Friday marks one month since 19-year-old Jackson Butler was stabbed to death during an altercation in a Pleasanton hotel parking lot -- and there are still many questions left unanswered.
For Jackson's family, at the forefront is coming to terms with such a monumental, sudden loss while trying to understand why the former Amador Valley High student was killed and hoping those responsible will face justice soon.
"The best. He was the best," older sister Rachael Butler told the Weekly. "Smart. Funny. Could always brighten your mood."
"I can't even picture my life without Jackson. My wedding, when I get married, he won't be there. He'll never get to have kids," she said. "There's just a hole in my life that will never get filled."
"The loss is staggering … Every day is like a nightmare," father Kevin Butler said, later adding: "We appreciate all of the support from the community."
The family -- also including Jackson's mother Tracey and other older sister Camaryn -- sat down for a conference call with the Weekly late Thursday afternoon.
They reminisced about a son and brother who was kind, funny and athletic, with Olympic aspirations and just beginning to explore adulthood.
They opened up about their grieving process made that much more difficult by the circumstances of the young man's death -- and complicated by the social realities of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And they described the emotions of a drawn-out criminal investigation in which two suspects were arrested but gained release from custody and no homicide charges have been filed to date in Jackson's case.
"We hear from the detective once a week, usually just a check-in," Camaryn said. "It's not like in the movies. We're trying to be patient."
A homicide is a rarity in the Tri-Valley communities, but especially Pleasanton; Jackson's death was the city's first homicide in nearly eight years.
"This case, as with any homicide, is an extremely in-depth investigation that requires significant time and resources to produce a solid case to the District Attorney," Pleasanton police Capt. Larry Cox told the Weekly on Thursday.
"This case is tragic and our heartfelt condolences go out to the Butler family and friends," Cox added. "We ask the Butler family and our community to trust the investigative process and be patient. I can assure you our detectives are doing impressive work to bring closure to this case."
Jackson's parents and sisters said they appreciate the close contact and updates provided by Pleasanton police, but the fact those responsible for Jackson's death are not behind bars is still tough to reconcile.
So too is trying to find closure during a point in time in which COVID-19 health restrictions all but prohibit any kind of inclusive memorial service or public candlelight vigil to honor Jackson.
Jackson Reese Butler, who had celebrated his 19th birthday on Feb. 1, was born and raised in Pleasanton.
Jackson grew up attending Pleasanton Unified School District schools until transferring out of Amador during his junior year. He would go on to complete his diploma through an independent study-type program and had been taking firefighting classes through Las Positas College, likely inspired by his father who is a retired firefighter, according to his sisters.
He was also a gifted athlete, possessing a knack for developing skills quickly in almost any sport he tried out, according to his family. He wrestled for the Dons during his time at Amador.
"He is remembered as an incredible young man who was celebrated as a world-class wrestler during his time at Amador," school administrators said in a statement released through the district in the days after his death.
But his talents were best on display with judo.
Jackson, who trained alongside his sisters, competed internationally in 18 different countries, earned the No. 1 ranking in the nation in his division for several years and was a Pan-Am champion, the family recalled.
He reveled in the world travel that came with high-level youth judo, especially enjoying trips to France and training camp experience in South Korea, Camaryn said. He aspired to compete in the 2028 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
"Unlimited potential. He was very gifted … He was just developing man-strength. The ceiling wasn't even close," Kevin said of his son. "He was robbed, cheated."
And he was a mentor to students, young and old, at his family's studio, Tri-Valley Judo in Pleasanton.
"Not only did he help everyone, he was the lion of the club," Kevin said.
"We grew up as any close family. We all did judo together," Camaryn said. "He loved Disneyland. We went in October. It was a great trip. It was like we were still kids."
Jackson was also working to gain his independence as a young adult. He had a new girlfriend. He'd rescued a kitten, Oliver, for whom his family is now caring. ("We're not cat people, but we are now," Kevin quipped.)
It was in line with finding that independence that led to Jackson staying in a room at the Hyatt House Pleasanton on Chabot Drive, a temporary stop -- as were stays at friends' places, Airbnb locations and home -- as he applied for apartment openings in recent weeks, according to Kevin.
Investigators are still working to determine the circumstances and motive for what happened in the hotel parking lot on April 15.
Police said the 19-year-old went outside that night to meet two people, but a confrontation ensued and escalated to the point that Jackson was stabbed multiple times around 8:20 p.m. He was transported with critical injuries to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, where he died.
The individuals involved in Jackson's death fled the hotel parking lot that night. But subsequent investigation led to police arresting two Tri-Valley teens on April 21 for direct involvement in the killing, though both arrestees are now out of custody with the investigation ongoing.
No homicide charges have been filed to date.
"We are continuing to work on the case and compiling more evidence to present a completed case to the District Attorney," Cox said. "I am not in a position to share that evidence at this point in the investigation. We are still awaiting lab results and search warrant returns."
Originally arrested in connection with the Butler homicide were 19-year-old Isaiah Joseph Howard and a 17-year-old boy whose name has not been revealed. Both arrestees have ties and/or addresses in Dublin and Pleasanton, according to Lt. Erik Silacci.
Howard, who was booked into the Santa Rita Jail on suspicion of accessory to murder and concealment or destruction of evidence, was later released from custody after posting bail, according to Silacci. Howard was listed as a 2019 graduate of Amador.
The 17-year-old boy was booked into Alameda County Juvenile Hall on suspicion of robbery and conspiracy. Cox confirmed that the juvenile too was later released from custody, because prosecutors had not filed formal charges against him due to the ongoing investigation. Police have declined to release the teen's name publicly, citing his age.
Detectives are still working to determine the motive. Silacci said during the week of the homicide that police were "investigating the possibility of drug sales activity" but that motive had not been confirmed to that point.
"Our Criminal Investigations Unit has been working solely on this case for the past month. Each and every case has different challenges and this case has presented it’s fair share," Cox said Thursday.
"In 2020, the criminal justice system expects and demands not only physical but technological evidence to convict suspects in homicide cases," the captain added. "This means DNA, cellular phone and social media forensics all of which require search warrants and cooperation from providers."
The case marks Pleasanton's first homicide (non-vehicular) since May 7, 2012.
The family said since Jackson's death, they've had many people reach out and share memories or talk about Jackson's influence -- like "Jackson was so impactful to me."
"The loss of Jackson has affected many. Everyone that knows the family is in shock over this brutal murder. This does not happen in Pleasanton," family friend Karyn Lewis told the Weekly. "Many of his friends and their parents are heartbroken over this as is my own family."
Lewis, who used to live down the street from the Butlers before she moved away from Pleasanton, has been pushing "#justiceforjackson" on social media since Jackson's death
"Everyone wants answers. Everyone wants the person or persons that murdered Jackson to be caught and put away for good so that we can put this to rest and the family and the community can try to move forward. Until that happens no one is sleeping," she said.
As the investigation enters its second month starting on Friday, the Butler family is hopeful the police work will wrap up soon and result in serious homicide charges against those responsible. They said they think the COVID-19 crisis may be impacting the investigation timeline, with aspects such as search warrants.
The pandemic has affected their grieving process in other ways as well.
Because of coronavirus-prevention restrictions, on top of standard rules to protect evidence integrity, the family members said they could only view Jackson's body two people at a time, couldn't touch his hand or kiss his head and couldn't say a family prayer together in the room.
There's also been no memorial service or candlelight vigil. They hope to schedule each soon after the relevant COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, but even then, they say it's hard to know what those events will look like.
"It's hard because you'll want to hug people, but you can't," Rachael said.