Photo: Yolanda Udell, cousin of Jessica Williams, who was killed by the San Francisco police in 2016.
Interview with Yolanda Udell
Jessica Williams was shot and killed by San Francisco Police Sergeant Justin Erb in the Bayview in 2016. Jessica was experiencing homelessness and was in her car when Officer Erb shot her when she tried to drive away.
Jessica was murdered in the midst of massive protests against the San Francisco Police Department sparked by the murder of Mario Woods. Activists were demanding that then Police-Chief Greg Suhr be fired or step down, and Jessica’s murder was the straw that broke the camels back. Suhr ultimately resigned. However, then-San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón declined to press charges against the officers involved in her death.
The following is an edited excerpt from a longer interview with Jessica’s cousin, Yolanda Udell, outdoors in Sacramento, where the family lives.
I’m Yolanda Udell, and Jessica is my little cousin. Her mother is my first cousin. She thought of me as her Auntie. It was a personal thing between me and her. I’m Auntie, and we were very close. I was very close to her mother. She lived with me and everything. So from Jessica’s life, since she was born, I actually went in the hospital, saw her born and all the whole nine yards.
Ever since she started talking, she’s that outgoing, burst of energy. She’s like me, just outgoing, that one that stands out and wasn’t shy at all. She was so outspoken at three, four years. Outspoken and just full of so much joyful energy. Smart. Very articulate. She’s very articulate.
She went through a lot in her childhood. She had lemons, and she made lemonade out of it. She survived. And I don’t know what took her to San Francisco. To me, my baby was lost out there somewhere, and I didn’t know where to find her.
She ended up homeless. So she ended up with a homeless family, and the homeless community, they were her new family to her. And a lot of people, they loved her. They loved her. And I got to actually meet a few of the people that really knew her. It was kinda nice to find out, even though she was homeless, she had a homeless family that took her in and they were close with her.
So it was a lot of years from that time that she left here, that I hadn’t seen Jessica in about five years. When I got the news, her mother called me one night, told me that police had shot and killed her. And it just broke my heart. Just broke my heart.
It won’t go away. I got a call from her mother probably about a few hours after it happened. I lost it. I just fell. I just fell on the ground. And I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t. I was crushed. I was just crushed me.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t. I was crushed.”
I have the memories. They just stay in my head. I can’t get them out.
There’s not a day that went by that I don’t think about her. Not one. I’ll sit and look at her pictures all the time. And yes, I remember everything from the day she was born.
As far as everything that went down, it’s like, I have my feelings about it. They didn’t have to kill her. They didn’t have to kill her. She didn’t have weapons. She didn’t put anybody’s life in danger. She’s just trying to run. It is what it is. You can’t change it.
A lot of family came when they released her body to Morgan Jones Funeral Home. I remember when I walked up to actually see her, I know she would have been mad cause I know her fashion sense. But she would have thought her outfit and wig was hideous. (laughs)
But as far as her face, it was Jessica that’s looking like she was just sleeping.
It’s amazing. Now that I’m sitting here talking about it, there’s 9 million things, memories and situations that are coming back in my head.
That’s one thing I haven’t been able to get to do. I know that she has children out there. And I don’t know where they are. I don’t know how to find them. And I figure one day maybe, and I keep this on my mind, I want to find out where her kids are. So I can at least be in their life, you know, at least they know that they have a big family that loves them.
This story is part of the series TAKEN FROM US: Remembering lives lost to police violence.
This piece was recorded and reported by Wren Farrell and edited and produced by Lucy Kang.
First aired on UpFront on August 6, 2020.