Before his death made headlines earlier this month, Jenoah Donald kept his distance from some of his closest family members.
He would text them on special occasions. The last time his mother, Susan Zawacky, and his brother, Josh, talked with him was around last Christmas. Josh, who declined to give his last name, said Donald often reached out when he needed help.
“I was the one person that he didn’t want to let down,” Josh said. “He always felt ashamed to me. Like, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on, I need help.’ And I would say ‘Everybody needs help. I need help. … We all need help.’”
Frustration, they said, had been a prevalent theme in Donald’s life in recent years. He grappled with mental health issues, a criminal history and substance abuse issues, they said.
But they drew a line at the notion those issues played any role in his death. On Feb. 4, the 30-year-old was stopped for a faulty taillight by Clark County Sheriff’s deputies. The situation escalated, and a deputy shot Donald in the head. He died a week later at the hospital.
“He didn’t get pulled over by a drug task (force) or anything like that. He got pulled over because of a bad backlight,” Zawacky said.
Deputies had reportedly been in the area to respond to complaints of drug activity at a house in the area. Investigators have not disclosed any link between Donald and the house. Zawacky said she didn’t know why he was in the area.
At that point in their respective lives, she said, their communication was “hit and miss.”
Zawacky, however, said Donald by becoming a known figure to local police. Court records show Donald had a history of convictions. She said some law enforcement knew him by reputation.
“If he started to make decisions down the road that weren’t good, still I would receive phone calls or they’d show up at my door (and say) ‘We don’t want him to get hurt,’” she said.
As a child, she said, Donald had positive relationships with the police through the YMCA. John Visser, a private investigator the family hired after Donald’s death, is a former police officer who mentored Donald from an early age.
“I feel like someone we trusted did this to our family,” she said. “Period.”
They described Donald as a bold kid. He wrestled with Josh, who is seven years his senior. He had a tinkering nature growing up. They noted he sometimes took small engines out of lawnmowers and combined them with bicycles and scooters.
“It was just something he could pick up and do,” Zawacky said of Donald’s mechanical skills. “Jenoah wanted to be a lot of things. One was a mechanic. The problem he had was because of his disability, he wasn’t able to do things handwritten or go to school and complete things.”
They said he was diagnosed early on with forms of dyslexia and ADHD. He was medicated with Ritalin. His struggles in schools left him years behind his peers.
“In junior high, I had one teacher tell me on the phone that she can’t teach a kid who doesn’t want to learn,” Zawacky said. By sophomore year, she homeschooled him. She said she was teaching him life skills like balancing budgets. He never received a GED — and bawled after trying to take the test.
“We helped him with that, I was up late with him studying with him,” Josh said. “He panicked. He like, froze up, basically.”
Through his 20s, they said, he grew more frustrated. But they did not expect the police to someday arrive at their door to deliver the news that he was shot by law enforcement.
According to Zawacky, officers told Josh that Donald was already dead.
But Donald spent a week on life support after the shooting. His family described those days as a blur. Zawacky said she spent a lot of time at the hospital. There were days it appeared he would improve — following doctors’ directions — but he would quickly regress.
On Thursday, his family removed him from life support. He survived for 16 hours, they said.
The investigation into the shooting is still ongoing. It is led by the Vancouver Police Department. The family’s attorney, Mark Lindquist, said the family does intend to file a civil claim against the sheriff’s office.
“We have enough information to know the family has a righteous claim against the county,” he said.
Of the investigation into the officers, Zawacky said doesn’t feel like she’s been kept in the loop.
“I feel like they haven’t been forthcoming,” she told OPB after the interview. “They’ve provided more questions so far than answers.”