For months, Jonathan Price had been watching the protests against police brutality with interest. But the 31-year-old’s reaction to the movement seemed to defy categorization. He prayed for George Floyd, but worried that “aggressive rioting” after his death would only lead to more racial profiling and violence. He believed in the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, but remained adamant that his own interactions with police as a Black man living in North Texas had been generally positive.
Mostly, though, Price, a one-time high school football star and charismatic mentor with an infectious smile, seemed intent on living a life that wasn’t defined by his race. “I’m on the same fence as Lil Wayne, with him saying a white cop saved his life,” Price wrote on his Facebook page earlier this year, referring to the New Orleans rapper’s claim that a white police officer saved his life after he shot himself as a child. “Not saying black lives don’t matter, but don’t forget about your own, or your experiences through growth.”
Price’s experience growing up in Wolfe City—a 1,500-person town about an hour northeast of Dallas where less than 2 percent of the population is Black—was different than that of many of the kids he came up with. Raised by a single mom who kept busy working multiple jobs, he credited two local families, both of them white, with helping to feed him and keep him active in sports. Years later, as an adult, he still referred to the Malones and Woodruffs as his “second family.” Later on, as a standout defensive back on Wolfe City High School’s football squad in the early aughts, the teenager became something of a hometown hero.
“I just grew up knowing him as the star athlete who was going to do big things someday,” remembered Jaci Harrington, who said she looked up to Price, four years her senior. “He was known as this stand-up guy who beat the odds.”
After spending some time playing football at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Price worked as a personal trainer in Dallas, friends said, but would return to Wolfe City to give inspirational talks to local athletes, work with kids, and check up on the town he still considered home. “Coach Price” became his nickname. “To know him,” one longtime friend wrote on Facebook this weekend, “is to love him completely.” He would eventually move back to care for his mother and grandmother, friends said, taking a job with the city and once again becoming, in the words of one local, a “pillar of the community.”
None of that mattered on Saturday night, when Price wound up at a local gas station he’d visited too many times to count. Friends and family members say witnesses told them that the beloved athlete was trying to break up a domestic dispute of some kind before Wolfe City police officer Shaun David Lucas arrived. A rookie, Lucas tried to detain Price, who resisted in a “non-threatening posture” and began walking away from Lucas when the officer tased Price and then opened fire, killing him, according to a statement from the Texas Rangers. (Witnesses claim he was shot in the back, but the Rangers haven’t commented on that allegation.) Price was unarmed before he was shot and the argument was over by the time Lucas arrived, friends and relatives said. Late Monday, the Rangers arrested Lucas, and charged with him Price’s murder. “The preliminary investigation indicates that the actions of Officer Lucas were not objectionably reasonable,” the statement added, noting that the Rangers are cooperating with the Wolfe City Police Department and the Hunt County district attorney’s office. Hunt County jail records show that Lucas was booked on a $1 million bond.
Though Dallas has been the scene of numerous Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Wolfe City has remained largely disconnected from the movement for racial justice. Now, area residents who knew Price, even those with close ties to local law enforcement, maintain there is no avoiding the reason that Price was killed. “I totally believe he died because of the color of his skin,” said Katie Walden, 33, who has been friends with Price since middle school. “There’s no other excuse. He wasn’t violent at all. A cop rolled up and saw a white and Black man in some sort of disagreement and assumed Jonathan was the problem. But there was not a mean or angry bone in his body.”
Will Middlebrooks, a former professional baseball player who grew up with Price and created a GoFundMe page after his friend’s death, called Price’s killing “purely an act of racism.” “What’s really sickening is that he was doing the right thing … he saw a man putting his hands on a woman and stepped in to stop the altercation,” Middlebrooks told ABC affiliate KTXS. “The man then fought him … then the police shot him. He was unarmed. I’m heartbroken.”
Reached by phone, the Wolfe City mayor’s office referred all questions to the Texas Rangers. The Wolfe City Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. At a press conference turned candlelight vigil Monday, Lee Merritt, a prominent civil rights attorney representing the Price family, said police have yet to provide his clients with details about Price’s death, though investigators are in possession of video from the incident.
Though Lucas’s arrest is the first step toward justice, Price’s community, which extended beyond Wolfe City into the small towns across Hunt County, is only just beginning to process their loss. One of those struggling to do so in recent days was Katie Walden’s 71-year-old father, Don Morrison.
A former NFL linebacker who played for the New Orleans alongside Archie Manning, Morrison went on to become a four-term constable in Hunt County after his playing days ended. It was in that role that the six-foot-five, 250-pound white lawman came to know and love Price, the hard-working local kid with the sort of rare athletic talent that only another former player could fully appreciate. The men loved to talk football whenever they’d run into each other. “Jonathan always talked about my dad being a local hero and a beast of a man,” said Walden. The past two days, she said, her father has called her to talk about Jonathan. Both times, she said, he broke down crying. “The only other time I’ve seen my dad cry was when his father passed away,” she added. “That shows you what kind of person Jonathan was. My dad doesn’t cry.”