Twenty-four-year-old Lauren Mestas was already having a bad day when she noticed a cop car tailing her northbound on Interstate 35, headed into downtown Austin. She wasn’t overly concerned at first, as she wasn’t breaking any laws, but the patrol vehicle remained on her tail as she exited onto Riverside Drive, headed west. She started to suspect that it might have something to do with the slogans soaped all over the windows of her 2001 Toyota 4Runner. In addition to “BROWN PRIDE” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” written across the rear window were the words “FUCK THESE RACIST POLICE.”
Two days earlier and not even a mile away, a few blocks south of the Texas Capitol in the center of Austin, Mestas had witnessed an off-duty Army sergeant named Daniel Perry shoot and kill an Air Force veteran named Garrett Foster, who had been at a BLM protest with an AK-47 slung across his chest, pushing his quadruple-amputee fiancée in a wheelchair. At the sound of gunfire, Mestas and two other young women had fled across Congress Avenue, the main downtown boulevard, and hidden behind a column of the Frost Bank Tower. In the process, she had accidentally lost her cell phone, as well as the remote control to open the gates of her apartment complex.
That night, on arriving home, she’d parked in an ungated portion of the sprawling, 42-building apartment complex, located in far South Austin. Badly shaken by the shooting, she must have confused the spot, because when she went out the next morning, a Sunday, she couldn’t seem to find the 4Runner anywhere. “I was not in a good headspace,” she told me. “I thought somebody had stolen my car.”
She called the city’s non-emergency line to report the suspected theft. Eight hours later, she stumbled across the 4Runner while walking her dog, a chihuahua named Optimus Prime, and redialed 311 to retract the stolen vehicle report. The operator, Mestas told me, assured her that the 4Runner’s vehicle identification number and license plate number would be removed from the police department’s stolen vehicle list, and gave her a confirmation number for verification, should she happen to get pulled over.
Monday morning, she went to her job at Planet K, the longtime Austin smoke shop where she was employed as a shift lead. She had yet to recover, emotionally, from witnessing Foster’s murder. “I spent two hours on my shift sobbing,” she told me. “I had just seen somebody get shot and killed. I was pretty much catatonic.” A little after 10 a.m., her manager sent her to the bank to break $200 into small bills and coins. She took Optimus Prime with her for company.
It was on the way to the bank that the cop car picked up her tail. The officer, a state trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS, later filed an incident report which made clear that his reason for running a license plate check was that, in his words, “the vehicle had anti law enforcement rhetoric scribble [sic] all over the outside.” He followed her for a mile on Riverside Drive along the south shore of Ladybird Lake, and waited a full five minutes to hit the siren and lights.
“Oh my God,” Mestas thought, surmising what must have happened. “They think I stole my car.”
She panicked, and instead of pulling over, she came to a dead stop in the middle of the First Street Bridge, blocking the inside lane. The spot where she braked to a halt might well have been the precise geographic center of Austin, with Ladybird Lake flowing beneath her toward Longhorn Dam, Auditorium Shores and all of South Austin to her rear, and City Hall directly in front of her. It was 10:40 on a weekday morning, and normally the bridge would have been packed with traffic, but four months into the pandemic, there were hardly any other cars.