In the early hours of a September morning last year, Nicolas Morales Besanilla, a 37-year-old farmworker, woke his 12-year-old son and namesake, Nicolas Jr., from sleep in their home in Immokalee, Florida. He told his son he was seeing “spirits and creatures,” and shortly thereafter climbed through a back window to seek help.
It was highly unusual behavior for Morales; family and friends say they were unaware of him having any such break with reality before. That morning before he left for work, Morales had complained of a fever and headache to his neighbor, Nicolas Jr.’s longtime babysitter. He speculated whether he could have the coronavirus and asked if she had any pain reliever — she didn’t. Even still, Morales carried out his daily morning routine: Wake at 4 a.m., prepare his son’s lunch for school, take the sleepy child to the babysitter’s and walk roughly two miles to work. Immokalee is the “tomato capital of the United States,” and Morales, who moved to Florida from Hidalgo, Mexico, some 10 years earlier, split his time between working in the fields and in the packing houses where the harvest was prepared for distribution.
“You’d better take care of yourself, Nicolas,” the neighbor chided him before he left that morning. “If not for you, then for your son!”
It had been a difficult few years for Morales. He lost his wife, Olga, to diabetes-related complications and a stroke from which she never recovered in 2015. In the final months of her life, she was bound to a wheelchair, and her last weeks were spent on life support. She had eight children — seven from previous relationships who are now adults, and Nicolas Jr. with Morales. The family’s last holiday together was spent in a hospital cafeteria.
Friends and neighbors say Morales was destroyed by Olga’s death. Prior to her passing, she had also worked the fields and took odd jobs. It was tough to make ends meet, but Morales was devoted to Nicolas Jr. “All I can do is keep working hard for my son,” he’d repeat like a refrain to his neighbor in particularly trying moments.
After work that day, around 5:30 p.m., he picked up Nicolas Jr. from his babysitter’s, reminding her that he would receive his paycheck on Friday and would be able to pay her then. “I’m an honest person,” he said. It would be the last time she would see him alive.
Father and son went to bed around 9 p.m. According to a toxicology report from the State Attorney’s Office, Morales had a small trace of alcohol in his system and no drugs. It’s not known if Morales still had a headache or felt physically amiss when he woke Nicolas Jr. that night around 1a.m., panicked and seeing things that were not there. He also frantically told his son that he believed the house was “poisoned.”
After Morales climbed from the window, he began banging and tapping on the doors and windows of his neighbors, including the babysitter’s, yelling for help and to be let in. She and her husband, along with many others, were too frightened to answer. There is very little streetlight in Farm Worker Village, the affordable housing rental community where they live, which is composed almost entirely of identical one-story concrete block homes, many of which were for years deemed unsafe and unlivable by local and federal inspectors. The streets were awash in near complete darkness. It could have been anyone tapping on the windows and doors that night.
For several minutes, Morales moved from home to home, losing a sandal and lacking a shirt until he found himself on the 600 block of Edenfield Way. He knocked on the windows and door of a neighbor who dialed 911, not realizing it was Morales outside.
“He keeps yelling to open the door,” she explained on the audio of the call released by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.
The 911 call lasted 6 minutes and 34 seconds. In the final 34 seconds, the woman says police have arrived and that a man she did not recognize and could scarcely see had begun walking toward them in her front yard. Just as the dispatcher ends the call, you can hear the popping of gunshots.
The three officers from the sheriff’s office who arrived on the scene were Deputy Brian Tarazona, K-9 Cpl. Nathaniel Kirk, and Cpl. Pierre Jean. Within 13 seconds of their arrival, Morales was shot at four times by Cpl. Jean and mauled by Cpl. Kirk’s German shepherd.
When the sun came up on the morning Morales had been killed, community members noted there was no police tape or officials milling around the scene. The only sign that a tragic event occurred just hours earlier was a small vigil laid in the grass near where he was shot, where it has remained ever since.
