Michael Taylor’s death in the back of a police cruiser in 1987 raised questions, many which remain unanswered to this day. It also opened dialogues on race, community relationships, the legal system and policing — and helped usher in change. WRTV is revisiting this chapter in Indianapolis history, not in an effort to open old wounds, but to learn from the circumstances surrounding Taylor’s death and recognize the changes his death led us to as a community.
INDIANAPOLIS — In the fall of 1987, long before Black Lives Matter became a movement, the city of Indianapolis was rocked by the death of 16-year-old Michael Taylor.
The teen was handcuffed in the backseat of an Indianapolis police car outside the juvenile detention center when a single bullet struck him in the head Sept. 24, 1987. He died the next day. His death remains one of the most controversial and divisive events in Indianapolis history.
Official investigations called his death a suicide, determining that Michael shimmied his cuffed arms from behind his back, reached into his shoe and grabbed a hidden pistol — then shot himself.
There are many in the city who never bought it. Skeptics, including the jury that ruled against the city in a multi-million civil case, are convinced that someone other than Michael pulled the trigger that day.
"I don't know how to say it, but I think he was murdered," said Bonnie Andrews, the Hancock County woman who served as the jury foreman at that 1996 civil trial.
"I don't think he committed suicide. There was too much evidence that was presented that just didn't come common-sense wise."
Twenty-six years after Andrews and five other jurors issued that verdict, Mary Ann Oldham, a lawyer who represented the city in that civil lawsuit, remains convinced the jury got it wrong.
"It's just not in the nature of these police officers to have killed Michael Taylor," Oldham told WRTV.
Nine years passed between Michael Taylor's death and that civil verdict. The appeals in the civil case ended four years later when the city and Michael's family finally reached a settlement.
But the case left deep scars in our city, spotlighting the long-standing complaints in Black community over the way they have been harshly treated by Indianapolis cops.
TIMELINE | The Michael Taylor Story
WRTV is taking a new look at this piece of Indianapolis history. We combed through court records and video archives. We interviewed lawyers from both sides and the woman who served as jury foreman.
We interviewed Michael Taylor’s mother Nancy, who told us about her son in her first-ever sit-down interview with a reporter.
Here’s a look the case and the 35-year impact Michael’s death has had on policing and our community.
Who was Michael?
For decades, Nancy Taylor said she's been frustrated with the coverage of her son's death. So much time, she said, has been devoted to re-hashing the last day of his life while very little of the reporting has been about Michael, the boy.
She wants people to know who he was and how his death left a void in her family.
Michael H. Taylor Jr. was a teenager growing up in Indianapolis in the 1980s. He and two siblings were being raised by a single mother who was working two jobs and going to school.
Nancy Taylor said Michael liked to draw, he liked to dance and, like a lot of 16 year old boys, he liked the ladies.
He had one special girl from the time he was about 12 until his death at age 16, his mother told WRTV.
She lived next door to his grandmother. Michael met her after he chased off a man who had been harassing her, Nancy Taylor said.
“He defended her. He didn't even know her,” Nancy said. “She was a very pretty girl, and she still is.”
Michael asked her to be his girlfriend.
“So OK, he had other motives,” Nancy said. “But that's just the kind of person he was, you know. He cared about others.”
Michael cared about those who were close to him, his mother said. She recalled coming home from a long day at work and Michael sitting on her bed and rubbing her aching feet.
He was clean and meticulous in ways you don’t expect from a teenage boy. His underwear drawer was always neatly folded and color coordinated.
“Michael loved his family. He loved me,” Nancy Taylor said.
Nancy worked at a nursing home back then. Michael and his friends would spend hours break dancing in their Indianapolis neighborhood. They were good, Nancy recalled.
“I would take the kids to the nursing home where I worked and Michael would go and dance for the people at the nursing home,” Nancy said. “He was just a good young man.
“I'm not saying he was perfect. But I'm saying Michael, the person that I knew and loved, was very kind person.”
Michael had his troubles.
He was first arrested at age 12, according to news reports published shortly after his death. He served about a year in Gibault School for Boys, a private secure facility in Terre Haute. He was released in May 1987.
Juvenile court records are confidential and WRTV found no public records explaining why Michael was sent to the juvenile facility in Terre Haute. Nancy Taylor told WRTV he was arrested because he had cut a young man who had attacked his younger brother.
