Saheed Vassell, the mentally ill man gunned down by NYPD officers on April 4, sought refuge in religion. After the police killing, Vassell, 34, was portrayed by law enforcement as a caricature of a Black man pointing a pipe at passersby on a Brooklyn sidewalk. But a fuller picture of Vassell, including his devotional life, is now emerging.
A stack of Bibles and religious books were among the items on Vassell’s bedroom dresser at his parents’ apartment, according to the New York Times. His various Bibles were placed neatly in size order, one on top of the other, with the largest at the bottom.
He routinely attended 7:30 a.m. service at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church. Vassell, a father of a teenage son, also went to Mass at the church every Sunday.
“He would go to the Mother Mary statue, kiss the hand and place his hand on the statues,” Althea Pierre, a 60-year-old parishioner, told the newspaper. “He just came in, did his signs, walked around and walked out.”
Religion appears to have been a source of calm for Vassell. He would walk around the neighborhood reciting Scripture to himself. “He knew the Bible back to front,” a neighbor, Claudia Ellis, 61, stated.
Vassell, who immigrated at 6 years old to the United States from Jamaica, was one of four siblings who lived in their parents’ two-bedroom apartment as children in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He dropped out of high school but ultimately built a career as a welder before his mental health breakdown.
Ironically, police shot dead Vassell’s best friend, Ortanzso (Marlon) Bovell, on a Brooklyn street in August 2008. That killing set Vassell on a downward spiral. The lieutenant who killed Bovell, shot in the back as he fled in an allegedly stolen vehicle, claimed that his gun fired by accident. But a jury in 2017 found that the shooting was intentional and awarded $2.5 million to Bovell’s family.
After the trauma of his friend’s death, Vassell was hospitalized several times and prescribed medications to treat bipolar disorder. “We were taking care of him, doing everything for him,” his mother, Lorna Vassell, stated.
He was known to be mentally ill but harmless by folks in the community and police officers assigned to the neighborhood, Andre Wilson, Vassell’s longtime friend told the New York Daily News.
His life ended when four officers — one in uniform, three plainclothes — fired at Vassell, in a hail of 10 bullets. They were responding to calls about a Black man with a gun. But it turned out that Vassell was holding a pipe. No firearm was found at the scene.
Officers didn’t try to diffuse the situation—not even warning Vassell to put down the object, a witness said.
“They just hopped out of the car. It’s almost like they did a hit. They didn’t say please. They didn’t say put your hands up, nothing,” stated witness Jaccbot Hinds.