Nicole Westbrook was 21 when she moved to Seattle from New Mexico. She was celebrating her boyfriend’s first paycheck in the city with a night out in Pioneer Square. That’s when she was shot and killed on April 22, 2012.
Seattle’s own superhero Phoenix Jones remembers the tragedy well. He was there.
“There are so many reasons this is terrible … losing someone when they are 21 is ridiculous,” Jones said. “This was my first true-to-life failure with real consequences. It wasn’t just me getting hurt.”
Westbrook was not believed to be the intended target of the shooting that night. Someone shot at a crowd from a car. Jones heard the shots, then saw a man with a backpack carrying a gun on the street, and assumed that was the shooter. He began to chase him.
“I saw the guy running with a gun, and I assumed he shot Nicole,” Jones told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz. “After my own investigation, I realized the shots had come from the car, and they were shooting at the guy with a gun on the street. And she happened to get hit in the process.”
Jones was stopped by a police officer in the area and was told to halt. He complied, and let the man continue running away. No one was ever detained in relation to the shooting. To this day, the crime remains unsolved.
“The police said they were going to solve it, and they never did,” Jones said.
“I’d love to blame the Seattle Police Department entirely. That would make me feel better, right?” he asked. “But when I saw the guy with a gun … I remember thinking ‘this is super terrifying.’ I wasn’t running at full speed. When the cop stopped me I felt kind of relieved. I thought he had a good idea. When he told me I couldn’t go any further because there wasn’t any backup, then I got angry. But I was more than happy to stop. I was nervous.”
An hour passed. Jones remained in the area, sitting on the sidewalk as police surveyed the scene. He watched Westbrook’s body be carried away.
“A fire engine drives by and washes the blood off the sidewalk, and it runs down into a drain,” Jones recalled. “I just kept sitting on the sidewalk. About another hour goes by and people start walking by for work and to their normal everyday life. My world is completely changed … it really hit home for me. People don’t understand, and they don’t get it. And they’re not going to care unless I give them a reason to.”
Jones can’t speak about the incident without getting emotional; his voice cracking through his words.
“This is one of the worst moments of my life. It’s bothered me ever since,” he said. “I don’t sleep as well as I use to. I don’t do things the way I used to. Now, when I hear gun fire, I make sure that I run toward it … it changed the whole way that I do things.”
The incident has remained in the memories of Westbrook’s loved ones, and in Jones’. He recorded his experience in his journal. That journal was given to a comic book producer who recently took the incident and turned it into an edition of Jones’ own comic.
The comic book was recently released and has stirred criticism over the gruesome depiction of Westbrook’s death. Rantz notes that the cop illustrated in the comic book is made to look out of shape, but Jones maintains that is the reality; the cop truly was out of shape. However, that the cop didn’t stop his pursuit because he was winded, Jones explained. Rather, he stopped because there was no backup and that is procedure.
But that is not the only critique of the comic. Many have objected to the use of Westbrook’s death in the story.
“It’s pretty graphic. You see [Westbrook] laying in a pool of her own blood. You see her crying. She’s holding the wound in her neck,” Rantz said. “That is understandably shocking, especially to people close to her.”
Jones does understand that perspective. He said that he notified some of Westbrook’s family so they would be aware of the depictions. But he stresses that it’s true to what happened.
Jones does admit that he didn’t consider many of the questions and criticisms that have come about since the comic books’ release.
“I guess I’m just telling my story, and this happens to be a part of it,” he said. “This comic reveals a lot of things people don’t know and a lot of stories people don’t know, and it started with this.”
The comic was featured at the Jet City Comic Con in Tacoma over the past weekend. When people realized that the story was real, attitudes changed from wonder to reservation.
“They didn’t like it and thought it was too real,” Jones said. “If you want to read a fake comic book, get a Batman comic book. If you want to read about my life and help someone, and maybe get the case back out in the news, and maybe get somebody to know what happened, read my comic book.”
Jones’ comic books are rather real. They are taken from his own life as a vigilante superhero on the streets of Seattle. They even have QR codes within the pages. Readers can scan them with their cellphones and they will bring up videos from crime scenes, photos, and actual police reports.
He said that the comics aren’t always flattering of his work. He makes mistakes. He isn’t always so super.
“There’s some of my failures from the beginning of my career, in book two and three,” Jones recalls. “In book seven and eight, we do some stuff that is kind of questionable, and maybe even against the law. But it’s how it happened.”
But if there is one comic he would want people to read, it would be the one with Westbrook’s death in it.
“If I only had one comic book to put a spotlight on one thing in my career, it would be Nicole,” Jones said. “Somebody has to know what happened. There’s no way that you drive a car through and shoot somebody and no one knows. Somebody knows something and somebody is not talking. It’s about time we figured it out.”
The comic book is available through Phoenix Jones’ Facebook page and other social media. Also featured on his websites is a hot line for tips related to the Westbrook shooting.