A police killing on the packing line
Officials at a massive pork plant with a history of labor violations called the cops on a disgruntled employee. Why did he end up dead?
David Alvarez couldn’t stop shivering. As he pulled out of the parking lot at the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant outside of Guymon, Oklahoma, and accelerated down Route 54, it was just after 7:30 on the morning of January 10, the temperature still around freezing. This part of the panhandle is ironing-board flat, and at that time of year, the Southern sun reduces the landscape to a faded-denim sky stretched over expanses of washed-out yellows—fields of corn stubble, dead grass, dirt. The plains are windswept and frozen, but Alvarez wasn’t cold. His chills were the buzz of adrenaline. “I couldn’t process what I had just witnessed,” he said later. As he drove along the edge of Guymon, past the roadside hotels, the diners and taco stands, past the gas stations and the farm supply store, his mind raced. “I was replaying the sound of all the screaming,” he said, “and then the gunshot.”
Hours earlier, the B shift at Seaboard had started like any other. Alvarez clocked in about 7 p.m., stopped by his locker to collect his yellow hard hat (indicating his status as a maintenance worker), and then went to a staff meeting.
The Seaboard facility in Guymon is huge. It employs nearly 2,000 workers, slaughtering, butchering, and packaging more than 20,000 hogs per day, making it one of the 10 largest pork processors in the United States. The conveyor chain that sets the pace of work throughout the plant moves at a rapid clip and, supervisors emphasize, must never stop. Alvarez was expected to work quickly, and there are security cameras throughout the plant for bosses to watch from remote offices to make sure workers are staying on task. “The superintendent,” Alvarez told me, “would micromanage all of us. If we’re in one place too long, right away, he calls on the radio, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’”
On his way back from picking up a part he needed from a room on the packaging floor, Alvarez approached one of the superintendents in the hallway, who was arguing with a new employee. Alvarez knew the superintendent, a Mexican immigrant who has worked at the plant for many years, but he didn’t recognize the new employee, who was Black and wearing a lime-green hard hat, indicating that he was still a trainee. The noise of the conveyor belts and packing machines creates a constant roar. Even in the hallway, Alvarez couldn’t hear what the two men were saying until he passed by them.
“They told me to go back and finish my shift,” Alvarez remembers the new employee saying. “So that’s what I’m gonna go do.”
The superintendent, wearing a dark green hard hat, was in the worker’s face, saying, “No, you’re fired. You’re fired.”
Alvarez didn’t stop. He went to fix a Cryovac machine, one of many on the packaging floor that vacuum-seal pork products, and then to the room where Seaboard’s maintenance workers keep their tools. Alvarez could see through the room’s murky but broad Plexiglas window when the new employee returned to the packaging floor. But then, several superintendents, including the one from the hallway, came to the floor, where they stood, arms folded, and silently watched. The new employee waved them off. “All I could hear him say,” Alvarez remembered, “was, ‘Let me do my job. Let me finish my shift.’”
After repairing a second Cryovac, Alvarez passed by again and found the superintendents still watching the new employee. Alvarez approached one of them. “I asked him, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And he told me, ‘They fired this guy, and he doesn’t want to leave, so the police is about to get here to escort him out.’”
In a statement, Seaboard’s spokesman wrote, “Following repeated attempts to bring calm to the situation over a two-hour period, we requested assistance from the Guymon Police.” The company also said the new worker, now identified as Chiewelthap Mariar, a 26-year-old Sudanese refugee who had been employed at the plant nearly a decade earlier, and had returned to work there a few days before, was an employee “at the time of the incident,” but declined to clarify whether he was in the process of being terminated. According to the police report, Seaboard’s human resources director indicated that Mariar’s supervisors told her that he had been acting crazy, was talking to himself, and would not calm down. However, on the 911 call placed at 8:17 p.m., a company employee put it more mildly: “We might have a combative employee over here, and we just need someone to help us maintain the situation.” When the operator presses for details, the caller says, “He’s being a little uncooperative.”
Around the time police arrived, Alvarez had ducked back into the maintenance room on the packaging floor and taken out his phone. He opened Snapchat and held down the record button. It was just before 8:30 p.m.
