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She lost her son to a Phoenix police shooting. Her new poetry collection details her heartbreak

Local poet Susan Vespoli's son, Adam Vespoli, was shot and killed by a former Phoenix police officer in 2022. That loss inspired a 2023 collection of poems titled, “One of Them Was Mine.”

She recently settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Phoenix.

Vespoli recapped her son’s case and read a poem from her collection inspired by it in a conversation with KJZZ host Tom Maxedon.

Full conversation

SUSAN VESPOLI: It was actually March 12, 2022. My son was shot by a Phoenix police officer, which kind of blew everything apart. And so I, I use poetry to understand things and he also, I had, I felt like in the face of powerlessness, I just wrote every single day. As soon as my son died, I just began to write and write and write and write. And I, really, it came to be where I wanted to get his story out. I wanted, you know, like there was the side of the story that came out publicly released by the police. Then there was me to be his voice and to be a voice for others who have suffered a similar fate.

TOM MAXEDON: Can you recap briefly what happened during that altercation? Because I understand there has been financial settlements with the city of Phoenix. Is that correct? Or either the Phoenix Police Department?

VESPOLI: That is correct. Yeah. City of Phoenix. It was, you know, both the city of Phoenix and the Police Department. So came together because, you know, that's all under the same umbrella. But, so what happened was, with my son was, my son had struggled with addiction, and occasionally he would be on the street homeless, sometimes because he, he actually, since the first book was written, which was all about addiction, and even in that book, it, it came, there was a part about and he, he found religion and he began to work in a food bank at a church and really found his way that way. And then he was trying to help people on the street, you know, that had been hopeless like him, he was trying to tell them what they could do, you know, to save themselves.

So at one point he was on the street, that was the night before he was killed. And so the police came March 11, and I have the body cam of this. So I have seen it. They woke him up at 6 a.m. to cite them for sleeping in a public place. And my son, he was saying, why are you arresting us? We didn't do anything wrong.

And for that, he got thrown to the ground. And now you're, you know, you're gonna be arrested and it's a felony and, you know, they arrested him, took him into jail and they released him and the next morning at 4:30 in the morning. When they released him, it was cold and he called me and he also called his father. But my phone's not on at 4:30 in the morning. So I didn't get the call.

He was freezing. He said he'd been beaten up twice. He needed help. And so he got on a bus, which he always would do. That was one of his things when he was on the street. At times, he knew, he thought he could get on the bus for, you know, temperature control for, in the summer or, you know, it was cold.

MAXEDON: Yeah, and that's not uncommon.

VESPOLI: Right. So then they ordered him off the bus and he and the others, there was one other person, they were sleeping, and so then they called the police, they called the man, Donnell Lindo, who shot him. And he got on the bus, told him to get off. My son walked off the bus and my son, I don't know what, what he was thinking, but he did walk over and get into the police car, which was unlocked and running, and my son, yes, he had addiction. Yes, he talked back to the cop. I don't know why he did that. So then he was shot.

The, Donnell Lindo, he did, he had somehow, his body camera disappeared, quote unquote, and, but it was captured by bus camera. So things that he said were not true because it was captured on the bus camera. What he did, he just walked right over there and shot him in the back of the head. So that's what happened.

MAXEDON: Our thoughts and hearts definitely go out to you and your family and we should say his name. Adam Vespoli.

VESPOLI: Adam. Yes. Thank you, Adam, Adam Vespoli. And, and I will say, one of the things about writing the poems is that something he said to me about within the last couple of weeks before he died, when I had said, are you still going to church and what's happening? And he said, I think God has another plan for my life and he was a very big believer in God.

So, I mean, I, I wonder if he like, you know, he's trying to help other people through his death, you know, so that was one of my thoughts. And he has, the policeman is no longer a policeman, he's driving a truck in Texas.

MAXEDON: So he was removed from the force or did he resign, do you know?

VESPOLI: He did resign because he was put before one of the disciplinary review boards and he was found, their terms were out of policy, and he immediately resigned because he was, then it was going to be referred to this next step, which could have led to his removal. Although it was very hard to get any information out of the police records. I mean, it's like they are very, like they just aren't forthcoming, even though it's your public right to a lot of stuff. But I, I that's how, you know, I found that because I went, went to the police records over and over and over and over until somebody finally gave me that piece of, you know, piece of information that had that, you know.

