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Before it was abruptly extinguished in a hail of police gunfire, Ryan McMillan’s life appeared to be on the upswing. After spending more than two years taking courses at two Fort Worth area community colleges while working part-time at a flower shop, he enrolled at UNT in September 2015. Tristen Friedson, a former classmate and tennis team doubles partner of McMillan’s at Arlington Heights High School, had matriculated at the university two years earlier and had joined McMillan’s parents in encouraging his best friend to apply. Friedson says McMillan seemed thrilled to be joining him at the sprawling campus, only a short drive northeast of Fort Worth, and to finally be getting himself on track to earn a four-year degree. Friedson says McMillan “loved” the classes he was taking, especially in political science, where his shy friend was finally starting to find his voice in class discussions.

Friends and family remember McMillan as gentle. Courtesy of Facebook.

After completing his final exams in early December, McMillan decided to stay in Denton to celebrate a landmark birthday. On Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, he turned 21. In Texas, celebrating includes the legal right to be served alcoholic beverages at restaurants and bars. On that cloudy, breezy, late fall afternoon, McMillan drove Cory Doolittle, one of his two apartment mates, to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to catch a plane for Montana, where the senior education major from Lewisville would spend his winter break. McMillan, Doolittle remembers, was in an upbeat mood.

“Everything he talked about was what he had planned going forward,” Doolittle recalls.

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After dropping off Doolittle at around 2:30 p.m., McMillan phoned his half-sister, Lauren Harris, a 32-year-old cardiologist’s assistant who lives in Weatherford with her husband, Justin, and her 9-year-old stepson, Vincent. McMillan, Harris remembers, told her he planned to go pub crawling that evening with Friedson’s apartment mate, UNT senior Armun Shakeri, and some of Shakeri’s friends. (Friedson, at only 20, could not join the group.) McMillan promised to visit Harris the following day. Before returning to Denton, McMillan visited his mom in Fort Worth.

“I gave him $200 for his birthday,” recalls Gina McMillan-Weese. “He was all excited about that, and he wanted to buy some boots with the money.”

Then McMillan spent a few hours with Friedson, who had returned to Fort Worth after finishing his exams.

When McMillan returned to Denton around 9 p.m., it appears that he immediately began drinking. A short time later, he allegedly was seen carrying an open bottle of tequila in front of the U Centre at the Fry Street student housing office. According to the student, who requested anonymity, “Ryan seemed perfectly happy, obviously getting drunk at that point, but he seemed happy.”

Sometime during the evening, however, as McMillan visited several Denton bars with Shakeri and friends and consumed more alcohol, Shakeri says McMillan’s mood turned sour. After he yelled at some other customers playing a mechanical soccer game at the third and final bar they visited, as Shakeri would later tell Friedson, McMillan was asked by a bartender to leave.

“This was the first time [anything like] this had ever happened to him,” said Shakeri, and McMillan clearly was not happy about it.

Concerned about the inebriated sophomore, Shakeri says he walked McMillan back to the U Centre apartment building and made sure he got on the elevator that would take him up to his second-floor unit. Assuming his friend was now safe, Shakeri went home and ordered a pizza.

Before his encounter with police, McMillan had taken an ax to his apartment. Photo by Jonathan Agronsky.

Unbeknownst to Shakeri, the drunken college student was not all right. Shortly after returning to his empty apartment, a police detective who investigated the shooting would later tell Doolittle, McMillan walked down to the building’s parking garage and retrieved a small hatchet from the trunk of his car. He then walked back upstairs and trashed his apartment, said the detective, starting with his bedroom, where he gouged holes in the walls and punched through the closet door with his fist, staining it with blood. He then returned to the ground level of the parking garage and savaged the white 2014 Mazda3 hatchback that his dad had given to him two months earlier. Based on the people-pleasing persona that Ryan McMillan consistently presented to the world, and on the random targets he subsequently tagged for destruction, it was impossible to know his motives.

Around 12:30 a.m., UNT junior Ashley Jones rounded the corner from a higher level of the parking garage on a late-night run to Walmart. She didn’t witness any of the vandalism, she recalls, but she did recognize McMillan, whom she had met earlier that semester through Friedson. She stopped her car and rolled down her window to speak to him.

