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'Say her name. Don't say mine': Breonna Taylor's boyfriend remains haunted by her death

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/28/2020 Tessa Duvall and Darcy Costello, Louisville Courier Journal
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For Kenneth Walker, there is no normal.

Not now, and maybe not ever.

Not without Breonna Taylor.

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When he rides around Louisville, he passes pictures, murals and billboards of his best friend's face. He sees her on Facebook.

He's asked about her, has to talk about her and relive the night he lost her – even as he's still trying to figure out living life without her.

"For you to lose somebody, and then have to deal with it every day, like forever?" said Walker, 28. "Like, it never stops. That's something."

Walker has lost loved ones before. The first few days hit him hard, but with time, he was able to ease back into regular life. 

But not this time.

Taylor was sleeping in bed next to him as he began to drift off when they were startled by a pounding on the front door of her South Louisville apartment just before 1 a.m. March 13.

What happened next – Walker asking who was there, the door flying open, Walker firing a round from his handgun, police firing 32 shots in response, Taylor dead in the hallway – have been well documented.

Millions of people have heard Walker's frantic, confused call to 911 the night she was killed, and they've seen him cry as he surrendered to police.

Kenneth Walker, boyfriend of the late Breonna Taylor, speaks to ABC News and the Courier Journal about the night that Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police officers. Oct. 21, 2020 © Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal Kenneth Walker, boyfriend of the late Breonna Taylor, speaks to ABC News and the Courier Journal about the night that Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police officers. Oct. 21, 2020

The worst moments of his life have been put on public display, compounding the loss of the woman he was building his life around.

"If she's not here," Walker told The Courier Journal, "nothing else matters."

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'Protect Breonna, protect myself'

Walker and Taylor had a "normal day" on March 12, he said.

They went to dinner at Texas Roadhouse and returned to her apartment for the night, where they played the card game Uno and put on the movie "Freedom Writers," about a teacher who asks at-risk teens to journal their experiences in a racially divided Los Angeles school.

It wasn't long before Taylor had fallen asleep, he said.

Around 12:40 a.m., they heard knocking at the door, rushed to get dressed and called out to ask who was there, Walker said. Neither heard a response, said Walker, and he didn't realize it was police.

Officers were there to serve a search warrant for Taylor's apartment as part of a larger narcotics investigation centered in part on an ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover. When the door exploded inward, Walker, a legal gun owner, fired one shot from his Glock.

"Protect Breonna," Walker said he thought. "Protect myself."

Police say his bullet struck Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the left thigh, severing his femoral artery.

Mattingly shot back six times. Detective Myles Cosgrove fired 16 rounds. Detective Brett Hankison, who was later fired, shot 10 times.

Taylor was struck six times, including in the pulmonary artery, and died on her apartment floor.

Walker stayed with her, calling his mother, 911 and then Taylor's mother.

From inside, Walker said he still didn't realize it was police outside. When he started to leave the apartment, he was confused to see guns pointed at him.

"I'm thinking they're there to help me," he said. "But really, they were the ones who just hurt me."

Walker didn't know for certain Taylor was dead until he saw the news on jail television.

'She didn't deserve to die': Louisville officer in Breonna Taylor case speaks out

Police had received a judge's approval to carry out a no-knock warrant at Taylor's apartment but said they decided to knock and announce their presence instead. 

For nearly a minute in the early morning hours of March 13, Mattingly said he and six other detectives stood outside Taylor’s door, shouting that police were there to execute a search warrant.

However, attorneys for Taylor's family and about a dozen neighbors interviewed by police and media say didn't hear police announce themselves. One resident who did say he heard police said the exact opposite in an earlier police interview.

Prosecutors with the Kentucky Attorney General later determined that, under Kentucky state law, Mattingly and Cosgrove were acting in self-defense because they had been fired upon first. No one has been criminally charged for Taylor's death. Hankison was charged with wanton endangerment for bullets he fired into a neighboring apartment that was occupied. 

'Nowhere to hide': Breonna Taylor's boyfriend details the night she died

Mourning behind bars

Walker was in jail the day of Taylor's memorial, locked up on criminal charges of attempted murder and assault that were later dismissed by a prosecutor who called for further investigation.

During a balloon release, he called his mom and listened.

"I cried," he said. "It was terrible.

"All y'all are out there, and I'm in here by myself with 20 other people I don't even know, and I've never been here before."

During a wreath-laying on Memorial Day, Walker was still on home incarceration, though his charges had been dropped. His parents went while Walker stayed home and paced.

Walker said he still doesn't know how to feel about everything that has happened. He hasn't reached a moment of closure that feels real.

