Police 'sleeper hold' death shocked Portland 35 years ago. Lloyd Stevenson's family still struggles with what happened
“Just let me show you my I.D.,” Lloyd D. Stevenson said as three Portland police officers grabbed him outside a 7-Eleven.
Witnesses called out to the officers that they had the “wrong guy,” that the large Black man they were wrestling to the ground had been trying to keep the peace when a confrontation in the store escalated into a scuffle.
A few minutes later, shortly after 11:30 p.m. on April 20, 1985, Stevenson was dead.
The 31-year-old former U.S. Marine, who friends and family called Tony, had his breathing cut off when Officer Gary Barbour used a “sleeper hold” on him.
The tragic incident, and the reaction of some local cops in the days that followed, shocked Portlanders, leading to peaceful protests and a rare public inquest. People across the city began to consider, many for the first time, the possibility that something was wrong -- fundamentally wrong -- with police culture.
Thirty-five years later, the deadly violence that unfolded outside the 7-Eleven at 310 N.E. Weidler Street still reverberates in Portland. It’s not unusual for local activists -- including current mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone -- to invoke Tony Stevenson’s name along with those of Black men and women more recently killed by police in other cities.
But most of all, what happened that long-ago spring evening still reverberates with Stevenson’s family.
Susanna Foster spotted the tall, good-looking man on the campus of Portland Community College.
“Who is that?” she asked a friend.
“Oh, Tony?” the friend said. “He’s this martial-arts guy.”
Tony Stevenson was known within his small social circle as Portland’s answer to Bruce Lee. He took the discipline seriously. He’d even shown off some of his self-defense moves on a local TV program.
Susanna later told her children that she stood there on campus watching the martial-arts guy. There was something mesmerizing about him. It wasn’t just that he had “a great body, which she liked,” their daughter Sarah Noble says now with a laugh. Even from a distance, charisma radiated from him.
Susanna decided she had to meet this man.
“I think she asked him out, and he thought that was pretty forward,” Sarah says.
The two young students were a study in contrasts. Tony was 6’4,” while Susanna barely topped five feet. He was gregarious; she tended to keep to herself. But they had an immediate connection. The tall former Marine who loved kids and the petite single mother (Susanna had a daughter, Denise) quickly became inseparable.
“He loved Susanna so much,” Tony’s brother Jamal Harvey says. “She could do no wrong in his eyes.”
Susanna reciprocated the feeling, actually getting “dreamy-eyed” in Tony’s presence. They soon married.
“I kind of envy the relationship they had,” Denise Foster says of her mother and Tony. “I’ve never had a relationship synch like that.”
The family rapidly grew, and the couple struggled for financial stability. Tony landed a job at Fred Meyer as a security supervisor, focusing on their loss-prevention efforts. He also served as an Army reservist. Long term, he had his sights set on becoming a state trooper.
“He worked very hard,” Tony and Susanna’s son Maurice Stevenson says. “He usually had two jobs. He sacrificed a lot to provide for us.”
They played board games on that Saturday night. Classical music, Tony’s go-to choice, swam in the background. Later, they found a martial-arts movie on their little black-and-white TV. All the kids loved martial arts, because their father loved it, and so Tony and Susanna let them stay up to watch.
Settled in on the couch with his wife and children, Tony mused: “You know what would be great? Ice cream.”
The kids enthusiastically agreed -- ice cream would be great. Tony climbed to his feet.
Susanna tried to reel in the idea. “Tony, don’t go,” she said. “They don’t need ice cream this late.”
Tony couldn’t be talked out of walking to the nearby 7-Eleven. Sure, it was late, but the kids wanted ice cream. He wanted ice cream. Denise, the oldest of their brood at 11, started to put her shoes on, “because lots of times he’d let me go with him,” she says.
“Not this time, Boo-Boo,” Tony told her. “You can go next time.” He picked her up and kissed her on the head. Out the door he went, disappearing into the night.
