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.”
Five minutes after the first officers arrived, OPD contacted CHP's Golden Gate Communication Center about what the witnesses were saying. Fifteen minutes later, CHP sergeants Jay Van Dyck and Pete Warmerdam reached the scene. A CHP officer soon joined them. The agency quickly scrambled to eliminate the possibility of their involvement. According to the sergeants' subsequent report, the communication center “conducted a roll call, all five motor officers were accounted for and none of them were located near the accident scene.” The OPD report likewise noted that both sergeants “confirmed that all of their motorcycle units were accounted for.”
Van Dyck and Warmerdam pulled witnesses Davis and Washington aside, to show them the CHP officer's standard-issue BMW motorcycle. The officer turned on his engine, and the sergeants asked each witness if this bike looked and sounded like the one they saw.
Both witnesses, the sergeants' report stated, said that the motorcycle they saw was louder and appeared different than this one. That was apparently enough proof. “Upon conclusion of these interviews,” the sergeants wrote, “it was determined that CHP had no involvement in this collision.”
But to Holly, who looked on from nearby as the men questioned the witnesses, the interviews were not so clear-cut. “Something just didn't seem right about it,” he would say later. “They just seemed to want to insinuate that the guy crashed on his own, two motorcycles speeding, him and his partner, and he just crashed. It didn't sit well. They seemed like they were trying to dismiss what the multitude of people were saying.”
When he returned to his desk that night, Holly called the office of civil rights attorney John Burris, leaving a message about his concerns, “just to have it on record. In case this came to light, it would be clear that it didn't pop in my head after the fact.”
Burris would indeed check into things. By the time he assigned private investigator Ralph Hernandez to the case a month after the crash, the police investigation was effectively closed. OPD had not followed up with any witnesses, not pursued any leads. On Oct. 12, an anonymous woman had called the department to say that Darrell Langston confessed to her that he was with Diallo when he crashed. But OPD did not interview Langston and did not name him as a suspect. In the CHP's follow-up report a week or so after the accident, Officer W.K. Wong noted that “the second motorcycle that witnesses saw may have been Langston's motorcycle.” But the report concluded that there was no wrongdoing. “The cause of this motorcycle collision is unsafe speed being ridden by Neal for the condition of the roadway,” Wong wrote. “I recommend that no charges be filed in this matter and this case closed due to the fact that the offender caused his own death.”
The crash went down in the official records as a one-vehicle accident.
Burris' law firm ultimately didn't take on the case — it didn't think there was enough physical evidence “to overcome the cloak of goodwill and righteousness that many people give the government,” says Adante Pointer, who worked on the case. But the team members were not comforted by the details they did learn. “Just because we don't take a case, doesn't mean the case has no merit,” he adds. “We just don't have unlimited resources.”
Hernandez, in fact, was shocked by what he found. He tracked down witnesses who painted a picture that deeply disturbed even a man who had spent most of his career in law enforcement. He'd worked more criminal cases than he could count, first as a police officer in Half Moon Bay and Pittsburg for eight years, then as an investigator for the Contra Costa District Attorney's office for 17 more. This one stood out — the way conclusions came so quickly, the way Langston was disregarded, the way a fatal crash can be ruled a one-vehicle accident even though the only three eyewitnesses in a police report claimed a second motorcycle was involved. He didn't buy the official narrative.
“They received information that a cop was involved, that a cop was responsible, and they shut the case down like that?” he says. “From the outset it appears they were circling the wagons to protect their own. They were dismissing what witnesses were saying. They gave themselves up by not doing their jobs properly. It shows incompetence, or it shows a purposeful distortion of the truth.”
Diallo Neal knew the streets of Oakland well. He'd been racing around town on his black bicycle since grade school. He loved that bike. It was one of his few possessions. He didn't have much growing up, but he did have family, a tight-knit unit of three generations, as many as seven people living in a narrow duplex on Peralta Street. His grandparents bought the house after leaving Mississippi in the 1940s in search of better opportunities out west. They succeeded, but life was still a struggle. Gilda, his mother, held down a solid city job, but as the sole breadwinner, she was stretched thin.