As the video starts, Alvarez can be heard letting out a nervous exclamation, “Wooo, police here, bro.” Two officers—one Hispanic, one Black—are seen approaching Mariar. The view on the video is partially blocked by packing machines, but the Hispanic officer can be seen leaning on a stack of flat boxes, while the Black officer gestures repeatedly at Mariar, who takes a sideways step toward the officers and removes his left hand from his smock. Both officers yell, “Hey, hey, hey-hey-hey,” and the Hispanic officer unholsters a bright yellow Taser. He seems to gesture with it for Mariar to return to the other side of his workstation before, a little over two seconds later, deploying the Taser with a loud bang. According to Alvarez, the electrodes bounced off of Mariar’s thick work smock; he seemed startled. In the video, he is seen quickly retreating. For a moment, an object can be seen in Mariar’s right hand before he reaches to the back of his workstation and seems as if he may be laying the object down. He turns back toward the police and briefly raises his hands, palms forward. Then, he lowers his hands and walks slowly toward the officers, gesticulating wildly as they yell at him to get on the ground.
The clip reaches 60 seconds, the maximum length for a Snapchat video, and stops there. Not realizing this, Alvarez kept holding his thumb on record as Mariar advanced toward the police officers. “I couldn’t see his facial expression,” Alvarez told me. “I couldn’t hear anything.” He doesn’t claim to know what was said in the unrecorded seconds that followed, but Alvarez said he could see that the Black officer had drawn his gun and aimed it at Mariar. “There was no way out but where the cops were at,” Alvarez said, “so he started walking forward.” In that moment, Alvarez said, the Black officer fired a shot into Mariar’s lower abdomen. “He just dropped,” Alvarez told me. In shock, he lowered the phone. Then, seconds later, he pressed record again.
One of the officers radioed for assistance. “We have shots fired,” he said, according to the police phone log. “We have one on the ground … need to you [sic] to call EMS [to] the packaging area.”
“And at that point,” Alvarez told me, “they called everybody to the cafeteria.”
He said workers were held there while an ambulance crew took Mariar out. In the meantime, stunned employees screamed at the supervisors. Several demanded to know why police had to shoot Mariar. Amid the uproar, Alvarez and other maintenance workers were summoned to a side office. A superintendent said there was going to be an investigation, so maintenance needed to preserve the scene. Alvarez said they were told to take a clear plastic tarp, the kind that the company normally uses to seal doors when the cleaning crew hoses down the packaging room, and stretch it over Mariar’s work area. “All the blood was there,” he recalled. “His glasses and his hard hat was laying there, and they just had us cover it up, just cover it up with plastic.”
Shortly after, supervisors told employees to return to their workstations. “They had everyone come back and finish what was already on the belt,” Alvarez said. By the time the night shift finally ended, nearly 11 hours after the shooting, his mind was a blur. “If that had been a stray bullet,” he told me later, “it could have been me.” Alvarez is a single father, raising three kids between the ages of four and 13. He couldn’t stop imagining himself on the floor, in the back of an ambulance, the maintenance crew covering his blood with plastic. Alvarez’s sister picks his kids up each morning and takes them off to school. If he had been shot, they wouldn’t have known as they ate breakfast. They wouldn’t have known all day at school, not until there was no one there to greet them.
Longtime employees say Seaboard has always been a hard, even brutal place to work, but they also tend to agree that conditions have worsened in recent years. Trump-era deregulation allowed the company to speed up the pace of work without increasing the number of employees, and then the Covid-19 pandemic stretched stressed-out workers to their limits. According to two separate Department of Labor investigations, the company failed to institute Covid protocols or mitigate other risks to employee safety, and fostered a workplace with “recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In 2021, Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit newsroom that covers agribusiness, talked to current and former employees who said they felt they had no choice but to accept reassignments to more difficult tasks. Now, management had resorted to calling the police after a dispute with a worker, and it had ended in tragedy.
After the shooting, Alvarez heard fellow employees say they’d been told Mariar was armed with a knife. He was convinced that he had video showing that Mariar was not a lethal threat. He was also tired of being intimidated. “They want you to work in fear,” he told me. Alvarez pulled up the video on Snapchat and sent it to a quality assurance worker and someone he knew in management.
