Alton Sterling Jr. tells his mother he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.

The 6-year-old knows his daddy is gone, but he doesn't yet understand how or why that happened.

But, one day, he will.

"Right now, he's still young, but (eventually) I'm going to have sit down and really tell him what's going on," said Andricka Williams, the mother of Alton Sterling's three youngest children, including the son everybody calls "AJ."

A year ago, Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white Baton Rouge police officer in an incident that spurred protests across the city and put a national spotlight on the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Williams worries about the day her son will see the cell phone video of his father's death: the quick escalation, the struggle with police and the heartbreaking ending. She doesn't know how it will affect AJ or Sterling's other children.

She and others close to Sterling are still waiting to learn whether there could be criminal charges in the case or how the Police Department may resolve any internal discipline against the two officers involved in the incident. 

"I pray — I'm still holding onto my faith that they do give justice, for the sake of the kids," said Williams, 35.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in May it would not file criminal civil rights charges against the two officers. The case has since been turned over to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to determine if state criminal charges are warranted. That investigation is still pending. BRPD officials say they won't move forward with an internal affairs probe until criminal charges are decided. Additionally, lawyers for Sterling's children recently filed a lawsuit in state court against the officers and the police department.

Can't see the video below? Click here.

 

“I always wanted the kids to grow up with their daddy," said Williams, who also shares 3-year-old twins with Sterling. "We got this one officer's actions, and now a lot of kids are missing their dad. … A year later and they haven't done anything, it's crazy."

Remembering Alton

This past Father's Day, Cameron Sterling felt alone in a way he hadn't before.

"Everyone else had a dad," said the 16-year-old, the oldest of Alton Sterling's five children.

"I think about him all the time, everyday," Cameron said. "It’s a process that I’m going through right now. I won’t get over it, (but) I have to keep pushing through my life, I have to keep moving forward."

To commemorate both his father's June birthday and Father's Day, Cameron and his mom released balloons into the sky, while the teen sang, "Goodbye," by Amanda Perez. And as sad as Cameron said he feels some days, his focus is on moving forward in a way that honors his father: college, and to be more specific, neurobiology.

"I have to graduate from high school, go to college, make him proud," the rising high school junior said. "He would want me to get up and do something with my life, go to college, and be successful… . He pushed me to stay in school, no matter what."

Williams makes a point to keep Sterling's legacy alive in her children's lives, even though she realizes they will have few of their own memories to hold onto. 

"My children know their daddy," Williams said. A picture of their father hangs above their beds and together they visited his gravesite. Her 3-year-olds, Journee and Josiah, like to scroll through Williams' old cell phones to see photos of Sterling. Recently, when they drove by a park where AJ and Sterling had played years ago, he pointed and shouted about his Daddy.

"I remember the good times," said Williams, who dated Alton on-and-off for a little more than six years. "Alton was like a big ol' teddy bear… . He was just a big ol' kid; he just wanted to put a roof over his head."

She imitates his deep, Santa-like laugh, remembering his reaction when they went to watch WrestleMania together and their seats were so far away they could barely see. Or when she took him to Mardi Gras in New Orleans for the first time. Or when he convinced her to name their first-born after him — despite her family's tradition to start all grandchildren's names with a J.

"He loved his kids, he would try to do anything to make them happy," Williams said.

That attitude is something Triple S Food Mart owner Abdullah Muflahi said he misses every day.

"It’s hard to come in just to find mural of him and not have him here," Muflahi said. “He knew almost everybody in the neighborhood, and if not, if they were walking past him, he’d always say hello and talk to him. He was a very friendly guy.”

Sterling sold homemade CDs outside of the North Foster Drive convenience store, where he was when Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II approached him July 5, 2016. The officers had responded to a 911 call that a man who matched Sterling's description had threatened someone with a gun. Eventually they struggled with Sterling, hit him with a stun gun, and tackled him. Salamoni shot Sterling as officers grappled with him on the ground. 

Both officers told detectives after the shooting that they saw the gun in Sterling's pocket — a gun he wasn't allowed to carry because of a past felony conviction — and believed he was reaching for it. Officials have said no video evidence in the case shows the position of Sterling's right hand before he was shot. Federal officials, including Acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson, said this spring there wasn't evidence to support federal civil rights charges in the case, although attorneys for Sterling's family said those officials privately criticized Salamoni's initial approach of Sterling, which included pointing a gun at him soon after arriving.  

