Chelsea Stewart watched on January 6 as law enforcement agencies from across Etowah County converged on her parents’ home on a short residential street in Gadsden.
Officers locked the block and changed from patrol uniforms to army pants, flak jackets and helmets, she said. Some slung long guns over their shoulders and parked a tank in front of the small, detached garage next to the family home where their older brother, 28-year-old Cody Stewart, lived.
“We heard them say, ‘Cody put the gun down,'” Chelsea Stewart said.
Then she heard six shots. From her vantage point, she had a clear view of the scene unfolding on an empty lot a block away.
“I could see the red flame coming out of their guns,” Chelsea Stewart said.
That night, Gadsden Police shot and killed Cody Stewart, according to a statement. Now family members are asking why officials wouldn’t allow them to help with negotiations that could have led to a different outcome. Amy Dale, Cody Stewart’s aunt, said she didn’t think her nephew would have to die.
“He would have listened to me,” Dale said. “He would have felt safe. If he had known his family was there, it wouldn’t have ended like this. They knew we were all on Tuscaloosa Road. Why didn’t they take advantage of us?”
The standoff began after police received a report of the kidnapping of a woman who previously had a relationship with Cody Stewart. Officers traced her cellphone to Cody’s garage apartment, his mother, Jennifer Stewart, said. Police quickly escorted Jennifer Stewart, her husband Ernest Stewart and their 15-year-old daughter out of their home and surrounded the adjacent garage.
Jennifer Stewart said she offered to pick Jimmy’s lock on the garage – the key was lost years ago. She wanted to speak to her son and warned police he was struggling with a mental illness, she said. The police told her they couldn’t let them near the building.
“If we could have just talked to him on an intercom, we could have talked him out of it,” said Jennifer Stewart. “If I could have opened that door, I think it could have been over.”
After the shooting, police found the kidnapping victim alive. The woman posted on Facebook that she was kidnapped, threatened and pistol whipped before police stormed the building.
According to documents left at the home, officers also seized a gun. Family members said Cody took it from his parents’ home. Police officers with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Gadsden Police Department said they could not comment on the circumstances leading up to the shooting.
Cody Stewart’s family members said he has struggled with mental illness and drug use in the past, but never hurt or threatened friends or relatives. A search of state court records reveals two arrests for drug possession and a handful of traffic violations. Jennifer Stewart said he spent about four months in the local jail on one of the charges.
As a boy, Cody Stewart was musical and creative, his mother said. He played guitar and joined the marching band in middle and high school. “He loved music,” Stewart said. “He could hear it.”
He began experimenting with drugs in high school and struggled with depression, she said. “We went everywhere as a family and he was trying to have fun,” Jennifer Stewart said. “But you could tell he was just lost.”
After his arrest and detention, Jennifer Stewart said her son began to fear the police. He left a job on the spot when police responded to a bomb threat. She said he panicked and thought they had come to arrest him, so he went out the back door.
He became increasingly isolated. For the past two years, Cody Stewart has spent most of her time in the converted garage that she and her husband had cleaned up and furnished. He was uncomfortable in large groups, preferring to keep to himself or to hang out with close friends and family.
At one point he was hospitalized for a week and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his mother said. Sometimes he threatened suicide. But they said he has never shown much interest in guns and was shocked to hear he had one in his room. Her father was a police officer in Gadsden and she says her children grew up with a respect for law enforcement.
Jennifer Stewart said she spoke to Cody earlier in the day and everything seemed fine. She was in bed when police pounded on her door around 11 p.m. She doesn’t know what happened to the kidnapping or how the standoff with the police turned into a deadly shootout. The family was hoping for answers from the coroner, but learned on January 9 that the autopsy report could take up to six weeks.
Meanwhile, police officers have asked the family to add up the cost of the property damage. The tank sliced into the side of a car and smashed the garage door. An explosive attached to the lock left blast marks on the side door. Bloodstains mark the bed sheets and the box fan.
Their losses run much deeper. Chelsea Stewart said she’s still thinking about missed opportunities to reconnect with her brother.
“The day that happened, I came in here and I wanted to come out and knock on his door,” Chelsea Stewart said. “But I was in such a hurry that I just didn’t do it.”
Jennifer Stewart was out of the hospital with heart problems made worse by grief and stress. She said police responses could help her find some peace.
“I just want to know what happened,” she said. “Did he point the gun at the police? Was he pointing that at himself? I do not know. Even if he ends up just cracking up and doing something wrong, I just want to know.”