By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a moonlit July night three years ago, as Godwin Omokaro headed out to celebrate his 37th birthday, his life seemed full of possibilities. After all, he had come so far already. Of the 11 children in his family, only Omokaro had managed to escape the political and economic repression of his native Nigeria.
Nine years earlier he had struck out on his own for America. After years of working at low-wage jobs -- often two at a time to make ends meet -- he had finally landed a position as a full-time bus driver for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
He loved his DART job. The pay was good enough that he could furnish his Irving apartment, save money for the family he hoped to have someday, and still send money home to pay for his brother's college tuition. And he was making plans to attend college himself, which DART would pay for provided he kept a high enough grade-point average.
By all accounts Omokaro was a gregarious and mild-mannered man whose temperament was suited to his job, where he met hundreds of new people each day. In fact, this evening he was going to celebrate his birthday with a pretty young woman named Ava Marie Bryant whom he had met on his South Dallas route three weeks earlier.
Omokaro worked almost all the time, frequently even on his days off, so in the weeks after they first met, he talked Bryant into periodically riding his route with him so they could get to know each other. But even Godwin Omokaro didn't work on his birthday. So tonight, July 21, 1996, was going to be their first official date. Unfortunately, it would also be their last.
Shortly after midnight, Omokaro and Bryant made the mistake of being in a public park shortly after curfew -- a misdemeanor offense punishable by a small fine. But Omokaro's punishment would be much more severe. What should have been a routine traffic stop quickly escalated into a violent struggle. Police claim Omokaro resisted arrest, though what they were arresting him for remains unclear. What is clear is that Omokaro was unarmed and sober and had no criminal history. Still, the police say they were justified in squirting pepper spray into his face, putting him in a chokehold, and using eight officers to subdue him. Then they left him unattended in the back of a police cruiser, where he lay unconscious and suffocating.
The officers walked away with barely a scratch. Omokaro suffered a severe brain injury that put him in a coma for two weeks, followed by five months of hospitalized rehabilitation. His injuries have left him legally blind and his mental capacity greatly diminished. He talks with great difficulty and walks with an unsteady gait, and his hands are afflicted with constant tremors that make even the simplest fine motor task -- using an electric can opener, for instance -- impossible.
"My life changed upside down because of one night," Omokaro says, struggling to get the words out as tears stream down his face. "I am so behind now -- all my life gone."
Much was expected of Godwin Omokaro, the oldest son of the tribal chief in his home in Benin City, Nigeria. A beauty supplies salesman and the owner of several rental properties, Omokaro's father was better off financially than many in his country, but he had several wives and children to support, so money was tight. He wanted a better life for his children, especially his first-born son.
Omokaro hoped to go to college, but his father could not afford to send him. In 1987, Omokaro met a man in Nigeria who claimed to be affiliated with an American university that would give him scholarship money to attend. But when Omokaro arrived in New York, his dream of earning a college degree was dashed. There were no scholarship funds to be had.
With no money to return home and too proud to turn to his father, Omokaro decided to stay in America and get a job after applying for a green card. He moved to Dallas, where several friends from his high school were living. For two years, he worked as a skycap at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and part time as a stock boy at Sound Warehouse. Then he was hired at Barton Protective Services, where he worked as a security guard for four years.
During his first year at the security company, which employs thousands of guards in Texas alone, he was chosen employee of the month. Omokaro proudly put the letter from the division president thanking him for his "pursuit of excellence" in a scrapbook that would soon be filled with other accolades.
Life was going well for Omokaro. He had a full-time job he liked, and he had fallen in love. While shopping for Christmas presents at a local mall in December 1990, he met a young single mother who was out shopping as well. A Dallas native, Ramona Courtney immediately took to Omokaro's easy, polite nature.
"He was hardworking and very generous," Courtney says. "I just loved him so much, the way he treated and cared for people. I was a lot larger then and insecure about my weight, but he didn't care."