With a cracked windshield, Rodney Hess stopped in the middle of a rural Tennessee highway on Thursday afternoon. He pulled out his phone and began to live-stream, though it wasn’t clear why.
Hess, 36, had driven all the way from New Orleans. He stepped into the road and paced a few steps along the highway, outside the town of Alamo, then got back in his SUV. When his phone rang, he didn’t answer.
It went on like that: 15 minutes of strange, aimless footage. Then the loud, sudden end — and yet another debate over whether police had killed someone unjustly.
A woman who lived nearby would tell WREG Channel 3 that Hess had been stopping like that for days, trying to jump in front of cars. So she finally called 911.
By 2:30 p.m., Hess was parked sideways on the middle of an off-ramp, his SUV surrounded by Crockett County sheriff’s deputies who’d found him there.
“I would like the higher commands to come out,” Hess said. “I need the higher commands to come out.”
An officer tried to say something through the window, but Hess drove past him in reverse. Then he pulled forward, and loud pops filled his stream.
“Damn! Oh!” Hess yelled, as the west Tennessee countryside spun out of the frame and his phone tumbled to the floor, joined there soon by shards of glass.
The phone rang again, but Hess was dying.
There had already been at least 219 fatal police shootings in 2017. Hess recorded his live, in first person.
That night, a spokesman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations stood on the same road, outside Alamo, surrounded by reporters.
Hess had been erratic, refusing orders and had twice tried to run deputies down, Josh DeVine told the cameras, so one of them had to shoot him through his cracked windshield.
The state would carefully investigate, DeVine said.
By Sunday, a quarter-million people had watched Hess’s video, and many had made up their minds.
Some said his death was an injustice. Some said he was asking for it.
By Sunday, Hess’s video had reverberated across the Southern states where he’d spent his life.
A sheriff’s dispatcher told The Washington Post that no one there was talking to reporters over the weekend.
Hess’s fiancee in Texas told the Commercial Appeal that he had bipolar disorder.
“He was asking for help and they shot him down,” Johnisha Provost said. “I always told him, ‘Babe, if you are ever in a situation where you need help, ask the person in charge for the higher command to help you,’ and that’s what he kept saying.”
She said Hess grew up around Memphis and had driven back last week to visit his mother.
But his mother was out of town when he arrived, Hess’s uncle told WWL, and he got disoriented and lost.
Donald Hess said his nephew was mentally ill, had three children and had recently been working for him in New Orleans.
“Rodney was a hard worker,” Donald Hess said. “Rodney was a family man, loving and compassionate.”
“I don’t want my sister to see the video,” he said. “She would be like any mother who watched her son die live on television.”
One day after Hess was killed, about an hour away, Shelby County sheriff’s deputies killed a woman in Lakeland, Tenn.
They thought she’d pointed a handgun at them, but it turned out to be a BB gun, according to the same Tennessee Bureau of Investigations spokesman in Hess’s case.
Nearly 1,000 people were killed by police last year, according to The Washington Post’s national database. And the year before.
So far, 2017 is exactly on pace to match.