KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In many ways, their stories are different.
But, in the ways that matter most, Narene Stokes and Sheila Albers said it's the similarities that have brought them together, starting and ending with a mother's love.
Sheila and John Albers
From the moment Sheila Albers and her husband adopted John from an orphanage in Belarus, they were smitten with their blond-haired, blue-eyed boy.
"He always kind of walked with a swagger, like he was very confident," Sheila recalled.
As he grew, he carried that confidence onto the soccer field, one of his passions. But, behind the bravado of this talented athlete, there was pain, too.
"We adopted John when he was 18 months old, and he struggled with that and not knowing who his biological mom was," Sheila explained.
Then, on Jan. 20, 2018, some of those struggles came to a head.
The 17-year-old was home alone, and posted a video to social media threatening to harm himself, prompting friends to call police to check on him.
When police arrived, John was backing his family's minivan out of the driveway.
KSHB 41 obtained doorbell video and dashcam footage that was included in the OSIT report through an open records request.
In it, the viewer sees the garage door open, then John starts pulling out of the driveway. At that point, police had not made contact with the 17-year-old. As John started reversing straight down the driveway, then-Overland Park Police Officer Clayton Jenison shot into the vehicle. After one round, the van appears to spin out of control and Jenison fires again, for a total of 13 shots fired.
Jenison said he was afraid the van was going to hit him. One month later, the Johnson County District Attorney said a review determined Jenison was justified, because he was in the path of the accelerating van.
“He felt like he was the one who was going to get run over — that the vehicle was going to strike him," explained District Attorney Steve Howe during a 2018 press conference.
The family disputed those findings.
"So that was the beginning of the false narrative, when, in fact, John pulled the car out of the garage going 2.5 miles per hour in a straight line," Sheila said.
Narene and Ryan Stokes
Narene Stokes describes her son Ryan as "all boy," a young man who loved his family and friends and had a passion for playing sports.
"He tried them all, but basketball was his love," she remembered.
As he grew older, Ryan joined PAL, the Police Athletic League, playing basketball with local police officers.
"He already had a connection with the police, a friendship," his mom explained.
Because of that, Narene said she was even more shocked to learn it was a police officer who ended her son's life.
On July 28, 2013, the 24-year-old and his friends were on the outskirts of the Power and Light District.
A scuffle broke out when two men left a bar and accused Ryan's group of friends of stealing a cellphone. Ryan's friend maintained the two men who accused them were drunk, and protested they didn't have their phone. Still, it was enough to attract police attention.
Some of that confrontation was caught on a cellphone camera and was later shown as evidence in court.
"When they show Ryan, he was trying to make peace, and then he was running to try to get away from the area, from the trouble that was going on there," Narene explained.
Ryan's friends later told her police used pepper spray, leaving the group's driver unable to see. That's when Narene said Ryan ran to his friend's car in a nearby parking lot.
As he ran, witnesses said he appeared to be holding up his pants. But Officer William Thompson said he saw Ryan holding a gun.
That's when Thompson testified he fired, thinking Ryan was advancing toward fellow police officer, Daniel Straub.
But, Straub as well as three others who were nearby all testified they didn't see a gun.
Straub, who was facing Ryan at the time, said in court the 24-year-old appeared to be surrendering when he was shot.
The Stokes’ family attorney, Brian McCallister, explained the differing testimony from police officers.
"William Thompson said he yelled five to seven times in his loudest command voice, 'Show me your hands, drop the gun.' Daniel Straub says 'I never heard a word,'” McCallister said. “Officer Jones, William Thompson's partner didn't hear those commands. Two other officers off to the side didn't hear those commands."
"Ryan didn't have a chance to hold his hands up to the officer. He was shot in the back," McCallister said.
A gun was found in the vehicle, but it was registered to the driver, Ryan's friend, who testified he left it in the car that night.
Still, the family's attorney counters the mere presence of a firearm at the scene altered the account police first released to the media.
"Within 30 minutes of Ryan's death — 30 minutes, before any investigation was done — they had Ryan Stokes in a standoff with a gun, a danger to police officers, and none of that was true," McCallister said.
KSHB 41 News asked Kansas City, Missouri, police about that initial media release. Although the release predates any of the current spokespeople with KCPD, they did share this statement:
"The result of the events is terribly tragic for the family members and all involved. We are sorry for the pain that Mr. Stokes' family experienced. This case is currently still in civil litigation process, and generally we do not comment on details of cases under civil litigation to ensure fairness for all sides involved."
As for the outcome of the officer-involved shooting eight years ago, within days of Ryan's death, a grand jury deemed the shooting justified because the officer thought he had a gun and thought another officer was in danger.
The Albers were awarded a settlement in a civil suit.
Once that process was over, Sheila started digging into John's case, filing countless open records requests.
Eventually she learned Jenison was paid a $70,000 severance payment by the city.
Then roughly one year ago, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the case.
"I feel like there is finally an independent, impartial investigation being done of John's death," Sheila said.
Since the 2013 shooting, the Stokes family has filed two appeals, arguing there was evidence that wasn't heard. But it's been eight years, and the family has yet to see the light of a courtroom.
Narene told the KSHB 41 I-Team she feels as if the system hopes she'll get tired and will quit fighting.
"But I can't... I won't, because he was my only son, my baby boy," she said.
Unlike the Albers' case, the Stokes family has been unable to get an outside agency such as the FBI or the U.S. Attorney General's Office to look into their case, despite direct pleas from local civil rights leaders over the years.
Narene said she believes one reason for this is that Ryan's story didn't get nearly as much media attention John's case did — and she's right.
In the sake of full transparency, KSHB 41 News checked our own archives.
Since Ryan Stokes' death, his case was mentioned 58 times, an average of 7.25 times a year, on KSHB-TV.
Since John Albers died, his case was mentioned 146 times, an average of 36.5 times a year.
McCallister also pointed to another glaring difference: a lack of video in Ryan's death.
"When you are up against qualified immunity and you have to prove what a dead man heard and didn't hear, what a dead man saw and didn't see, you have no witnesses,” McCallister said. “When you have a video camera, you have an eyewitness."
Recently, The Guardian, a global news organization, profiled both the Albers and the Stokes cases.
The author, Susan Berardi, said despite the differences, the similarities should serve as a wakeup call to any parent.
"This is a mom story. I’m a mom. There are lots of moms out there and either with John or with Ryan, depending on where you are and who you, are it could absolutely happen to you," Berardi said.
A formed friendship and push for police reform
Narene and Sheila hope to combine their voices in their push for police reform. They are calling for more crisis response training for officers and more civilian oversight in reviews of police-involved shootings.
It's a partnership that was formed at a support group meeting for moms about a year ago.
"Man, we met and it was just like a click," Sheila recalled.
Both mothers said they understand each other's pain in ways most others can't.
"What do you think brought you two together?" KSHB 41 I-Team's Caitlin Knute asked both moms.
"Well, a little piece of God. I think we were supposed to meet, and I think Ryan and John wanted us to meet," Sheila said, as she and Narene stood hand in hand, smiling at one another.
Today, they're not only close friends, they're allies in their fight for justice for their sons.
Although their individual stories are rooted in sorrow, their combined story is one of strength, support and sisterhood.