Rapper shot dead by Santa Clara police was Santa Cruz artist
But James - known to audiences as "Almighty Aziz" - became suddenly violent at a party last weekend, according to relatives and friends. He stabbed two friends and a police dog, then was fatally shot by Santa Clara police officers.
It should have ended differently, those close to him said Tuesday, after authorities officially released his identity. Relatives and colleagues question whether police did everything they could to defuse the situation before using deadly force.
Police and friends say James stabbed a police dog multiple times after stabbing a friend at the party. He had jumped through a glass plate window, run to a nearby house, jumped through another window and stabbed another friend who was reportedly trying to calm him down.
Aziz had no known criminal record in California, and his brother said he has no known history of mental illness. It's unclear if he had taken drugs, on purpose or accident, but friends say he wasn't know for abusing substances. Several said they wondered whether someone slipped him something in a drink or into a marijuana joint.
"Aziz was trippin'," said longtime friend and fellow rapper, Eric Munoz, 24, of Watsonville, who goes by the name, Ghambit. "I was like, 'Dog, what's happening bro? What's wrong?' And we tried to warn the cops: Don't send in the dogs. But that's what they did. It just got out of control."
James' brother, Howard James III, said he can't believe his younger brother and sidekick is gone.
"We went everywhere together," the Santa Cruz drug and alcohol counselor said Tuesday. "My parents are devastated. He was their baby. I just don't think police did everything they could have. Why didn't they even try to talk to him, at least over a phone? He wanted their help."
Friends and family says they will lodge a formal protest and complaint against Santa Clara police for their handling of the situation.
Police won't say much about the deadly pre-dawn scene, which marked the first officer-involved fatal shooting in Santa Clara since 2005. Officers Scott Fitzgerald, a 16-year veteran of the force, and Troy Johnsen, an 8-year veteran, were placed on routine administrative leave after the shooting.
As is standard, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is investigating.
"It would be inappropriate to discuss the tactics used, since this is still being investigated," Lt. Mike Sellers said. "But you need to look at the totality of the situation. He may be a nice guy, but my concern is what the officers were faced with."
The news of James' death shook the local music scene.
"It's a huge loss for Santa Cruz," said Thomas Cussins, assistant talent buyer for the Catalyst nightclub in Santa Cruz. He hired James to perform or host numerous events, including the Santa Clara show James attended before the fatal incident.
"Everyone is talking about it," Cussins said. "His versatility and charisma will be sorely missed."
Eddy Dees, house manager for the Catalyst, said James' death was "beyond shocking" because he was "very respectful."
"We never had a problem at any of his shows," Dees said. "I'm completely baffled. It's totally not his M.O. to lose control like this."
Cussins said James, a graphic artist, stood out among local performers because he experimented with diverse musical styles like electronic, rock and spoken word. Friday, James served as the host for a gig at Avalon Night Club in Santa Clara but did not perform, said Cussins.
Afterward, James and friends were partying with about a dozen people at a house on Crystal Drive. Around 3 a.m. Saturday, James called his older brother. "He was jokin' around, he seemed to be fine then," the brother said. But friends say he began acting paranoid and then, Munoz said, he went berserk.
James allegedly stabbed a friend and jumped through a window, running out of the party. Munoz said people were drinking beer at the party, and perhaps a little pot. But he never knew James to take hard drugs, in fact he preached against hard drugs.
James ran two houses down and entered the residence by breaking a window, police said. He allegedly stabbed another friend who came to calm him down. Cussins, who was present during the incident, identified the stabbing victims as business associates in their early 20s, and said both have been released from the hospital.
When Howard James arrived at the scene about 5 a.m. - his brother had called him at 3:52 a.m. saying there were "people out to kill him" - he tried asking police to go inside and talk his brother down. The answer, he said, was no. Finally, at 6 a.m., Howard James said he saw two police dogs go inside the home.
"I heard them breaking down the door," he said. "I heard dogs barking. Then I hear the gunshots. Six fast ones, then two more. Like firecrackers." "I knew he was dead," his brother said. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Sentinel staff writer J.M. Brown contributed to this report.