Chiewelthap Mariar was about three years old when his family, Christians from South Sudan, fled the aggression of the Muslim-led government in the north. His mother, Gloria Thondok, applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for an official status determination as a threatened minority. The request was approved. Thondok was allowed to travel to Cairo, and two years later, in 2001, she and her children arrived in Dallas, where a Roman Catholic charity found her a job as a meat trimmer in a beef plant on the other side of the state. “We don’t really know anything about the United States until we move here to Amarillo, and started working for Tyson,” Thondok told me. After a decade, she moved her kids two hours north to Guymon, where she found a job at Seaboard. She was stationed on the kill floor, operating the “bung gun,” a handheld device that drills out the anuses of hog carcasses so the “gut-snatcher” can remove the intestines.
Before the 1990s, Seaboard hadn’t owned a single pig. The company was a flour producer based in Kansas for decades before selling its grain mills in 1982 and moving into poultry processing. Soon, executives saw massive government subsidies as a way to expand aggressively into pork—first acquiring a defunct plant in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and then spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the new plant in Guymon and hog barns nearby. It was a gamble—Guymon was known for its giant cattle feedlots supplying packinghouses in southwest Kansas and the Texas Panhandle, not raising hogs—but it paid off. In a decade, Texas County, of which Guymon is the seat, went from raising 40,000 hogs per year to more than two million. Seaboard added a B shift and then a C shift. As workers were recruited, Guymon’s population swelled by more than a third, creating a boom in mobile home parks along the highway. But that economic growth was also contentious. “Most of the 2,800 jobs Seaboard promised—and delivered—to Guymon, did not go to Oklahomans,” Donald D. Stull, a University of Kansas anthropologist, observed in 2004. “Nine of 10 workers at the Seaboard plant are Hispanics, most from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.”
Then, on December 12, 2006, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement simultaneously raided six Swift and Company meatpacking plants across the middle of the country, arresting 1,300 undocumented workers on charges of immigration violations and identity theft. In tiny Cactus, Texas, between Amarillo and Guymon, agents barred the plant doors and handcuffed workers. By one account, when they ran out of cuffs, they tied them with rope. In all, nearly 300 workers, about 10 percent of the town, were taken to detention facilities. More than 50 pleaded guilty and were sentenced. Packinghouse workers joined those demanding immigration reform across the country. Instead, the industry turned to a new population that they hoped would be as compliant as undocumented workers, but with legal work status: political refugees.
What followed was a kind of industrywide Stanford Prison Experiment. Hispanic immigrants were promoted into lower and middle management, and their previous positions were filled with people fleeing war-torn regions. As the workforce diversified, some companies began segregating shifts—arguing that it required fewer translators—and even appeared to begin making work assignments based on management’s perceptions of racial body types. Karen refugees from Myanmar and Thailand were assigned close-quartered and precise trimming jobs. Refugees from Somalia were seen as rangy and hardworking, so they could be placed at rib stations and other spots that required reaching and pulling slabs of meat along the conveyor. Sudanese refugees were the most sought after. Many were Christians from South Sudan, so they didn’t require prayer breaks the way that Muslim Somalis did, and they were perceived as tall and strong. Sudanese men were trained in beef plants to use a heavy power saw to halve carcasses and then remove the spinal column with a manual hook. Managers called them “chuckers.”
After a few years, many Sudanese refugees sought out less grueling work in poultry and pork plants. To attract that labor force, Seaboard began offering higher wages for relatively light work, and that’s what drew Gloria Thondok to Guymon. “It paid better than Tyson,” she said. And maybe more important: “Working in a beef plant and pork is different, because here is easy; over there is a little bit harder.” For her son Chiewelthap Mariar, that meant moving from Amarillo, a city of more than 200,000, to Guymon, a town of 12,000. Even more challenging, many Hispanic workers saw the refugees as a new wave of scab labor, a workforce that further undercut their security and ability to push for immigration reform. Their kids at Guymon High School, more than 50 percent Hispanic, often had run-ins with children of refugees. For Mariar, Thondok told me, it wasn’t a problem. “For him, it was really easy,” she said. “He’s friendly, and he can catch on with people really quick.”
