Nathaniel and Li'l Nate

The two lives and untimely death of Nathaniel Sanders II

Nathaniel and Li'l Nate
Photo by John Anderson

Beside a smiling picture of himself, posted on a hallway wall among photos of other smiling students – seniors at American YouthWorks, an Austin charter school for at-risk youth – Nathaniel Sanders II, then 17, wrote words of encouragement for younger students: "Never give up when things look hopeless." He signed it, "Nate AYW '08."

In another photo, also taken at AYW last spring, Sanders is smiling broadly beneath a black mortarboard with red tassel. Life seemed full of promise for Sanders, said his English teacher, Kristy Reeves. "He had a light about him, a huge smile," she recalled recently. "How hopeful he was at this time last year."

That hope, however, is gone.

At roughly 5:30am on Monday, May 11, Sanders was allegedly shot twice in the chest by eight-year veteran Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana, as Sanders sat in the back seat of a gold Mercedes station wagon in the parking lot of the Walnut Creek apartments on Springdale Road near Manor Road. According to police, Sanders was one of three men in the wagon that they believed might be connected to reports made to police that weekend by Walnut Creek residents, who complained that someone associated with that car had been shooting guns into the air.

Police say Quintana spotted the car while on patrol. He called for backup, and by the time he parked his squad car, the driver of the Mercedes, Michael Franklin, had gotten out and was walking toward the apartments. Quintana stopped him and "was able to take the driver into custody without incident," said APD Chief Art Acevedo. As he was doing so, Acevedo said, backup officers arrived. Two passengers, Sanders and 21-year-old Sir Law­rence Smith, were still inside the car, asleep. The three officers considered what to do next, said a source with knowledge of the investigation, and ultimately Quintana went to the back door of the car and attempted to wake Sanders. Sanders didn't wake easily, and at some point during the attempt, the officer noticed a handgun tucked into Sanders' waistband. He yelled "32!" – the "code for armed suspects," Acevedo said – and drew his weapon to protect himself.

As Sanders woke up, he allegedly reached for his weapon – whether any scuffle took place is unclear at this time, as are the exact positions of Quintana and Sanders when the shooting took place. A source familiar with the ongoing investigation says Quintana told San­ders to stop, but he did not do so – Quin­tana fired, striking Sanders in the chest. According to police, Smith, who had been sleeping in the front passenger seat, woke up and bolted from the car. Police say that when Smith exited the car, he lunged toward Quintana, and the officer shot him, also in the chest.

Smith lived; Sanders did not.

A crowd gathered at the scene of the shooting
A crowd gathered at the scene of the shooting (Photo by John Anderson)

It wasn't long after Sanders died that reports surfaced about his recent run-ins with the law – he'd been arrested on two felony charges within six months, including a charge that he'd robbed someone at an ATM on Sixth Street just four days before he was killed. Sanders' parents, Nathaniel and Yulonda, were quick to come to their son's defense – he wasn't perfect, but he was "a good kid – not a throwaway child," Yulonda told the Austin American-Statesman. "He was still our baby."

Heaven or Hell

Indeed, Nate was still very young, a little more than two weeks shy of his 19th birthday. But since turning 18 last year, Sanders had also begun to get into serious trouble. By the time he died, he was facing what would likely have been a several-year sentence in state prison related not only to the robbery charge but also a second-degree drug possession charge – he'd been on deferred adjudication for the drug bust when he committed the May 7 robbery and was arrested a few minutes later with the victim's wallet in his hand.

The rap sheet Sanders was rapidly amassing – and the growing disregard for himself and others suggested by the charges against him – stands in stark contrast to the smiling youth who was a wiz on the basketball court and whose writing his English teacher considered articulate beyond his years. Given the available information, it seems that the contrasting views of Sanders – as a good kid and as a troubled child – may both be equally true and that Sanders was living something of a double life: a promising student and talented basketball player during the day; at night, a young man pulled as if by a strong gravity toward something darker – a street corner reputation, perhaps, fast money, and undoubtedly an eventual showdown with the criminal justice system.

The dichotomy of Sanders' short life was something that First Pentecostal Church pastor Ruby Hall openly acknowledged at his funeral. "Little Nate" was "trained up in the right way," she told several hundred mourners who attended Sanders' funeral. But "when we [turn] 12, we know everything," she continued. Sanders eventually "strayed away," she said. "I don't come to put Little Nate in heaven, and I don't come here to put him in hell. It's in the Lord's hands."

"Death is coming to us all," Hall said. "You can be big and bad if you want to, but death is coming to us all."

