Jonathan Cortez was buying a packet of beef jerky, a bottle of Gatorade and a Snickers bar at his local corner store in Oakland, California, when an FBI agent stormed in, gun drawn.
Seconds later, the officer opened fire, fatally shooting the 31-year-old.
The shooting on 13 September, a rare killing by an FBI agent, has left Cortez’s shattered family with many unanswered questions.
Federal authorities said Cortez was killed as officers were serving warrants for his arrest, and local officials have claimed Cortez was armed. But, Cortez’s relatives say, it remains unclear how a trip to the store for snacks turned deadly in an instant. Why were federal agents involved in serving local warrants? Why did the officer run in with his gun drawn? And what exactly happened in those few seconds?
He spent seven dollars and lost his life
Cortez’s friends and relatives have demanded that the agent involved be named, fired and arrested, and that police release the security footage they seized from the store during the investigation. They’ve decried the response of local and federal police, which the family says has included harassment, during the investigation.
Meanwhile, community activists have warned the shooting highlights the dangers of federal officers operating in Oakland’s communities of color.
“How can this happen?” said Jackie Nguyen, Cortez’s 33-year-old girlfriend, who has known him since childhood and lives above the store. “He spent seven dollars and he lost his life.”
‘Always dancing and laughing’
Cortez’s relatives said they want him to be remembered for how he lived, not how he died.
Michael Jonathan Cortez, who went by Jonathan, grew up in the Fillmore district, the historic San Francisco neighborhood known as the “Harlem of the West”. He was born in 1990 and was one of nine siblings, raised in a close-knit family. His mother worked in retail, and his father as a chef.
“We were popular kids, we knew everybody, and everybody knew our family,” Iris, one of his older sisters, told the Guardian. Jonathan was “a wild child”, Iris recalls. “He was always active, always funny, always dancing, always wanting to go outside and ride bikes or play baseball, kickball or any sport.”
Jonathan was considered the baby in the family, and his older cousins and siblings were protective of him, said Mila Cortez, one of his cousins. They were often worried about him, she said, and tried to keep him close.
Even when he was young, police and neighborhood members sometimes wrongly assumed he was a gang member, she said, recounting one instance when a group of guys harassed him when he was 11 or 12 because his hat had a San Francisco logo printed in red, a color associated with a local gang.
“Police would come at him all the time, and they would have their guns drawn, for a traffic stop or anything … It was ridiculous, because he was a small guy, always pleasant and smiling and laughing,” Mila recounts.
Junior, another cousin, recalled how Cortez was an expert in San Francisco geography at a young age, and loved riding the cable cars with Junior’s father, who worked as a driver, and chatting with tourists: “He was such a people’s person.”
The ‘uncle’ of the block
Cortez couldn’t escape violence in the neighborhood though, Mila said, and at one point was incarcerated after defending himself during an attack. His criminal record haunted him throughout his 20s, she added.
But Cortez, his family said, had a big heart. Mila recalled that he went out of his way to help someone behind bars who had lost contact with his family, making sure the man had money in his account for basic necessities, and was connected to a re-entry program. There was also the man he found overdosing on the street. Cortez got him into a hospital, she said, and later helped him get into a rehab program.
Cortez was working hard to tun his life around, family and friends said. “He was ready to come out and be a better man,” said Rudy Corpuz Jr, a family friend who visited him in jail and is the founder of United Playaz, a youth development organization.
He had three children – ages five, seven and 14 – and nieces and nephews who adored him. Cortez loved cooking seafood, and had ambitions to open a food truck that would hire formerly incarcerated people. “We had so many things planned. He wanted to eat at every restaurant,” Nguyen said.
Cortez had been spending a lot of time in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, where Nguyen lived. On the block where he was killed, children and teens called him “uncle”, she said, and he would teach them how to fix cars and motorcycles and buy them food.
Killed in seconds
Surveillance video recorded from across the street on the day Cortez was killed shows an officer drive up in what appears to be an unmarked car to the Upstairs Underground Smoke Shop, the corner store on Fruitvale avenue below Nguyen’s apartment.
The grainy footage, which was shared with the Guardian, shows the officer running in with his gun drawn. More cars with officers pull up.
An FBI spokesperson later said the officer shot Cortez eight seconds after entering the store.
Faisal Aldahmi, the store’s operator, told the Guardian his son was behind the counter, talking to a friend, when he saw a man who appeared to be in plainclothes approaching with a gun, and thought the shop was being robbed. Aldahmi’s son and his friend ran to the back, the store operator said. “They thought somebody was going to come in and shoot. They were scared.”