So Diallo, the oldest of his generation, looked after his younger brother and cousins. He took them to movies, he got them school supplies, he drove them to class. He bought his cousin Nareisha Williams her first homecoming dress. When Langston had family problems and needed a place to stay, Diallo offered up his bedroom. He took care of his people.
Charles Rollins learned this the first day his daughter brought Diallo home. Star was 16 years old and newly pregnant. The couple had met just two months before. Diallo had expected her parents would be worried, so he'd asked to meet with them. “No matter what happens with Star and me,” he told them that first day, “I will take care of my child.” Sufficiently impressed, Charles set them up in an apartment in East Oakland.
“A father could not pray to have a man take care of his daughter the way Diallo did,” he says.
Charles Rollins planned to pay half their rent and utility bills for the foreseeable future. But within six months, Star told him they didn't need his help. Diallo hustled his way to financial stability. “Man, I gotta make sure my kids don't have to go through what I had to go through,” he told his friend DeMorea Evans. He sold bootleg DVDs. He painted houses. He bought beat-up cars, fixed them up, and re-sold them. He trekked down to Los Angeles' garment district three or four times a month to buy clothes wholesale, then hawked the goods at Oakland flea markets.
He also sold drugs. It was the early '90s, and America's crack era was booming. But he was conscious of those who looked up to him. “He locked away that other part of his life from his family,” says Nareisha. “He never let anyone see that reality.” No one who knew Diallo had ever even seen him drink or smoke.
By his mid-twenties, he was known around the neighborhoods, the clean-cut dude with a fresh pair of Air Jordans and a slick ride. His cars were his trademark. After fixing up his latest project — a classic Mustang or a supercharged Oldsmobile — he'd test it out for a few weeks before selling it off and working on a new one.
Around Christmas, he'd stop by the park and hand out toys to the neighborhood kids — remote-controlled cars, jump ropes, basketballs. Some of them called him Santa. The adults, though, nicknamed him “The Great Debater.” On Friday afternoons, Diallo could be found at DeMorea's barbershop, ready to lecture on how Kobe Bryant is a “fake Jordan,” or on how adults need to do more to stop youth violence, or on China's potential as a superpower, or on colonialism's impact on Africa.
His favorite lecture topic, everybody remembers, was on the importance of taking the path to college and avoiding the path to the streets. Diallo knew his lifestyle had a price. When he was 19, he spent 80 days in county jail for possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. At 23, he did six months for the same crime, and then got slapped with three years probation a year later. With three felonies on his record before he turned 25, he had trouble transitioning into a legitimate career. He applied for jobs every week, at places like PG&E, Coca-Cola, and a bunch of warehouses. He didn't get called back for a single interview.
The breaking point came in 1999, when Diallo caught his fourth narcotics conviction. This time, he was sentenced to two years in state prison. Star had always pushed him to leave the drug game, but this time she raised the stakes. She wasn't going to let him put the family through this again. She'd leave him if he didn't straighten up. “I can't do this no more,” he agreed. “I can't put y'all through this.” The worst part of that stretch behind bars, he told her, was the helplessness he felt at not being able to take care of his family.
After he got out of prison that final time, he got a gig driving trucks, delivering furniture around California. By 2004, he'd saved up enough to open his own auto shop, Golden State Motors. As Diallo's 34th birthday neared, things were on the up-and-up.
Charles Brown and Emma Washington were standing outside their apartment complex at 2943 MacArthur Boulevard when they heard motorcycles roaring. The one in front was a black Harley and the driver was a black guy. And as far as Brown could tell, the one behind was a highway patrol officer, a white guy in a black and white helmet. Washington agreed with that assessment — it looked like the rider wore tan pants and a black leather jacket. The motorcycles were racing way above the 30 mph speed limit as they passed the complex and whipped around a bend about 100 yards away.
That's when Villiami Lauti heard the engines. He'd been cleaning up inside Lourd's Ice Cream Parlor on 2825 MacArthur, but now his attention was out the front window. He couldn't tell if the second motorcycle was police, but he assumed it was because he saw red and blue lights flashing on the back of the bike. Brandon Davis was standing outside of Lourd's when the bikes approached. He figured the chasing motorcycle was CHP, because of the rider's tan uniform and white helmet. It looked like the bike might have been silver.
