Robert Lawrence White probably traveled the route between his childhood home and Silver Spring International Middle School hundreds—maybe even thousands—of times in his 41 years.
His friend, Alex Villars, says White would spend hours of every day walking through his neighborhood, often dressed in his “signature outfit” of purple shorts and purple basketball shoes. Those who knew White said he seemed to find the treks therapeutic, especially since his father’s 2016 death left him living alone in the post-war brick home they’d shared on Dearborn Avenue.
Within the orbit of his walks, White became a familiar face, whether or not people knew him personally. He’d head to the middle school almost daily to circle the track, one neighbor said. His friends would run into him on his way to the store or park or while he was just roaming.
“Pretty much everyone who gets gas and gets food would have seen Rob at one point or another. They would have just known him as the guy who was walking,” said Villars, who lives in the Four Corners neighborhood, not far from White’s home.
Villars and others aren’t exactly sure where White was heading last week when he met a police officer in an encounter that would end his life. But they say the spot on Three Oaks Drive–a road where he and his friends raced their bikes as children–was on his way to the middle school and was one of his normal haunts.
Montgomery County police say Officer Anand Badgujar came across White the afternoon of June 11 after finishing up with a nearby call for service and began investigating him as a suspicious person. When Badgujar tried to speak with White, White grew “combative” and assaulted the officer, who first tried to defend himself using pepper spray, according to authorities. Badgujar fired his gun multiple times when White knocked him to the ground and continued assaulting him, police say. White died at a local hospital.
Authorities based their description of events on an eyewitness statement and on footage from body cameras worn by Badgujuar and another officer who arrived to help. They have not yet made the footage public, although police plan to talk with prosecutors about releasing it.
Badgujar, 32, an officer of Indian descent, has been placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, as is protocol.
The death of White, an unarmed black man, has left his friends and some community members with questions: Why did Badgujar identify him as a suspicious person? Was White’s race a factor? And what caused the interaction to escalate into a fight?
Villars’ cousin, Francisco Villars, doesn’t understand why Badgujar, a patrol officer in Silver Spring, wouldn’t have recognized White—he was widely known in the neighborhood as the guy who simply liked walking around.
“How don’t you see Rob when everybody else does?” said Francisco Villars, who met White when they were third-graders at Highland View Elementary School.
White’s friends and neighbors described him as gentle, considerate, caring and well-spoken. They said he seemed to be suffering from mental illness, but they did not know him to be a danger to others.
In recent years, police shootings of unarmed black men have sparked national outrage, but White’s friends are worried that his death will go relatively unnoticed. Some protesters gathered last week in Silver Spring to call for the release of body camera footage and Badgujar’s firing. However, the shooting hasn’t created the outcry that some of White’s acquaintances had expected.
Many of White’s remaining family members live out of the area, his friends say.
When Villars initially visited the shooting scene last week, there were no balloons, flowers, candles. No sign that White had died there. One of the only photos Villars has of White is a screengrab from his fleeting appearance as a drug dealer in the HBO show “The Wire.”
“What I knew about Rob was that he was a good dude. He was a good person, and for him to be shot in the street and there’s nobody there to carry on his memory is something that’s tragic. Nobody wants to go out like that,” Villars said.
Stunned by the news of White’s death, Villars on Friday night came to the cul de sac in the Three Pines condo community off Sligo Creek Parkway to attend a candlelight vigil along with about 70 neighbors and friends of White, some who had known him since they played basketball together as kids.
Melissa Hill, whose husband had known White since they were in second grade together, needed to gather her emotions before she was able to speak at the gathering. She was overcome by the thought that it could have been her African-American husband of 13 years to be stopped by the police officer while walking through the neighborhood.
“Just to say I could potentially lose such an important person because a cop was scared,” she said while crying softly. “What’s going to be done? Why are we racial profiling? He was minding his own business.”
Friends and neighbors of White gathered for a candlelight vigil last week. Credit: Brendan Daly.
Villars met White on the basketball courts of Sligo Creek Parkway about 25 years ago. They were in a group of roughly 20 friends who bonded over pickup basketball, and Villars said he’d often run into White at a court on lazy summer days, when school was out and there was nothing better to do. The two would sit through the heat of the day together, passing time until there were enough people to get a game started.
Villars said the games were competitive; all the regulars were skilled players, and the competition could get heated. But he doesn’t recall White erupting in anger.
“Sometimes, when playing basketball, things can get a little rough. I don’t remember a time right now that he ever got in a fight with anybody,” he said.
Dee Shropshire, another childhood friend who now lives in Columbia, said White would urge other teens to stay out of trouble.
“There were so many times when we could have gotten into certain things when we were younger, and Rob was the one to say, ‘Nah, just stay here and shoot with me,’” Shropshire said at the vigil.
