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Fridoon Rawshan Nehad was having a manic episode outside of an adult bookstore in San Diego’s Midway neighborhood when San Diego Police Officer Neal Browder shot and killed him.
His family believes that a deep, buried part of Nehad’s past haunted him until that day – a trauma that may have come in the prisons of Afghan rebels in the 1980s.
Nehad and his family were refugees from Afghanistan. Nehad had escaped the country six months before his parents and six sisters had fled themselves. This was during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, a time when the Soviets and their Afghan allies were warring against numerous rebel groups known as the mujahedeen. Before Nehad left in the late 1980s, he had served in the Afghan military and been captured by the mujahedeen forces. Thanks to his mother’s pleas, the mujahedeen released him. Soon after, Nehad was able to get out of the country and eventually settled in Germany before coming to the United States a decade later to reunite with the rest of his family.
Nehad never told his family what had happened to him in the military, nor what he went through when fleeing Afghanistan.
Nehad had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition family members said was brought on by post-traumatic stress.
A nearby business’ surveillance camera captured his death, and a man who saw the video described Browder’s actions as shocking and unprovoked. Recently, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to press charges against Browder, and said it was reasonable for the officer to believe Nehad was threatening his life. Nehad’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department, and Voice of San Diego along with other local media outlets are asking a judge to allow for the video’s public release – something Nehad’s family supports.
Nehad’s sister Benazeer Roshan agreed to speak with me about her brother’s life and his illness as well as the family’s interactions with the San Diego Police Department after the April shooting. Nehad, who was 42 at the time of his death, was in the United States legally with a work permit and in the process of trying to regain a green card, his sister said. His immigration status previously had been threatened by his violent outbursts.
Roshan’s greatest fear, she said, was that her brother would get deported back to Afghanistan and killed there because of his mental illness.
“But never in America,” Roshan said.
Roshan and I spoke at her sister Begom’s home in Los Angeles. Also in attendance were their sisters Nazaneen and Nadia, their mother, other family members and the family’s attorney, Skip Miller.
Occasionally during the conversation, Nehad’s mother would speak in a dialect of Farsi and one of her children would translate. (Nehad’s mother declined to be identified beyond her initials “S.R.,” the way she is designated in the lawsuit.)
We’ve told SDPD about the family’s comments, but a police spokesman declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.
This Q-and-A has been edited for length and clarity.
What was life like growing up for Fridoon?
Benazeer: We have always been a really close family. He went to private school. He had extracurricular activities. He did martial arts. He had an interest in art. He was the kind of person who was really thoughtful. He loved animals. It was a very idyllic childhood.
Begom: He was always very protective of all six of us. Because he had six sisters that were younger than him. He was overprotective, I would even say. Especially with my oldest sisters. When they would go out and meet people. He would want to know who they are. He would want to know that it was safe for them to go out.
I read in some of the documents from your lawsuit that ultimately he began having a difficult time in Afghanistan. Can you talk about that?
Benazeer: While he was growing up, the Russian occupation was ever present and the political climate was changing such that there was a mandatory draft of all the young boys.
You have to report to duty, and he reported to duty. One day it was like your time is up, you have to show up. The next day when he came to visit us, he was wearing the army fatigues.
At some point, while he was serving in the military, he got captured by one of the groups, one of the rebel groups. We had no idea where he was. We actually thought that he had been killed by the captors.
We didn’t know what was going on. There was some word that my brother’s group was captured by a particular rebel group. My mom was talking to my neighbor and she said, “I know the leader of that particular rebel group.” My mom said, “Can you take me there? I want to go get my son.” She said, “OK, let’s do that.”
My father drove my mom and our neighbor halfway to where the compound was for the captors. My mom on foot went with our neighbor, walked on foot and went to the compound of that rebel group and knocked on the door and said, “I believe you have my son and I want him back.” They didn’t know what to do with her. They have these two women. They invited her in and she went in and she actually sat down with the leader of the rebel group and she said, “You have my son. I want to take him back home.”
How scary was it going on that trip to try and go get him?
(Nehad’s mother responds in Farsi.)
Benazeer: My mom says it was extremely frightening because they were all the mujahedeen when you were going into the territory. But she said she had like a safety net because as long as she was traveling with the neighbor, because the neighbor was recognized by that entire group, she had the cover of safety going with her. Because she was like a blood relative of the leader so nobody was going to touch her as long as the two of them were together.
What was his reaction when he saw you?
(Nehad’s mother responds in Farsi.)
Benazeer: My mom said that when she saw my brother and my brother saw her that he cried and she cried and she gave him a hug. He had lost a lot of weight. It was extremely cold and he had really calloused hands because for a week I think – we don’t know exactly what they were doing – but I don’t know what kind of hard labor, peeling walnuts or something. Their hands were really callused. The leader of the group showed great kindness to my mom. He said, “This is your only son.” That was their reunion.
When my brother was captured, my parents thought that he had actually been killed in battle. My father would go daily to check hospitals, check the list of the dead, go look at the bodies to see if his son was among them.
Did he talk about what happened to him when he had been captured?
