify shooting someone in the back. There's, there's no justification for it."
Hays was a curious child, Lilly said. He was small-framed, standing 5 feet, 5 inches, and was bullied a lot in grade school.
"It's really really hard as a parent when you have this little person who's like such a ball of fire and so happy and they come home and just seemed broken," she said.
She remembered him coming home one day with footprints on the back of his jacket.
"I asked him, 'What happened?' And some kids had pushed him out of the seat and walked on him and then stole the watch that his grandfather had bought him, and he was just — that makes me cry even today," she said through tears. "I just wonder how things like that, you know, led to ultimately what happened with Tyler."
Hays struggled a lot, she said. He started getting into trouble and would sometimes take the blame for other kids.
"I'd say, 'Why do you keep doing that?' And he's like, 'I don't think they could handle getting in trouble.' I'd be like 'Well, I can't handle you continuing to get in trouble!' But Tyler was always more concerned about other people," Lilly said. "He was very intelligent, and he would talk to you like he was Dr. Phil, but at the same time, he couldn't do it in his own life."
Over the years, Hays' habit of smoking marijuana developed into an addiction to harder drugs, his mother said. He eventually got caught up in the justice system and was arrested seven times since 2012, most of which were for drug-related charges.
It became difficult to keep in touch with Hays in recent years, Lilly said.
"About a year ago, Tyler called me and he said, 'Mom, I just wanted to let you know that my phone's gonna get turned off. But I'll get in touch with you when I can. I just didn't want you to be worried.' And I said, 'Okay, well keep in touch with me because I haven't heard from you in a year, you know.' And that's the last conversation I had with Tyler," she said.
Lilly acknowledged her son's history with drug addiction and run-ins with law enforcement. But she can't come to terms with the idea that he would fight an officer, she said. He wasn't violent.
"This kid lived in [Bob] Marley T-shirts. That's the kid that I know, not a kid who would struggle with a cop over a gun," she said.
In the end, she said that in her eyes, his history doesn't justify the way he died.
"Tyler was an addict who was failed in a million different ways by a million different places and persons," she said. "I have regrets. For sure. Sometimes I feel like if I just would have been a stronger woman and moved Tyler away from everything, you know what I mean? When he was little, I could have saved us both."
At the funeral, he looked perfect, Lilly said.
"There wasn't a mark on his face or anything," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I could — I kissed him. I could touch him."
As for Long, he was back on duty less than a week after the shooting, and — while still under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation — was involved in a vehicle pursuit on June 9, during which he fired his weapon. No one was injured.
He was again placed on administrative leave. And, as of late last month, he had not returned to duty.
Long's attorney Janie Parks Varnell said Long has participated fully with the TBI investigation.
"We welcome a full investigation and are confident that the TBI will find that Deputy Long's actions were necessary and justified," she said.
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