“I was like, ‘Hey, Ryan. What’s up? How’s it goin’? And I didn’t see that he had that [hatchet] in his hand. And so he went up to me, and he looked really upset, and he was like, you know, ‘I’m so gone’ and, like, ‘I’m gonna kill myself.’ … And I honestly didn’t think he was being serious at first, because Ryan’s like a super-smiley, positive guy. And I was like, ‘Well, what’s going on? Talk to me. Did you have a bad semester?’ But he just didn’t seem like himself. And so he went to the front of my hood, and he smashed my hood a couple times. … He then walked off. He started smashing other people’s cars with the hatchet, and at that point I was like, ‘OK, he’s obviously under the influence.’ I drove up to the second floor, because I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen next.”

Jones then took out her cellphone and dialed 9-1-1. The police dispatcher told her the vandal had already been reported and that a patrol officer was on the way.

A few minutes later, Ryan McMillan, the happy-go-lucky birthday boy from Fort Worth, the young man everyone seemed to love but who had turned into a babbling, hatchet-wielding madman after ingesting too much alcohol, lay dying on the street.

******

Just after 7 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, Walter McMillan heard a knock on the door of his one-bedroom condominium in Tanglewood. When he opened it, recalls the 70-year-old Dallas native who had retired to Fort Worth after working for nearly three decades as a procurement analyst for the federal government, he was greeted by two grim-looking uniformed officers of the Fort Worth Police Department.

“They gave me the number of a woman administrator with the Denton County Medical Examiner’s office,” Walter McMillan says. “I called her. She said that Ryan had been shot by a UNT police officer and was dead. I was stunned. The cops just stared. They kept saying, ‘Do you want us to stay with you?’ I finally said, ‘I have been to Southeast Asia, and I have experienced death. I don’t need you here anymore.’”

Walter McMillan, who was referring to his wartime experiences with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, still struggles to understand how it is possible that his son was killed just half an hour after turning 21 and what might have prompted him to act so irrationally.

“He was such a good kid,” Walter McMillan insists. “He never caused me and [McMillan-Weese] any problems” while growing up in Fort Worth.

Struggling to contain his emotions as we sat together in his apartment, he added, “I still can’t believe he’s dead.”

McMillan-Weese, understandably, has been faring no better. “I will never get over this,” she lamented to me in early January while helping pack up her dead son’s belongings at his college apartment, its walls still bearing hatchet marks and bloodstains from the rampage. “I will relive it every day for the rest of my life.”

Ryan McMillan’s older half-sister, Fort Worth’s Anya McMillan Valdez, was so disturbed by her brother’s slaying — and by other recent shootings in this country — that the 38-year-old former elementary school teacher says that she and her husband, Teddy Valdez, may move to Costa Rica with their two young children. In that South American country, she says, “you don’t have to worry about your kids getting gunned down at school.”

Lauren Harris struggled to connect her brother’s seemingly unprovoked orgy of destruction in Denton with the calm, easygoing child she had grown up with. The puzzlement turned to anger when she saw the news stories about him. Run under such lurid, sensational headlines as “Texas Student Wielding Ax Is Shot Dead,” they suggested that a male version of Lizzie Borden had been loosed upon the UNT campus, giving 40 whacks to everyone in his path.

“I know Ryan,” Harris bristled, “and that is not him.”

******

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. You asked the UNT president what the university might do to ensure students will be safe from future shootings by law officers? Only a hack journalist would ask such a question.

    A college student should know that if you’re wielding a weapon and approaching a law officer, and he tells you to stop, that the safest thing to do is to stop. UNT doesn’t need to put on a seminar about it.

  2. The cop and the kid both made a fatal mistake and it is a tragedy for the kid & the cop, parents, school, loved ones ……a heart-wrenching tragedy, that was undeserved by the cop or young man or the school or town. It is a heart wrenching tragedy, that’s it, nothing more, enough said. Stuff happens, the kid was an unlucky kid, the cop was an unlucky cop, the college and who knows who else are shattered and in morning,makes a normal man want to weap and hug his kids. You are a rat and a mullet Johnie boy and you are a lay-about, snot-rag, piss-ant with no value to this sweet country or humanity. The old devil has a death-grip on your stinking ass, and so it goes. You are on our government’s time downtown at our Fort Worth Couhouse while you torment this poor community. May God forgive you, I’m not that good of a guy. I maintain that black-hearted, Government snot-rags should do their work and shut their asinine yapper. I’m praying for you.

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