Benazeer: No. He never talked about it. His personality was always trying to make the best of a negative situation. He was always like the brave person. He never ever wanted to show any kind of fear.
Did he have to return to the army after that?
(Nehad’s mother responds in Farsi.)
Benazeer: My mom is remembering that he did have to return back to duty. Then the conditions started getting really worse with the mujahedeen attacks. Then my parents made the decision to save his life and have him escape.
So Fridoon left briefly before you did?
Benazeer: Like six months before we did. He escaped also. My father had somebody to help him escape.
There, in order for you to escape, you can’t go directly into a European country or the United States. You had to go to another country that accepts you as a refugee and then from there, you make your escape. You either had to go to Pakistan, which was the closest border country that accepted Afghan refugees, or you had to go to Iran. Iran was never friendly toward Afghan immigrants. My brother and we both went to Pakistan as a first landing place. From there you branch out.
He was still a teenager. Seventeen, 18. He was in Pakistan for a short time and then he went to Germany. He didn’t know anyone.
Begom: We had no idea what my brother went through because he went alone.
Why did he decide to come to the United States?
Benazeer: From minute one when we came to the U.S., we started our efforts to get him here because we wanted to be united as a family. My father, he had to learn the system in terms of going to different offices to apply for a different visa, a different sponsorship program and finally we were able to succeed in 2003 and have him join us.
What was that reunion like?
Nazaneen: We saw him at the airport and he looked like he was very homesick. You could tell. He saw my mom, got very happy. He saw us. He was just in disbelief that he had gotten here with us. It was really good to have that reaction with him, that experience. We could tell that he was lonely. He was close to us.
Did he talk about what he wanted to do here?
Nazaneen: Yeah, he wanted to go to school. He wanted to go to college.
Get a job and work here. Be a regular citizen. My family, all my sisters, we are doctors, lawyers. I think he was the smartest one of all of us.
Benazeer: One thing that we haven’t talked about is that he always wanted to protect us from the negative things in life. So he never wanted to share anything negative about himself. Unbeknownst to us, he had suffered a lot. And we never knew. We had no idea that he had a mental breakdown. That he had this diagnosis. He just never talked about it. We only found out about it after he had suffered an episode a year after he had already been here.
I was going to ask when you had become aware that he was suffering from a mental illness.
Benazeer: We didn’t know what was going on when he had his first mental episode. We had no idea what was going on. We thought that he was possessed by the devil. We just didn’t know. We were scrambling to find out. He was this perfect brother. All of a sudden he was not the same person. He just would do a flip. A 180. Unfortunately, we found out while he was experiencing a mental episode that he had bipolar disorder.
What kind of help was he trying to get?
Benazeer: He tried every single medication in the book. He tried every single home remedy. Exercises. He had literally done a lot of research and we were constantly trying to figure different ways. OK, what about if we did this, would this help? What if we did that? Can you control this with diet? What if you had more greens in your diet?
We were always scrambling to try to come up with a way to help him. He was frankly doing the same to do that. He had tried every single medication. Looking at his history, when you have a mental illness, they just kind of give you a different cocktail each time. Oh, well what about this combination, how about that? The side effects are not researched at all. Health care providers are so quick to make a cocktail for you so they can make you into a zombie. You either live like a zombie vegetable or you have to live through the manic episodes and the non-manic phases.
Was there any medication or any time that he was doing OK?
Benazeer: He was on track to getting medication that was working for him. I found a bottle that he had been taking a few pills at the time of his death. He really wanted to get on his own two feet. He was constantly going into different programs, looking into different facilities to help with his mental episodes. At the time he was killed, he was trying to get into a program in Oceanside. It was some kind of shelter program that tries to provide you assistance.
There has been a lot that has been put out there about your brother, from the court filings, from some of the things the district attorney said, that he was at times threatening. Is that accurate?
Benazeer: Yes. He was. When he had a psychotic episode, he threatened us. He thought that our efforts to try to help him were actually trying to harm him. It was like he had no ally. He really felt like he was completely alone. The mental episodes also comes with a paranoia. He became extremely paranoid. If you gave him a banana, he thought that you had poisoned the banana. He became that way.
It seems from what has been made public so far that he was out living in the street. Was that ever the case?
Benazeer: He wasn’t living on the street. He would just wander. He was a night wanderer. He loved city lights. One thing he loved about San Diego was the lights. In a way he wasn’t alone, but people left him alone. He would just walk for hours. He lost so much weight. He became the thinnest person in the world because he just would walk.
How often would he have episodes?
Benazeer: It was hard to tell. Sometimes it was once a year. Sometimes he would go three years without having a single episode. It was never consistent. His episodes would last from like a month to five or six months. They were long.
Can you talk about the effect that these periods would have on your family?
Benazeer: You try to survive. You’re in battle. That’s the best way I know how to describe it. You’re in war with this mental illness and everybody’s scrambling. It’s like you’re all in panic. It takes over your entire family. It’s like a dark cloud that comes over your entire family and you can’t think of anything, you can’t do anything. Like for my wedding he was beginning to slip into an episode. On my wedding day, I was thinking about him. I was like, “Where is he? I wonder how he’s doing.”