The FBI told reporters that the officer wore a law enforcement bulletproof vest, announced he was an officer and that Cortez tried to flee and brandished a gun.
The Oakland police department, which is investigating the killing and has footage from inside the shop, refuses to release it. The department declined the Guardian’s request for comment.
Details on the operation remain scant. The FBI has said it wasn’t running the effort, and its agent was deputized to work for the US Marshals service and was a regular member of its regional “fugitive task force” that was targeting Cortez.
The Marshals service said it was executing warrants for Cortez’s arrest for local domestic violence and police evasion charges, and said he had a federal charge of mail theft, but declined to elaborate.
The local charges originated in Hayward, a city near Oakland. A Hayward police spokesperson alleged that Cortez had fled when police tried to arrest him for domestic violence allegations. The spokesperson told the Guardian that although the department had shared information with the federal force, it was not involved in the operation: “There was no specific request from us to have them pick him up.” The Marshals spokesperson declined to say why it targeted the store that day.
Cortez’s family says the charges are unfounded.
‘They are harassing our family’
Since the shooting, various members of Cortez’s family have alleged both state and federal law enforcement agencies have mistreated them.
When Nguyen returned from the hospital where Cortez had died, she found authorities trying to enter her home.
An officer pressured her to let him in, she alleged, saying, “‘We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.’” She refused: “We have nothing to hide, but we know our rights.” The officer returned with a warrant hours later and ransacked her apartment, she said, flipping her bed and emptying cabinets and drawers. (She thought it was a Marshals officer, though the warrant was drawn up by Oakland police.)
“I went from being worried and scared to being so angry. I really felt like they wanted to raid my home to find something to justify Jonathan’s killing,” she said, adding that the officers took paperwork with Cortez’s name, but nothing else.
You can’t just go into a store and kill somebody while they’re shopping and give no explanation
Two weeks later, the same US Marshals task force that shot Cortez showed up at his funeral reception and arrested one of Cortez’s friends, who had been a pallbearer at the service that day. Cellphone footage shows family members, wearing shirts with Cortez’s face, protesting as officers took the man into custody, saying, “Don’t shoot him!” and “This is our family function, we just buried our cousin.”
A Marshals spokesperson said the man had warrants for his arrest and that the task force located his vehicle in the parking lot.
“This is harassment. This is terrorizing our family,” said Mila. “We can’t even mourn.”
While police agencies have said little about the ongoing investigations, they have continued to speak about Cortez’s alleged criminal cases: “Instead of accountability and transparency about what really happened, they are just presenting him as a bad guy, and speaking down about his character,” said Nguyen.
“What are they hiding?” added Iris, Cortez’s sister. “You can’t just go into a store and kill somebody while they’re shopping and give no explanation.”
‘You can’t hold them accountable’
As the Cortez family waits for answers, the shooting has sparked fresh debates about Oakland’s plans to invite outside law enforcement agencies to help patrol its streets.
In August, Oakland requested that California Highway Patrol (CHP) deploy officers in the city, arguing that personnel were needed to deal with a spike in crime. The request followed a wave of reports about attacks against elderly Asian residents in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.
They basically come here playing wild, wild west, and then bounce
Activists protested that adding state officers to patrol communities of color could lead to more police violence, and that Oakland has a checkered history of deploying outside officers in times of tension. The city had previously brought in the FBI and other federal law enforcement amid protests around the death of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police at the Fruitvale train stop.
Pointing at Cortez’s shooting, they argued that it’s easier for federal agents to act with impunity, and that some of the local laws meant to prevent police violence didn’t apply to federal officers. “You can’t hold them accountable. They basically come here playing wild, wild west, and then bounce,” said Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project.
An FBI spokesperson for the San Francisco division, which includes Oakland, said it was extremely rare for an agent to fire a gun on the job, saying he only knew of three incidents in the region in the last six years.
On Fruitvale avenue, Nguyen is left to pick up the pieces. Her 16-year-old son was fatally shot in San Francisco two weeks before the FBI shot Cortez, who had been supporting her. She was still processing the trauma from her son’s killing when she got the call about Cortez.
People in Nguyen’s life have encouraged her to move away from her apartment and the block where Cortez was killed. She often looks out her window and sees the youth who called him uncle still in mourning, wearing shirts with her boyfriend’s face.
That community support keeps her going, she said, and has strengthened her resolve to stay on the block.