Family and friends recall the dynamic life of the activist, organizer and youth mentor whose death at age 28 has left a community reeling
During a March 28 memorial for Amber Evans, friend Stacey Little recalled that Storm, the weather-controlling heart of comic book collective the X-Men, was Evans' favorite fictional character. “And ever since she's gone it's been a cloud, a bad cloud,” Little said of Evans, who went missing on Jan. 28.
But the memorial gathering, held Downtown near the intersection of Belle Street and Washington Boulevard where Evans first disappeared, and less than a week after her body was recovered from the Scioto River on March 23, took place beneath sunny skies. A rainbow even revealed itself to the hundreds who gathered to celebrate Evans' life and mourn her loss.
Two weeks earlier, a quarter mile downriver from where the community joined in remembrance, the scene was comparatively bleak. A search for Evans had been organized and then called off at the last minute, and only two people turned up at Genoa Park on a chilly, sunless day; one person carried a box of “MISSING” flyers intended for distribution at nearby businesses and homeless shelters. The flyers were dotted with a half-dozen smiling photos of Evans, along with a description of what she had been wearing when last seen (a white parka and black leggings). Nearby, the concrete steps leading down to the Scioto were chained off with a sign that read: “Area closed due to unsafe conditions.”
At the time, little information had been made public in the weeks since Evans' disappearance, and in the absence of news, rumors rushed in to fill the space, with speculators taking to social media to blame everyone from the police, whom Evans often criticized in her role as a social justice activist, to boyfriend Mark Condo, who was among the last to see Evans alive, and who has had to deal with additional public scrutiny after an initial police statement said Evans disappeared following a “domestic dispute.” CPD has since said there is no reason to suspect foul play, and an autopsy report on Evans is pending.
While questions surrounding the exact circumstances of Evans' death remain, most friends and family have come to accept it as suicide, and following discovery of her body, the healing process began for some, including Little, who, speaking at the memorial, used the late-day sunshine greeting mourners as a metaphor for the promise of clarity following two months of anxiety and uncertainty.
“I'm glad they found her on a beautiful day,” said Little, who went on to denounce the two-dimensional media coverage of Evans, which had almost exclusively centered on her role as an activist rather than presenting the 28-year-old in all of her complexities as a sister, daughter and friend.
“She was a lot to everybody,” Little said.***
Born Amber Nicole Evans on May 31, 1990, she arrived two months premature at Riverside Methodist Hospital, setting up a lifelong habit of being early for everything, according to her mother, Tonya Fischer. Even as an infant, Evans was observant, studious and unnaturally determined.
Fischer recounted one instance early in infancy when nurses were attempting to give Evans a vitamin with a feeding tube, and she resisted so fiercely that she turned blue and needed to be revived. “That just gives an idea of her determination and fire,” said Fischer, who had Evans at age 19 (Fischer split with Evans' father, Brian Peters, prior to her birth, though the two maintained a friendship and Peters remained an active presence in his daughter's life). “She was adamant she was going to have it her way.”
Evans was also imbued with a fearlessness that exhibited itself from childhood. When Peters would take her fishing, she would handle the catch without grimacing or squealing like her siblings (Evans is one of 10 children in a large, blended family, according to Fischer), and she'd launch herself into the lake with little regard for her own safety. Evans' brother, Brian Peters, Jr., recalled another instance when the siblings climbed an evergreen tree in the front yard of their grandmother's home, with Amber scrambling higher than anyone else. “She was the only one that was ever daring enough to go all the way to the top,” he said.
“Amber would attack whatever she wanted to do and she wouldn't let anything stop her,” Evans' father said. “I still don't know if it was fearlessness, or just a willingness to overcome those fears and do whatever needed done.”
This trait would reveal itself time and again through adulthood, as Evans organized around everything from the January 2017 Muslim travel ban enacted by President Donald Trump to the local shooting deaths of black residents Henry Green and Ty're King at the hands of CPD in 2016.
Friends and fellow organizers Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata and Tammy Fournier Alsaada, who worked alongside Evans in the People's Justice Project (PJP), among other groups, recalled one March 2017 demonstration, during which protesters gathered outside City Hall waiting to learn if a grand jury would indict CPD officers Jason Bare and Zachary Rosen for their roles in the shooting death of Henry Green. When a passing driver slowed down and yelled something disparaging at the group, Evans lunged toward the car, throwing herself into the passenger window without missing a beat as Malachi-Ture Sundiata rushed in to pull her free.