MAXEDON: No, I feel for you because as a journalist, I don't work a lot in the criminal justice sphere. But when I do sometimes that's what's required. And while that's my job, it takes quite a bit of time and a lot of having to redouble your efforts and go back and back and back and sometimes it takes a Freedom of Information Act request. And there's various reasons for that, but you're right in that, it is a person's right to obtain as much information as possible.

Let's talk directly about the book, "One of Them Was Mine: A Collection of Poems." There's some heartbreaking descriptions on the back. One of them by a poet laureate of Belfast, Maine, who wrote: The poems feel as if they were forged in a fist's crucible, molten and brutally seared through the hot slosh of pain. And I'm not sure just by count how many poems are included in this book, but it seems like it came out relatively quickly. Were these collections of poems before his death and after, and how long did it take you to compile this book?

VESPOLI: There was a couple that I wrote before that I included in there. Just because they captured him, like the food bank one, you know, the that part. Or my son no longer missing. So there was like three poems that had been written before. I'm trying to remember the exact date. It was about a year, took me like one year and to get the poems all together, submitted.

He was killed March 12 and the book was released the following year, July 4. So that's how short it was, like, I was, I was like on a mission just to get because I wanted his voice out there. I wanted people to know what happened. And then ironically because of the lawsuit, I was told I couldn't read any of them and I had to like, stop it until the lawsuit was resolved.

MAXEDON: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I remember you reaching out and that was one of my first concerns just, you know, as a journalist was maintaining some objectivity, but now that things have been quote unquote settled, which may be the worst word in the world to use. But that's why I felt like, you know, I wanted you to come back and tell your story and the aftermath of it. This is a particular instance that happened to your son. But I think just from reading the collection of poems, there's a lot that people can apply in general and I don't want to put words in your mouth. But coping with grief to me is the hallmark of this book.

VESPOLI: Definitely that was a, a big part of it. It was getting his story out. But also for me, I, I believe that, writing heals, you know, and, and shame makes you sick, you know. And there's so many people who have similar stories and might feel alone. For them, I wanted to write. And also for myself, when I wrote, every poem I wrote, helped me understand it better, helped me come to terms with. It helped me see it. And then when I, from, in my experience, when you put poems together into a collection, you understand,. You go, oh, that's what happened. And it just it helps, it's healing.

MAXEDON: Well, I wanted to offer you some space if you have a short poem from the collection that you'd like to read.

VESPOLI: Sure. Let me see. I, I mean, I guess I can just read a tough one but it was from the beginning, which is called "My Ex-husband Calls to Tell Me Our Son Has Been Shot." Oh, I can read that one.

And I will also say that some of the poems in here are found poems that I used my son's couple of years of text messages and I put them together to make four un-rhymed sonnets to give his voice. So you could, people could understand who he was not just the stereotypical addict. So here's the poem:

My Ex-husband Calls to Tell Me Our Son Has Been Shot

I answer my phone after worrying all day about my son finding his 4:27 a.m. voicemail.
I'm freezing.
Two people beat me up.
Please help.
And my ex-husband mews like he is crying around his words, Adam is dead and I wail like an animal in labor.
No, no, no.
Into the air above my 6-year-old granddaughter who is crouched behind the leather arm of a sofa.
I hang up and pull her close to me.
Say over and over.
It's OK.
It's OK.
Squeeze her so tight that she will later tell people I hurt her.
I go outside to make calls so she won't hear me.
But her face appears as my words.
The police shot him, leave my mouth.
And her eyes are wide as I point to the door, go back inside.
And John will show me headlines on his phone, say it's on the news.
And I will call my sister and I will call my friend from parents of addicted loved ones who I had called earlier when I couldn't reach Adam.
When I was worried sick about him again.
When I had said to her, this must be even worse than death.
The cycle of worry, but I was so, so, so wrong about that.

This interview originally aired on an episode of KJZZ's Word, a podcast about literature hosted by Tom Maxedon.

More episodes of KJZZ's Word

Tom Maxedon is the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition on Saturday and Sunday from 6-10 a.m. and All Things Considered on Monday from 3-6 p.m.