Family, friends celebrate life of mentally ill woman killed by police, demand change

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Just a day after gathering to celebrate the life of Michelle Cusseaux, a mentally-ill woman shot and killed by police last Thursday, family and friends are expected to rally at City Hall. they want police to change how they handle calls involving people who are mentally ill.

Family from all over arrived at her mother's home to celebrate what would have been Cusseaux’s birthday. Even Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne was there.

Cusseaux’s mother, Frances Garrett, said her daughter was excited about her upcoming birthday, and this is the way she would have wanted to celebrate it -- with all of her friends and family.

"Fifty-one today, so happy birthday, Michelle," Garrett said, looking up to the sky.   
Balloons and Cusseaux's pictures were the centerpiece of the celebration as family and friends remembered her.

"Michelle, she has a heart of gold. She would give a person the shirt off her back," her mother said.
Cusseaux’s family and friends are heartbroken by her death.

"She was a nice lady. We didn't have any problems with her. She kept to herself," said Valerie Cano, on of Cusseaux's neighbors.

Cusseaux was shot and killed by police Thursday.
"They had so many ways to have handled this,” Garrett said.

Phoenix police went to Cusseaux's home to take her to a mental health facility that day. Police said she swung a hammer towards them.

"It's scary. When I came, I asked one of the cops if she was going to be OK, and he said, 'No,'" Cano said. "She didn't have to die like that."

Mental health workers told police Cusseaux had threatened them.
"She's sweet as pie, but she's just mouthy and goes off yelling cursing then she's OK," Garrett said.

Garrett said she just wishes police had handled things differently, but Sunday, she was focused on her daughter's birthday.

"She's loved. She has lots of family and support…this is her birthday celebration, and we're moving forward," she said.

Garrett said she plans to rally for more education on how to deal with the mentally ill.

She said Cusseaux had been struggling with depression and most recently with bipolar disease since her brother's death 30 years ago.

Police said the shooting is under criminal internal investigation.

Cusseaux's family and friends are expected to rally in front of City Hall Monday to demand changes to how police respond to those who are mentally ill.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton reportedly is planning to meet privately with Garrett and the Rev. Jarrett Maupin Monday. That meeting is not connected to the rally.