Long before former Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor became a hashtag, a rallying cry for justice and the smiling face on refrigerator magnets, she was a big sister who snuggled in bed with her little sister watching scary movies.
Taylor, shot and killed in her apartment by Louisville police in the nascent moments of March 13, was a daughter, a godmother, a niece and a best friend who dreamed of caring for the tiniest, most helpless of humans.
Last Friday would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday.
As both federal and local law enforcement officials continue investigations into how Taylor died, family members and her best friend spoke with NBC News about how she lived.
“She did right by everybody,” said her sister, confidante and roommate, Ju'Niyah Palmer. “Literally she goes out her way for everybody. She would go above and beyond.”
Taylor is the lone woman in a triune tragedy that has sparked outrage across the nation and the globe. Protesters have marched and in some cases destroyed buildings in anger over African Americans repeatedly dying at the hands of whites, particularly white police officers.
In the cases of George Floyd, who died after being placed in a controversial knee-on-neck hold by a Minneapolis police officer, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased by a white father and son and shot to death as he jogged through a Georgia neighborhood, murder charges have been filed.
For Taylor, the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit and the FBI Louisville field office continue trying to piece together what happened. Police did not respond to questions from NBC News.
The state’s Office of the Attorney General has been asked to serve as special prosecutor in the case.
What is clear is that before 1 a.m. on March 13, police fired into an apartment on Louisville’s southwest side, not far from the state line.
Attorneys for Taylor’s family say Taylor’s boyfriend, fearing a home invasion, fired a single shot toward noise he heard coming from the front door. Police, attorneys say, responded by firing off more than 20 rounds, some of which traveled into nearby apartments.
Eight of those shots found Taylor in an apartment hallway, ending a life that began June 5, 1993, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s when Taylor arrived as the first-born child of Tamika Palmer.
In her debut, Taylor also was the first grandchild in Palmer’s family, Ju'Niyah Palmer said. That earned Taylor the nickname “the baby,” which stuck even after Ju'Niyah was born, six years later.
“She was very helpful to me as I was growing up,” said Ju'Niyah, 20, who lived in the apartment with Taylor but was not at home the night her sister died. “She to me was like my second mom.”
In Michigan, in her middle school years, Taylor and her family lived in a townhome complex where the family of Alena Battle also lived.
Battle, a reserved sixth grader, found in Taylor, a seventh grader, someone who was “a really fun person” and “super goofy.”
“We just clicked,” said Battle, 25, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “She understood me and vice versa.”
Through endless hours playing board games, or Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, or “just doing nothing,” the two would become best friends for life.
In 2008, Taylor and her family moved from Grand Rapids to Louisville, where Tamika Palmer could rejoin her sister, Ju’Niyah said.
Battle said the friendship remained strong, despite the distance.
“When she moved to Louisville, me and my sister, in summers in high school, we'd go down there and … stay with her,” Battle recalled. “Even as adults, we would travel back and forth between Louisville and Charlotte to stay in touch with each other.”
Taylor immediately loved her new hometown, Ju’Niyah said, especially after the sisters discovered they were “geniuses” at school, excelling in classwork.
Taylor landed on the honor roll but shied away from a key celebration because she didn’t want people to think she was “just this big nerd,” Ju’Niyah said, “even though she really was.”
In high school in Louisville, Taylor met Kenneth Walker III, who also, said his cousin Richard Hughes, had a love of board games.
Pals at first, Walker eventually bought Taylor an engagement ring that his mom held for safekeeping.
As Taylor and her sister grew up, they became confidants, Ju’Niyah said.
“We talked all the time. We were best friends,” she said. “Even if we were calling ourselves [being] busy, we still would always talk no matter what. Didn't matter what was going on. Basically … we were each other's personal diary.”
Often the two would snuggle in bed and turn on a movie, Ju’Niyah said.
“Even though she fell asleep within the first three minutes of the movie,” it was still a fun pastime and one of the things Ju’Niyah said she’ll miss most.
Taylor liked to tell jokes.
