‘He was just himself’: The life and death of Sinzae Reed

Reed, 13, was shot and killed by Krieg Butler, 36, at Wedgewood Apartments in October. Butler was released a week later after making claims of self-defense. The case remains under investigation.
Sinzae's mother, Megan Reed (center with the white T-shirt draped over her shoulder), stands flanked by supporters at a New Year's Day rally for her late son.
Sinzae's mother, Megan Reed (center with the white T-shirt draped over her shoulder), stands flanked by supporters at a New Year's Day rally for her late son.Andy Downing

The day Megan Reed learned that the man who shot and killed her son had been released by authorities, she was at the store buying clothes to wear to his funeral.

A week earlier, on Oct. 12, 2022, according to court records, a witness said they saw Krieg Butler, 36, exit a red truck and fire multiple shots at Sinzae Reed, 13. Butler then returned to the vehicle and fled the scene.

“Someone came to the door and told me Sinzae was shot, and by the time I got over there, the police were already doing CPR,” Megan said. “When we got to the hospital, they came in and told me he got shot in the chest and it’s not looking good. And I told them to let me in there so I could talk to him, and when I went in there, that’s when they called his time of death. And I picked up his hand, and that’s how I saw the bullet in his hand, because he got shot in the hand, too. And it was a big bullet, because I saw it, I felt it, I looked at it. … But he got shot in the right side of his chest, it hit his left lung, and came out the bottom of his back on the left side.”

Butler shot and killed Sinzae outside at the Wedgewood Village Apartments, a housing complex in the Hilltop where both lived, with the Franklin County Coroner’s office releasing a report in January that determined Sinzae had been shot twice, including the fatal wound to his chest. Within 48 hours of the shooting, Butler was arrested by Columbus police. He was then charged with murder by the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office and held on a $1 million bond. 

But on Oct. 19, 2022, the charges were dismissed, and the bond removed, pending an investigation, with Butler claiming self-defense. Butler’s claim could grant him greater protection under Ohio’s “stand your ground” law, which removed the requirement to retreat in public before firing a weapon, in addition to shifting the burden of proof for self-defense. 

“The law used to require the defendant to prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence, placing a more reasonable burden on them to show that they were in fact acting in self-defense,” said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “Now the state has to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. ... Prosecutors across the state are struggling with these cases and as we predicted, the law is resulting in injustices. It should be changed.”

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, professor of law at the University of Dayton, said the potential difficulties prosecutors face in trying to disprove self-defense in “stand your ground” cases could lead to fewer murder indictments, with prosecutors offering more plea deals as a means of bypassing trials and grand juries in order to secure convictions.

Franklin County First Assistant Prosecutor Janet Grubb, who leads the office's criminal division, said she put out a call to prosecuting attorneys statewide, and nearly 75 percent of those who responded said that the law had impacted their ability to get convictions. “I think it has altered our consideration of matters,” Grubb said. “And by necessity it alters how grand jurors then turn around and look at cases. … Without going into too much detail, I can think of several cases where the fact that ‘stand your ground’ is present has potentially altered whether or not an indictment has been returned.”

Adding to the complexity in the case of Sinzae Reed, at the time of the shooting, Butler was on parole after pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence in 2019, for which he served a month in jail. (People convicted of domestic violence are not allowed to own a firearm under federal law, though Ohio doesn’t restrict possession in misdemeanor cases.) 

Upon Butler’s release, the Columbus police issued a statement in which the department said that it was still awaiting key ballistic and forensic evidence, and that once the investigation was complete, the information would be turned over to the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, which would then determine whether to present the case to a grand jury. (There is no statute of limitations on a murder charge in Ohio.)

And yet, in the five months that have passed since Butler’s release, little new information about the case has been made public. Officials have released no information about why Butler fired on Sinzae, and there’s been no indication Sinzae had a weapon.

“The investigation is ongoing,” Grubb said in early March. “The police are still doing work, we’re doing work. We want to be timely, and we know there’s great interest in the matter.”

“I understand the police can’t reveal everything they have, but they should be able to talk to [Megan Reed] more, to offer her more assurances, some transparency,” said DeJuan Sharp of Columbus Downtownerz, one of several groups of organizers that have been working in coordination to support the Reed family in the months since the shooting. “But there’s been nothing.”

“First, we had to wait to get the autopsy back. We got that. And then we have to wait for the ballistics to come back,” Megan said. “It’s all just a waiting game. They want to have some reason to let Krieg go, that’s how it feels to me. … And he’s still walking around here, free, living his life like everything’s fine.”

Sinzae Reed
Sinzae ReedCourtesy Megan Reed

On an unseasonably warm, slightly damp New Year’s Day, Megan Reed spoke during a rally in support of her son at Wedgewood Apartments, flanked by supporters holding signs with slogans such as, “Justice for Sinzae Reed.” “Sinzae had a support system,” Megan said, shaking slightly as she read from her handwritten notes. “Sinzae had a community. He was a loved human being. He was a child. … I want to tell him how much I love him. … I wish I could hear him call me ‘mom’ again.”

“I was never supposed to be planning a funeral for my 13-year-old baby; he was supposed to be planning a funeral for me,” Megan said via phone in early February. “When you lose a loved one, you’re sad, and I get that. But when you lose a child, that’s a different type of hurt. People will be like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay.’ And I understand where they’re coming from, but it’s never going to be okay. My life is never going to be the same ever again. I don’t even know what to do. The pain is still the same every day. I still cry every day.”

Sinzae was born to Megan Reed and Louis Snowden at Grant Hospital on Aug. 17, 2009. Megan described Sinzae as a “goofy” baby who gradually matured into the family guardian – particularly when it came to his younger sister. “Now that he’s gone, that’s all she talks about, asking who’s supposed to protect her,” Megan said.