He watched the second motorcycle accelerate toward the first, closing the distance as the bikes passed the ice cream parlor parking lot. Then he saw the second bike ram into the first. Brown saw it too.
“Police kinda got up there and tried to slow him down, and he hit the back of the tire — the tire skidded the back of his tire — made him fly off the bike,” Brown later told Hernandez, the private investigator. “To me it looked like that police officer made him do that.”
The bystanders watched in horror as the Harley rider shot through the air and into a bus stop bench near the Coolidge Street corner, the bike skidding down the street in a spray of sparks. The second motorcyclist pulled to a stop when he hit the intersection's red light.
At that moment, Christopher Maxey and his brother were in their car, paused at the opposite side of the intersection. They saw the fallen Harley sliding toward them, and a man in a white T-shirt lying on the ground. They hopped out of their car and ran over. They saw what looked like a Highway Patrol officer across the street, in a gold helmet and tan uniform — “just regular uniform,” Maxey would remember. Each set of eyes saw different variations on the attire of the second rider, tricks of light and bias that raise questions about the reliability of memory.
Sherri-Lyn Miller saw an entirely different kind of bike. Miller was walking up Coolidge with her 13-year-old son when she saw a motorcycle waiting at the stop light — the same one Maxey saw, except to her eyes, the motorcycle was a Harley-Davidson, not a law enforcement BMW. She didn't notice what the rider looked like.
Maxey and his brother were sure it was a CHP officer. As they cut through the intersection, they waved their arms at him, yelling for his attention. A dozen others nearby did the same. But the motorcyclist just sat there, staring at the scene. After a few moments, the motorcycle took off, turning down Coolidge in the direction of the Interstate 580 on-ramp.
“Like he didn't see it,” Maxey told Hernandez. “I was like, 'Awww man. That's scandalous.'”
Star and Gilda heard rumors about CHP's possible involvement within hours. Many in the neighborhood, it seemed, knew someone or knew someone who knew someone who saw what happened. The family figured the police department would sort it all out, though; they were focused on grieving.
Diallo Jr. turned angry, angry enough to punch through a wall in Star's Pittsburg home not long after his dad's death. He was starting his first year of high school when the crash happened. He began cutting class and hanging out on the corners, smoking weed. His grades deteriorated.
Diara did the opposite, finding solace in her school work. She excelled. At 16, though, she has reached an age when car expenses and tuition payments become central.
Star's worried about that. With Diallo as breadwinner, Star had worked part time, and pursued a criminal justice degree, eyeing a career in a parole or probation department. She works full time now at a hospital — she switched out of criminal justice shortly after Diallo's death because, she says, “I don't want to be a part of that world.” She used to never have to worry about money. Now her family lives paycheck-to-paycheck, and Star sometimes has had to take on a second job.
The house is quieter now. To help ease the financial stress, Diallo Jr. moved in with Gilda. The tight-knit family unit that Diallo worked hard to build and maintain is gone. “It's shattered,” says Gilda. “His death just changed everything.” Diallo's younger brother left Oakland for San Leandro six months after the crash. He couldn't bear to live there anymore. He's lost trust in people, says Gilda.
“We're still a family, but it's not the family we had,” says Gilda. “That's gone. Diallo was the glue.”
That Peralta Street duplex, once home for generations of a family, now feels vacant. Gilda rented out the top unit, and she and Diallo Jr live downstairs. Their living room is empty, the kitchen nearly bare. In her grief, Gilda gave away most of the furniture. She and Diallo had redecorated the house just months before his death, picking out new curtains and couches. Each item became a reminder of what was lost.
Gilda craved answers. Days after Diallo's death, she filed a claim with the state's Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, which helps pay funeral expenses and the like for family members of crime victims. She was surprised by the reason for rejection in the letter she received in February 2006. According to the “police report from the Oakland Traffic Department, the victim was riding his motorcycle at an unsafe speed causing the collision,” it read. “Therefore staff must recommend that the board deny this claim.” OPD's conclusion had been finalized.