After high school, Mariar wanted to save up some money, so he took a job at Seaboard—but left after a year and started at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell. His mother remained on the kill floor, where work soon changed. In 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration announced a wave of regulation rollbacks, including a green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lift limits on the speed of production in pork plants, previously imposed by the USDA. The first facility approved for a nearly 20 percent increase in speed—from 1,100 hogs per hour to up to 1,300—was Seaboard in Guymon. In the three years prior, Seaboard had been repeatedly fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, for providing improper eye and face protection, operating unsafe machines and vehicles, installing inadequate safety guards, and violating hazardous material protocols. In 2019 alone, three workers were hospitalized by major accidents. (The company accepted or settled these citations for reduced fines.) Nevertheless, Seaboard was rewarded with increased line speeds in March 2020—just as the Covid-19 pandemic was taking off in the United States.
By January 2021, Seaboard estimated that nearly 1,000 workers in Guymon tested positive for Covid-19. Martin Rosas, president of Local 2 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International union, or UFCW, told me that number is an undercount—and estimated that seven or eight Seaboard workers in Guymon died of Covid, though the company did not report any deaths to the Department of Labor. (At the time, a company spokesman said that Seaboard had investigated each death and determined that transmission had occurred outside the plant; therefore, none of the deaths were work-related.) Amid the uncertainty, some workers stopped showing up for shifts, while others missed time due to illness. At least one worker said he was suspended after he argued with management and they believed he was a violent threat.
Finally, in March 2021, a year after Seaboard began increasing line speeds in Guymon, a UFCW legal challenge to the policy was upheld by the U.S. District Court in Minnesota. The court issued a 90-day stay, after which Seaboard would have to slow its line to previous limits. The company warned that it had increased breeding in its farrowing barns; to deal with the surplus of hogs at the reduced speed would require longer hours during the week and frequent weekend shifts, but the motion was denied. As the stay was about to expire, Seaboard asked the union to support an application with the Department of Labor to bring foreign nationals to fill temporary jobs under the H-2B visa program. Rosas refused. The plant in Guymon, which once employed more than 2,800 workers, now had fewer than 2,000. He argued that the company was overworking employees and, once again, seeking to depress wages with immigrant labor.
Amid soaring meat prices, the company’s net profits had nearly doubled from $287 million in 2019 to a staggering $570 million in 2021. Seaboard agreed to boost starting pay from $13 per hour to more than $18.50, plus benefits. By mid-2022, the company was advertising $20 per hour with an additional $1 for B shifts. The wage increases attracted new workers—workers like Chiewelthap Mariar.
When Michael Arndt, chief of the Guymon Police Department, arrived at the Seaboard plant at 8:53 p.m. on January 9, he found several patrol cars and a city ambulance parked just beyond the Seaboard guard shack. One of Arndt’s lieutenants informed him that Mariar was already in the back of the ambulance. An Apollo MedFlight had been directed to meet the ambulance at an airport in nearby Stratford, Texas, where it would be ready to take Mariar to Texas Tech hospital in Lubbock. But the lieutenant told Arndt that “the suspect was possibly going to be a Sig. 30”—Oklahoma’s police code for a fatality—so the ambulance was redirecting to the Memorial Hospital of Texas County in Guymon. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, or OSBI, had been notified, and the two officers present for the shooting had been removed to the police station, where their weapons were tagged and taken into evidence.
Chief Arndt was also informed that “getting to the crime scene had been made difficult,” according to the police report. At that moment, he spotted Rick Sappington, Seaboard’s plant general manager, speaking to an officer from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. As Arndt approached, he could hear Sappington demanding information and asking who was in charge. Arndt identified himself. He informed Sappington that officers needed to get into the plant to secure the crime scene. “I also advised him,” Arndt wrote in his report, “that we may have to shut them down.” According to the report, Sappington asked why the plant would have to shut down. Arndt replied that there had been an officer-involved shooting, and that the area was a crime scene. Sappington allegedly repeated the question. When Arndt responded that the scene could possibly turn into a homicide investigation, Sappington, according to the police report, “stated he now understood.” (In a statement, a Seaboard spokesperson said that, after the shooting, “We worked as quickly and safely as possible to stop operations throughout the different areas of the plant.”)
