When Gabe Mukendi’s family arrived in Kentwood from the Malawi refugee camp in 2015, Mr Lyoya was among the first to visit. He brought the family two Android phones and a pepperoni pizza from Little Caesars. Gabe, now 17, said he practiced cutting the hair of Mr Lyoya, who had lived with the family for years.
“He was a really cool guy and he was very generous,” Gabe said.
But Mr. Lyoya also got in trouble. In August 2015, when he was 19, he was charged with driving under the influence, but failed to appear at three subsequent court hearings. He has been arrested more than a dozen times, mostly for offenses involving motor vehicles, but he also faced three domestic violence charges, including a 2017 case in which a police officer said Mr. Lyoya was ” very drunk”. Fines skyrocketed. He spent time in prison – a few days here, a month there. Drug and alcohol assessments were ordered twice; the results are not public.
Daniel Burns, a defense attorney who represented Mr. Lyoya in a first case, said he first met Mr. Lyoya in the lobby of Kentwood District Court.
“He was confused about his case and he was struggling,” Mr Burns said, adding that Mr Lyoya had appeared sincere and hardworking. “He presents himself with an innocence. I think it’s the language. He takes his time to answer, to make sure he calculates everything, that he understands everything correctly.
Despite losing his license, Mr. Lyoya continued to drive, apparently in borrowed cars: a silver Chrysler, a white Honda, a blue Jeep, a black Ford.
His jobs were factory gigs. When Mr. Lyoya filled out a court form in mid-2016, he misspelled both the street name of his apartment and his employer of a year, something he called “Mondel Service”, which did not exist. He said he was making $320 a week. He then worked at a turkey processing plant in 2018, but left after a colleague stabbed him in the stomach, according to his family. More recently, according to his parents, he worked at an auto parts manufacturer.
In August 2020, he wrote on Facebook that he wanted to stop fooling around as the oldest son. He had also fathered two daughters by this time. “This year I’m trying,” he wrote. He added: “We can be average.”