Alton Sterling hustled all his life, trying to scrape together enough money in $5 increments by selling copies of movies, albums and games.

A fixture in front of the Triple S Food Mart, where he was shot by a Baton Rouge police officer early Tuesday, neighbors and friends described the 37-year-old Sterling as a friendly, kind-hearted man who spent nights peddling his wares.

“If you asked Alton for the shirt off his back, he’d give it to you. Alton would give you the world,” Lorna Sterling, an aunt who helped raise him following his mother’s death, said Tuesday evening while standing in the parking lot of the store. “Alton sits out here until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. All he did was sell his CDs and DVDs and go eat.”

A cousin who grew up with Alton Sterling described his upbringing as “a rough childhood” — his mother died in 1986 and he went on to lives with other relatives — but said he’d stayed close with his family and had a sharp sense of humor.

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“He always could make you laugh,” said the cousin, Sharida Sterling, who added she thought of Alton as a brother. “You know how when something like this happens people always say good, good, good things? Well, he really was a good person. You won’t hear a bad story from nobody.”

Alton Sterling’s life was punctuated by arrests and jail terms stretching back to 1996, including an encounter with police similar to the one that ended in his death.

In May 2009, he was selling CDs outside a convenience store when a Baton Rouge officer asked if he had any weapons or drugs on him, according to a police report. Sterling didn’t answer, and the officer had him put his hands on the police car, the report said. While being frisked for weapons, Sterling tried to reach into his front left pocket for an unknown item, the officer wrote.

Sterling then tried to run from the officer, who grabbed the back of his shirt and pushed him to the ground. During the struggle, a stolen 9mm semi-automatic pistol fell from Sterling’s waist band, the report said. Officers also found a small plastic bag of suspected marijuana in Sterling’s front left pocket.

Sterling later pleaded guilty in May 2011 to illegal carrying of a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance, and was sentenced to five years in July 2011.

Relatives said most of the crimes Sterling may have committed came while trying to eke out a living.

“He did some time in jail, got out, and came out here selling CDs, trying to make an honest living,” said Sharida Sterling.

After returning home from that prison term, Lorna Sterling said her nephew had resolved to steer clear of trouble and take care of his five children, including a set of twins. She also said his brother died about six months ago.

The owner of the Triple S Food Mart, Abdullah Muflahi, said he’d happily allowed Alton to set up shop outside his building since getting to know him about six years ago.

Cameron Sterling, Alton’s 15-year-old son, broke down in tears at a press conference Wednesday morning outside the Baton Rouge City Hall, turning away from the crowd into the embrace of supporters and shielding his face in a shirt.

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Sterling had been living at a halfway house, where he’d registered. But a probation officer who checked on him in August was told by the center manager that Sterling hadn’t lived there for two weeks. He’d also spent time living with aunts and other relatives, they said.

Vereta Lee, an East Baton Rouge school board member who said she’s known the Sterling family for years, described Alton Sterling as “a very nice, kind fellow” trying his best to provide for his family and stay out of trouble, given a tough set of circumstances — a job that kept him outside in an often rough neighborhood until late in the night.

“He wasn’t making much but enough to try to feed himself,” Lee said. 

Advocate staff writer Joe Gyan contributed to this report.

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