VALLEJO, Calif. — Willie McCoy's world revolved around music before a barrage of bullets from six police officers ended his life. Make mature decisions, the Bay Area rapper's mentors had always told him, and you will make a name for yourself.
Keith Welch Jr., who directed several music videos that included McCoy, watched him over the years transform into a leader, arriving to shoots on time and setting an example for other artists.
"Stay away from the streets," Welch would urge McCoy, although he didn't think McCoy was much of a "street guy." "Stay in the studio."
"I hear you, Welch," McCoy would respond.
Associates, family and friends of McCoy, 20, described him as a young man who played peacemaker when those around him got upset. They said that after grappling with immeasurable loss as a boy, McCoy had learned to give generously if he knew others, especially children, needed help.
One month ago, McCoy made a decision that turned fatal: Hungry, with few options for a late-night bite, he stopped at a Taco Bell in his hometown of Vallejo. But according to police, employees found him unresponsive in the drive-thru lane. Officers were called to the scene and found a handgun on his lap, and a chain of events ended with them shooting him multiple times, setting off an investigation and stirring up fresh demands for police accountability.
For now, McCoy's loved ones remain in a holding pattern, having celebrated his life during a recent memorial service and preparing in the coming days to privately view officers' bodycam footage.
The discovery of the stolen and loaded firearm — and claims by police that he was reaching for it when he woke up — have only muddled the narrative in this latest case of officers using lethal force on a black man. The Vallejo Police Department in a statement called "any loss of life ... a tragedy," treading carefully in a city that has not seen the same unrest that has followed more high-profile police shootings elsewhere in the country.
Authorities warn it could take "several months" or longer before the investigation is complete and for the Solano County District Attorney's Office and other agencies to determine if criminal charges are warranted in McCoy's death.
"It was shattering to see someone go out in that way," Welch said. "The world was at his fingertips."
'WILLIE WAS A GIVER'
McCoy tackled loss from an early age.
His father, Willie Sr., was a janitor at a high school in Sacramento and died of mesothelioma when McCoy was 8. By the time he turned 12, his mother, Volencia Logan, also died of cancer.
McCoy, the second youngest of several half siblings, was temporarily placed in a group home. At school, he was a natural athlete, excelling in football and basketball, but he dropped out of Vallejo High School around his sophomore year, his family said.
McCoy was tall and lean, a replica of his father, whom he called Pops. The elder McCoy had been a strict disciplinarian when it came to his older children, but had eased up on his two youngest sons.
"As a male of color in this world, you need these words of affirmation, especially from your father," said McCoy's older nephew, Shawn McCoy, 28. "To endure the weight of the things he did, that would have broken a lot of people."
McCoy got his GED diploma, but music remained his saving grace, and he yearned for that same success that other big-name rappers from Vallejo, such as E-40 and Mac Dre, achieved. The blue-collar city of about 122,000, which was once home to a bustling naval shipyard before it filed for bankruptcy in 2008, remains one of the most racially diverse in the nation, according to census data, with a roughly even percentage of white, black, Hispanic and Asian residents.
McCoy clung to the mostly black neighborhood of squat homes and dead-end streets known as The Crest. He went by the stage name Willie Bo, and performed with cousins in the group FBG (Forever Black Gods). Their songs permeated with lyrics about money, guns and street violence — familiar themes that often attract attention from local law enforcement.
"What it sounded like is that they needed to conform their lyrics, to look cool," Welch said. "I saw it more as a cool thing — kids see you on YouTube like you have all this money."
McCoy did have money that he inherited from his father when he turned 18, and his family said he was selfless. When friends were in trouble with the law, McCoy would bail them out. When a local youth football team needed undergarments and uniforms, McCoy dug deep.
"Willie was a giver," Shawn McCoy said. "If he ate, you ate."
While the family stressed that McCoy wasn't perfect, he was "trying to fix all the little mistakes" through his music, they said.
There was a setback last April, when San Francisco police arrested McCoy for human trafficking and kidnapping after a woman was pulled into a car that he was driving with other people inside. Police also searched a home in Oakland where he was living and said they found numerous firearms.