“When that fierceness came out she was unforgiving,” Malachi-Ture Sundiata said.
“All I could see were her legs dangling off the ground,” Fournier Alsaada said, and laughed. “I can remember afterwards we were debriefing, and it was like, ‘Amber, what were you going to do in that car?'”
This courage was backed by a sharp intellect, which Fischer fostered from a young age. When Evans was still in utero, Fischer would place headphones over her belly and play books on tape, and she started schooling the youngster at home beginning at age 2. Each week, Fischer would select a different letter of the alphabet and then reinforce it over the course of the days that followed. “I would take A for Amber, and then everything throughout that week that showed that letter A, I would talk about,” she said. “‘I'm cutting you an apple and apple starts with A.'”
Evans gravitated to writing early in life, winning a 10-speed bike for an essay about Martin Luther King, Jr. while in fifth grade at Parkmoor Elementary School, Fischer said. Evans then attended Woodward Park Middle School and graduated from Northland High School in 2008, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in journalism from Ohio State University.
In high school, Evans' varied interests allowed her to flit between cliques, reflecting the diverse communities that would come to embrace her in adulthood. Both parents recalled a brief Goth phase, which Evans' father traced to an early fascination with the vampires in the Twilight series. “I think she was always comfortable with who she was, and I think she was that person all along,” Peters said of these teenage years. “I think she was just trying to figure out what that person looked like in her space and in this time.”
Growing up, Evans and her mom would also make regular treks Downtown to the Columbus Metropolitan Library from Fischer's townhome on the North Side, which helped Evans develop a lifelong love of the written word. The attachment deepened during Evans' early childhood years, when her mother experienced instances of domestic abuse, Fischer said, and books became a source of refuge and comfort.
As a young adult, Evans would continue to find solace and community in libraries, and then eventually employment. After earning her master's degree in Library and Information Science from Kent State University, Evans worked as a librarian in Upper Arlington for two years starting in 2012.
Fournier Alsaada also recalled a 2016 visit to Cleveland when the library provided the pair a more literal refuge. The two were in town for a training session the same week the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrated winning the NBA championship, and when gunshots rang out following a downtown parade, the pair scrambled into a nearby branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
“In that moment, we were sprawled out on the floor, people rushing in,” said Fournier Alsaada, who first met Evans while working with her to register voters in 2014, “and we looked at each other and said, ‘The library is always our safe haven.'”
Literature even formed the basis of the eight-year relationship between Evans and boyfriend Condo, who first met and bonded over Harry Potter at a party hosted by a mutual friend in 2008. “She was definitely Gryffindor — all about the courage — and a little touch of Ravenclaw, with her bookishness and love of libraries and museums,” Condo said, referring to the Hogwarts houses in the world of Harry Potter. “And I'm just all the way Hufflepuff.”***
One of the first things LC Johnson recalled about Evans was her laugh, describing it as comically outsized for her slight frame. “It would just burst out of her and her whole face would change,” said Johnson, who founded Zora's House, a Weinland Park co-working and community space centered on women of color for which Evans served in the role of ambassador. Often, Johnson said, Evans would punctuate a quip with an impromptu dance move.
Friends and family universally described Evans as a caregiver. As one of the oldest kids in a large family, Evans embraced a role in raising her siblings, as well as the various neighborhood children her mom would babysit at regular intervals. “Her favorite thing about the baby was the slobber. Isn't that crazy?” Fischer said, and laughed. “I think she liked the same thing I see in kids, too, how they develop. And that made her protective of them.”
This dedication to a younger generation would come to define much of Evans' work as an organizer and activist. Fournier Alsaada recounted how during one visit with truant youths Evans took time out after the program to sit with a young man who had been silent for the duration of the stay. Gradually, the teenager opened up, talking to Evans about his circumstances and struggle.
“In the height of Black Lives Matter, many of us … were trying to figure out how we could collect enough energy to push back against the powers that be, and many of us did it from a position of fighting and resistance,” Fournier Alsaada said. “But Amber was always the love in that. Even as we were fighting state power … Amber was the person who taught us that it was about more than fighting. It was about creating real community.”