Sappington led the chief, accompanied by a detective, a captain, and the state trooper, into the packaging room. “I observed a hard hat and safety glasses laying within this area,” Arndt wrote. “I also observed that clear plastic separated the workers that were still actively working from this area.” The chief advised Sappington that OSBI might shut down the line, “once they arrived.” Then he told one detective to open a crime scene log and collect evidence. Another detective interviewed Seaboard’s director of human resources.
The HR director, a white woman, informed the detective that Mariar’s superintendent, the man in the dark green hard hat, had told her “that Chiewelthap produced a pocketknife and went at Officers. She was told that Chiewelthap would not drop the knife and one of the Officers shot him.” Her statement is the only interview noted in the police report, though she was not present during the incident. In its statement, the company expressed “heartfelt sorrow” over Mariar’s “tragic death.” The initial police report does not mention recovery of a pocketknife from the scene. The crime scene log does note that the conveyor system in the packaging room was turned off at 10:28 p.m.—nearly two hours after the first report of shots fired.
Sheda Madit was at her cousins’ house in Amarillo watching a movie and having her hair braided when her phone lit up. It was her mom, Gloria Thondok, in Guymon. It was almost 2 a.m., so she was surprised to hear from her.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m at the hospital,” her mother said.
Madit waited and waited. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
“It’s not me,” she said, finally. “It’s your brother.”
“Is he okay? What happened?”
“They killed him.”
Madit’s older brother, Chiewelthap Mariar, had moved home to Guymon a few months earlier and had been living in their mom’s spare bedroom, in her new house on the edge of town. He told family that he had decided to apply to work at Seaboard again, where the pay was now nearly double what he had made a decade earlier. From what his sisters understood, it was a relatively easy job in the packaging room. Mariar’s sisters believe he was hoping to make enough money to take care of their family—to let his mother eventually retire from the kill floor. His mother said his training began on January 3, and he was scheduled to start a week later.
Madit didn’t understand what her mother was telling her now. This would have been Mariar’s first night in his new role.
“Who killed him?” Madit asked.
“He’s in the hospital now with the doctor,” Thondok said, “and I don’t know what’s wrong with him. Nobody’s telling me anything.”
Madit called her older brother Bill, who lives in Cactus, Texas, about an hour away from Guymon. She didn’t tell him much, only that their mother was in the hospital and he needed to go there himself right away. After Madit hung up, she froze, not knowing what to do next.
Her cousins asked what was happening, but Madit didn’t tell them. If she didn’t speak the words, maybe it wouldn’t be real. She decided to wait to hear from Bill. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding.
An hour passed, and then another. And another.
Madit convinced herself that everything must be OK. If anything bad had happened, her brother would have called. Then her phone lit up again: Bill said that he had taken their mother home from the hospital, that it was over.
“Yeah, he passed away,” Bill said. “I’m so sorry.”
Madit hung up and called her older sister. “I told her I was driving two hours to Guymon.” She drove from the last of the starlit dark and into the dawn. The sun sat low in the pale sky as she pulled up to her mother’s house.
Inside, Thondok herself was still trying to piece together the sequence of events. Her daughters later said that she had first heard whispers at Seaboard that there had been an argument, that the police had come to the floor. A worker had been shot. But it was just rumors. Then, their mother had been met by a plant representative from the UFCW. The rep said she was there to take Thondok to the hospital. The doctors would explain everything.
At Memorial Hospital of Texas County, Thondok was met by a physician who told her that her son was dead from a gunshot wound. Due to an ongoing investigation, his body would be subjected to a mandatory autopsy and not released to the family until the coroner had completed his examination; Thondok told her daughter Madit that she had not been allowed to see her son’s body. (The hospital did not respond to a request for comment.) She said she had been given contact information for an officer in the OSBI, who had been assigned to the case. After Bill arrived at the hospital, he took her home.