McCoy was locked up until the district attorney's office dropped the charges a month after they were filed. His attorney, Tim Pori, said the claims made against him by the woman were "fabricated and blown out of proportion."
"I liked the kid ... and he was telling the truth," Pori said. Prosecutors "don't normally dismiss charges like that."
But McCoy couldn't just shrug off that experience — instead, he recorded a song.
In the opening sequence for the music video "I'm Fresh Out," he gets sprung from jail and raps with abandon:
"Made it to the news, so they think I'm dangerous / They tried to send me down, they listened to that lame (expletive) / Said I was guilty, until I proved I'm innocent."
'PUT YOUR HANDS UP!'
McCoy's talent might have been his ticket out of Vallejo.
David Harrison, his cousin and music manger, wanted to line up a show for him in Memphis, Tennessee, but McCoy resisted. "Staying home was his demise," Harrison, 48, said.
McCoy had been touring in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, in recent weeks, and returned to Vallejo to record again. At around 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 9, a Taco Bell employee called 911 about a driver "slumped over" in a silver Mercedes-Benz in the drive-thru.
Vallejo police said that as officers attempted to box in his car, which was still running, to prevent any erratic movement, McCoy woke up but failed to listen to commands. As he "quickly moved his hands downward" toward his gun, six officers "fearing for their safety" pulled their service weapons and shot him in four seconds, police said. There is no mention whether McCoy fired his weapon, and none of the officers were injured.
Video from a witness' cellphone camera taken from a distance captured the sound of the police fusillade and an officer shouting, "Put your hands up!" after the volley of shots. McCoy died at the scene.
William Harrison, McCoy's great uncle, would later go to the morgue to view his body, bloodied and riddled with bullet wounds. Other family members were too repulsed to look.
"I opened the body bag. I lifted him up and tried to count the holes in his back and everything else. They shot him right here," William Harrison, 74, said, pointing to his face, "and it blew the back of his head out right here."
Key questions linger, including: Why was McCoy slumped over in his car? Why did he have an illegal gun? (Friends theorize it may have been for protection.) How quickly did police shoot after he was jolted awake? How many bullets did they fire? (An attorney for his family says he was hit roughly 25 times.) And what might the body cameras reveal?
"He wasn't at the Taco Bell to rob the place or hurt anyone," Kori McCoy, an older brother and Shawn McCoy's father, said.
All six of the officers, who have served ranging from seven months to 12 years with the Vallejo Police Department, are back on duty. The police union has said that officers are often forced into dangerous situations in which people knowingly "have guns, fail to follow commands, fail to stop when ordered to do so and so on."
But David Harrison can't shake the way his younger cousin was killed.
"That wasn't, 'I'm scared, I had to shoot this man,'" Harrison said. "That was, 'I hate what I'm looking at right now, and I don't want it to exist. I don't want you to be able to open a casket to look at it.'"
A FINAL REMINDER
In the end, the family opted to cremate McCoy.
During his memorial service earlier this month in Oakland, mourners wore white clothing bearing McCoy's image and messages such as "the real McCoy" and "forever my blood brother." A niece stood at the lectern to sing how heaven needed a hero. On the last line, she buried her head in her hands and cried.
The service was interrupted when a verbal fight broke out in a pew. Shawn McCoy, who gave the eulogy, said that "people are angry and their emotions are boiling over" because of the way McCoy was so brutally taken.
He would have turned 21 this month.
Nobody cares about the money, nobody cares about anything but justice for Willie.”
The law firm of Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris has filed a claim against the city and the officers alleging negligence, and said it intends to sue on behalf of the family.
Joanna Altman, a city spokeswoman, said the claim remains "under review" and a response will be made within 45 days of its receipt.
The legal uncertainties are gut-wrenching for Simone Richard, a "godsister" of McCoy who said she only wishes she had seen him in the studio before he died.
"All we want is justice," Richard, 24, added. "Nobody cares about the money, nobody cares about anything but justice for Willie."
A vigil took place Saturday night in Vallejo to mark one month since McCoy was killed.
In the shadow of the shuttered Taco Bell, on the pavement of the drive-thru where he lost his life and in front of large white lettering is where people plan to remember something that his death cannot erase — his name.