Denise, 7-year-old Maurice, 5-year-old Sarah and 4-year-old Mary waited anxiously for their father’s return. (Lloyd, barely a year old, was already asleep.) The movie they were watching ended. The local news came on. Then Ted Koppel’s “Nightline.”
“I remember thinking, Why isn’t he back with the ice cream?” Maurice says. He ended up nodding off.
When Susanna realized her husband was taking too long, she let out the family’s black lab, Dino. Occasionally Tony would play video games at the convenience store and lose track of time, and Susanna would send the dog after him. The clerks laughed whenever Dino showed up. “Your wife wants you home,” they’d tell Tony.
This time Dino returned alone.
The dog was whimpering and folded himself up in a corner of the living room, not his usual spot. Susanna encouraged Dino to go out again: “Get Tony,” she said. Dino stayed put.
A couple hours later, the police arrived at the door.
Denise was still up with her mother. “Mom went outside to talk to them,” she says. “She came back in with tears running down her face. She told me, ‘Something’s happened to Daddy.’”
The knock on the door had woken Maurice up. He heard voices he didn’t recognize, sat up.
“I didn’t hear what the conversation was,” he says. “Then my mom came in the room, crying, and said, ‘Hey, you guys, get dressed.’”
Susanna, who died in 2014 at 58, took her five children to their grandparents’ -- Tony’s parents’ -- home in North Portland. Later that morning, Susanna sat the kids down and told them, “Dad is gone.” She had trouble getting the words out.
“Everything started happening so fast,” Sarah recalls. “I remember the police. I remember reporters. There was no way to hide anything. Mom was fully transparent about what happened. Through her grief she told us everything.”
When Tony walked into the 7-Eleven at about 11:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, 1985, he found a tense atmosphere.
Two white clerks stood near the door, trying to keep a Black man named Joseph Nelson from leaving. They believed Nelson had attempted to steal a bottle of wine.
A few minutes later, the suspected shoplifter tried to force his way to the door, and he and the clerks ended up out in the parking lot, wrestling. Tony followed them outside. He held up his arms and urged store customers and other gawkers to stay back.
“I believe he was effectively discouraging people from getting involved in the fight,” one witness later said.
Excited phone calls were made to the police. The dispatcher told responding officers: “We got a call from the Shell station [next door to the 7-Eleven]. The attendant there is going to be going over with a .45 caliber pistol to help out with the fight.”
The dispatcher added: “I don’t have a description of this guy, though.”
The reply: “We’ll probably recognize him. We’re there.”
Police officers, arriving at about 11:30, quickly surveyed the scene. The 7-Eleven clerks held Nelson near the store’s entrance. Off to the side of the building, Tony and two white employees from the gas station were shouting at each other. Tony had prevented one of the station attendants from jumping into the tussle between the clerks and Nelson.
Officers Gary Barbour and Bruce Pantley, both white, ran toward Tony and the two Shell employees. More cops followed. Tony pushed or struck Pantley in the chest when the officer stepped between him and the other men, then-Portland Police Chief Penny Harrington would say the next day in the bureau’s first statement about the incident. In response, the officers threw themselves at Tony.
“Barbour, about 6 feet tall, had to jump up from behind to grab hold of Stevenson in the arm-hook position of the sleeper hold,” The Oregonian reported. “Stevenson and the officers fell to the ground together.”
In the 1980s, the sleeper hold -- the applying of pressure to the carotid arteries on the sides of the neck, typically causing a person to lose consciousness -- was an accepted subduing method taught to officers in the Portland Police Bureau. Studies had only recently shown that such neck holds should be “considered potentially lethal under any circumstance.”
Barbour held onto Tony, an arm wrenched around his neck, “until Stevenson stopped resisting.” But it turned out that Tony’s flailing wasn’t resistance per se -- he was suffocating.
Multiple witnesses would later report that, both before and after he crashed to the ground, Tony had asked the officers to “just let me show you my I.D.”
The officers turned Tony over and handcuffed him. When they noticed he was struggling to breathe, they called for an ambulance.
