Illustration by Audrey Fukuman
The motorcycle, dented and silent, lay in the middle of the street. The crowd — two dozen or so people — began to gather 100 feet away, beside the tilted pay phone, the fallen bus stop sign, and the collapsed bench. The body, face down and unmoving, was tangled beneath the debris.
It was 8:20 p.m. on Oct. 10, 2005. Under a dim orange streetlight, there was shock, a bit of panic, and a buzz of chatter, the controlled chaos of bystanders trying to digest what they had just witnessed, what they were still witnessing.
A police cruiser arrived within minutes, rolling to a stop on MacArthur Boulevard, near the Coolidge Street intersection, along a stretch of apartment blocks and small shops. As the two Oakland Police Department officers approached the body, shouts came from the crowd.
CHP did it! ... What y'all gon' do about this!? .... CHP did that! ... Y'all better do something! ...
The emergency responders arrived in waves. Ambulance, police cars, California Highway Patrol motorcyclists. Uniformed officials surveyed the scene. Some tossed chunks of broken concrete and steel into a pile in the road. Others assessed the crash site. A few spoke to witnesses. The clock was ticking.
By the next morning, certain details had cemented. The Oakland Tribune reported that the victim was named Diallo S. Neal Sr., and that he died after "he lost control of his speeding motorcycle in the Diamond district and crashed into a bus bench." Other details remained murky: "Some witnesses to the deadly wreck told police they thought Neal was being chased by or was racing another motorcyclist who stopped briefly after Neal crashed but left the scene before police arrived, said Lt. Dave Kozicki."
At the moment of impact, facts exploded into the air, the truth shattering into bits that lodged like shrapnel into witnesses' memories and, eventually, law enforcement records. Over the coming days, months, and years, those bits would gradually evaporate. And figuring out what happened on this night would become a puzzle with more and more missing pieces.
"He didn't make it," the doctor told the family in the Highlands Hospital waiting room. Diallo's mom, Gilda Baker, collapsed to the ground, hysterical. His fiancee, Ciante "Star" Rollins, cried as she hugged their two children, 13-year-old Diallo Jr. and 8-year-old Diara, who were also in tears. Star looked at her children, pain and confusion on their faces, and felt a surge of fear. "What's going to happen to them?" she wondered.
Diallo was supposed to be the responsible parent, the provider, the problem solver, the one who handled the finances and chaperoned field trips. He was the hub, organizing the holiday gatherings and turning the steaks at family barbecues. He was the football dad who scooped up Little Diallo and his friends from practice in the evenings, loading them up in a mini-van and carpooling home. "This can't be happening," Star whispered to herself, her mind rushing back to the last time she saw her man.
Just three hours before, he'd been cleaning his black Harley-Davidson outside Gilda's house in West Oakland. He'd picked up the kids from school and was waiting for Star. Star had wanted to spend the evening with Diallo, but, as she pulled up to the house, she could tell he'd already made other plans. His friend since grade school, Darrell Langston, was there too, standing beside his purple Harley in dark jeans, a black jacket, and a black helmet that matched Diallo's. They were going for a ride.
Star didn't protest. Diallo's 34th birthday was tomorrow. He should have his fun. And for Diallo, there were few greater pleasures than cruising the streets on his motorcycle. He'd been riding since he was a teen. His bike reflected this passion: the shiny paint job, the pristine white lining around the spokes, the engine's smooth and powerful purr.
Star's mind snapped back into the waiting room. Where was Darrell? She still hadn't heard from him when the family returned to Gilda's house later that night. So she called him.
"What happened?" she exclaimed into the phone. All she heard was sobbing, then garbled mumbling, then more sobbing. "What happened?!"
Langston responded in rushed spurts. They got off the freeway together, he told her. And then he said something about a policeman tailing them, about going separate ways and the officer following Diallo, about calling a mutual friend to see if Diallo was in jail and instead finding out that Diallo was dead.
Star pressed for details. Langston offered the same cloudy explanation. So she pressed some more.
"All I know is my partner's dead!" he howled. "My partner's dead! My best friend's dead!"
"If you weren't there, how do you know this?" Star asked. "How do you know?"
But he just kept crying. And then the line went dead. Star called back, and kept calling back, but Langston didn't pick up.
Roger Holly thought the investigation looked suspect from the start. A home-loan consultant, he'd been working late at his office on MacArthur Boulevard when he heard a skidding sound, then shouts and the patter of people running. When he reached the crash site, people were chattering about what they saw. The guy was being chased by a motorcycle cop, he heard someone say, and the cop "ran him off the road."
Witnesses told the same story to the police. Though nearly 30 people were at the scene, the OPD report for the crash included accounts from just five of them. Many others, the report stated, "refused to speak." Of the five who did, two said they only heard the accident. The three who claimed to have seen it, though, told similar stories. Villiami Lauti, who did not sign a statement, "said that the second motorcycle 'looked' like a police motorcycle," one officer noted in the report. "I saw the CHP officer collide into the motorcycle with the side of his bike," Brandon Davis wrote in his statement. "I saw a motorcycle being chased by a highway patrol motorcycle officer," wrote Emma Washington. "I know that the officer chasing the first motorcycle was a highway patrol officer because his motorcycle and his uniform looks like the California Highway Patrol's motorcycle and uniform."