Salamoni's lawyer, John McLindon, emphasized that this had been "a very tough year" for the officer and his family. Both Salamoni and Lake are on paid administrative leave pending the final determination of criminal charges or BRPD internal discipline. 

“He’s got a lot of support, a lot of people in the community are supporting him, and understand what he did, he had to do," McLindon said. "He's not happy about what happened on that night, he wishes he didn't have to do that, (but) Alton Sterling had his hand on a loaded pistol."

Lake's attorney did not respond to a request for comment. 

Waiting for answers

It was a tough year. And, somehow, it doesn't feel like it's over, Muflahi said.

“I thought this would all be over with, that there would have been something, (that it wouldn't) still be under investigation," Muflahi said. "Everything is there, I just don’t know what is taking so long … . Everything, the videos, the evidence, is all on the table."

East Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker dedicated much of the last year working to address issues concerning the police department through her and Councilman Trae Welch's committee on community policing — and yet she feels something is still missing.

"We performed as a community in the best way we could," Wicker said. "The people were anxiously awaiting some sort of closure. I think, even now, people just need to be able to bring closure."

Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie echoed Wicker, saying the continued pending legal cases have been hard for everyone, including his officers. 

“It’s like a cloud hanging over our heads," Dabadie said. "It’s difficult for the community, for the department, for the city. … I think the length of time that it’s taken to get any resolution has definitely made it more challenging."

The seemingly indefinite wait for the judicial process has continued to foster distrust from the community, said Baton Rouge state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, especially among African-Americans. Marcelle said she continues to hear about policing issues from her constituents, and those concerns are only exacerbated by the lack of answers in this high-profile case.

"It has had a negative impact on the entire situation, anytime you have a lack of transparency," Marcelle said.

Wicker called Sterling's death an awakening, highlighting economic disparities and a range of policing concerns. 

“The national attention that has now been brought … you mention Baton Rouge or Alton Sterling, people make that connection," Wicker said. "At the same time, my hope is, we’ll also be known for how this community survived the storm: We didn’t destroy our community, we didn't burn down businesses, we came together."

The incident has brought the Police Department under a microscope, Dabadie said, but "rightfully so." He said they have been forced to reevaluate policies and make changes, like signing the memorandum of understanding in February that State Police will independently investigate any officer-involved shootings, something that had not previously been protocol.  

“You never want the loss of life, that’s never an acceptable outcome, but I hope and pray some good comes out of this, some way, shape or form," Dabadie said.

At Triple S

Last July, after nights of protests over Sterling's death clogged the streets, Triple S became eerily quiet. People stayed away from the place where Sterling was killed. Customers stopped coming in for their fried chicken, cold drinks and snacks.

Twelve months later, business is almost back to normal, Muflahi said.

“A lot of regulars weren’t coming in; they’re still returning slowly," Muflahi said in late June.

Most afternoons, Travis Hicks stands in the parking lot behind a collapsible table, selling homemade CDs and DVDs, just as his longtime friend Sterling did. Around March, Muflahi welcomed Hicks to the post, which he is hopeful will help grab the attention of passers-by and generate a certain liveliness. The discs sell two for $5, and five for $10.

Every once in a while, Williams comes by the shop with her three little ones.

“I love seeing those little kids, his youngest three,” Muflahi said, smiling. "They come in here and we play around."

Williams believes it's important to bring AJ, Journee and Josiah to the spot where they used to visit their father — and her children love it because Muflahi spoils them, letting the children pick out some candy.

Many days, Muflahi looks out to see people he doesn't recognize stopping by — not to shop — but to to see the spot that became a backdrop for the national debate on policing.  

“There’s a lot of people that still come around, take pictures," Muflahi said. "They come from all over the country."

Gail Isom, of New Jersey, came to Baton Rouge in June for a wedding, but with Triple S on her must-see list.

"I have two young, black men myself, and I have nephews and brothers," the 47-year-old said, looking at the portrait of Sterling painted on the wall of the store. "That could have been them."

She snaps a picture with her cell phone of the wall, still adorned by stuffed animals and memorializing messages.

"I just couldn't leave (Baton Rouge), and not come here," Isom said. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.