‘How in the world could this happen?’ Guilford family speaks out
MULLIKEN – Brian Guilford’s fondest memory of his son Deven is the very last one he has.
On the morning of Feb. 28, the 17-year-old was in bed, still asleep. Brian’s grandson had a basketball game that day, and Deven, who often went to watch, had planned to go.
It was time to get up. Deven wasn’t a morning person but Brian had experience cajoling him awake. He teased and prodded, pulled the covers off Deven and joked until he saw a smile.
“We ended it laughing, and I walked out of his room,” Brian said.
They would never speak again.
Deven died on the side of M-43 in Roxand Township that night, about 8:25 p.m., on his way to his girlfriend’s house after a basketball game at his church in Grand Ledge. He was stopped for flashing his high beams at Eaton County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jonathan Frost. Less than six minutes later, Deven, who was unarmed, was dead, shot seven times by Frost.
In the eight months since, Deven’s death has become the subject of fierce debate across the region.
In June Eaton County Prosecutor Doug Lloyd cleared Frost of any criminal wrongdoing, saying his actions were lawful.
And a week ago his family filed a federal civil lawsuit against Eaton County and Frost. It alleges that Frost’s “entire course of action was illegal and in violation of Deven’s constitutional rights.”
The Guilford family consented to an interview with the Lansing State Journal earlier this week, with the understanding they would not discuss the evening of the incident.
The deeply personal tragedy has become a call to action for the family.
“We want to try and do everything we can to see that this doesn’t happen to some other family,” Brian said, “that some other family does not go through the same exact thing we are, and we will do all we can to help that come about.”
‘A kind kid’
With the exception of the last few tragic seconds, during which prosecutors said Deven attacked Frost and Frost shot and killed him, most of the exchange between Deven and Frost on the night of his death was captured on video — from Frost’s body camera and from Deven’s cell phone, which the teen used to record the encounter.
It’s the only impression most people have of the Mulliken teen.
Ten months ago, Brian said, he may have made some of the same assumptions that some people have made about his son.
“They think any kid that gets shot like that is a mouthy, bratty kid who had no regard for authority, and I’m telling you that isn’t who he was,” Brian said.
The Guilfords said Deven was the most vibrant personality in the family, a bright, active and kind teenager — the last person they ever imagined would die in a police shooting.
Deven had no criminal record. Before the fatal traffic stop, he’d never had contact with law enforcement, they said.
“I’ve always envisioned a child, anyone who’s shot by a cop, their life just on a downward spiral, you know, and then the cops are the end of it,” Brian said. “Deven’s life was the other way.”
Brian and Becky Guilford have an established life in the community. They grew up in Grand Ledge and Mulliken. They run their own construction business out of their home and have attended Liberty Church in Grand Ledge for nearly two decades as a family.
Deven was the youngest of three boys. His older brothers, Aaron, 29, and Ryan, 35, remember just as clearly as their parents the day he joined the family.
The couple had wanted another child, but endured several miscarriages before deciding to become foster parents hoping for an adoption.
The day 18-month-old Deven arrived at their house, “the lady pulled in the driveway, and he hit the ground,” Becky said. “He never looked back. He was ours.”
Deven was a seamless addition to the family.
“I don’t remember there being a transition,” Aaron said. “I really don’t. The rule of the adoption was that he had to sleep in the crib for safety reasons.”
So, Aaron said, he spent many evenings sitting just outside it, keeping his new brother company. “We spent a lot of time together.”
Deven’s adoption became official when he was 4.
By then he had already become an undeniable “bright light” in the family. His parents and siblings say he was happy, outgoing and unfailingly kind.
“He’s always liked to have fun,” Brian said. “He really did, and that’s something he brought to our family, fun. It was easy for him to hug and love. We struggled in some of those areas, but, Deven, he was the one to say, ‘Hey, I love you.’”
“When he was around it’s just how it was,” Aaron said. “It was joyful. It was happy. If I was upset or something he could sense it. He’d try to get a little goofy and get me on the other end of it.”
Deven enjoyed camping with the family in the summer, playing with his four nieces and nephews and riding his bike. His family said his teachers liked him and he had a close group of friends who spent a great deal of time at the family’s home.
“Kids in school, he didn’t pick on people,” Brian said. “He befriended people easily.”
“He was a very kind kid,” said Becky. “It seemed like he always looked out for the underdog.”
Becky said Deven had a promising future. He was working hard in school and talked about studying to become a welder or stock broker.
“The years 14 to 18, for a parent, can be very difficult, and he just made it easy,” Brian said.
‘You can’t put it into words’
Then he was gone.