Lloyd D. “Tony” Stevenson was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital at 12:16 a.m.
Jamal Harvey has thought about that night many times over the years. He always gets stuck on the bewilderment his brother must have felt when the police tackled him. “I’m sure he thought, ‘Oh, good, they’re here to get the bad guy,’ and they grab him instead.”
Neither Barbour nor Pantley responded to interview requests.
Four days after Tony’s death, the social-justice group Black United Front, led by activist Ron Herndon, organized a downtown march to publicly grieve for Tony and to decry what they viewed as the police’s long history of targeting Black Portlanders for violence. They chanted “We want justice!” One protester carried a sign that read, “How do you justify murder?”
In an effort to quell concerns in the Black community that Tony’s death would be papered over, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk announced there would be a public inquest -- and Chief Harrington suspended use of the sleeper hold.
(Harrington’s decision angered some Portland officers, who believed the hold protected both cops and the public. On the day of Stevenson’s funeral, two officers sold T-shirts out of the East Precinct parking lot that featured the message, “Don’t Choke ’Em, Smoke ’Em.” Harrington fired them, but a federal arbitrator would later order their reinstatement.)
In May, the three-day inquest, broadcast live on local cable TV, established that Barbour had violated the department’s sleeper-hold protocol by jumping off the ground to apply it -- and that the officers likely could have saved Tony’s life if they had provided medical aid sooner. Officer Bert Combs stated that Tony was “nearly uncontrollable” when the police approached him, but several witnesses contradicted this characterization.
After deliberating for two hours, the six-member jury decided on a verdict of criminally negligent homicide. It was the first time such a finding had been made against Portland police officers.
Herndon heralded the decision.
“The fact that an all-white jury could come up with this verdict is very, very encouraging to me,” he told reporters.
But the hopefulness proved short-lived. An inquest is only the initial laying out of facts of an event -- it does not look at individual responsibility.
Later in the month a grand jury refused to bring indictments against any of the officers, stating that it could not determine “criminal culpability.” Instead, the jury released a letter through Schrunk and asked that it “be read to all officers at their roll call.” The letter recommended that the Portland Police Bureau examine how it could address “individual officers’ real and perceived attitudes toward racial minorities as well as the entire citizenry.”
The grand jury’s decision, coming right on the heels of the inquest, stunned many Oregonians -- with dozens of people writing to the district attorney’s office to express their dismay.
The police officers’ testimony about Tony was “not consistent with Mr. Stevenson’s character,” insisted Bill Chilstrom, who worked at a hobby shop called The Military Corner that Tony had frequented. In his letter, in which he described himself as “a white male,” Chilstrom said he had gotten to know Tony well. He called Tony a “fine and gentle man.”
One of the inquest’s jurors told Schrunk that she still “felt strongly we made the only right decision on the cause and nature of Lloyd Stevenson’s death. We reviewed each word of the legal definitions you provided us and applied them to the letter.”
The grand jury’s conclusion did not spark more protests. In Portland’s small Black community, resignation had set in.
“My dad was beyond disappointed at the time,” recalls Jamal, who was nearly two decades younger than his brother Tony. “We were talking about it, and he said, ‘Son, this is what we expected to happen.’ He was hoping, but he didn’t expect [the officers] to be held accountable.”
Jamal noticed the police officer a few days after Tony had been buried with military honors.
The cop followed the 12-year-old to school -- Jamal was a student at Holy Redeemer in North Portland -- and back home. Then the officer did the same thing the next day, and the day after that. Jamal would be sitting on his bike, and he’d say to his friends, “There’s my policeman.”
His policeman wasn’t there to protect him. He was there to intimidate him, Jamal insists.
“I remember the cop saying to me, ‘We’re just waiting for you to mess up so we can get you,’” he says.
Jamal didn’t immediately recognize that this might be about Tony’s death. His oldest brother had been his hero, and he figured everyone felt the same way about him. Back when he was a preschooler, Jamal had rushed out to greet Tony whenever his brother came home on leave from the military. “I would hang off his arms,” he says. “What’s cooler to a little kid than having a brother in the Marines?”
