The death of Philando Castile and the trial of Jeronimo Yanez

Castile's co-workers remember him, and await verdict

A bench in memory of Philando Castile
A bench in memory of Philando Castile sits towards the garden area at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

On the third day of deliberations, jurors have yet to agree on a unanimous verdict in the case of St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez. The officer faces manslaughter and weapons charges for shooting and killing Philando Castile last July.

Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul. Earlier this week, a few teachers were still packing up their classrooms, including Elaine Vargo, a Montessori teacher for more than three decades.

"I've been so involved with ... just closing up our classrooms, and finishing up our work, that I had forgotten how difficult this year has been," she said. "Phil was just a wonderful presence in our school. He was peaceful, quiet, thoughtful."

Before Castile's death, the two would chat every other morning when Vargo went to the school's cafeteria to buy milk for her tea.

JJ School holds a bench in memory of Philando Castile
The school Philando Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

"I'd say, 'How you doing today?' And he'd say, 'Just another wonderful day in paradise.' And he meant it," she said. "He was just a happy guy. The children loved him. They called him Mr. Phil. They knew they were loved and cared for when they went into that cafeteria. They loved him. The whole staff loved him."

The Yanez trial is on everybody's mind, she said. If Yanez is found not guilty, the Montessori teacher said, she'll be out on the streets protesting.

"I feel for the officer, and yet I believe it was manslaughter, because he [Officer Yanez] didn't do the right things," Vargo said. "He didn't ask Phil to put his hands on the steering wheel. He didn't ask him to step out of his car. I don't know."

But if Yanez is found guilty, she said, "I will feel bad about that too. It's just a bad, bad situation. But I think police officers, all around the country, need to start thinking: If you're fearful, you shouldn't be in the car, you shouldn't be pulling people over."

In the school's front office, executive secretary Gail Ross was helping a parent with information about a report card. She'd known Castile since the first day he came to work, more than three years ago.

"He became more or less like a son," she said. "We greeted each other every morning. He would say something funny, I'd say something funny back to him. He was a pleasant, hardworking young man."

Ross lives just three minutes from where Castile was pulled over for his broken taillight, along Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights.

"The next morning, when I turned on the news, and saw who it was, I screamed," she said. "I couldn't believe that it happened. It was shocking. This person who you work with was all of a sudden dead, from a traffic stop."

If Yanez isn't found guilty, Ross said: "I don't have the words ... It would be typical, oh, every black man is guilty, or presumed to be guilty ... there is no value to their life."

If Yanez is found guilty, she said, and he gets the maximum sentence, then she will feel that some kind of justice has been served.

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