Even still, word of the shooting spread throughout the community, quickly reaching staff members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-led human-rights organization. For decades, the CIW has been successfully leading efforts to improve conditions for the farmworkers that call Immokalee home. Many of the workers are undocumented, which has left them not only vulnerable to the predation of unscrupulous bosses and farm owners but also fearful of police. The CIW has fought and won many battles, but Morales’ death in the midst of a devastating pandemic illuminated how vulnerable the community remains. And his shooting seemed to sit at the nexus of problems with policing that cities across the country have been grappling with for the past year: allegations of excessive force, the vulnerability of marginalized communities to police abuse, and a paucity of mental health services, which leads to yet more violent encounters with officers.
Lupe Gonzalo, a longtime CIW staffer and farmworker, says there are countless incidents of poor treatment from officers. “People have stories, but they do not report them out of fear of what might happen to them if they do, so in the end there’s no record,” she says. “The fact is, if you have been in Immokalee for more than a minute, either you have a story of police abuse of your own, or you have friends or family who do.”
“We encourage anyone to file a complaint if they feel a deputy has violated policy or law,” a spokesperson for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office tells Rolling Stone. “All complaints, including those that are anonymous, are fully investigated.”
From the 911 call, released days after Morales died, the community knew how quickly police had shot him upon their arrival on the scene. The CIW and local faith and civil rights leaders from Southwest Florida demanded the release of the dashcam footage. “We recognized that we just weren’t going to have a clear idea [of what happened] from the written accounts,” says Gonzalo. “When we asked the Sheriff’s office [for the footage] we were often given different reasons or excuses.” According to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office reports, Morales had “produced a shiny sharp object” (later identified as “landscaping shears”) which was “raised in a manner that deputies perceived to be threatening.” Cpl. Jean then “felt in fear for his life and the lives of the other deputies,” and fired four shots at Morales. Landscaping shears and gardening tools, the reports noted, are considered deadly weapons “when used in the manner that Morales-Bessannia [sic] was utilizing them.”
Finally, in February, five months later, the footage coupled with the findings from an investigation by the State Attorney’s Office were released without any forewarning to the Morales family.
The video left the already grief-stricken family and community members heartbroken by what they saw. In the footage, the deputies first find Morales walking to the front of the house from the backyard, his arms at his sides, holding a pair of gardening shears in his right hand and a gardening shovel in his left. Both were taken from the neighbor’s yard.
Cpl. Jean immediately draws his gun and points it at Morales, yelling at him in English to get on the ground as they approach. All three officers approach the 5-foot-4, 149-pound Morales, Jean and Tarazona with their guns trained on him while Kirk grips the leash of a K-9. In the video, only Jean’s English commands can be heard, but Deputy Tarazona’s statement in the state attorney’s report says he gave commands in both Spanish and English.
Morales attempts to move away from the officers, dropping the shovel at his side and running parallel to their positions before taking a few steps toward them. Though Morales is still holding the shears, at no point does he ever raise them. Seconds later, Cpl. Jean fires four consecutive shots, two of which Morales sustained in the abdomen and one near his pelvis, causing Morales to fall to the pavement immediately. Kirk releases his grip on the K-9 and the dog latches its mouth onto Morales, mauling his right arm and shoulder for 15 seconds before Kirk tries to regain control of the dog.
“Don’t fucking shoot me, do you hear me,” Kirk instructs Cpl. Jean, as he moves closer to take the leash of the dog. “Yeah, I got you,” Jean replies, moving to holster the gun but then pointing it back at Morales, who lay moaning and calling out for his mother in Spanish. By the time Kirk is able to pry the dog off Morales’ body, almost an entire minute has passed.
“Less lethal, less lethal,” Tarazona tells Jean as he bends down to check Morales’ wounds, and Jean holsters his gun and takes out his taser instead.