Madit couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She called around in search of the OSBI officer investigating the case, but couldn’t track him down. Before she could talk to him, she told me, the agency issued a press release, just before noon. OSBI had determined, the release said, that Guymon police had been dispatched to the Seaboard plant “in reference to an agitate[d] and disgruntled employee.” When officers approached Mariar, OSBI said, he “produced a knife and began advancing.” The release said that officers “attempted to de-escalate the situation before eventually deploying a taser.” But Mariar continued advancing on officers, “at which point an officer fired his service weapon striking Mariar.” (When asked about the sources for that statement, an OSBI spokesman responded that the agency could not release any information “due to the confidentiality of OSBI investigations.”)
That night, Gloria Thondok went to the spare bedroom where her son had been sleeping. The comforter and pillows are covered with flags of South Sudan. The young country’s flag also hangs over the headboard. She laid out several blankets on the floor at the foot of the bed. Among some Sudanese, there is a belief that the soul continues to walk the earth for 40 days after death. At the end of that time, the soul goes to the gates of heaven, and the family of the departed gathers to ask God to grant entrance. But for the first 40 days, the soul remains close to where the body lived. Thondok wanted to be with her son, next to the bed where his soul was sleeping.
That same evening, less than 24 hours after the shooting, David Alvarez arrived at Seaboard for the B shift. He was greeted at the entrance by a Hispanic woman he recognized as a human resources manager.
“And she’s like, ‘David, we need to talk to you,’” Alvarez told me. “And right there and then, I was like, ‘I know what’s going on.”’
Alvarez told me that the quality assurance employee to whom he had sent his Snapchat video is also the daughter of a top manager at the plant; he suspected that she had shared the file. Alvarez arrived with the HR manager at her office; already waiting there were a union rep, the HR director who had spoken to OSBI the day before, and a male HR representative from company headquarters in Kansas. Alvarez could read the signals: If white upper management was present, this was serious. He said the male HR rep told him that management knew he’d taken the video, and that he had violated company policy by having his phone out. Alvarez responded that the rule wasn’t enforced—and said that supervisors would text him during work hours and give him directions for tasks.
Alvarez was asked to step out for a moment. Just like the day before, he knew something was up. Before returning to the office, Alvarez hurriedly downloaded a recording app, hit the record button, and slipped his iPhone into his breast pocket, under his coat.
“So just confirm your answers, David,” the HR manager who met him at the entrance says as Alvarez sits. “You stated you uploaded the video on social media, correct?”
“I don’t know, like not on purpose.” (Alvarez told me he shared the video privately but never uploaded it for public consumption.)
“And you knew it was a violation of the company’s policy to use a cell phone out on the production floor and upload it to social media.”
Alvarez tries to explain that his supervisor allows him to have a phone, because he sometimes needs to take photos of parts to order, but the HR manager cuts him off.
“What did they tell you in orientation?” she asks. “What did they say about cell phones? When you signed the company policy in the handbook, what did it say in the handbook?”
Alvarez hesitates. “I know that they said no cell phones, but—”
The male rep interrupts. “Earlier, you indicated that you knew it was a violation of policy.”
“So I want you to see something,” the HR manager says.
“This is the video of the incident,” the man says.
“What you uploaded,” the HR manager interjects. “What do you see in that screenshot right there?”
On the computer screen, Alvarez told me, Mariar could be seen holding an object, which Alvarez said he believed was a work tool.
Alvarez is silent. He told me that he was afraid to give a wrong answer.
“What do you see in that screenshot?” the HR manager presses. “That was the video that you uploaded, so what do you see there?”
According to Alvarez, the tool in the video seemed like a safety knife—a plastic U with a razor blade on the inside and a narrow handle, specifically designed to be able to cut only whatever is thin enough to slip inside, plastic or paper, but not cut a person, not even the tip of a finger. Alvarez said that he didn’t believe it could be used as a weapon. In a statement, however, a Seaboard spokesman said Mariar was not issued any such tool by the company, and that instead he was working in a room where workers box products and do not need cutting tools.
“It looks like one of those hook blades,” Alvarez says, referring to the kind of safety knife he believed Mariar was holding.
The male HR rep interrupts. “That’s a straight blade.”
“Yeah,” the woman manager says.
The HR director, who relayed to police that Mariar had a pocketknife, says nothing.
“Can we not play this game?” the male rep says, his voice rising. “That’s a straight blade, is it not?”
“Mmhmm,” the HR manager agrees. “David, I am not playing,” she says.
