His entire life, Ismaaiyl Brinsley tried on identities as if they were new clothes. He was a bad boy with a gun, a fashionable man in Gucci and Cartier, a T-shirt maker, a film director, a screenwriter, a devout Muslim, a rap producer.
He had a nickname for every mood — Moses, Interstate, Palace, Gazava, Scorpio King, Bleau Barracuda. Online, he seemed to be screaming at people to pay attention. “Welcome To Greatness,” proclaimed a photo album on his Facebook page.
In reality, Brinsley’s short life was a series of disappointments.
He was the difficult teenager who was passed around from home to home, the adult who could make nothing work, not a T-shirt company, not even an attempt on his own life at a former girlfriend’s house.
Everyone seemed to betray him. The friends who pistol-whipped and robbed him in May. The girlfriend who dumped him around Thanksgiving.
In recent weeks, Brinsley was unraveling, increasingly desperate, the gap between the life he wanted at age 28 and the life he had looming ever larger. If he couldn’t get it together, he told the mother of his second child in early December, he would kill himself.
On his last day, Dec. 20, he started out with that intention. He visited his former girlfriend Shaneka Thompson in suburban Baltimore. He pointed a silver Taurus 9 mm pistol at his head. Thompson talked him out of it, she would later tell the police, and then he shot her. Panicked and convinced that his life was now over, Brinsley decided to return to Brooklyn, the place he considered home.
What he did next — shooting Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu as they sat in their patrol car, before killing himself — became the accelerant in what would become a major confrontation between a police union and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York.
The union has held the mayor partly responsible for the shootings, because of statements he made about those protesting the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police officers. Just hours before the shootings, Brinsley had posted on Instagram that he planned to kill two officers, citing the recent police killings of Garner in Staten Island and Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
But the truth of Brinsley’s short life and violent end is probably less political and more accidental than initially portrayed, friends and his mother said. He was no ardent anti-police activist, as some of his friends were. He was nursing no grudge against the police in Brooklyn. He was no stone-cold criminal; his 20 arrests were mostly for minor crimes, even though they prevented him again and again from getting a job.
He struggled with depression but had no history of hallucinations or other forms of psychosis, unlike his oldest brother, who battled schizophrenia. His version of Islam seemed more jumbled than jihadi. Instead, Brinsley seemed to be a grandstander at the end of his tether, homeless, jobless and hopeless.
“I can’t even understand why,” Althea Hood, who had been a close friend of Brinsley since 2006 and saw him in Atlanta in early December at a recording studio, said of his death. “Other than, what he did in the beginning with his girlfriend might have been a mistake, and then he lost it.”
Ultimately, that is perhaps the most coherent explanation: another wrong turn after a lifetime of them, one that led down a cul-de-sac where, in the end, Brinsley saw no way out. He decided to take two officers with him almost as an afterthought, a final attempt to gain the kind of notoriety that he had always craved.
It was his final incarnation.
Brinsley was born in Brooklyn, and he never let you forget it, calling people out for acting Brooklyn when he felt that they weren’t. But he was raised in Atlanta, where his parents moved when he was a boy. There, Brinsley was the youngest of four children brought up in the Senegalese Sufi branch of Islam embraced by his mother, Shakuwra Dabre.
His parents broke up when Ismaaiyl was about 9, Dabre said. He became the generous child, the one who would pump gas at the nearby station for tips when money was tight, or who would bring his mother flowers. But he was also a handful. He learned that if he did poorly in school or acted out, his father came around. He acted out often.
Dabre, struggling and broke, couldn’t handle him. So he bounced around: to his father’s, to a school in California, to New Jersey when his father moved there, to Atlanta with Dabre after he was sexually abused and tried to kill himself when he was about 14, to the apartment of a sister and her boyfriend, to a group home for troubled boys, to his sister again. Ismaaiyl learned to live on a couch. He was so estranged at times from his mother that she wasn’t certain where he went to high school.
