“What’s going on?” he asked, in a video from the December traffic stop that has since exploded across the Internet.
“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” Officer Joe Gutierrez shouted back, using a slang term that can refer to Tasering or to execution.
Welch, 52, couldn’t process what he was seeing on his phone. He had helped raise Nazario and considered him to be his nephew. Welch held his breath as tears streaked his cheeks.
He had seen a version of this video before.
His wife, Raquel, was also a cousin to Eric Garner, the Black man who died on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014 after an officer wrapped him in a chokehold. The national outrage, demands for change and immortalization of his last words — “I can’t breathe” — did little to quell the anguish his family suffered. Among them was a young man, Caron Nazario, who called Garner his uncle.
Raquel contacted him soon after Garner’s death. Amid her grief, she needed to remind him of a message he’d heard many times before: If a police officer ever confronted him, he had to stay calm, comply, never make them feel threatened.
Six years later, on a cool winter evening, he was driving home from military training when police lights flashed behind him. His Chevrolet Tahoe was so new that he still hadn’t received permanent plates, but the temporary ones taped to the inside were visible through the back window.
Nazario, who is Black and Latino, didn’t want to pull over in the dark, so he continued on for a brief stretch until he reached a well-lit BP gas station. It was there that Gutierrez and another officer, Daniel Crocker, drew their handguns and demanded that Nazario step outside.
Despite Nazario’s composure — quietly asking for an explanation, pleading with the officers to relax, holding his hands up through the window — Gutierrez pepper-sprayed him in the face before pulling him out and striking him repeatedly with his knee.
“I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re going to treat me?” Nazario said, never once raising his voice.
Nazario, who was released without charges, filed a lawsuit this month that claims Gutierrez and Crocker violated his constitutional rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment. The lawsuit says police also threatened to end Nazario’s military career if he spoke out about the incident. He’s seeking at least $1 million in damages.
On Wednesday, Windsor’s police chief fired Gutierrez, saying the public reaction to the video was too intense for him to continue in the job.
The furor has focused even more of the nation’s attention on how police treat Black men at a moment when Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis officer, is facing trial for the death of George Floyd. Not far from the courthouse, another unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a police officer on Sunday in a Minneapolis suburb.
What many people have found most remarkable about Nazario’s experience isn’t the alleged mistreatment — the same sort they’ve seen time after time — but, instead, the way he responded to it.
“That demeanor is who he is all the time,” Raquel said. “That’s just who he is.”
Her husband recalled episodes during Nazario’s childhood when he’d remain so stoic during a scolding that it would frustrate his mother.
“Ma,” he’d tell her, “calm down.”
Garner’s mom, Gwen Carr, recognized that same poise in him as a child growing up around the corner from her home in Brooklyn — and, she thinks, it kept him alive.
“I really thank God that it ended up the way it did because if he had stopped in that dark place, I’m sure they would have taken his life,” Carr said. “I’m so glad he drove and he got to that gas station.”
Carr recalled Nazario’s early years fondly. He was, she said, a smart student and a talented athlete, later playing baseball — he was a pitcher — and running track at George Westinghouse High School.
“He was respectful, responsible. A good kid,” Carr said. “Everyone liked him.”
Nazario, one of four siblings raised by a single mom, had wanted to join the military since childhood. He was enthralled by the stories that Raquel’s father, a decorated Vietnam veteran, told about the war, and he’d always liked to help people.
Growing up, Nazario, who got As and Bs, received several awards for community service, including special citations from the city council and Brooklyn borough officials. In high school, he volunteered to serve as a map technician at local government meetings.
In 2011, he enrolled at Virginia State University, drawn to its status as a historically Black college. Two years later, Nazario left to enlist in the Army as a combat medic. He then returned to VSU and was accepted into the ROTC program, earning the chance to become an officer.
It was an intense environment, said Alexis Simmons, who served in the same ROTC program, but Nazario was always the “de-escalator.”
“If somebody was arguing, he’d be the one to talk everybody down,” she said, also recalling his keen sense of empathy. One day, she was struggling with a personal issue, but doing her best to hide it. He still noticed. Nazario pulled her aside and told her he was there for her if she needed anything.
Deon Tillman, a classmate and campus photographer, posted images this week on Facebook of Nazario at his graduation, dressed in full uniform. For as long as he has known Nazario, Tillman wrote, “he has been chill, cool, calm and collected.”
He hopes that those photos, and not the ones of Nazario handcuffed on the pavement, will be the lasting images people have of him.
Nazario was commissioned in the Virginia National Guard in December 2016 and works as an Army Health Services Administration officer. He served on active duty last year as part of the Guard’s coronavirus response, a spokesman said. After the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, his attorney said, he also was activated to serve in the District, working on the medical staff at the central command center.
Nazario worked as an emergency services planner at the Virginia Department of Health from June of 2019 through earlier this month, according to an agency spokeswoman. His attorney said he left the department to work full time refurbishing homes in Petersburg, Va., where he lives.
In February, Nazario returned to New York after Raquel’s father died. At the funeral, he mentioned that he’d been pulled over by police, but, with typical understatement, shared few details. Most of his family had no idea what he’d endured until the video spread this weekend.
Raquel and her husband began checking on him nearly every day.
“He’s not doing okay,” Raquel said of Nazario, who still endures nightmares about that night. “As calm as he was, I think anybody who went through that would be dealing with trauma.”
In a call, the couple learned something else about him, too: The Army might deploy him to Afghanistan later this year.
They were stunned. He’d just survived what was, in their view, a near-death experience, and now he could be sent to a combat zone? Was he well enough to do that? Couldn’t he get out of it somehow?
“If they ask me to go,” Nazario told them, “I’m going to go.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.