Alvarez told me that he’s claustrophobic, and in that small office, wedged between managers, he felt cornered. “One person is asking questions, and the other person is, like, saying it, is saying the answer,” he said. “I have a thousand things going on in my head, like, ‘Am I going to get fired? Am I going to get through this? Are the cops going to come in?’ All that’s going through my head, and I’m thinking, ‘My kids are at home,’ because, like I said, I’m a single dad, and I’m like, ‘What am I going to do?’” And, Alvarez said, he was still staring at the screenshot, frozen at a moment when the object was turned so you couldn’t make out what it really was. “They’re pushing me to say what they want me to say.”
“What do you see?” Alvarez is pressed. “Tell us what you see.”
Alvarez struggles for words. “I mean, it’s a flat—”
Before he can finish, there is a high-pitched sound on the recording, which Alvarez told me was the noise of the inkjet printer, spitting out a statement—supposedly his statement—for him to sign. The HR manager hands him the first page.
“The only changes are capturing your previous answers to the questions,” Alvarez is told. Another page spits out. And then another. Alvarez is asked to sign, which he said he did.
“Okay, David,” the HR manager says.
Now, the male rep takes over.
“So we are going to go ahead and terminate your employment today. There’s three reasons. First is giving misleading information in the course of the investigation. Second is using your cell phone out on company property. And the third, we believe the spirit of our personal conduct policy was violated when you uploaded a really tragic video of a co-worker being shot.” (The clip Alvarez recorded does not capture the actual shooting.) “She’s got the paperwork that she will hand you,” he concludes.
“Go ahead and read, sign, and date,” the HR manager says.
Security then came and escorted Alvarez out of the plant. (The company has not explained why its own security personnel were not sufficient to remove Mariar a day earlier.) Alvarez said that the company told him that if he wanted to retrieve his personal tools from his locker, he’d have to come back another day. “I didn’t go back,” he said. “I really don’t want to step another foot in that place again.”
On January 28, more than two weeks after his death, funeral services were held for Mariar at First Presbyterian Church in Guymon before the family proceeded in a long line of vehicles to Elmhurst Cemetery for the burial. They gathered under a plain green tent and placed the white casket on the lowering device. The minister spoke a few words, while Thondok sobbed. Then the casket was lowered, and cemetery workers came with a Bobcat to fill the hole and break down the tent. By early afternoon, nothing remained on the blank, featureless edge of the cemetery but a fresh pile of crumbling dirt clods, a small bouquet, and four holes where the metal tent poles had gone into the ground. The sky was an uninterrupted baby blue. Beyond the privacy fence was a trailer park and a row of gray silos at the grain elevator. The grave had no marker.
A couple of weeks later, I arrived at Thondok’s home just off the highway on the outskirts of Guymon. I could almost see the Seaboard plant from her picture window, if not for the high walls of a junkyard, the line of cargo containers rolling by on the Union Pacific, and the haze of dust on the wind. Thondok was still dressed completely in black, including her head wrap, as she would be for the remainder of the first 40 days. The living room was packed with flowers and cards. Framed service recognition certificates marking Thondok’s fifth and tenth anniversaries at Seaboard hung on the wall amid photographs of her children. She had fewer portraits of Mariar than her other kids, she lamented, because he had always hated to have his picture taken. Most of her photos of him are from when he was still small, smiling in the middle of siblings. “He’s the one on the bike,” she said softly. “That was when we just came to America.”
The years after Mariar graduated from high school, Thondok told me, had been hard, filled with uncertainty and false starts. He left Seaboard after a year. He dropped out of Panhandle State after a semester or two. He took a job at a bank in Oklahoma City. Thondok said he joined the Air Force after that, and his sisters told me later that he had scored in the top eleventh percentile on his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. He seemed to finally be finding his way, but something went wrong. In early July 2022, Mariar got into an argument in Dallas and was arrested for criminal mischief in connection with alleged property damage. According to his mother, he returned to Guymon in October.