On social media, Brinsley claimed that he had graduated from Willingboro High School in New Jersey, but that doesn’t seem true. He was already in trouble in Atlanta. He appears in no Willingboro yearbooks from that time. On a court form, he said he had made it to the 10th grade.
As an adult, Brinsley built his own family, mostly young men like him, living on the fringes and squatting where they could. He started having run-ins with police, small arrests for avoiding bus and subway tolls, or for defiance. “You just going to have to lock me up,” he told a transit police officer when he was 19, when the officer tried to get him to leave a bus in Atlanta.
He became a hustler. Brinsley was a name-brand thief, accused of stealing things like a pair of rhinestone-studded women’s Fendi frames, a brown Gucci belt. Some he probably resold. A friend in South Beach, in Florida, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be linked to Brinsley after his crimes, said he had bought eyeglasses from him.
“He always had a fresh pair,” the friend said.
On Myspace, which he used when he was 21 and 22, Brinsley posted photographs of himself holding wads of cash, with a pistol tucked into his jeans, in an album called “Grown, Gorgeous And Gangsta.”
He aspired to be a ladies’ man. Hood turned to Brinsley for support when she had breast cancer; he was the person who shared dinner with her at California Pizza Kitchen the night before her mastectomy. He dressed well, flirted well, presented himself well, even as he told a court that he was indigent. He had a daughter when he was 21, with a woman who wanted to be a model, three days after he stole the Gucci belt.
“He was a real good dresser,” said Muller St-Cyr, a hip-hop artist from Brooklyn. “Like, the stuff he would wear, females would post on his Instagram, ‘Uh oh, Denzel Washington.’ Females, they were shocked. What was presented online was far from the reality. No one knew he was messed up the way he was messed up.”
Brinsley used social media to network, to figure out places to go, friends said. He went to Ohio, to Las Vegas, to Florida, mainly moving by bus, always looking for a place to stay.
“He told me a story about how he stayed with a close friend in another state, but after a while, this dude kicked him out,” said the friend in South Beach, who let Brinsley stay with him on and off for a year. “It’s like this dude’s been kicked out of so many houses, it’s crazy.”
Some of his long list of petty crimes were simply bizarre. In June 2009, he was arrested in Springfield, Ohio, after stealing a pair of scissors, a power inverter and some Trojan condoms from a Rite Aid. When a security guard confronted him, Brinsley ran to a nearby hotel. Police found him near the laundry room, trying to take out his braids.
But other incidents highlighted his quick temper. By early 2010, Brinsley had been arrested twice for threatening women. He had allegedly threatened to kill one woman, then found her four days later and threw a drink at her. He threatened a Waffle House employee, who asked him to leave, and tried to punch her.
For the most part, his family was estranged. His mother was back in Brooklyn and rarely saw him. His father had little to do with him. “SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHER-LESS CHILD,” he wrote on Facebook during this time.
By 2011, he was on Twitter as the “Scorpio King.” His missives were aspirational (“Rise and grind! Another day, more dollars”); revealing (“I Almost Got Shot At Point Blank Range A Few Moments Ago”); and contradictory (“IN ALLAH I TRUST” followed by one mentioning “3 Condoms” and “I Love Myself!!!!”)
For some reason, Brinsley was feeling angry. He sent threatening text messages to his sister Jalaa Brinsley in New York, the police said. On Twitter, he said he wished he could kill people and get away with it, then wrote “Take It In Blood Or Give It In Fear!”
Days later, on June 6, 2011, Brinsley showed up at a friend’s place in Marietta, Georgia, looking for a pair of sunglasses and a duffle bag. He ended up firing a bullet from a stolen gun at her gold Chevy Malibu, leading police on a foot chase and being Tasered and arrested near the Happy Mart convenience store.
Despite this, his worst crime to date, the friend, Quione Williams, and her sister, Virginia Washington, said they liked Brinsley. Williams, who sometimes let Brinsley stay with her, described his social media bravado as “just stupid stuff.” The sisters said he seemed frustrated because he couldn’t get a job.