About two months after his release, court records say Michael was arrested again in August 1987, this time for car theft. He spent two weeks in the Marion County Juvenile Center and was scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 28, 1987.
On Sept. 24, 1987, just days before his sentencing hearing in the car theft case, court records say witnesses spotted Michael in a downtown parking lot trying to steal a car.
They called police. Indianapolis police officers Edwin Aurs and another officer arrested Michael at about 4:24 p.m.
Michael was wearing two pairs of socks, high-top tennis shoes, shorts, a tank top shirt and a cap. He was handcuffed and loaded in the back of Officer Charles Penniston’s squad car.
Officers searched Michael. They found cigarettes, a lighter, a screwdriver and a key.
They didn’t find the gun, a 1940s-era .32-caliber revolver that authorities say was hidden in Michael's high top sneaker.
Officers Charles Penniston and Edwin Aurs were suspended for one-day without pay because they didn't find that gun when they searched Michael.
Penniston and Aurs were contacted by WRTV and declined to be interviewed.
The boy, according to the official investigations, was in the back of Penniston's squad car when he shimmied his handcuffed hands from behind his back and reached into his shoe for the hidden gun.
“As I was putting the police vehicle into the park position, I heard a loud pop, a muffled pop,” Penniston said during a coroner’s inquest on Oct. 14, 1987.
“I turned wanting to know what happened, or asking the subject what happened. I determined that he had shot himself.”
Decades later, whether the teen shot himself or was shot by someone else still draws intense debate and disagreement.
The shooting happened in the juvenile center's parking lot at East 25th Street and North Keystone Avenue.
According to records, Penniston immediately radioed for medical assistance and backup officers at 5:04 p.m. Michael had been shot in the head.
Medics worked to save his life and rushed him to a hospital.
Michael died the next day, Sept. 25, 1987.
Nancy Taylor wants people to know there was more to her son than the glimpse offered in the official records.
“Michael didn't steal a car when he was arrested. He was looking in car. He was a suspect,” Nancy said.
“He wasn't a hero. He was a 16-year-old young man that was doing a lot less than a lot of 16 year olds,” Nancy said.
“I'm not saying it was right. But it wasn't a death sentence.”
Officially ruled a suicide
Separate investigations by the Indianapolis Police Department, the FBI and the Marion County coroner’s office reached the same conclusion: Michael’s death was a suicide.
“I join investigators in their finding, that the fatal wound suffered by Michael Taylor was self-inflicted be it accidental or deliberate,” then-Indianapolis Police Chief Paul Annee said during a news conference on Oct. 6, 1987.
In that news conference, just two weeks after Michael died, Annee and police detectives took an unprecedented step and opened their investigation to the public. WRTV carried the news conference live.
Among the facts revealed that day:
- Friends and classmates told police Michael was often depressed and talked of suicide, investigators said.
- Michael was known to carry a .32-caliber revolver in a gym bag or his waistband in the weeks prior to his death, police said.
- Investigators said Michael knew he was going to be sentenced in just days on that prior auto theft case. He had told several friends at Manual High School that he’d rather kill himself than be sent back to boys’ school, investigators said.
A skeptical public
For many, the investigation's findings still don't make sense.
How could multiple officers search the teen and not find a gun? How could the boy have contorted his body to grab a gun from his shoe? How could he have pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger? How does he do all this with a police officer sitting in the front seat?
“I think that the investigation is one-sided and unfair,” the Rev. Wayne T. Harris of Mt. Olive Baptist Church told WRTV on Oct. 6, 1987. “The police department’s position today is basically what it was in the beginning.”
In 1987, Nancy Taylor told the Indianapolis News she did not watch the televised news conference on her son’s death.
“I still believe in my heart that my child did not kill himself,” she told the paper.
“I don’t want to see any more lies. I’ll leave that to our city leaders.”
Bitterness and anger was shared by many in the Indianapolis Black community.
“There’s definitely going to be some protest,” The Rev. Carl L. Kelly of Phillips Temple told The Indianapolis News on Oct. 7, 1987. “For my part it’s going to be non-violent, but if you whip a dog long enough it’s going to bite you.”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.