Student and Athlete

News that Sanders had been killed hit his "family" at AYW hard. The 30-year-old charter school serves academically and socially at-risk kids, who are behind in school and on the edge of dropping out (or who have already dropped out), and kids who have already become parents or are homeless. The school has roughly 500 students at two campuses and is a tight-knit place where adults and youth support each other, and where students take high school classes but also learn life skills and job skills. AYW is not in "competition" with other schools, says acting-CEO Melinda Wheatley. "We consider [our competition] to be prisons," she says. "So the longer we can get a student in here to pursue his education and job training," the more likely that student is to graduate and to discover "options to making money that are on the grid as opposed to off the grid."

Nate Sanders II came to AYW in Spring 2008, recalls Wheatley. "Nate was a very typical newcomer with American YouthWorks. He came in because he needed to recover some credits and graduate. He came to the orientation and got excited," she said. "The shine that you saw on his face" in grad-cap photos, she said, is typical of AYW students. The problem is that AYW wasn't able, for whatever reason, to keep Sanders around long enough. He finished his course work in just three months but wasn't yet able to pass the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, the standardized test required of all graduating seniors. After that, it seems, he fell out of the AYW loop. But the intimacy of the school setting was powerful, Wheatley says, for both Sanders and his fellow students and teachers. "Everyone at our school considered it a loss when Nate died. And we're a pretty large school, and this is a guy who came at the end of last year and became a part of our culture in a very short period of time."

English teacher Reeves recalls that while Sanders' class attendance "wasn't spectacular," he was always eager to make up whatever work he'd missed. "When he was here, he was charismatic – he interacted well, and he was a great writer," she said. While AYW does have a "population where there's a lot of ebb and flow," recalls Reeves, "he definitely stood out. He had a great personality."

Nate Sanders' words of encouragement are posted on the wall at American YouthWorks.
Nate Sanders' words of encouragement are posted on the wall at American YouthWorks. (Photo by John Anderson)

Nineteen-year-old Shane Martin enrolled in AYW at roughly the same time as Sanders. While Martin stayed on, finishing course work and working through two job-training programs, Sanders did not. But Martin agrees that Sanders was a friendly and charming guy. "He seemed like a cool dude. He got his work done," he recalled. "The main thing that he liked to do ... was play ball." That is, basketball. And according to two former coaches, he was quite good. At his funeral, a former coach of Sanders' recalled that the kid was "smooth" on the court – his rebounding was solid, his defense consistent. And he could do things "that other basketball players could not do," he recalled. His skill and tenacity led the coach to nickname Sanders "Slick" – as in Donald "Slick" Watts, the popular Seattle SuperSonic, known for his tough defense, who retired in 1979. Travis High School basketball coach Clayton Harris told the Statesman that Sanders was indeed a "determined ballplayer" and talented at three-point shooting. "Basket­ball was what kept him straight," Har­ris said. "He was a competitor. You could tell from his actions that he wanted to be successful."

Player and Gangster

Yet out of school and off the court, it seems that Sanders' life was heading in a starkly different direction. Whether he had been in trouble as a juvenile is unconfirmed (juvenile arrest records are confidential), but within six months of turning 18, Sanders had his first publicly documented run-in with the law. On Dec. 5, 2008, he was arrested and charged with unlawfully carrying a .25-caliber handgun, found tucked under the cushion of the back seat of a car he'd been riding in when it was pulled over for failing to signal and driving on the center line of South I-35. The next morning Sanders posted in full a $2,500 bond.

Also in December, according to court records, Sanders was again arrested, for third-degree felony drug possession, and again bonded out. In early January 2009, Sanders was back in jail for the night – this time on a second-degree felony charge for possession of crack. According to the police report of the January encounter, just before 2am on Friday, Jan. 2, Sanders had driven a car Downtown on Neches, southbound in the northbound lane toward Sixth Street – and right toward several police cars parked near the weekend street-closure barricade. Sanders had no license nor insurance, the car smelled of marijuana, there was a loaded 9mm handgun on the passenger side of the car, and there were several baggies filled with a total of more than 1 ounce of crack cocaine. Again, Sanders bonded out of jail.

In March, he was stopped and cited for marijuana possession as he walked through the Walnut Creek apartment complex grounds – this episode bringing him to the site where he would meet his death.

Less than a month later, in April, he was picked up again, when police responded to a gambling-related call at the Walnut Creek apartments.