"Because I never got to take it all in," he said. "So, of course, I know what's going on, but I don't know how to feel 'cause I didn't get to end it.

"I didn't get to stand there and be like, 'OK, you're gone.'"

Minute by minute: What happened the night police fatally shot Breonna Taylor

In the spotlight

Taylor's death helped ignite a political and social firestorm, fueling nationwide and international protests over police brutality and injustice for Black Americans killed by police. Her name has become a hashtag, a meme and a powerful symbol that Black lives matter.  

Walker said he wants people to remember Taylor, to keep her story prominent – but to ignore him.

"Say her name," he said. "Don't say mine."

He doesn't like the attention, he said.

He's not one to take many photos or post much on social media, and he's had the same friends since childhood. 

And he doesn't like talking to people he doesn't know. Taylor used to order for him at restaurants so he didn't have to chat with waiters.

Walker's mother, Velicia Walker, said he "only allows certain people in his circle."

But once you're in, you're "pretty much in."

"I can count on one hand how many girlfriends he's had in 28 years," she said. "When he loves, he loves hard, if he allows you in." 

In the seven months since Taylor was shot by Louisville Metro Police officers, her name has become a rallying cry for racial justice, with protesters, politicians, celebrities and star athletes demanding the officers who shot her be fired and criminally charged.

That hasn't happened.

No one has been charged in Taylor's death. And the only officer who faces charges from that night, Hankison, is accused of firing into a neighboring apartment that was occupied. 

Walker struggles with the unrelenting attention. Asked how he has been coping, Kenneth Walker replied: "I haven't."

But with time, he said, he has realized the people who know him and knew Taylor see the truth of what happened.

"Why should I care about a bunch of people I don't even know or that don't even know me?" he asked.

Fact check: Debunking 9 widely shared rumors in the Breonna Taylor shooting

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'If we can reverse the clock, we want Bre'

Velicia Walker, Kenneth's mother, remembers being struck by how soft-spoken, kind, respectful and gentle Taylor was when she first met her.

"I mean, 'Yes ma'am, no ma'am. May I do anything for you in your home?'" she recalled.

Taylor would help out by picking up lunch for Kenneth or putting out the pillows on his mother's couch, making sure she had what she needed and making it a point to visit or have her son call.

Velicia and Taylor grew close over time, and she said Taylor would call two or three times a week to check in.

"I keep waiting for her call." 

Velicia didn't realize Taylor had died until the sun rose March 13 and Tamika Palmer, Taylor's mother, contacted her to ask about Kenneth. 

"She was calling to check on Kenny, then I was like, 'OK, how's Bre?' And all she said (was) that she's gone. I was like, 'She's gone where?'" Velicia said. "And I lost it.

"I don't even want to think about it because that feeling just swells up in me, just like that moment. It swells up in me." 

For the Walkers, this is about "true life and death," Velicia said. 

"We're grieving. We're angry. We're hurt," she said. 

She said they've become familiar with the women killed before Taylor, who had "lives to live and futures to have."

They've attended functions with high-profile people there to rally for Taylor. But they would gladly give it up for one thing. 

"If we can reverse the clock, we want Bre," she said. "That's the justice, but that isn't going to happen."

Instead, she said, her job now is to "live for Bre."

"She has to live through me. Live through him. Live through our son," Velicia said. 

That means working hard, respecting people, loving hard – just as Taylor did.

"I'm going to stay on Kenny. I'm going to keep going. I'm going to love her family. I'm going to look after her little sister. I'm (going to) love on that uncle that is her favorite," she said. "It's ongoing, and we're going to stand up for her."

A future on hold

Kenneth Walker and Taylor had plans.

After knowing each other for about nine years, dating on and off during that time, they were serious this time around.

Taylor was renting her apartment month to month, and Walker's lease was up in July.

They were going to move into a house together this summer. They were working at becoming financially stable and hoped a baby wouldn't be too far off in the future, he said.

Now, Walker isn't sure he can ever see himself having that kind of life. 

He built his future around her, and she's gone.

"It took a lot to get where I was at with Breonna," he said. "I don't know if I've got that much time or energy to invest in someone else."

For the man whose aspiration was to spend his days with her, without her, justice seems impossible.

The only justice would be if Taylor was alive. 

"Even if people get locked up, or they don't, it still doesn't help me at all."

Tessa Duvall: tduvall@courier-journal.com; 502-582-4059; Twitter: @TessaDuvall. Darcy Costello: 502-582-4834; dcostello@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @dctello

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 'Say her name. Don't say mine': Breonna Taylor's boyfriend remains haunted by her death

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