“She had a very deep love of black people, and I don't think everybody understands how revolutionary it is to so deeply love black people in a world that constantly maligns blackness,” said Johnson.
According to Condo, it was Evans' desire to provide this hands-on community care that initially dissuaded her from a career in journalism. While reporting a college article about the difficulty the homeless have in making it to doctor appointments, Evans gave one source a ride to a clinic, earning poor marks from a professor who scolded her for influencing a story's outcome. “And she was like, ‘Eff that,'” Condo said.
Evans was first drawn to organizing in 2008 while enrolled at the University of Akron (later she left the school and completed her undergrad at OSU), where she canvassed for the Barack Obama campaign in Summit County, according to a December 2018 interview with Alive. This connection to political and social movements intensified with the 2013 rise of Black Lives Matter, along with the 2016 shooting deaths of Ty're King and Henry Green. According to friends, even when Evans spent eight months teaching English to children while living abroad in France in 2015 — a long-held dream — she felt compelled to return stateside, afraid she was missing out on a deeper purpose.
“People were organizing around issues and she felt out of the loop,” said Condo, who lived with Evans in France. “I guess she realized this was what she was called to do. … And within a year she had a full-time job organizing.”
Prior to her death, Evans had been promoted to director of organizing and policy at the Juvenile Justice Coalition, drawn to the grassroots work of gathering feedback from within overlooked or underrepresented communities, and then working with the state legislature to transform these concerns into tangible legal reforms.
At times, Evans' concern for others would come at the expense of her own mental and physical health. Condo said it wasn't unusual to have to remind Evans to do something as simple as eat.
“She was so invested in making sure everyone was OK,” said Johnson of Zora's House, presenting Evans as “The Giving Tree” in human form. “If that meant she had to loan her car to somebody, or go out of her way to give someone a ride, or have someone stay with her, she would. No matter what was asked of her, she would never say no.”
For Evans, Zora's House offered both sanctuary and a space to recharge. While Fournier Alsaada described Evans' work self in terms usually reserved for hummingbirds (small and a perpetual blur of motion), Johnson said Evans would generally slow to a crawl inside Zora's House, often sitting quietly with the lights off, sometimes with music playing at a low volume. On occasion, Evans could be found stretched out across a couch, reading books by favored authors like Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison.
Zora's House is also where Evans sharpened the idea for her long-gestating passion project, Blk Sage, a development firm intended to elevate those voices missing from the current political conversation.
“Oftentimes, there are people who need to be in leadership that are not granted the same access in our democracy,” Evans said in December. “I'm thinking specifically about black women. … We are constantly having other leaders step up and speak out against issues that affect us, but then we are limited in being able to access those spaces.”***
Beginning in 2018, some friends noticed a subtle change in Evans.
“One of the last times I talked to her, I could tell something was going on, that she was struggling with something, but I didn't say anything, which I regret,” Malachi-Ture Sundiata said.
Johnson said that Evans often appeared tired toward the end of 2018, struggling to balance a career that demanded much of her, yet from which she also drew life. “In the last six months, there was a lot of heaviness, because that was the time she was thinking about whether or not she was going to pursue the executive director position [with the Juvenile Justice Coalition],” Johnson said. “It felt like she was struggling to find the path that was going to allow her to keep making an impact, but in a way that felt good and restful and sustainable.”
“I'd ask, ‘What's wrong, Amber?' ‘I'm just tired.' And that was almost like a code word,” Condo said. “I knew that wasn't the case. I knew something was wrong. I was always like, ‘Stop. I know there's something wrong.' But she wouldn't tell me.”
Condo said that on January 27, Evans told him she wanted to break up. The two shared a melancholy dinner at Roosters in German Village (Evans worked for the company for a time), during which Condo said he asked her to sleep on the decision. Following work the next day, Evans returned to the couple's rental in Olde Towne East sometime between 5:45 and 6:15 p.m., at which point Condo said Evans informed him that she still wanted to end the relationship.
“I'm crying, and she's reminding me of all the things we've given each other, and saying that this doesn't change anything, and that she still loves me and it's going to be OK,” Condo said. “And she asked me, she said, ‘Can you still call my mom and Nana from time to time? Because I know they'd like to hear from you.' And I thought, ‘That's super weird. We can even all go to dinner, if you want.' … Then she said she was going for a drive.”
