Remembering a life gone too soon

Some people are dealt a bad hand of cards in life. Perhaps for Noel Aaron Russell, the dealer threw the deck away all together.

Noel Russell was born to a drug-addicted mother, and a nonexistent father. He spent his childhood in a world marked by violence, drugs, and abandonment.

Despite the situation he was thrust into, Noel never stopped looking for the positives in life. He always gave more than he received, and he always tried to bring light into other people’s lives, even though so much of his own circumstance was fostered by hardships he did not ask for.

Noel did not ask to be born to a impoverished, drug-addicted mother.

He did not ask to have a father who disappeared before he even saw the light of day.

He did not ask to be brought into a street gang at the age where most children are learning how to spell and solve basic math problems.

There were a lot of things life threw his way that he most certainly did not ask for, but above all else, Noel Russell did not ask to be shot to death by the police, the very governing forces that are supposed to protect us.


I was 8 years old when I met Noel. He was so full of life, and energy. And though life hadn’t given him very much, he always found a reason to smile.

He was the kind of kid who could make everyone laugh. Not only because his jokes were backed with wit, but because he had a contagious, cackling laugh that stuck in your ears. He insisted on drinking cereal with whole milk, because he said skim milk tasted too much like water. And he thought bagels were better out of a grocery store bag than a bakery, no matter how many times we tried to convince him otherwise.

He was the kind of kid who always used green shoelaces as a belt, and tugged the strings of his hoodie so far that the fabric hugged the edges of his face. He had an unlimited passion for basketball, and he made both my brothers and I infinitely better players by schooling us in one-on-one every weekend. He was also the kind of kid who, when he was unfairly cut from the varsity basketball team, after being a starting player for the three years prior, went out for the school play and came home with the lead part.

He would wake up at 6 a.m. every weekend to come to my 5th grade Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball games. He came to so many that we convinced all my teammates we were siblings. Noel was fiercely protective of me, at times more so than my two older brothers. As we grew older, we started our tradition of comparing our height, and even when I outgrew him, he never stopped calling me ‘lil sis’.

Every weekend he stayed at our house, the back corner would be dedicated to whichever cologne he thought would help my older brother “with the ladies.”

My two older brothers met Noel when he was 13 and in the eighth grade. Our dad coached all of them on an AAU basketball team. Noel was the lifeblood of the team, a personality that could fill a thousand rooms.

When we met Noel, he was living at St. Vincent’s, a home for boys in northern Marin County, California. He had been placed at there after bouncing around the foster care system since the age of seven, when he was taken away from his abusive grandmother, whom he had lived with as a child.

Noel described St. Vincent’s as a place where young boys could get a second chance at a good life. While most troubled youths who end up here do not become success stories, Noel was able to take advantage of the first helping hand the State of California offered.

When Noel was entering high school, his cousin, LeAnda LePlum Russell, took him in when she was only 24 years old. She moved from Richmond to Concord so that Noel could attend Clayton Valley High School, and from then on, she became “Moms” to Noel.

In high school, Noel thrived. He was not only a star basketball player, but a promising actor, and a kid with such an infectious personality and irresistible charm that he had more friends than he could count.

He was the poster-child for the state system, a kid who survived the streets at a young age to eventually graduate high school with an offer from Whitworth University to play basketball.

Unfortunately, Noel, didn’t have the $5,000 living requirement for Whitworth, and his financial situation forced him into attending an authoritarian-esq private Christian school in rural Northern California.

After growing depressed from the stifling community, which prohibited any degree of typical college fun, combined with concern for his estranged mother, who was on her deathbed, Noel turned toward drugs and alcohol as a remedy for his pain. He then dropped out of college.

But like the fighter he was, Noel confronted his problem. He went to a rehabilitation program, and got clean. After he completed the program, he began working two jobs, and was hoping to move to Los Angeles where he could chase his dream of becoming an actor.

However, life was not gentle on Noel. He lost both of his jobs and the friend he had been living with moved away, again leading him to turn to drugs and alcohol, when he felt there was nothing left to comfort him.

When Noel was once again left on the streets at the age of 22, he was kicked to society’s curb, labeled a vagrant, a drug addict, a street urchin. This high school graduate and once college-bound individual was now treated as the scum of society.


Noel’s story ended at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 13, 2017, when he was gunned down in a Home Depot parking lot. The local news painted him as a transient who already had multiple encounters with the law.

But if you look beyond this dim portrait, what you’ll see is a black man in a super majority white neighborhood, being preemptively gunned down by trigger happy officers, police who were unequipped and untrained to deal with someone who was noticeably distraught. Noel was shot four times, both in the stomach and the neck. An anonymous witness cited him as standing up to the police, however, further investigation has shown that Noel was in a bent over position when he was shot.

The officers responding to the scene of the crime were alerted to Noel having a knife, not a gun. Yet, neither one of these police officers chose to use a taser. I guess in America, the police save tasers for us white people.

Noel’s existence should not be dismissed as another statistic, another example of the overuse of police force, another plot point on the failings of the welfare and social services system. Noel Russell is not an 800-word story in a local paper that can be written off as “another shooting of a black guy.” Rather, this is a much longer book with dozens of blank pages of a life full of potential, a book whose cover was slammed shut on page 23.

For as unique as Noel was–his charming character, his sunny disposition despite all odds thrown at him, his talent for basketball and acting, and his never ending perseverance in life–we know his story is not one in a million. We know that his story is like many others, riddled with injustice and grief, with an ending that can never, ever be reversed. And it could never be, the moment those police officers violated their protocol, and shots were fired.

It’s easy to pass over the stories in the news, to shut out the protests, to look at each shooting as “just another,” in a long string of deaths we hear about time and time again.

But no one should ever have to turn on the local news and see that this time, the nightly crime coverage is about someone they loved. A person so talented, so full of life, that you expected to see his image on a TV screen as the star of a movie, not as the star of his own death story.

I’ve never met someone more deserving of life then Noel Aaron Russell, and in one instant, the Napa Valley Police Department took away the second chance he had been fighting for all of his life.

How many more people will die? How many more families will grieve? How many more injustices will the world need to see, before we do something to stop it?