She contacted the department and asked if they had talked to Darrell Langston. No, they told her, he was not a suspect, so OPD could not require him to come in for questioning. Over the years, her grief turned to confusion. “Why wouldn't the police go after him?” she wondered. She grew suspicious.
“When the police told me that CHP wasn't there, I believed them,” she says. “Because I didn't believe the police would do that. I could not process the audacity of it.”
Convinced that OPD's investigation would yield no answers, she pursued other avenues. In June 2010, she filed a complaint with Oakland's Citizens' Police Review Board, an independent body of local officials and laypeople, nominated by the mayor, confirmed by the City Council, and tasked with investigating accusations against the shield.
“My son was killed, hit by a motorcycle police officer,” she wrote in the complaint form. “The Oakland Police Department did not conduct an investigation in spite of multiple witnesses who gave statements, they saw what happened.” After reviewing OPD's work, the board ruled that her claimed were “Unfounded.”
“There's nothing that revealed that the acts [Gilda alleged] occurred,” says Patrick Caceres, the board's manager. “The burden is on the complainant to provide information that the alleged acts took place.”
The OPD, he adds, “found that it was an accidental death because they did not associate anyone with causing harm and there were no suspects. OPD followed all of the right laws.”
To overturn the department's initial conclusion, Caceres explains, the board would need to see a “preponderance of evidence” showing that the allegations “more likely than not” occurred.
Much of that evidence has faded with time. Witnesses have moved and changed phone numbers. According to CHP Sgt. Roberto Barrera, Officer Wong, who wrote the follow-up report, and Sergeants Warmerdam and Van Dyck, who “confirmed” that all CHP bikes were accounted for that night, have since retired.
More importantly, the key facts that would potentially undermine the CHP narrative are long gone.
Public records requests proved fruitless because the relevant records have been destroyed. Personnel files that would show which CHP officers were working or had just gotten off their shift on that October 2005 night were purged after five years. Dispatch logs and transcripts that would note any vehicular pursuits in the area were purged after three years. It's standard procedure. And the state does not keep digital archives.
“Every year, we have a big truck that comes in and shreds all sorts of materials,” says Barrera. “There's such little information from that long ago. The records just aren't there.”
While the CPRB concluded that the OPD conducted “a proper investigation into the incident,” Caceres places blame on the mystery elsewhere.
“The reality of it is that there was another individual with him — what's his story?” he says. “His story is that he did not cooperate. There was nothing that said the other individual with him was required to provide testimony. It would have to be on his own volition.
“It would have been better if the person with him provided testimony,” Caceres continues. “I think that would have helped the investigation. But he chose not to. And OPD didn't have a legal obligation to force him to.”
At this point, Caceres acknowledges the reason for skepticism.
“To say OPD did wrong is not accurate,” he says. “To say they could have done better would be more accurate. Did they do anything improper in their investigation? No. Could they have done a better job? Perhaps.”
The “other individual” he is referring to, of course, is Darrell Langston. Should they have named him a suspect?
“Obviously in hindsight, yes,” Caceres says. “You want to get as much information as you can. It just helps when the case isn't answered. Then all the information you have will be important.”
The OPD has since recognized that its initial investigation was flawed. In 2010, around the same time Gilda filed her complaint with the CPRB, the case reached the department's Internal Affairs desk. The case was re-opened. But the leads were cold. The records were gone. And the department has not appeared to have advanced the investigation. But the OPD does recognize that there is a mystery to be solved.
“It was determined there may have been another rider with the victim,” Rheta Sonnier, records supervisor for the OPD's Public Records Request Unit, says in an email. “It is unknown if the other rider is a witness or involved. We have a good idea who the other rider is, but he will not speak to us. We do not have enough evidence to compel him to speak to us. So the case is open until we can speak with the person of interest (who was an associate of the deceased).”