But Jamal soon realized that the harassment was indeed about Tony’s death -- because it wasn’t reserved only for him. Shortly after the inquest jury’s decision came down, he says, the Harvey family found a dead possum on their doorstep.
Such a message could not be misinterpreted: In 1981, two white Portland police officers threw dead possums at the door of a Black-owned restaurant in Northeast Portland, sparking outrage in the Black community and extensive newspaper coverage.
When Jamal’s father, James Harvey, discovered a dead possum on his own doorstep, four years after that locally infamous racist incident, he looked up and saw a police car idling down the street, Jamal recalls.
“Dad, flag them down,” Jamal told him.
His father didn’t flag down the patrol car. He took his son back inside the house and locked the door.
Jamal, who now lives in Charlotte, can only surmise that a few rogue officers decided to terrorize his family because they believed the media coverage of Tony’s death -- along with the Portland city council agreeing to pay a $625,000 settlement to the Stevenson and Harvey families -- made the police look bad.
He recalls his older brother Tyrone regularly being pulled over in his prized Toyota truck in the months immediately after Tony’s death, with no traffic citation ever issued. Tony’s children say that more than once Susanna was pulled over as soon as she steered her car onto the street -- as if the police were sitting by their house waiting for her. They believe the harassment is the reason Susanna decided to decamp in 1990. The family moved to Kansas City, Kan., where Susanna had relatives.
Leaving Portland wasn’t easy on the kids. Some of them got into fights at their new schools because they were viewed as “different,” Tony and Susanna’s daughter Mary Pulley says. “I didn’t think I fit in.”
Susanna tried to make her children feel comfortable in their new city, and she encouraged them to focus on their education.
“She took care of us,” says Maurice. “Her biggest concern from Day One was that we were OK. I feel bad; I don’t feel she had much of a life other than taking care of us. She kind of went into survival mode.”
Susanna started smoking cigarettes and eating poorly. She didn’t sleep well.
“She was very depressed,” Sarah recalls. “She never got counseling for the very public death of the love of her life. The only thing that gave her strength was us. She knew she had to keep it together for us.”
Maurice remembers her getting sick every year on the anniversary of Tony’s death. “It was weird,” he says.
Susanna had a stroke in her early 40s. She recovered but more strokes would follow.
She frequently talked to her children about Tony -- small, precious memories, like outings to the bookstore. She celebrated his birthday every year.
At the same time, she tried to redirect her grief into something positive. She’d had a fraught childhood, and she didn’t want anyone else to go through a similar experience. That meant children in the neighborhood who had trouble at home were always welcome at the Stevenson’s place -- for dinner or even to stay for a few days or weeks.
“Mom was really caring and helpful,” says Denise, who now works in a psychiatric hospital in Kansas City. “She always wanted to take care of people.”
“She was everybody’s mom in the neighborhood,” says Lloyd, Tony and Susanna’s youngest. “Her house was always open.”
But while the Stevenson home was a safe haven for others, fears dogged Susanna’s children.
Mary, who was four years old in 1985 and would go on to become a television news reporter in Virginia and Kansas City, didn’t fully realize her father wasn’t coming home again until about two years after his death.
When it hit her that he wasn’t and why, she developed “a sense that we were going to be attacked,” she says. “This paranoia. When you have a father like my dad -- he’s the one you go to when you’re scared. Now I had this feeling that anything could happen, because it happened to my dad.”
She remembers when she was a teenager telling her mom that she didn’t want to ever fall in love -- because that person could be taken from her at any moment. Susanna sat down beside her daughter, looked in her eyes.
“Your father lives,” she said. “He lives in my heart. It’s worth the risk. None of us is promised to each other.”
Sarah, a productivity specialist in Kansas City, grappled with the same emotions as her sister while growing up -- and she still does.