“It’s like, ‘How in the world could this happen?’ Brian said.
There were no answers in the days and weeks that followed the February shooting. The news of Deven’s death was everywhere.
The Guilford’s were shocked, numb.
“You can’t put it into words,” Brian said. “You just can’t. It’s impossible to describe how you feel.”
“It’s like a fog,” Ryan said, of the immediate aftermath. “You’re in a daze. You’re trying to figure out what happened.”
The congregation at Liberty Church helped them cope.
Maryam, Aaron’s wife, said the congregation surrounded them, offering love and shelter from the public storm swirling around them.
“Every morning you woke up and life sucked, but then I’d go to Becky and Brian’s and another blessing came,” she said. “Another person called or someone dropped off another tray of lasagna. It was just so comforting knowing that there were people out there who were praying for you, who loved you and who loved your family and who loved Deven, people we didn’t even know.”
But the fog, the heavy cloud of grief, made time move at a snail’s pace for the family.
Hundreds of people attended Deven’s funeral at Liberty Church a week after his death.
“The church was overflowing with people,” Becky said. “More people than have ever been there.”
Brian didn’t say goodbye to his son that day. He waited until this past summer when the family turned a camping trip to Frankfort Beach into a heartfelt memorial by the water. About 50 family and friends gathered on the shore and released paper lanterns into the air.
“We made it a celebration for him,” Brian said.
The solemn send-off was joyful, but it brought with it a finality that was hard to swallow, Brian said.
“When we got done with that and I left that was probably the most horrendous time for me,” he said. “I just felt like we were leaving Deven behind. It’s amazing how long shock, I guess, can last, or disbelief. I don’t know how it all works, but it was so real to me that we’d never see him again after that. Those are just things I know you have to go through. There’s no way around it.”
‘It’s just too hard’
The Michigan State Police investigated the shooting. Lloyd released the findings and his report. Eaton County Sheriff Tom Reich released a statement late last week, after the lawsuit was filed, calling the shooting “a tragedy for everyone involved” but standing firm on his support of Lloyd’s decision and the results of an internal investigation that also cleared Frost.
The family has done what they can to isolate themselves from the public debate surrounding the decision and Deven’s death.
They admit to boycotting TV until very recently and limiting their use of social media.
Ryan said he still doesn’t watch or read any of the news coverage. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t read any of the stuff on Facebook either. It’s just too hard.”
What they do hear they ignore as best they can.
“I think we’re pretty solid in who he was,” Brian said. “People that don’t know him, when they say stuff, it doesn’t really bother me. If it was coming from someone he knew, yeah, it would bother you but you can’t stop people from forming opinions about something they know nothing about. It isn’t something that eats at me.”
Brian said the Mulliken community has rallied around the family. Signs in yards and store windows can be found throughout the community.
“Justice for Deven,” and “Deven said ‘I don’t have a weapon’,” they read. While Deven’s immediate family isn’t directly involved, a “Justice for Deven Guilford” Facebook page has 3,500 followers.
Brian said the support they’ve seen has been respectful and non-violent. A vigil held at Island Park in Grand Ledge on March 22, what would have been Deven’s 18th birthday, consisted of candles, speeches and music.
Other supporters have used “Random Acts of Kindness” cards to advocate for the Guilford family, passing them out whenever they perform a kind act.
The movement has been largely peaceful and for that the Guilford’s are grateful. It speaks to how Deven lived his life, said his family.
“I really believe that if he would have been a belligerent in-your-face type you would have had belligerent in-your-face-type people at the events,” Brian said.
‘Everything is different’
Eight months have passed since Deven’s death, but, for his family, the loss is as fresh as it ever was.
“It’s like a big, brown blob, from Feb. 28 to now,” Brian said. “Almost like yesterday is the same as today. I still, at times, wonder, ‘Is this real?’ You still sometimes can’t comprehend it. I’ll think, ‘Am I going to wake up?’”
The loss has changed the Guilfords.
“We’ve always been a very conservative family, and we’ve always been a very, very pro law enforcement family,” Brian said. “That’s just who we were, and this has shaken me to the core. That’s all I can say, and it’s totally changed my views on how law enforcement acts.”
It’s also left a gaping hole.
No more teenagers laughing in the living room, playing football in the yard or snacking in the kitchen. Deven’s room sits empty, untouched, just as he left it.
“Life goes on but everything is different,” Aaron said.
Brian said the federal lawsuit he’s filed is important, but seeing it through will be hard for all of them.
‘A very, very good kid was taken way too early,” said Brian. “I can’t even say how it’s changed us yet.”