White’s father, the Rev. Robert Lee White, was a longtime associate pastor at John Wesley AME Zion Church in Washington, D.C. White was “a beloved child that was definitely reared in the church,” said the Rev. Christopher Zacharias, the current pastor at John Wesley.
White’s friends said he was the only child in his parents’ house growing up, and he remained living with them after he reached adulthood. His mother died in 2003, according to an obituary.
Zacharias, who arrived at John Wesley recently and never knew the family personally, said he has learned from congregants that White’s father was concerned with the “mental challenges of his son” and did his best to nurture him.
Francisco Villars said he and White attended Montgomery Blair High School. From 1999 to 2001, he attended the Community College of Baltimore County, and he registered for one nutrition class at Montgomery College in 2002, according to those schools.
Quentin Nardi said her family moved into a home on Dearborn Avenue in 2010, and she first met White at a neighborhood block party. White was hanging around the periphery of the gathering, and Nardi said she remembers gravitating toward him and striking up a conversation. He told her he’d written a movie screenplay that was a little like The Matrix and asked for Nardi’s advice getting it produced.
“Even at that point, there was something just a little bit off, but not in like a destructive way. There just seemed to be a little bit of delusion, and I remember thinking like, ‘Oh, sweetheart …’” said Nardi.
There were other signs of struggle over the years. Nardi said White several times had late-night fits of yelling in the street, and a neighbor once called the police because she spotted him outside in a snowstorm, dressed only in light clothing.
White also has been arrested a number of times. Many of the charges were dropped and were for nonviolent acts, such as failing to identify himself to a police officer or trespassing. He was charged in 1997 with assault and received probation before judgment in the case.
Nardi said White has seemed to be calmer over the past few years, although she did worry about his ability to live alone. She remembers that one day, she left her house to find White standing there, as if he was waiting for her. He asked her if she might be able to spare him a potato.
Thinking he might be hungry, Nardi went grocery shopping and delivered him bags stuffed with chips, cookies, hamburger patties and milk. White seemed overwhelmed and offered to repay her with a piece of his parents’ china, but Nardi declined and left. She later opened her front door to find that a plate had appeared on her doorstep.
“So that was kind of our pattern. I would give him food, and he would leave me a plate,” she said. “It made me just love him even more. He had nothing, but I think he knew he had a friend in me, and that’s all that mattered.”
She would often spend a few minutes chatting with White when she met him on one of his walks, she said. The conversation would be simple: About how Nardi’s kids were doing in soccer and what they’d been up to lately. Villars said White also asked after his daughter a couple of weeks ago when the two ran into each other.
Regina Thomas, who lived in the neighborhood for 47 years and had known White since he was 8, told others at the vigil that she’d “never known him to be a bother to anyone, to be aggressive to anyone. He walked every day and even nights when I would walk my dog at 10 o’clock, I would see Robbie walking, coming home. I just wish that our police were better trained and not so ready to pull their guns every time they see someone or approach someone with questions. Anyone can walk. As the mother of two black children, they were stopped all the time in the neighborhood. Whose car is this? Where are you going? And I just wish that that would stop.”
Montgomery County police say officers going through the department’s training academy are taught de-escalation techniques, effective communication strategies, how to recognize implicit bias and scenario-based conflict management that “emphasizes creating distances between the officer and a potential threat.” The officers also get eight hours of instruction on mental health first aid.
A scene from Friday's vigil. Credit: Brendan Daly.
The department in the last 17 years has provided crisis intervention training to more than 1,100 Montgomery County officers and about 1,400 officers from other agencies. The program is geared toward officers who respond to 911 calls or routinely come into contact with the public, the department said.
In a Tuesday news release, the department said investigators are still working to determine what initially aroused Badgujar’s suspicions and why the officer tried to stop White.
The results of the investigation will be turned over to the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office for review and to decide whether the officer should be charged. The two jurisdictions have an agreement that each would investigate the other’s officer-involved shooting if one occurs.
County police are planning to meet with prosecutors Monday to discuss releasing the body camera footage.
Badgujar has been with the Montgomery County agency for about two years and previously worked at the Baltimore Police Department. Through his attorney, he has declined to be interviewed at this point, according to police. After the completion of the criminal investigation, Badgujar will be compelled to provide information to the department for its internal administrative investigation, according to the release.
One man who attended last week’s vigil said the shooting has made him wary of calling the police for help.
“What I have learned from this is that I’m not going to call 911 again unless there are already firearms involved in the situation. Because I now believe that to call 911 is to introduce guns into a situation that doesn’t need it,” said the man, whose only connection to White was that the shooting took place in front of where he lived.
As darkness fell, those in the crowd lit candles they had brought. Standing in the asphalt parking lot between two rows of condos, they held hands as they sang songs, including “Amazing Grace and “We Shall Overcome,” before everyone began to drift away.