Department guidelines on the use of force say that deputies should “apply de-escalation techniques when possible,” that “deadly force techniques shall be used only as a last resort,” and that factors like the size of the subject and how many officers and “intermediate devices” are on hand — i.e. a taser or perhaps a K-9 — should be taken into account. But State Attorney Amira Fox found no unjustifiable use of force in the incident, concluding all officers were acting in defense of themselves and others. Only Cpl. Jean had been placed on administrative leave, right after the shooting, but was restored to active duty after one week.
But for Morales’ family and many in Immokalee, the footage only further confirmed what they’ve known for years: Their community isn’t protected. It’s policed.
“Seeing the video, it just became clear that Nicolas didn’t need to die,” says Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a former farmworker and senior staff member of the CIW. “He needed help.”
Collier County stretches the southern Gulf coast of Florida, just above Everglades National Park, and is known to tourists as “Paradise Coast.” Within its jurisdiction are wealthy cities like Naples – the 15th wealthiest zip code per capita in the nation — lush with PGA-anointed golf courses and the resort destinations of Marco Island, where thousands of snowbirds flock each year for its white sandy beaches. Inland, about 40 miles, sits Immokalee, home to 26,500 farmworkers, mostly Mexican, Haitian and Guatemalan migrants who work the fields of tomatoes and citrus fruit that get shipped and sold across the country to corporate chains like Walmart, Publix and a myriad of fast food restaurants.
The town has served as one of the country’s foremost farming fulcrums since the 1940s, and first entered mainstream conversation via Edward R. Murrow’s Peabody Award-winning exposé Harvest of Shame. The documentary was one of the first examinations of the plight of migrant workers in the U.S. and shocked the American public when it aired the day after Thanksgiving, 1960. It followed farm workers who earned just $1 a day, working in the fields from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., leaving them unable to afford basic necessities for their families and suffering conditions like cramped and unsanitary housing and a lack of hot water for bathing.
“We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them,” a local farm owner told the camera.
While conditions and wages grew slightly better, the same issues lingered and mutated in the decades that followed. Across Florida, wage theft and sexual harassment from farm owners became all the more common until 1993, when farm workers formed the CIW in response. The CIW headquarters, a modest, one-story surrounded by roaming roosters, is equal parts community meeting-place, radio station, and co-op that offers food and other necessities at fair prices to all who enter.
“Free range!” jokes Lucas Benitez, CIW co-founder, gesturing toward the red mohawked hallmarks of the farmtown. Benitez came to Immokalee at just 17 to work in the fields and was quickly frustrated by poor wages and working conditions. Joining with dozens of other farmworker leaders and human rights organizers Greg Asbed and Laura Germino, he formed the CIW. “I have a masters in citrus, and a Ph.D in tomatoes,” Benitez likes to joke, but the CIW has some serious accomplishments under its belt, and has become a formidable national force in the fight to end exploitation of American farm workers.
After pressuring powerful corporations like McDonalds to lean on growers to improve conditions, the CIW was able to start the Fair Food Program. Heralded by The New York Times as one of “the best workplace-monitoring systems in the country,” it’s an enforceable agreement between corporate buyers, produce growers and the CIW that provides workers with better wages and working conditions. Since its inception in Florida, the Fair Food Program has grown into a multi-state, multi-crop program, covering tens of thousands of workers on farms up and down the East Coast and establishing a replicable model that has served as the basis for addressing abuse everywhere from the textile industry in Lesotho to the U.S. entertainment industry.
Even still, many farmworkers have remained entrenched in poverty, with next-to-no access to government services — an issue that was shown in stark relief by the Covid-19 pandemic. For months, Immokalee lacked adequate protective equipment, contact tracing, and testing facilities, even though they were essential workers. As a result, by May of 2020, Doctors Without Borders — which had sent a team to Immokalee at the CIW’s urgent request — encountered an astonishing positivity rate of 36 percent among Immokalee residents. It was one of the highest rates of infection in the world at the time.
That same month, a young Immokalee farmworker died from coronavirus complications after becoming exposed where he worked at Oakes Farms, founded and operated by Naples millionaire Alfie Oakes, who called COVID-19, “the largest government and media hoax in history” in a Facebook tirade. Oakes also made national headlines after declaring that he would not mandate masks for any employees or customers.
