Henry Tapia was a bouncer at a club in Cambridge the night Courtney Morton met him — it was June 26, 2016 — and right from the start, she just knew.
“He had a smile that could melt your heart, and that’s literally what won me over,” Morton said last week, through tears. “That, and his eyes. And the fact that he was like a bear. He was just a cuddly, lovey bear.”
Yes, was. Was, because last Tuesday Tapia lost his life in an incident that prosecutors say was driven by racist rage. Tapia, 34, who was Black and Latino, was run over on Upland Road in Belmont, allegedly by a white man who yelled a racial epithet at him just before the killing.
Prosecutors have cited “hateful speech” as a motive in the crime. Middlesex County prosecutors have said Tapia was getting into a car when Dean Kapsalis, 54, allegedly drove over him with a Dodge Dakota pickup truck. Kapsalis, who has pleaded not guilty, is due in court Monday for a dangerousness hearing.
Tapia’s death has prompted outrage in Belmont, where hundreds of protesters gathered for a vigil Thursday night. But his loss is most devastating to those closest to him, including his girlfriend, Morton, and the three children Tapia left behind.
It has left a void Morton can barely begin to comprehend.
“I’ve lost my best friend, my soulmate, my partner, my protector,” she said in a telephone interview. “A father to my children. He was raising a child that wasn’t his as if he was his own. He didn’t look at him or treat him any different. So I’m feeling really weak, brokenhearted, and lost.”
Tapia’s greatest joy, she says, was seeing other people happy. But his greatest passion, beyond his family, was gaming. The man was obsessed, Morton says with a laugh, with games.
“He was a little bit of a gamer nerd — and when I say a little bit, I mean 100 percent,” Morton said. “Ninety percent of his life you could find him in his gaming chair. And he never strayed; I always knew where my pit bull was.”
His gaming took them to frequent trips to gaming stores — even in neighboring states — to find the latest games. It was a way to unwind, and a way to bond with his children.
Tapia should have been less than a minute from home when they had their last conversation on Tuesday. They spoke at 4:17 p.m. — the details of the day are seared into her consciousness. By 4:22, close enough to hear police cars and emergency vehicles speed through the neighborhood, she thought to call him, to warn him to be careful. Morton says she saw the red truck — the one that allegedly ran him over — speeding away. She took her kids to her mother’s house nearby, and headed to the scene, where she saw the car he’d been driving.
“I had a feeling it was him,” she said. “Gut instinct, mother’s instinct, call it what you will.”
Police at the scene wouldn’t tell her what had happened. But after a lot of pleading, they let her get to the ambulance he was in before it pulled away.
“I took what felt like the longest walk of my life, halfway down the street, and they were almost getting him in the ambulance at that point,” Morton said. “I made eye contact with him. And it wasn’t my boyfriend. It wasn’t his body. His body was swollen. And the look in his eyes was so sad. Like, ‘I’m sorry, babe, I can’t do this.’ And that wasn’t him. He could do anything. To me, he was the strongest man in the world. And I saw the defeat in his eyes.”
At 7:17, she said, “the word came that he wouldn’t ever be walking through my door again.”
Morton calls their 3-year-old son Eli “a replica” of his father. Right now, he’s a child struggling to comprehend what has happened.
“He keeps asking me why his dad is mad at him, why won’t Daddy come home?” Morton said. “And he’s very much on edge lately, as we all are. But imagine being a 3-year-old little body and you know the words to what’s going on but you don’t know the meaning behind them.”
Sudden death usually carries the shock of unfulfilled promises, and this is no exception.
“We had so many plans — in life, for our kids,” Morton said. “He wanted to be the best dad he could be to Eli, and he never wanted to miss a day of Eli’s life. And somebody took that from him. Somebody took that from my son. Somebody took that from me.”
Belmont has rallied around Morton, and that has been heartening, and friends in the gaming community have set up a GoFundMe page for his family. But that can do just so much to alleviate the anguish of this brutal death.
“This pain — because this wasn’t something you could prepare yourself for, or talk about — is a pain I don’t wish on my worst enemy,” Morton said. “It’s a pain I don’t think anybody will ever understand unless you’re going through this. I just want him back, and I would do anything, I would give anything, just to have him back.”