“He’s trying to keep up with the Joneses, but he don’t have Joneses’ money,” Williams said.
Even as he was being driven by the police to the station, Brinsley demanded attention. While sitting in the back of the squad car, he posted to his Facebook wall from his mobile phone, asking people to write him, if they ever cared.
“I’m locked up right now, in Cobb County,” he wrote. “I’m looking at some serious time.”
He was out in less than seven months, soon posturing again. “I’m a Reformed Thug…......Re-Formed,” he wrote on Twitter. While visiting the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, he wrote: “My God Comes First………And Then My Gun………”
Yet Brinsley tried to get his life together: He started Minc & Co., which made T-shirts featuring drawings of naked women in various poses. The T-shirts didn’t work. Neither did another new company, My Local Breed, which aimed to sell polo shirts with a person’s home state emblazoned on the chest. Meanwhile, Brinsley kept piling up more debts, more responsibilities, like a second daughter, born to a woman in Brooklyn.
He was robbed once or twice, friends said. In May, two people pistol-whipped him — one was an acquaintance, Washington said. It devastated him.
“How would you feel if you went to someone’s house who you thought was your friend, and they happened to strip you and rob you?” said a friend in Atlanta, who asked to be identified only by his Instagram handle, Mike Summerz. “And then you get to see these people again. You are victimized and then you get to see the person that victimized you. Imagine that was happening all the time.”
At some point, Brinsley met Thompson, an Air Force reservist who at the time worked for a Veterans Affairs hospital in North Carolina. He moved in with her, staying with her when she moved to a suburb of Baltimore, friends said. Dabre said her son liked the fact that Thompson let him roam around and visit his usual haunts. But he fell in love. She broke up with him, probably a couple of times, in August, the police said, and around Thanksgiving, Dabre said.
Regardless, he kept a key.
In recent months, Brinsley was upset about what happened to Brown and Garner, and he posted a picture of a flag burning on Instagram, urging his friends to do the same. “So Let’s Ruffle Some Feathers And Take It Into Our Own Hands And Make Them Watch In Horror As We Burn What They Represent,” he wrote in one post, retrieved by a friend and shown to The New York Times.
But he never talked about wanting to hurt police officers, his friends said.
Back in Atlanta after Thanksgiving, Brinsley saw Hood in the first part of December, counseling her over her own breakup. He didn’t mention his own. He said he was going home, to Brooklyn.
At some point, Brinsley sat down for a meal with the mother of his younger daughter, Dabre said, adding that the woman later told her that Brinsley had threatened suicide.
On Dec. 18, Brinsley saw some of his Atlanta friends, posing for Instagram pictures and sneering at the camera as one friend brandished a knife. Brinsley did not talk about hurting police officers or visiting his ex-girlfriend, said his friend known as Mike Summerz on Instagram. “I knew he had a lot on his mind,” the friend added.
The next day, Dabre said she had a vision: her son walking into her apartment with a gun.
Instead, Brinsley showed up the following day at Thompson’s apartment outside Baltimore, about 5:30 a.m., letting himself in with his key.
After he shot her, Brinsley fled in a panic, catching the Bolt Bus to New York. As he sat on the bus, wearing camouflage pants and greenish tennis shoes spattered with blood, he called Thompson’s mother, apologized and said he had shot her daughter by accident. He called Jalaa Brinsley, his sister, and he called Dabre, whom he referred to as “ummi,” which means “mother” in Arabic. “It’s a wrap, Ummi,” Brinsley told her. “I already know it’s a wrap.”
“I was shaking,” Dabre said. “I said, ‘Jalaa, I don’t like the feel of this.’ We were both shaking. I had a feeling he was heading this way.”
She thought he was coming for her. Instead, he came for two police officers he had never met, in a city where he didn’t live, at the end of a life that never measured up. He posted his intentions on Instagram. Pay attention to me, he seemed to shout, even telling two young men he met in Bedford-Stuyvesant to follow him on Instagram and to watch what he did next, just before he shot two strangers.