While 30 percent of Americans felt compelled to seek therapy during the pandemic, Immokalee residents were left with few options but to cope as Morales did — head down, trudging forward to provide for their families. With the long work days, six or seven days a week, physically dangerous work, and economic insecurity, farmworker families are rarely able to access medical care, either in an emergency or to manage long-term health issues. “We have modest basic services here, mostly through the local federally qualified health clinic and by a few private doctors, but have no major hospital closer than an hour away,” says Gonzalo.
Many residents have nowhere to turn for mental and emotional health apart from a faith-based organization or congregation like Misión Peniel, a Presbyterian mission that provides financial and housing support in Immokalee. Pastor Miguel Estrada, leader of Misión Peniel, says Morales represents one of many residents — seen and unseen — who are unable to access the kind of help they need from a system and surrounding county that could almost certainly fund it. Throughout his decades of service, Estrada can recall meeting many suffering from grief or a diagnosable source of mental or emotional anguish who had no access to mental health care and ended up living on the street or in shelters because they were undocumented.
“People who have mental issues here have no help,” says Estrada. “If you have a problem, you’re basically in the hands of your family — if you have one at all. If not, you’re on your own.”
Activists living in Naples and Fort Myers describe Immokalee as “another world” and are quick to highlight the jarring racial and economic disparities between Immokalee and those who govern the county. In the aftermath of Morales’ killing, stories started coming out through the CIW’s daily radio broadcast, which provides the community with news in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and some of the indigenous languages of Central America. “[The radio] is a way to encourage people to speak up, to know they are a valued part of the community,” Gonzalo says. “Since Nicolas’ death, the radio has been a crucial medium for people to share their own stories of abuse and to come together as a community to mourn and organize.”
Longtime residents still remember Felipe Santos, an undocumented Mexican national living in Immokalee who went missing following a minor car accident near Naples in 2003. Santos, who was on the way to work with his two brothers, was cited by Collier County deputy Steve Calkins for reckless driving and was taken from the scene. Santos was never seen again. Calkins said he decided not to arrest Santos and instead dropped him off at a local Circle K. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing and continued working, but was implicated in another disappearance the following year and was fired in 2004 after giving inconsistent statements on both cases. Calkins has never been charged in either case, which both remain open.
Many residents of Immokalee are undocumented and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office has long maintained an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs known as 287(g), which essentially deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law, meaning being booked for an unrelated incident can lead to deportation.
“There is a widespread understanding that the Sheriff’s office is empowered to arrest people based on their immigration status,” says Gonzalo. Soon after Morales’ death, she says, another Immokalee resident told her how he once called the police because someone tried to assault him, but the police first asked for his ID, and when they saw it was a Mexican ID, asked for documentation of his status. “The police just kept asking, why don’t you have papers? What are you doing here?” he told her. “I was the person who had been assaulted, and yet I was the person who had to pay the consequences and be at even greater risk for calling the police.”
“We have had no complaints filed regarding our administration of the program,” a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office says. “We do not check the immigration status of victims or anyone else as part of our law enforcement operations. We also have programs and procedures in place to assist all crime victims, including assisting crime victims who are not legally present in the U.S. with filing a U-visa.” The spokesperson also noted that the department holds “Coffee With A Migrant” or “Coffee with a Cop” events, as well as regular community affairs meetings. “We have always worked closely with our Immokalee community to ensure good relations between law enforcement and community members.”
But some residents of the area question how trust can be built. “If you’re an organization that understands certain people are illegal, who sees them as illegal, and therefore, sees everybody that looks like them as potentially illegal, how do you build a relationship?” asks Rev. Tony Fisher, leader of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples, and an outspoken CIW ally in the Naples area.
The CIW and the Immokalee community have asked the Collier County Sheriff’s Office for the creation of a crisis response team, trained professionals who can accompany police in responding to cases like Morales,’ in addition to an independent, Immokalee-based review board that would get a say in whether or not excessive force was used or justified in any given case.