What was your relationship with him like at the time of the shooting? Did you know where he was? Where he was staying?
Benazeer: We knew he was suffering from an episode. His pattern was that he would wander around and he would eventually come home to shower, to eat, to do something. That was his manic pattern. We had no idea where he was at all that night.
I’m going to move into some questions about that evening. When did you hear what happened?
(Nehad’s mother responds in Farsi.)
Benazeer: She said she received a call at 4 o’clock by the police saying, “Are you home? We need to talk to you about Fridoon.” She said, “What do you want to come talk to me about?” They said, “Are you home, we’ll just come talk to you.” They came and she said, “My daughter is home and she’s sleeping.” They said, “Go get your daughter.” My mom went and got my sister.
Then the police told them that the police had shot my brother. My mom said, “Why, why did you shoot him?” They said they didn’t know. My mom was completely in shock and she said she just went paralyzed at that moment.
What happened after that?
Benazeer: They initially wouldn’t tell us anything. Everybody that I talked to they would say, “In light of what’s going on around the country we can’t tell you anything. We can’t you anything in light of all the protests that’s going on around the country. We have to be careful.”
Manny Del Toro was the person who was giving me information, the homicide investigator. It was the weirdest thing because they wouldn’t give us any information about our brother. Like, “Where did you take him, where was he taken? Was he taken to a hospital, where was he taken?” The most basic question you would ask about your loved one losing their life, they would hem and haw a little bit. They would have to check with people.
The one thing that they kept saying all along was, “Well, with everything that’s going on around the country we want to avoid a protest, we want to avoid a protest.” And we were like, “Why are you worried about a protest? Tell us. You were the ones that took our brother’s life. Tell us what’s going on.” I remember saying, “We need to know what happened. Was he holding a weapon?” And they wouldn’t tell me.
Then the press release came out and it said that he was unarmed. Then the officer called me and he was apologetic. He said, “I’m really sorry.” He used the F word. He said, “We completely F-ed up. I told you that I was going to give you the information before going to the media and unfortunately the people above my pay grade just went over and told the media that your brother wasn’t armed. That shouldn’t have happened.” So I found out from the press release or the media coverage that he never had a weapon.
All the information we were getting was from the media. We found out that there was a video that captured the shooting.
So the police didn’t tell you that there was a video?
Then I said, “Listen, I know there’s a video of the shooting, can you give us the video so we can see what happened for ourselves?” They said, “You know what, your request is noted. Let me go and talk to whomever.”
And I’m sorry, you’re interacting with Del Toro?
Benazeer: Yeah. Then I called in a couple days and I said, “Listen, I asked for the video what’s the status of me getting a copy of the video?” He said, “Your request has been denied and unfortunately in these kinds of things you’re going to have to file a lawsuit in order to get it. You’ll get the video as part of the discovery in the lawsuit.” And I said, “Let me get this straight, are you telling me to file a lawsuit just so that I can see the video of my own brother being shot?” He said, “Yes.” That was my last interaction with him.
Overall, how would you characterize the interactions that you had with the police department?
Benazeer: Very devastating and frustrating. Just incredibly difficult. Not transparent at all. Unhelpful.
It really feels like the police are not there to help us. We were just marginalized.
How hard was it to watch the video?
Benazeer: I just remember shaking before they played it. Not all of us have seen it.
There aren’t any words to describe my reaction to it. It’s just the most soul-crushing thing in the world. You see people being shot in movies. In Hollywood, it’s done elegantly. Like somebody is shot down and they just die elegantly. They collapse to their feet, or like the Chicago video where the guy just goes down and you just see it very quickly. You don’t see the degree of pain and suffering that my brother went through.
When you see the video, he’s just walking. He stops. And then all of a sudden, he gets hit. The only reason why you know he gets hit is because instantly he just is in so much pain that he flips over. His legs and his arms are flailing and he knows he’s dying and he’s in so much pain. It’s just haunts me. Every day. I just see that image.
I think that no person in the world, in the entire universe, can see that video and come to the conclusion that my brother was attacking a police officer. That’s the bottom line. You have to basically have a really good imagination to think that my brother was going to fly at you when he’s walking at a normal pace and he just gets shot down.
You know that was my worst nightmare ever, for my brother to die like that, to be shot. We were always afraid that he was going to get deported to Afghanistan and I always told my parents, everybody was fighting tooth and nail to keep him in this country. I said that people with a mental disorder, for them to be deported to Afghanistan, one of the Taliban insurgents, that’s what they do to you. If they don’t have any use for you, they take out a gun and shoot you like that. I always thought that that was going to happen (in Afghanistan). But never in America. For me to see that, I told you there are no words to describe the devastation that you feel watching that.
It was my worst nightmare coming true in front of my eyes.
Is there anything I haven’t asked about your brother or in terms of what happened that you think is important for people to know?
Benazeer: I think it is important for people to know that he was a human being. Like me. Like you. Like anyone else. He deserved to live. Just because he had a mental illness didn’t make him any less deserving of a life. He is a person. He had family. He was loved.