Twenty-five years ago, with one fatal bullet to the heart, a family on Long Island, New York, was forever changed.
William Ford Jr., a 24-year-old high school math teacher who’d been recently hailed as a hero for detaining an armed robber on the street, was shot and killed on April 7, 1992. His killer? Mark Reilly, a 19-year-old mechanic at Super Stang Auto Body in Central Islip, New York, where Ford’s girlfriend’s car was being serviced.
Reilly, who is white, was arrested for manslaughter but he claimed self-defense in the altercation at the shop with Ford, who was black. An all-white grand jury declined to indict.
The killing has tormented Ford’s family ever since: His father, William, had a stroke two years later, and his mother, Barbara, was left with debilitating health issues.
William’s brother, Yance, has channeled his grief and heartache into a new true crime documentary on Netflix, Strong Island, premiering on Sept. 15, which suggests racial bias was a crucial factor in the investigation’s outcome.
“I will never know the person I could have been if [William] had lived. I will never know that person and never be that person,” Yance tells PEOPLE. “I took what I had and I have turned it into something bigger, because I had to make his death mean something.”
More than 10 years ago, Yance decided to make a film that would both examine the brutal circumstances surrounding his brother’s death while also celebrating — and reclaiming — William’s memory.
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“Initially, I thought that the question was going to be, ‘What happened?’ But when I realized the answer to that question is easily arrived at, instead the question became, ‘Why?’ ” Yance tells PEOPLE of Strong Island, his directorial debut, which was produced by Danny Glover’s Louverture Films.
“Some of the fears William had I continue to have,” Glover says. “William’s death killed his family along with their dreams and aspirations.”
Yance says he wants audiences to approach Strong Island with different expectations than they would most other crime documentaries.
“This film allowed me to interrogate and ask questions,” he explains. “I did learn new information, but at the end of the process, I was still left with the realization that the man who killed my brother should have gone to trial but didn’t.”
“It is important to distinguish that Strong Island is not a film that is seeking to uncover evidence of guilt or that is objecting to a guilty or not-guilty verdict,” Yance says. “This film is questioning if it was reasonable to decide there was no probable cause to move forward to trial. My argument is: Of course there was probable cause, because we know how low the bar for probable cause really is.”
Though Reilly and the officials who originally handled the case could not be reached for comment by PEOPLE, former Suffolk County, New York, investigator James Hughes says in the documentary that the evidence supported the grand jury’s decision.
The investigation into William’s shooting death is officially considered closed — though, with Strong Island, it is not forgotten.
“We have to deal with the way that race influences our criminal justice system,” Yance says. “My brother, William, wasn’t perfect but he was human, and his humanity is the thing that was denied him from the beginning of the process through the end.”