Major cities across the country have begun implementing such practices. Portland, New York City, Denver and Oakland have all recently piloted programs that train dispatchers to identify calls potentially involving a mental health crisis, and either replace police or pair them with mental health professionals and crisis intervention specialists. Results thus far have been deemed successful with significantly reduced arrests and violence. In April, it was reported that at least 14 other cities around the country were interested in pursuing similar practices.
“We know that if they would’ve had an appropriate response to someone in a mental health crisis,” says another senior CIW staffer and farmworker leader, Nely Rodriguez, “there wouldn’t be a young boy who’s now an orphan.”
Seven months after the shooting, Jesse Andrade, Morales’ step-son, sits on a dock on Lake Trafford in a particularly rural part of Immokalee and remembers the day the dash-cam footage was published. Andrade had been at work and hadn’t looked at his phone for several hours. At the end of his shift, he found it inundated with text messages and phone calls asking if he’d seen the video yet.
Andrade, who lives in Immokalee and has a family of his own, grew up with Morales alongside three of his siblings. “It takes a real man to raise another person’s children,” he says in a low voice, his eyes concealed by dark sunglasses. When he watched the video of his step-father’s death, he immediately broke down at the thought of Nicolas Jr., he says, and what his life might become without both of his parents. “The first thing that came to my mind was my little brother because now he’s basically on his own.”
Nicolas Jr., now 13 years old, has since moved out of the state to live with a step-sister who ultimately had to leave her job to take care of him, says Andrade. Despite an insurmountable loss and being uprooted from the only place Nicolas has ever known, family members say he’s adjusting as well as one can hope, making friends and earning grades he’s proud of. In March, he wrote a letter to the CIW, which has since been published by the coalition and local news outlets.
“I want the Collier County Sheriff’s Office to know [how] I feel about the situation. Ever since that day I have been sad, lonely, angry, and grieving the loss of my dad. There is not one day I don’t think about him and wish things could’ve been done differently to still have my dad here. I can’t sleep, I can’t think right, and I get bad flashbacks [when I] think about that night. It had tore my life apart.”
The Morales family is currently weighing their options for a lawsuit. In the meantime, they are also demanding an external investigation from an agency outside Collier County. “How, in their minds, that video exonerates them is shocking,” says one of their attorneys, Brent Probinsky, of the dash-cam footage. But in order for any potential suit to be successful, the team would have to overcome the hurdle of qualified immunity — a federal statute that effectively shields officers from facing legal consequences for using excessive force.
If a civil suit is pursued, the outcome could go either way, says former Judge Hugh Starnes, who served Fort Myers 20th judicial circuit for 30 years. “There seems to be a history among citizen jurors that they want to believe an officer wouldn’t kill somebody without reason, so traditionally there seems to be some sympathy towards the officer,” he says. “But on the other hand, I’m sure the family’s attorney will explore what else could have been done than shooting a man four times and unleashing a dog on him.”
Regardless, Morales’ death has opened up a conversation about policing that isn’t going away anytime soon, not if the CIW can help it. Staffers at the CIW say they’ve made several attempts to engage with the Sheriff’s Office so they can be active participants in dialogue surrounding violence prevention. They haven’t gotten the results they’re pushing for yet.
But they will continue to fight. They have held vigils and protests with support from the local NAACP chapter, groups like Collier Youth for Black Lives, area faith leaders and Judge Starnes, who retired days prior to Morales’ death in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The pandemic has limited how they could organize, but they always found ways, like creating a banner painted, circulated and signed by hundreds of community members. It reads “An injury to one is an injury to us all,” and depicts a group of people standing in solidarity against a police officer holding a gun and a K-9.
“We’re going to continue to do things like vigils and other kinds of peaceful forms of gatherings and protests,” says Gonzalo. “But at the same time, our principal focus is creating solutions.” Besides, Rodriguez says, “being still and doing nothing is worse.”