The family said they later gathered from co-workers that, after Mariar’s first week of training, he was called in for mandatory overtime that Saturday. His younger sister said he was assigned to one of the cutting jobs on the kill floor—heavy work, much heavier than the position that he had been hired to do. “He was helping them out,” Madit said, “because I guess they were shorthanded.” When he arrived at work on January 9, Mariar’s family believed, he was told to go back to the station where he had worked two days earlier. Madit said he told his supervisor, “No, like, why would I go back there? This is my job right here.” Martin Rosas from UFCW Local 2 told me that this account squared with what the union had been able to learn about the encounter. “They wanted to move him to another position,” he said. “He refused to be moved. Then he decided to go back to the floor to production, just to go back to work.”
Rosas emphasized: This is a common occurrence. He said workers are routinely pressured to move positions when the company is shorthanded. Seaboard’s spokesman had previously told a news outlet that employees have a right to refuse work reassignments. If Mariar declined to move, that was his choice. “I’ve been involved in the union since 1989,” Rosas told me. “I was employed myself in one of those meatpacking plants for six years, before I was hired as staff for the union, so I know that this is an incident that happens every single day, where people have been asked to move, and they say, ‘No, I’m not gonna move,’ because sometimes they don’t want to move to a different job, harder jobs, difficult jobs, and they just want to stay where they’re at. So this is not unusual to happen.”
What is unusual is everything that Seaboard has done in recent years—speeding up the line by almost 20 percent, not complying with Covid protocols imposed by OSHA, standing by their production goals when a federal judge stepped in, not improving work conditions but, instead, looking for yet another wave of compliant foreign workers. “What’s unusual,” Rosas said, “is for the police to go inside the plant and use their weapons against one of these employees.”
Mariar’s other sister, Harmony, told me that she keeps asking herself unanswerable questions. Did her brother tell his supervisors that, if he was forced to move stations, he would kill them? Is that why they called the police? If so, why wouldn’t he just do what they said to do? Could he really have been angry enough to start swinging a knife? “I really hope that’s not a part of him I don’t know,” she said. “We can’t really know until we get the video.”
In the second video, Mariar is on the concrete floor, his right arm pinned under him. “One of the officers put handcuffs on his left hand,” Alvarez said, “and the other officer was trying to get his right arm.” The superintendent who had been arguing with Mariar minutes before and another supervisor are seen crouching to hold Mariar’s legs. Finally, all four men stood up together and looked down. Mariar was losing blood rapidly and beginning to convulse. “He was shaking,” Alvarez said. “And then his legs went, like, real hard three or four times, and then he just stopped moving.”
As this story was about to be published, Seaboard agreed to share some security footage, and then the Guymon Police Department released the officers’ body-cam videos. On the body cams, the officers can be heard telling Mariar that he’s not in any trouble, that they just want him to come with them to a quiet place to talk. He shakes his head and pulls something from the right pocket of his smock. In the overhead security footage, Mariar can be seen moving aggressively toward the officers before retreating from the deployed Taser. When he raises his hands, he is still holding the object. “I will fucking shoot you,” the Black officer shouts. Then both officers yell for Mariar to get on the ground. Instead, he lowers his hands and walks steadily forward, twice feinting toward the officers. He never lunges at them, but he doesn’t heed their orders. The Black officer shoots. While Mariar screams and writhes in pain, the officer who fired the shot picks up an object from the floor. The video from the other officer’s body cam is grainy, but the object looks like it may be a pocketknife. He calls desperately for an ambulance. “Damn, man,” one of the officers shouts at Mariar, “why’d you make us do that?” Through it all, the sound of the conveyor system roars.
Before I left Thondok’s home, she took me to Mariar’s room. It was windowless, and she kept it dimmed except for a lamp on the nightstand and the blue glow of his television. She apologized for not having more to say about her son’s life. “As we know, it’s hard,” she said, “but I can’t talk about it.” In that moment, I thought that Thondok meant that she didn’t have enough command of English to put her feelings into words. I later learned that it was something simpler than that. Earlier that day, just before we met, Thondok’s attorney had met with an OSBI investigator to retrieve Mariar’s personal effects: his wallet, identifications, keys. Seeing those items, bundled in a manila envelope, had sent Thondok spiraling.
After I left, Thondok took her son’s car keys and drove across the highway with her attorney to the Seaboard parking lot to finally collect Mariar’s car. They went slowly up and down each aisle, looking for a blue vehicle. It was nowhere to be found.
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