Sterling's fatal shooting was caught on cellphone video and circulated throughout social media

By Adam Carlson
Updated July 06, 2016 12:45 PM
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Family members of Alton Sterling, the Louisiana man fatally shot by Baton Rouge police early Tuesday morning, are speaking out on behalf of the “gentle giant” they say was “murdered.”

Sterling, 37, was fatally shot about 12:35 a.m. local time on Tuesday, when police responded to a call from an anonymous complainant who said a black man in a red sweatshirt was selling CDs and had threatened him with a gun, according to a statement from Baton Rouge police.

Police say some kind of “altercation” ensued between Sterling and officers Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni, at which point Sterling was shot. His death is now under investigation by federal authorities, and the Baton Rouge police chief said Wednesday, “There is a lot we do not understand.” (Both officers are on leave.)

Veda Washington, Sterling’s aunt, tells PEOPLE that when she first found out about Sterling’s death, “I screamed because I knew this shouldn’t have happened.”

“The police are supposed to protect and serve,” she says, adding, “They harassed him and they murdered him.”

A 48-second long video taken by a witness – which circulated widely online in the immediate aftermath of Sterling’s death – shows officers Lake and Salamoni telling Sterling to get on the ground outside the convenience store.

One officer quickly tackles him to the ground, after Sterling has apparently been hit with a stun gun, according to the video. As the two officers pin Sterling in place, one of the officers yells, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” before firing his weapon at Sterling. It is not clear from the video if Sterling was able to move while being held down by police, or what movements he made if so.

Washington tells PEOPLE the officers “are murderers, that’s what they are.”

She says Sterling had two sets of children, including a set of twins. He was known for selling CDs, which she says he’d been doing for about 15 years: “That’s how he supported his family,” Washington says.

“You would never get a bad report about Alton from anybody because he was a gentle giant,” she says.

Washington says Sterling had been selling CDs at the convenience store in front of which the confrontation took place for about six years, and that the convenience store owner “loved Alton.” He often sold CDs in front of convenience stores, she says.

“He would pay them to stay there for six months or whatever they charged him. Most of the time they didn’t charge him because he brought a lot of business to their stores,” Washington says.

She says she has been happy with how Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has spoken with the Sterling family, has responded so far.

“Justice has to be served,” she says.

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At a Wednesday news conference, Gov. Edwards said the investigation has been handed over to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which will be assisted by the FBI. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also investigating, authorities said.

Sterling is on the sex offender registry in Louisiana after a 2000 conviction for carnal knowledge of a juvenile, according to online records. He was released in 2004.

But at a Wednesday news conference, Quinyetta McMillan, the mother of Sterling’s eldest child, 15-year-old Cameron Sterling, said, “If we can reflect on the measure of a man, it should not be judged on his past.”

At the news conference, family members and community leaders wiped away tears and McMillan cried while trying to speak.

“Alton Sterling, if you knew him or not, he is not what [they] are making him out to be,” she said. “He is a man who was simply trying to earn a living to take care of his children.”

“His son, who is 15 years old, he had to watch this,” McMillan said, at which point Cameron collapsed into sobs.

“As this video has been shared across the world, you will see with your own eyes how he was handled unjustly and killed without regards for the lives that he helped raise,” McMillan said. “As a mother, I have now been forced to raise a son who is going to remember what happened to his father.”

Speaking about Cameron, McMillan said, “He is at an age of understanding. I hurt more for him and his loss. As a parent, one of the greatest fears is to see your child hurt and knowing there is nothing you can do about it.”

Washington tells PEOPLE that all of Sterling’s kids have been struck by his death.

“They can’t talk,” she says, “and I don’t know how to explain to them that their father isn’t coming back.”