An hour and a half later, Condo received a text message that read, “I'm sorry. I love you.” Soon after, a call followed from Fischer, who had received a similar text message from Evans, setting off panic amid friends and family, who started to search the city, focusing on places she enjoyed walking, including Franklin Park and the Scioto Mile.
Later that evening, Evans' silver 2013 Chevy Sonic was discovered near the Scioto River, abandoned.
“We all went down to the Scioto Mile and looked for her until like 4 in the morning,” Condo said through tears. “I've never been so scared or traumatized in my whole life. I was just screaming for her, and I just wanted her to answer. We never disputed about a goddamn thing, ever. We never argued. It was always love.”
The next day, Condo checked his email, finding a message from Evans, copied to friend and roommate Stacey Little, that contained a link to a Google document in which Evans spelled out an intent to harm herself.
It would be another two months before her body was found.***
In the months since Evans' disappearance, friends and family have struggled with questions for which there might never be an answer, even when autopsy results are released. Tonya Fischer said she can't reconcile the idea of a daughter who “saved so many lives” taking her own. “Nobody's going to know [what occurred] until God himself says, ‘Hey, this is what happened,'” she said.
Stacey Little noted that depression and suicidal thoughts can be masked by outward appearances. “‘Oh, she looked so happy!' Well, yeah, but we've seen some of the happiest people on earth leave of their own hands,” she said. “Even some of the strongest people struggle. Someone who is suicidal, it doesn't look any type of way. It can look exactly like Amber. It can look exactly like me. You get what I'm saying? It doesn't have a look.”
“From the very first moment I spoke with a detective on day one, he said it looked like one of three things,” Brian Peters said. “‘It looks like she either [died by] suicide, somebody did something to her and staged it to look like a suicide, or she staged her own suicide and then reset her life.'”
Condo, meanwhile, has been forced to deal with suspicion and online threats fueled in part by sensationalistic TV reports on programs such as “Dateline,” as well as the initial police statement citing a “domestic dispute.” (Commander Alex Behnen of the police Special Victims Bureau said the descriptor was simply police terminology noting there had been some kind of verbal exchange between the two, adding that he'd weigh the usage of the phrase in the future.) In recent weeks, Peters has continued to speak in support of Condo, and multiple people throughout the interview process echoed the sentiment. “I love Mark, and I've witnessed them loving each other,” Fournier Alsaada said of the couple's relationship. “These speculations are harming real people.”
CPD has also been met with its share of criticism, with some charging the initial search wasn't given the force's full attention due to Evans' well-known standing as a vocal critic of the police, an allegation Behnen disputed passionately. In addition to patrol units, Behnen said CPD employed drone technology in the search. Once it transitioned into a recovery operation centered on the river and slowed by dangerous water conditions, police were aided by boats, helicopters and Search and Rescue Ohio, a nonprofit, all-volunteer emergency response unit that utilizes dogs trained in human-remain detection.
“This case was unlike many other missing person cases … because there was incredible attention given to the progress of this case by people in City Hall, by people in the Director of Public Safety office, by the mayor,” Behnen said. “If there was ever a case where an individual would have had every resource available and then some, oh, it was this one.”
And, yet, even amid all this turbulence, most interviewed said this splintering served as little more than a distraction in the big picture, and that Evans would want her community and her city to move forward, somehow stronger even in her absence.
There are already some signs this is beginning to happen, particularly as the scope of Evans' influence reveals itself.
“I was shocked how many people knew her, or had been touched by her in some way,” said Johnson, noting that Evans inspired an in-development residency program at Zora's House designed to benefit writers, entrepreneurs and activists.
“Since Amber went missing, I have seen and witnessed people step up and take charge and lead,” Fournier Alsaada said. “Her footprint is all over this city. … Amber is all over this country, and everybody has a piece of her, and it's near and dear to them.”
This is particularly true of the younger generation, which will be coming into leadership roles, including some with familial ties.
During the March 28 memorial, Evans' sister, Jordan Fischer, delivered a tearful, heartfelt speech in which she admitted that she wasn't quite ready to step into her big sister's shoes, but that the day was fast approaching.
“I promise you, Amber,” she said, eyes closed, fists clenched. “I will fill those shoes. I promise I will.”***
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to speak with someone immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the keyword “4hope” to 741 741.
Additional reporting by Erica Thompson