On April 7, the felony drug possession charge he'd picked up in December was dismissed, and Sanders was given a second chance, with deferred adjudication on the more serious crack-related possession charge from January. Under deferred adjudication, had Sanders been able to stay out of trouble and comply with the terms of his probation, the charge would have been dismissed at the end of his six-year sentence. But exactly a month later – on May 7 – Sanders was picked up again, for robbing a man of his wallet and cash at an ATM on San Jacinto. Two bicycle cops caught up with Sanders just a couple of blocks away, as he stood near a garbage can tossing out the contents of the man's wallet. Sanders spent another night in lock-up before paying an $8,000 bond.

And that's even more puzzling. Just the day before, on May 6, he'd failed to show up in court on the December weapon charge, thereby forfeiting his $2,500 bond and violating the terms of his deferred adjudication probation. If the municipal judge who set his bond had been aware of that failure to appear the previous day, it seems unlikely that Sanders would have been let out on that final bond. And his failure to stay straight and abide by the terms of his probation suggest strongly that Sanders would have ended up doing more time in jail than just an overnight stay.

Instead, he walked out of the courthouse that Thursday, May 7. The following Monday morning, he was shot dead.

R.I.P. Li'l Nate

Mourners at the funeral
Mourners at the funeral (Photo by John Anderson)

Why Sanders' behavior had turned so dramatically negative is unclear, though there is at least one possibility: Sanders had apparently become closely involved with members of the Bloods criminal street gang. Police say the Bloods have some 500 "documented members" (i.e., with some reported gang activity on record with police) living in Austin, and they say that Sanders was one of them. State law requires that several criteria be met before police can actually "document" a person as a gang member (which can eventually have an effect on sentencing). A person must admit to gang involvement in court, for example, or have gang tattoos, use gang hand signals, or wear gang-related dress. Police declined to release the report filed on Sanders, which documents him as a member of the Bloods, because the information is intelligence-related and exempt from disclosure.

If Sanders wasn't literally a gang member, it seems likely that he was hanging around that scene. Although the majority of the mourners at Sanders' funeral appeared to be from a community of friends and neighbors, a significant number seemed to be representing that darker life of the street. Tribute shirts worn by mourners at his funeral showed Sanders with fists full of cash, many greeted one another with elaborate hand signals commonly associated with gang members, and a large number of mourners dressed in red, the color most commonly associated with the Bloods.

It could be, as the family has insisted to reporters, that the red was merely in homage to the colors of the Travis High Rebels, where Sanders played basketball in the red No. 2 jersey – or perhaps even that the clothing was a deliberately defiant choice, in protest of the image of Sanders already prevailing in the media.

It's undeniable that Sanders was a young man increasingly finding trouble. But the Sand­ers family's attorney, Adam Loewy, disputes the claim that Sanders had any involvement in a criminal street gang. "I believe APD's attempt to paint him this way," Loewy said, "is an attempt to deflect attention away from what happened to him [that] Monday."

Waiting on Evidence

At present, exactly what did happen in the parking lot of the Walnut Creek apartments isn't entirely clear. Police have in progress both criminal and administrative inquiries into the shooting – both to be pursued as well by the Office of the Police Monitor – and while those are ongoing, public information will be frustratingly limited. We do know that of the three officers who were present at the scene, only one activated the in-car video camera required in each patrol vehicle. Why two of the officers – including Quintana – failed to turn on their recorders, as required by APD policy, is unknown and already the subject of public controversy. But Chief Acevedo says that the working camera caught both video and "good audio" of most of the incident. That footage likely will be critical in determining exactly what happened.

In the meantime, both Sir Lawrence Smith, who was shot in the chest but lived, and the driver of the car, Michael Franklin, have told reporters that the official narrative of the shooting is not at all accurate. Smith's attorney Bobby Taylor told News 8 Austin, "Sir woke up to being shot and the sound of gunshots." He said he has "evidence" suggesting that Smith was shot while sitting in the seat of the car and not after he'd gotten out of the car and was lunging at Quintana. On May 16, Franklin told a Fox 7 reporter that Smith and Sanders were still asleep in the car when they were shot. "I know what happened. I was there, and I seen what happened," Franklin said. "I'm really upset about all the lies, period. When I first seen the news and I seen all the lies, I was saying, 'They don't have any facts.'"

Until the investigations are completed and made public, only one fact is undeniable: Nathaniel Sanders' young life has come to an abrupt and untimely end.

Community Meeting

Monday, June 1

Discuss the shooting of Nate Sanders, and get an update from City Manager Marc Ott, Police Chief Art Acevedo, and Police Monitor Cliff Brown, 6:30pm at the Delco Center, 4601 Pecan Brook Dr.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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Austin Police Departmentpolice shooting, Nathaniel Sanders, Art Acevedo, Austin Police Department, American YouthWorks, Leonardo Quintana, Bobby Taylor

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