It was the spring of 1979 when a sedan carrying two young African-American men was stopped by two police cars just as they entered the onramp. It was 9:15 p.m. and they were headed home after a hard shift at work. They were employed at a warehouse showroom in the city of El Cajon, Calif., which was well-known for not being friendly to black folks.
When the driver of the car was commanded by the police loudspeaker to pull over, he did it immediately. Like his passenger, he was trained by his mom "how to get stopped by the police." It's a required skill for African-Americans, even today.
The two men followed the usual police commands as they exited the vehicle. When they did, they could see firearms were trained upon them. They were both scared for they knew one wrong move and they wouldn't make through the ordeal alive. Their innocence would die with them because the officers would be the only ones alive to tell the "real" story. They both knew their movements had to be very slow and nonthreatening.
"Just tell us what you want us to do!" exclaimed the passenger to the cops. That was what his mom had taught him. Her sole motivation was for him to make it home safely every day.
After carefully approaching their suspects, the officers cuffed and frisked them. The passenger of the vehicle asked one of them if he could take off his watch and place it in his pocket. He had received it the past Christmas and he didn't want it to be damaged. He knew how hard his mom had saved to get it for him. The officer took it off and placed it inside his right pants pocket.
It was at this moment they learned the reason for the stop. The officers were seeking suspects in a purse snatching, which had occurred at a nearby drug store. The "probable cause" used for the stop was the physical description: two black males, one taller than the other.
"What?" asked the driver. He couldn't believe what he was hearing
"You're kidding, right?" asked the passenger.
Well, they weren't kidding. They were serious.
Soon, two more patrol cars slowly drove past them on the deserted onramp, the only light coming from the streetlamp above. The two cars were filled with witnesses to the crime. Inside one of the vehicles was also the victim, who positively identified both of them. When the two men heard this over the police radio, they couldn't believe it.
They were told the crime had occurred at 8:30. When the driver told the officers they couldn't have committed the crime because they were locked inside an alarmed warehouse, the officers shunned him as a liar. After all, he was being judged as a thief. How hard would it be for a thief to lie in order to avoid punishment?
And even though no evidence was discovered during the search of the vehicle, the officers were still positive they had their men.
The nightmare continued as the two young African-Americans--each without criminal records--found themselves in an El Cajon police station, one step closer to tarnishing their good names. They sat in a room handcuffed in chairs. The door opened and a group of people--all of them white--filed inside. The lone woman in the group was the victim. It was her purse which was stolen.
There was bit of confusion as the officers grilled the witnesses to get IDs. The victim was the surest of the group. The others were split on whether the two men were even in the store.
Since the company the African-Americans worked for was a major tax paying entity in the small city, the police had the home numbers of every manager on file. They called the closing manager of the warehouse and she verified they couldn't have left the building undetected. The officers were smug and refused to admit their mistake, but they had to release them. The two men were so angry, they requested the officers' badge numbers to make a formal complaint at a later date. The officers complied with a chilling reminder of how black folks can feel so helpless in a system that can be so cruel and unfair.
The lead officer leaned forward and in a low, yet stern voice, he said, "I can still hold you."
As the two African-Americans drove home, they were silent. There was nothing to be said. They had just paid a price for living in that beautiful black skin.
The name of the driver was Paul Wesley Willrich. And, if you haven't already guessed, I was the passenger. Paul and I had been friends since childhood. Actually, we were more than friends. We were like brothers. But this incident had bonded us together like no other experience we'd ever had. Whenever friends and family mentioned our names, that night would be immediately recalled.
On January 10, 2014, Paul left this world surround by the love of his family. He was 54 years old. He lost his battle with colon cancer, but not many others during his life. He leaves a legacy of which anyone would be proud. Too many times people allow their circumstances or their past to affect their decisions and their mentality. This was not Paul. He'd learned from his mom that it doesn't matter what you start out with or what happens to you in life. You still have to work hard, get as much education as you can, and stay on the straight and narrow path.
He prided himself on being a great provider for his family, holding management positions in some of the top tech companies in the US. And if you met him, you'd remember his warm smile, his thunderous laugh, and how he made you feel special. I haven't met many folks like that, which means he was special.
Paul was a loving and devoted husband. He was a wonderful father and grandfather. And he was a great friend who will be missed, yet he will always occupy a special place in my heart.
The last time I saw him was this past December. He was thin and it was obvious he was ill. But his mind was still positive and sharp. His employer had arranged for him to be able to work from home and he did just that. But it comes as no surprise to anyone who knew him. Paul was a fighter and he would fight to the end, just as he had done his entire life.
Paul and I had been telling the story of that night in El Cajon for over 30 years. Never with anger, but with sort of a chuckle in our voices. It could be because of the silly reason we were stopped.
Or, perhaps it was because we felt deep inside that we had the last laugh.