People often met Alton Sterling as he was selling CDs, but they walked away remembering his big heart.
Those who knew him described the 37-year-old as friendly and generous and on Thursday, continued to struggle to understand how the father of five could have been fatally shot by police outside a Baton Rouge convenience store.
"He was just a good guy," Abdullah Muflahi, owner of the Triple S Food Mart and a witness to Tuesday's shooting, told BuzzFeed News. "Always smiling. Always laughing. Always joking."
Muflahi, 28, said Sterling was the first person he met when he took over the convenience store in 2010. The store owner allowed Sterling to sell CDs from the parking lot, and as far as Muflahi knew, he had not had any problems with anyone while doing so until police confronted him Tuesday night.
Sterling's cousin, Sharida, told BuzzFeed News she doubted she'd ever pass by the convenience store again.
“But I’m also going to miss when you pass by, you always see Alton right here at the store," she said. "You don’t even have to stop, you blow the horn, he stand up and wave at you and call out, 'I love you!'”
"[He was] simply trying to earn a living to take care of his children," said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling's oldest son, 15-year-old Cameron.
Flanked by Cameron at a news conference Wednesday, McMillon was emotional and direct. Sterling should be not judged by his past mistakes and run-ins with the law, his death was a murder, and those responsible should be brought to justice, she said. As she spoke, her son broke down in tears.
"As a mother, I have now been forced to raise a son who is going to remember what happened to his father," she said. "And I can't take away from him. He is at an age of understanding."
Sterling's aunt Lorna described him to NBC News as full of joy.
"I miss not being able to see his face, hear his voice, feel his hug," she said. "Alton kept you laughing."
His cousin Sharida Sterling told BuzzFeed News they grew up like brother and sister after his mother died when he was in third grade. He was a good person who could always make others laugh, she said.
“They took a part of my family that we will never get back," Sharida said. "Holidays will never be the same. Family gatherings will never be the same. He was the life of the party. When he walk in, we could be all dead and bored, when he walk in, he start laughing and playing and hugging. That’s Alton.”
He was there for his family, though he had known hard times, she said. Sterling had spent time behind bars and had recently listed his address as a shelter.
“I don’t know how much he made," Sharida said. "But he stayed afloat, he stayed above, he wasn’t under. He didn’t have to go ask for anything. He didn’t want any handouts. Recently, I tried to help him with a certain situation financially, but he didn’t want any handouts.”
Sterling was convicted in 2000 of carnal knowledge of a juvenile, a charge related to consensual sex with a teenager when he was 20. Though he was released from custody in 2004, he had to register as a sex offender.
In 2009, he was arrested while selling CDs after a Baton Rouge police officer stopped and asked if he had drugs or weapons, The Advocate reported. Sterling allegedly tried to run as the officer frisked him, and the officer reported finding a 9 mm pistol and small bag of suspected marijuana. Sterling was later convicted of carrying a weapon while possessing a controlled substance and sentenced to five years.
Some family members initially questioned whether Sterling would have carried a gun when he was shot. Sharida Sterling told BuzzFeed News he only got a firearm last week as protection after he had been robbed two months ago.
"The reason Alton had a gun, because he did have one in his pocket that they pulled out, the reason that he had it was Alton was robbed before two months ago," she said. "And that’s on record because he had to go to the hospital. He was knocked unconscious. They took his CDs and everything that he had on him. That’s why he got a gun. For protection for himself. Not to hurt nobody. You’ll never find a record that Alton pulled a gun on anybody.”
Sharida said that while she's happy to see love and peace coming from the Baton Rouge community, her family remains sad, depressed, and confused.
"The most we’re going through is disbelief," she said. "Like, how could they do this to him? They were out here harassing him. We want justice.
"Why aren’t they in jail? The video obviously showing that it was murder. Why are they still at home allowed to eat, sleep, and breathe freely? Why aren’t they arrested?"
Claudia Koerner is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Claudia Koerner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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