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'He is missed a ton': A year after Estrella was killed, sadness for friends, reforms for police

Friends and family of Miguel Estrella gathered Sunday in Persip Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to remember 22-year-old Miguel Estrella, who was fatally shot by a city police officer a year ago.

Estrella’s mother, sister, brother and friends stood behind a large poster with a picture of Estrella sporting yellow safety glasses. He had worked at Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity.

The poster included a quote from his mother, Marisol Estrella, written in Spanish and English.

“Enough of so much injustice,” it began, “Even though you left, you’re still with us.”

Elina Estrella, Miguel Estrella’s older sister, is asking the city to mount the poster on the side of a building on Columbus Avenue, across from the park, near a mural depicting Black leaders in the Berkshires.

“Just to kind of remind people things like this happen and we don’t want it happening in the future,” she said.

Trevor Taylor, 24, sat quietly, holding four blue balloons that bounced against each other in the wind. He noted blue was Miguel Estrella’s favorite color.

Taylor had known Estrella since they were children, living in Dower Square, apartments for low-income households. Much later, the two friends shared an apartment.

“I’m just trying to keep cool,” Taylor said. “I’m just trying to be here in remembrance of him and support his family.”

At the end of the vigil, friends and family let go of balloons to “release our intentions,” explained Elina Estrella, Estrella’s older sister. “So that it reaches him, and he can hear our thoughts and prayers.”

People gathered in downtown Pittsfield, Mass., on March 26, 2023 to remember 22 year-old Miguel Estrella, who died in a fatal police shooting a year ago. As part of the memorial vigil, people released balloons in honor of Estrella.
Nancy Cohen
People gathered in downtown Pittsfield, Mass., on March 26, 2023 to remember 22 year-old Miguel Estrella, who died in a fatal police shooting a year ago. As part of the memorial vigil, people released balloons in honor of Estrella.

Miguel Estrella was known to his friends as "Miggy."

"They call him a quiet giant," said Beth Frederick, director of impact and programs at Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, speaking at a volunteer day this winter.

Estrella worked for Habitat, and Frederick said he wanted the best for everyone.

"Big guy, but always had a smile on his face, was always happy to come to work," Frederick said. "So, for him to be working on these homes, it was very important to him to make a life better for someone else."

“He is missed a ton," said Brent Getchell, who was Central Habitat's construction supervisor when Estrella worked there. He trained Estrella and worked alongside him when Estrella became a carpenter's assistant.

Despite their age difference, Getchell said he and Estrella became close friends.

"Anything you trained him, he learned it," said Getchell. "Anything he needed to do for Habitat, he did — and enthusiastically."

He said Estrella had plans to attend technical school last fall to become an electrician.

"He was trying to get out of the peer-pressure life in the city, and he was having a hard time with that. And people weren't letting him go," said Getchell. "He wanted great things for the West Side and he wanted a home and he was planning a family — and that all ended."

It all ended on a Friday night last spring. At about 10 p.m. on March 25, Pittsfield police responded to 911 calls about Estrella, who had been trying to hurt himself.

When police arrived a second time outside Estrella’s apartment building, he held a large kitchen knife, and moved towards the officers. According to then-Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, the police begged Estrella to put the knife down and tried to use Tasers — which did not work.

Officer Nicholas Sondrini then fired his gun twice, killing Estrella. The district attorney ruled Sondrini was acting in self-defense.

The grave of Miguel Estrella in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
The grave of Miguel Estrella in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

At Harrington's press conference last summer, Elina Estrella asked how calls for help during a mental health crisis ended up with her brother getting shot and killed.

“The calls went out [to 911] not because Miguel was threatening anyone else or because others were scared for their own safety, but because others were concerned that Miguel was hurting himself," she said.

When the 911 calls were made, a Pittsfield police mental health co-responder had just gone off duty.

Now, the department has a social worker and three co-responders. And the city is investing in body cameras for the police, which were not used when Estrella was killed.

After the vigil Sunday, Elina Estrella said she was glad to see the police have started to use body cameras. She also wants the city to have mental health specialists, separate from the police, who could try to de-escalate a situation before police intervened.

“I feel that would save a lot more lives and kind of would have had a different ending to the situation,” she said.

Estrella said she is seeking “justice for Miguel” and is looking into a civil lawsuit.

“I feel like someone has to be held accountable so in the future they know this can’t continue,” she said. “Essentially what we want is accountability and an apology.”

Updated: March 27, 2023 at 4:59 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include information and quotes from the memorial on Sunday.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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