“She wasn't very good at it, but we used to let her,” Ju'Niyah said, in part because Taylor seemed to get such a kick out of making others smile.
Even though she was “kind of a big cry baby,” Taylor chose a career in medicine.
Until 2016, she served as an emergency medical technician for Louisville Metro Emergency Medical Services.
Most recently, she worked at Norton Hospital as a PRN and at Jewish Hospital as an ER technician, said family attorney Lonita Baker.
“She loved the adrenaline and she loved the ‘Quick let's hurry up and get this person. … Let's make sure they're OK,’” Ju’Niyah said. “She loved the whole hands-on, ‘I'm helping a patient.’ ... Just helping somebody else smile made her smile.”
Her EMT shifts could be 15 hours long, Ju’Niyah said.
She would come home drained, eat a bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal, and go straight to sleep, she added.
Sometimes, if things were slow during a hospital shift, Taylor would “call and wake me up and she's like, 'Oh, you should bring us a board game. I want to teach my co-workers how to play this or that,' just so she can help them make it through their shifts.”
Taylor loved being a health care professional, Ju’Niyah added.
She had begun filling out paperwork to attend fall classes at Ivy Tech Community College in neighboring Indiana, her sister said. She was having trouble deciding on whether she wanted to work in a neonatal intensive care unit or in a trauma unit, her sister said.
Despite the pressing demands of work, Taylor continued to make time for Battle.
Two years ago, when Battle gave birth to son Tamaj, Taylor became “TT Brona,” his godmother. Before the birth, Taylor had a teal quilt made, which Battle will now use to remind her son of the longtime friendship.
“I knew the person that she is, she would always be there for my son,” Battle said. “She was just a good person. I knew that if anything ever happened, he'll be able to look up to her, count on her and she would just be there every step of the way.”
Taylor surprised Battle and Tamaj by driving to North Carolina in February for the toddler’s second birthday party.
“It was very unexpected, but it was a great thing to have her here,” she said.
Though the two spoke or connected via FaceTime daily, that was the last time they saw each other in person.
Taylor had an ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, who was the target of a narcotics investigation. Police obtained warrants to arrest Glover and search a home miles from Taylor’s apartment, looking for Glover, another man and evidence of drugs.
A separate warrant, using information attorney Baker said was dated, allowed police to search Taylor’s apartment. In January, police saw Glover leave Taylor’s apartment with a package and go directly to a “known drug house,” according to a search warrant affidavit.
The warrants were executed at about the same time. How execution of the warrant for Taylor’s apartment went south so badly is a matter of hot debate.
The police department did not respond to requests for comment, but documents released in the case and statements from attorneys for Taylor’s family paint an outline.
About 12:40 a.m. March 13, three plainclothes officers arrived at Taylor’s apartment, armed with a “no-knock” search warrant, which gave them the authority to enter without announcing their presence. Regardless, police insist they did knock and announce.
Multiple neighbors told attorneys for Taylor’s family they did not hear an announcement from officers. One of the officers said police spoke to a neighbor at the time. Baker said attorneys have been unable to identify that neighbor.
Police used a battering ram to enter the apartment and immediately were met by gunfire, a police spokesman said in a televised briefing.
Baker acknowledged Walker, who was with Taylor, fired a shot from his licensed gun. A bullet struck Officer Jonathan Mattingly in the upper thigh.
At the time, Walker called 911 and Taylor’s mother, saying someone was trying to break in.
Police found no drugs in the apartment.
Mattingly, along with officers Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove, have been placed on administrative reassignment. The three are the defendants in a wrongful death suit filed by Taylor’s mother.
Tamika Palmer, who could not be reached for comment, has described Taylor in several televised interviews as someone who was “full of life” and was excited about its next chapter.
“People need to know,” Palmer said Friday on “Good Morning America,” “that Breonna Taylor mattered and Breonna Taylor was great.”
Karen Robinson-Jacobs is a former editor and reporter with The Los Angeles Times. She is currently based in Texas.