On May 11, Justin Way was drinking and threatening to hurt himself. His father, George Way, said his son was a recovering alcoholic and had been alcohol-free for five weeks.
“He just lost his job, and he had a setback,” he said.
Way’s live-in girlfriend, Kaitlyn Christine Lyons, said she’d caught Justin drinking a bottle of vodka, which she took away from him to pour out. She said he was drunk, lying in their bed with a large knife, saying he would hurt himself with it. She called a non-emergency number in an attempt to get her boyfriend to a local St. Augustine, Florida, hospital for help—and told them she did not feel threatened.
“My brother has been Baker Acted three times because he was threatening to hurt himself so I figured that would happen with Justin,” said Lyons. Florida’s Baker Act allows the involuntary institutionalization of an individual, and it can be initiated by law enforcement officials.
“The only person Justin threatened was himself and I honestly don’t think he wanted to die.”
Minutes later, two St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputies, 26-year-old Jonas Carballosa and 32-year-old Kyle Braig, arrived at the home, armed with assault rifles, and told Kaitlyn to wait outside.
“I thought they were going into war,” she remembered thinking when she first saw the large guns. Within moments, Justin was shot dead.
George Way said the initial report he received from Detective Mike Smith detailed an incident wherein his officers said they were attacked by Justin with a knife. Way said Smith told him Justin had threatened Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn denies this.
Denise Way, Justin’s mom, said the detective relayed to her that “they told Justin to drop the knife and he didn’t—so they shot him because ‘That’s what we do.’”
Denise said Smith then told her about “this new trend in law enforcement now—it’s called suicide by cop.” She said Smith explained “suicide by cop” is when suicidal people provoke the police in an effort to end their own lives.
She said Smith wouldn’t tell her family where or how many times their son was shot.
Justin’s parents do not believe their son was a threat, because they think Justin was shot while still lying in bed.
“If Justin was coming after them with a knife, at 6-foot-4, wouldn’t there be blood splattered all over the room?” George said.
Way’s parents brought Justin’s mattress to the curb after his death. George says he believes there was a bullet dug out of the bed from a hole found in the middle of it. He also said the blood was contained entirely within the mattress, and that it did not hit the walls or the floor.
In a phone interview with Commander Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, The Daily Beast asked if it was standard procedure to bring assault rifles, but not mental health professionals, to a scene where someone is suicidal.
“If the deputies feel that that is the appropriate weapon system to use, then yes,” said Mulligan.
If the deputies used tasers and one prong missed, Mulligan said, they might be left in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation.
“They were in a very tight space within a residence,” he said.
Mulligan added that the difference between an assault rifle and a handgun would not have affected the outcome in Justin Way’s case.
“Whether it’s a rifle or not, in many senses, is a non-issue,” he said. “A bullet comes out of a handgun, a bullet comes out of a rifle.”
This wasn’t the first time that law enforcement in the area had been involved in a fatal shooting. One of the two officers that went into Justin Way’s home, Kyle Braig, was involved in a fatal shooting with a knife-wielding man five months ago. A few days after Way was killed, another suicidal man was injured by St Johns County deputies.
On Facebook, Jonas Carballosa, the second deputy involved in the Justin Way shooting, once posted the following quote: “Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun.”
Way’s parents said they do not ever want to call the police again—for anything.
Kaitlyn Lyons said she hopes the police rethink how guns are used in cases where people are calling about those who are suicidal or seeking help.
“I think they should come in using other things,” she said. “And I think they definitely need to figure out how to handle suicidal people.”
UPDATE 10:15 AM: An earlier version of this story implied that Justin Way called a suicide hotline. It was his girlfriend, Kaitlyn Lyons, who made the call. We regret the error.