“I feel uncomfortable with [my husband] leaving the house at night,” she says. “He used to work third shifts, and I’d start nervous eating. Little stuff like that scares me, and I wish it didn’t.”
Thirty-five years ago, several hundred Portlanders marched in downtown Portland to protest what happened to Lloyd D. “Tony” Stevenson at the hands of the police.
Today, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, hundreds and sometimes thousands of Portlanders congregate every night to stand against police violence and systemic racism in the U.S. They chant “Black lives matter” and sing “Hands up, please don’t shoot me.”
There’s been progress over the past three-and-a-half decades, including the widespread banning of the sleeper hold by police departments across the country -- typically with an exception for when officers face what they believe to be “an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury.” The Portland Police Bureau’s current deadly-force policy requires an official investigation whenever a chokehold of any kind is used. (There has been one such investigation in the past half-dozen years.)
But members of Black communities across the country, especially young men, are still being targeted by officers, still being killed in disproportionate numbers.
“Why is this still happening?” Denise Foster wonders. “This happened to Dad 35 years ago. When Eric Garner was put in a chokehold and killed [by a New York City police officer in 2014], I kind of lost it. I had to take days off work. This was banned -- why is it still happening? I can’t wrap my mind around it.”
Tony’s children say the nationwide social-justice movement going on now shouldn’t be about demonizing the police. They believe there are many officers who are doing the job for all the right reasons. Maurice Stevenson works in law enforcement in Kansas. Denise was a police dispatcher for a while. And their father wanted to be a trooper, “because he believed people should always do the right thing,” Maurice says.
Police reform is necessary, they agree, but the problem can’t be solved only through police reform. It’s deeper than that.
“I don’t hate cops. It’s not that at all,” Sarah Noble says. “It’s: What is it that makes people scared of people who look like me?”
Working as a broadcast journalist, Mary Pulley says she’s reported on incidents of violent white men being arrested without a scratch -- and on Black men being shot in the back by police officers.
“Nobody really wants to look at those inequities and call it what it is,” she says. “But our family’s experience points to the fact that this is part of the fabric of our country.”
The debate over racial justice -- U.S. Attorney General William Barr told Congress in July, “I don’t agree there’s systemic racism in the police department, generally, in this country” -- is, of course, very personal for the Stevensons and Harveys.
Tony’s children hold tight to their memories of their father and continue to share them with each other at family get-togethers and on Facebook.
Denise remembers that Tony showed up for every one of her recitals and other school activities. And he always dressed for the occasion: argyle sweater, blazer, tie. “I was so happy and proud” to have him there, she says. “I’d say, ‘That’s my daddy!’”
Sarah recalls Tony being “the best part of my day” when she was a little girl.
But the memories inevitably are bittersweet, tied up in loss and thoughts of what might have been.
“It would have been nice to have a father to just talk about life things,” Sarah says.
Even after all these years, no one in the family has gotten past Tony’s death, says Jamal Harvey, who for a time was the chief legal assistant at Portland’s Metropolitan Public Defender office.
Jamal’s mother Mary Harvey and his brother Tyrone never talk about it, he says. (Mary Harvey’s husband, James, died in 2009.)
“My mom will not talk about anything to do with this,” Jamal says. “Every time I think she’s getting closure, something happens in the world to bring it back.”
Tony’s children feel the same way: the world keeps bringing it back.
Sarah says she’s “honored” when activists and others talk about her father all these years later. To her, it means that when people learn about what happened to a man who was a proud veteran, a beloved husband and father and a respected member of the community, it “helps change their minds.”
She wonders if that includes the officers who were there outside the 7-Eleven that night. Does Gary Barbour, who retired from the Portland Police Bureau in 2011, feel remorse? Does Bruce Pantley, who left the department in 1988, ever think about her father?
“Did it change how they handled big Black men from then on?” she asks herself. “Were there changes in their own lives, to see people in a different way? Did it change them? Those are the things I wonder.”
-- Douglas Perry
Published in The Oregonian, 2020