MEMPHIS, Tenn. — He was an amateur photographer who loved skateboarding and watching sunsets darken the woods and ponds of his adopted hometown.
He enjoyed his mom’s sesame seed chicken and greeted her and his stepfather, Rodney Wells, when he got home with a hearty “Hello, parents!”
Those words won’t be heard anymore from Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days after a Jan. 7 traffic stop.
“Nobody’s perfect, OK, but he was damn near,” his mother, RowVaughn Wells, said at a news conference Monday.
Nichols, the youngest of four children, had a 4-year-old son. He was visiting his family in Memphis from his home in Sacramento, California, when the pandemic started, so he stayed put and got a job working the overnight shift for FedEx.
When he wasn’t working or taking photos, he was skateboarding, an activity he started when he was 6 years old, Wells said.
“That was his passion,” she said at the news conference, three days before a candlelight vigil was held for him at a local skate park.
Photographing sunsets at Shelby Farms Park, an expansive green space in Memphis, was another passion, she said. It was among his many routines, such as making a Starbucks run every morning and doing his laundry for the week on Sundays.
“Does that sound like somebody who the police are trying to say did all these bad things?” Wells said.
She said at a news conference Friday that Nichols was driving home from Shelby Farms when he was pulled over. Before he had left, he had asked Wells how she was preparing the chicken they were having for dinner.
“I said I was going to sesame seed it,” she said. “He loved it.”
She said her son loved her deeply and even had her name tattooed on his arm.
“Most kids don’t put their mom’s name, but he did,” Wells said.
Wells said she will miss the cheerful greeting that rang out when Nichols got home from work, the skatepark or Shelby Farms.
“I just think about the fact that I’ll never see my son again. I’ll never see that smile again. He’ll never see his son grow up,” Wells told NBC News on Friday. “I’m waiting for my son to walk through the door and he’s not.”
Angelina Paxton, a friend in Sacramento, who met Nichols when they were in their early teens, said he always had encouraging words for those he cared about.
Nichols’ death “just made me lose my faith in life and humanity,” she said. “Bad things like this don’t happen to good people in my head. It has made me afraid of the world now.”
Paxton, 28, said she and Nichols couldn’t go anywhere without him knowing at least one person they came across, and he would stop to chat.
They once made a pit stop at a grocery store while en route to spend their day at a river. People in three different aisles knew him and so did the cashier, she said.
“Everywhere I took him, he just had to talk to everyone,” Paxton said.
Nichols’ sister, Keyana Dixon, 41, of Sacramento, said her brother dreamed of one day making a living from photography by launching a graphic design company.
That desire was strengthened when she was planning her wedding. Upon learning that a photographer wanted to charge her $3,000, Nichols looked at her as if to say “that’s way too much money” and offered to take the photos himself.
“He captured my wedding day,” Dixon said. “He wanted to see others happy.”
After his death, Dixon looked back at the last text message he sent her, on Dec. 30: “Sister, I love you so much, you hold so much value in my life. I just want you to know that.”
One of Nichols’ FedEx co-workers, Rico Howard, said he took pride in his work.
“He was the self-proclaimed box manager, taking charge of boxing up and shipping out orders for customers,” Howard said. “He was gonna make sure the right product got in the right box.”
He said he liked how Nichols never tried to fit in. Where many in Memphis dressed to impress, Nichols dressed down in loose-fitting clothes, unconcerned about what others thought.
“He was the first skateboarder I ever saw in Memphis,” Howard said.
Nichols died Jan. 10, three days after the encounter with police that landed him in the hospital. He had been pulled over for alleged reckless driving, police officials said.
A confrontation followed, and officers pursued Nichols when he fled on foot, the Memphis Police Department said. While trying to take him into custody, there was another confrontation, and Nichols complained of having shortness of breath, it said.
A photo provided by his stepfather showed a hospitalized Nichols with blood on his face and what appeared to be a swollen eye.
The officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were fired Jan. 20, and a Tennessee grand jury has indicted them on murder and other charges.
Video of the encounter was released Friday evening. David Rausch, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said Thursday that what transpired on camera was horrific.
“I’ve been policing for more than 30 years, I’ve devoted my life to this profession and I’m aggrieved,” he said. “Frankly, I’m shocked. I’m sickened by what I saw.”
Howard said the manner in which Nichols died has weighed on him heavily, and he hoped the events of Jan. 7 would lead to change.
“The police treated him in any kind of way, and it hurt, it hurt bad,” he said. “But he might be the face to turn things around for the better.”
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