This side would emerge when Sinzae was with his friends, Megan said, and he would step in to play peacekeeper on those rare occasions when fights would break out.

Early in life, Sinzae expressed interest in becoming a boxer, and then in being a football player, a pursuit Megan nixed due to her son’s slight frame. “He was a picky eater, and I think that’s why he was so small,” she said, and laughed. “When I used to take him to doctors' appointments, he was never gaining weight, and I’m like, ‘I know I feed my kid,’ but he was also tall.”

When he did finally start eating, he favored chicken and steak, generally ignoring any vegetables or sides spooned onto the plate.

At times, Megan said, Sinzae’s sense of humor would throw her for a loop, and she’d often watch him, trying to figure out what aspects of his being he might have inherited from his father, and which might have come from her. “And even to this day, I wonder who he acts like,” she said. “He was just himself.”

There were struggles, too. From kindergarten, Sinzae lagged in school, Megan said, finally discovering his footing when he started taking online courses with KIPP Columbus. And then there were the conditions at Wedgewood, where the family moved in 2017, arriving during a particularly violent time in the history of the troubled West Side apartment complex, which was the site of seven murders between January and August of that year.

“Someone could have a mental breakdown living out here. It's an overload on your heart, on your mind,” one resident told me in 2018. “A lot of people become immune to it and learn to live with the circumstances they're in, and some people are comfortable with that. Then some people aren't, like me. … There's no comfort here.”

Ramon Obey, the cofounder of Justice, Unity, and Social Transformation (JUST), said it was important to keep perspective on the lived realities of children who grow up in environments such as Wedgewood, and how these high-crime areas excel at “taking people, grabbing them and forcing them into bad decisions rather than ever allowing them to grow.” 

“There is a different level of violence that happens within these neighborhoods, and we only allow it to happen in these neighborhoods,” Obey continued. “Krieg Butler would not be free if he lived in New Albany. He would not be free if he lived in Bexley. And even if he was free, they would at least throw an ankle monitor on him and try to give him a curfew. But now we’re looking at Wedgewood, and to the City of Columbus, Sinzae’s life is nothing more than collateral damage – if that. … And I think what’s been missed is that the city has been treating everybody in the Wedgewood area like that. In 2018, there were stories about the violence at Wedgewood. Now it’s 2023, and the violence there is the same, if not worse.”

A memorial to Sinzae in the Reed family home.
A memorial to Sinzae in the Reed family home.Courtesy Megan Reed

Megan Reed said that she had started taking steps to move her family away from Wedgewood prior to her son's shooting, and that the constant threat of violence and the stress it imprinted on her often left her worrying about how her son might be perceived from the outside, even though he was still a child. “When we had to start wearing masks [during COVID], he took advantage of that, and he wore them every single day,” she said. “And I kept telling him, ‘You know, when people look at you they’re not going to see the cute little boy you are.’ They’re going to say, ‘He’s a thug. He’s a gangster.’ And that’s how people are looking at him now.”

In the days and weeks after Sinzae’s death, Megan said she watched as photos of Sinzae, including one in which he wears a mask and throws up a “W” with his right hand – a reference to the West Side of the city where he was born and raised – were shared out of context on social media and then amplified by trolls and bad-faith actors in an attempt to create a narrative around her son that he was somehow complicit in his violent end. 

The claims that Sinzae was armed and that Butler acted in self-defense have even been propagated by at least one Columbus police officer – despite no evidence having been released publicly to that effect. On his podcast “Thoughts of a Patrol Officer,” officer Spencer Badger theorized absent evidence that Sinzae had been armed, and that Butler had acted in self-defense. "I think it's highly likely that Sinzae had a firearm [and] was shooting at Butler,” said Badger, whose name and affiliation with Columbus police do not appear in the video. “I believe strongly that the information I'm presenting you today will be eventually released to the public.”

Sgt. David Scarpitti, a public information officer for the Columbus Division of Police, said in a February phone call that he understood concerns about the video, which he said in no way represents the department’s official stance on the case, but that it was his belief the clip did not fall outside of the department’s current social media policy. Still, he allowed that a resident “could look at a police officer and their standing and put extra weight on their comments.”

In conversation, both Obey and Sharp made comments to the effect that the Reed family had been forced into a defensive position from the moment Butler shot Sinzae, which Obey described as sadly common in cases where Black children and young men are killed, whether at the hands of police or by white men making claims of self-defense. “We knew [officials] would bring up any kind of criminal record if he had one,” said Obey of Sinzae, who had no criminal record. “And we learned that through working with the family of Casey Goodson. ... So, we prepare for anything and everything, because the system is willing to throw anything and everything at us to keep us from justice.”

Sharp expanded on these sentiments, touching on the more expansive hurdles young Black boys are forced by society to overcome in a speech he gave during the New Year’s Day rally for Sinzae – “I too was 13 once, and I had growth, and I had to mature,” he said – and again via telephone a couple of weeks later.

“I feel like it’s something every Black male goes through: You’re born, and you get told you ain’t shit all your life. And then you start to believe you ain’t shit, and you start to act like you ain’t shit,” Sharp said. “But then, if you’re blessed and you get a little bit older, you start to feel the pride in yourself, which leads to a pride in your community. And you become a better individual. But you’re not equipped with those skills from birth. None of us are.”

While Megan Reed had seen signs of this growth in her son, whose ashes now reside in a vial she wears daily on a chain around her neck, she said the person he was becoming didn’t rest far from the playful, protective child she had always known. 

“He really was a homebody, and the only place he ever went was the porch or out in the front playing with his friends,” she said. “And that’s what I need people to know. … He’s not a thug. He’s not a criminal. He’s a 13-year-old little boy. That’s it. That’s all.”

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