Diallo's family has lost much of its faith in its law enforcement institutions. Gilda has filed suit against the OPD and CHP, demanding “truth and justice” and $3.5 million in compensation. But even she doesn't know where to direct her anger. After all, there's already a surplus of venom targeting local law enforcement. In 2003, the city paid a total of $10.9 million to more than 100 people after four OPD officers faced charges of planting evidence and beating up suspects. In 2009, a BART police officer shot and killed an unarmed man at the Fruitvale station. In 2011, officers in riot gear fired tear gas canisters into a crowd of Occupy Oakland protesters outside City Hall, fracturing the skull of an Iraq War veteran in the process. In 2012, the East Bay Express reported that the OPD had solved less than a third of its homicide cases over the previous two years. And just this year, the Alameda County District Attorney's office admitted to wrongly convicting an accused murderer, who spent seven years in prison, and an accused rapist, who was locked up for 14 years.
“I know they do some pretty ugly stuff,” says Diallo Jr. “Coming from this community, you just witness a lot. When I was younger, I was real scared of OPD.”
But the family's sentiments toward their city's police force lean more toward resignation than fury. Instead, their outrage has fixated on the person who they didn't expect to let them down: Darrell Langston.
Langston and Diallo grew up together, called each other brothers. So Gilda and Star were perplexed and enraged by Langston's behavior following his best friend's death. He did not show up at the hospital. He did not visit the house the next day. He did not attend the memorial. He effectively disappeared from their lives. Most strikingly, he did not cooperate with the police. This fact, more than anything else, raised Gilda's and Star's suspicions over what he knows about Diallo's death.
“I was just so confused,” says Star. “Because, did Darrell do it? Did the CHP do it?”
Was Langston being so elusive because he had something to hide? Or was he simply paranoid because, if CHP was responsible, he was worried about becoming the scapegoat?
Diallo Jr. believes the latter. “I understand why he left,” he says. “They probably would have pinned it on him.”
Langston does not want to talk about it. When SF Weekly called his cell phone to set up a meeting, he agreed and asked that we call him the next day at 5 p.m. to confirm a location. He didn't pick up at 5 p.m. Nor at 6 or 7. Nor any time over the next few weeks. He didn't return voice mails or texts. The address on his business card for “Swag Motors,” an auto body shop he opened in Hayward, is now an empty lot. Neighboring business owners weren't familiar with Langston and said that the lot had been empty for at least a couple of years.
Langston did, however, tell his side of the story to Hernandez back in November 2005, the month after the crash.
In Langston's version, a CHP motorcycle officer pulled up beside him and Diallo as they reached the Coolidge/Fruitvale exit on I-580 west. Diallo was in front and Langston was behind him. He said the officer yelled at them to pull over. The officer looked angry. When they reached the Coolidge Street stoplight, Langston said, Diallo made a slow right turn, to get out of the way of any oncoming cars. The CHP then cut in front of Langston to follow Diallo. So Langston, who “didn't feel like being bothered,” made a left on Coolidge.
“That is the last time I seen my best friend,” he said.
He called a mutual friend to let him know that Diallo had gotten pulled over. That friend told him that Diallo had crashed.
Langston's story is not implausible. The medical examiner found in Diallo's pocket a “small white-like rock” wrapped in plastic and sealed in an envelope, along with around $3,800 in cash (the cash was not necessarily unusual given that most of Diallo's side-hustles, like selling clothes and flipping cars, were often cash-based). If Langston's story is true, a possible scenario emerges: Diallo, with his new business and stable family, has too much to lose to risk facing criminal charges; a skilled motorcyclist, he flees; the CHP officer pursues him; maybe the officer is pissed at Diallo's nerve and bumps him to send a message or maybe the bump was accidental or maybe there was no bump and Diallo simply lost control.
Or maybe none of that is true. Maybe Langston was the second motorcyclist. Maybe they were racing and he accidentally bumped his best friend, stopped at the light to try to grasp what had happened, panicked and took off.
And so on.
There are few certainties in the mystery of how Diallo Neal died. But one certainty is that the only living person who definitely knows what happened that night is Darrell Langston. Either he was being honest, and a CHP officer was with Diallo two blocks away from the crash, or he was lying.
The truth lives with him.