Long before his death made headlines, Danny Buckley spent decades building a life in Baton Rouge.

Those 61 years were filled with ups and downs, fluctuating at times from one extreme to the other — years when he supported his young family as a truck driver and later celebrated when his son joined the U.S. Marines immediately after high school.

He also struggled with poverty and bouts of addiction. He landed in jail numerous times for stealing and other offenses. But he always managed to get by, often with help from his family.  

Then suddenly, it was all over.

Buckley was gunned down while panhandling outside Trader Joe's last month, his name added to a growing list of unarmed Black men whose deaths have fueled the recent groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Attorneys for his family claim the shooting constitutes a hate crime and have challenged how Baton Rouge police handled their investigation. Jace Boyd, the White man accused of pulling the trigger, contacted officers on the scene and identified himself as the shooter. Detectives questioned him that night but released him without charges after he said he was defending himself and others from Buckley, who was "harassing customers" in the parking lot, according to a police report. 

Police came back and arrested Boyd days later following significant public outcry and pressure from the mayor's office. He was released from jail this week on $300,000 bond and has retained two Baton Rouge lawyers to represent him. His attorneys didn't respond to requests for comment.

The case will be presented to a grand jury to determine whether Boyd should ultimately face criminal charges. 

Buckley's family requested privacy after the shooting, but recently decided to tell his story. Donell Buckley wants people to realize that his father was more than a panhandler, that his life mattered and his death demands justice. 

Danny Buckley grew up in Baton Rouge's Parktown neighborhood off Gus Young Avenue. He graduated from Capitol High School and started working as a truck driver, then became a father at age 20.

Donell Buckley said his earliest memories — in the house his parents bought on North 47th Street — are happy and carefree, though that prosperous beginning sometimes gets overshadowed in his mind.

The unexpected death of Danny Buckley's mother sent him into a downward spiral starting when his son was still a toddler. He struggled to support himself and spent time incarcerated. Those issues persisted for much of his son's childhood.

BR.buckleyprofile.090420 HS 003.JPG

Donell Buckley, son of Danny Buckley, speaks in his home, Thursday, September 3, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

His arrests include multiple burglary charges, though details on the circumstances and the case dispositions were not available in online court records. Attorneys for the Buckley family said his crimes indicate a struggle to survive.

But when Donell Buckley returned home after serving four years in the military, his father was pulling things together. He had a house in Brookstown and was working at a chemical plant in Geismar. Danny Buckley pushed his son to come work there too, and they started commuting together, sometimes doing 12-hour shifts seven days straight.

"We were gaining back all the time we lost," Donell Buckley said.

BR.traderjoesvigil.083020 HS 559.JPG
BR.traderjoesvigil.083020 HS 323.JPG
BR.traderjoesvigil.083020 HS 311.JPG
BR.traderjoesvigil.083020 HS 173.JPG
BR.traderjoesvigil.083020 HS 435.JPG

Danny Buckley held it together for a while, but eventually his health started deteriorating and he stopped working. He was arrested again for burglary in 2006 and sentenced to 10 years in prison but released on parole in 2011, court records show.

He stayed with relatives for some time, then started renting a room on South 16th Street. He was arrested there in March following a fight with his girlfriend and pleaded guilty to domestic abuse battery.

The house was destroyed in a fire this summer, so he had recently moved into another building in the same area. One of Donell Buckley's last conversations with his dad was about helping him move some furniture into the new place.

Danny Buckley supported himself doing odd jobs whenever possible, cleaning up parking lots or helping store owners — and sometimes panhandling, his son said. He became a familiar face in several locations across Baton Rouge, including the parking lot on Perkins Road where he was killed. More than 100 people gathered there for a vigil last weekend.

Ryan Thompson and Chase Trichell, two Baton Rouge attorneys representing the Buckley family, challenged the language in a police report that said Buckley was "aggressively harassing customers" in the moments before the shooting. At least one witness has also stated publicly that she didn't feel threatened when Buckley approached her asking for money.

"He was an elderly man with bad knees. What's aggressive about that?" Thompson said. "We believe that language is a gross mischaracterization of what occurred."

Donell Buckley said he received a call from police several hours after the shooting. He was told that his father had died in a shooting following an altercation outside Trader Joe's, and officers hadn't identified a suspect, according to Buckley's memory of the call. He learned later that police had interviewed Boyd that same night but released him pending further investigation.

Buckley said he's been following news of the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the country but never suspected his own family would be caught up in the movement.

"This is 2020 and we are rehashing old racial issues," Thompson said. "Donell here is a veteran. His father's death just opens the same old wounds — the idea that you're good enough to fight for our freedoms, but then you come home and realize some of those freedoms are not available to you and your family."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.