Michelle Lee Shirley was an overachiever, helping to raise her six siblings while still excelling in school and graduating a year early to attend college and pursue a law degree.
But bipolar disorder derailed her life as she was raising her young son and studying for the bar exam about a decade ago. Since then, she struggled to manage the disease while pursuing her goals.
On Monday, family members believe, the 39-year-old woman was unable to escape the grip of her mental illness again.
Several people called police to report an “erratic and reckless” motorist driving through Torrance. When cops found her, Shirley was still driving her car even though its side air bags had deployed and there was recent collision damage.
Rather than stopping when police cornered her, she backed into one patrol car and then accelerated head on into another cruiser, according to a police statement and videos taken by onlookers at the scene.
At least two officers fired many gunshots at the car as it lurched at them near the Chevron gas station at Sepulveda Boulevard and Cabrillo Avenue.
Shirley was hit — how many times hasn’t been disclosed — and taken to County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead shortly after 3 p.m. on Halloween.
‘Did they have to kill her?’
“I don’t know what was going through her head as she was driving or trying to get away,” her grieving mother, Debra Shirley, said Tuesday. “I can’t even imagine. But why did they have to kill her?
“I feel like they paint people of color with a brush that says: ‘You’re disposable.’ I really feel like police are not equipped to deal with mental illness in the field. Shoot the tires or disable the car.”
She said Michelle suffered delusions when her illness was out of control and that she had come home once believing that the Mafia was after her.
Calls from police common
The Shirley family was accustomed to calls from police saying their daughter was acting strangely or had been hospitalized during a bipolar episode — like the time she was picked up for throwing french fries inside a McDonald’s restaurant.
But she’d never been violent or used drugs.
She had recently moved to the Los Angeles area from San Diego, where she grew up and where her family still lives.
She was staying in a hotel and planned to work as an Uber driver, family members said. But she recently seemed to be off her medication because she wasn’t sleeping much and was speaking at a rapid pace, said her younger sister, Karen Shirley.
“Her behavior was out of the ordinary,” said Karen, who lives in the Los Angeles area and saw Michelle a few days before her death. Family members suspected she wasn’t taking her medication.
They learned of her death when a television news reporter called their home Monday night before police had officially confirmed her identity.
“It’s just been a complete shock to everybody,” Karen Shirley said. “All the sisters were on a conference call all night just listening to each other breathe because we didn’t know what to do next. It’s hard because we’re such a close family.
“She was the oldest. She was the mother when our mother was at work. She raised six of us and we all went to college. She competed in science competitions since she was 9 years old and got accepted to the best universities and law schools.”
Michelle Shirley graduated from UC San Diego’s Thurgood Marshall College before moving to Chicago to get her law degree at Loyola University.
Bipolar disorder struck hard during college, but it didn’t stop her from finishing her degrees. She talked about her struggle with the disease in an online video for the It’s Up To Us campaign, which raises awareness about mental illness.
“I was working hard to achieve my dream of becoming an attorney,” she said on the video. “I was active in my church. I had my own car and apartment and was working a full-time job while pulling all-nighters to keep my grades up to get into law school. I loved the feeling I got from being recognized for my hard work.
“But then I started sleeping less and less. I started having an overload of creative ideas one after another and I wasn’t completing any. I did strange things. One time I went out and just bought a bunch of plants and gave them away. I shaved my head …”
After she was diagnosed, medication greatly improved Michelle’s symptoms. But, over time, the disease re-emerged. She struggled to manage it alone. Things got worse, leading to a major breakdown after her son was born and as she was completing law school in Chicago.
“I owned my own condo and it was my last semester of law school but, again, I was working full time and now I had a 3-year-old son to take care of,” she said in the video. “I was barely getting any sleep and those crazy ideas started coming back, but this time I didn’t have any friends or family around to notice.”
She imagined that a vent in her condo was a fireplace and she set her home on fire. That incident, she said, “woke me up to the reality that I had bipolar disorder.”
“I could not just blame stress or the devil. I took the diagnosis seriously. I learned that for some unexplained reason my brain will just kick into high gear and start processing information too quickly.”
Though she took better care of her mental health after that, becoming an avid hiker and keeping up with her medication, the disease would continue to re-emerge, family members said.
She jumped from job to job, at one point starting a direct-marketing business. But she still held onto her goal of working as a lawyer. Her mother said she was recently considering moving to Oklahoma and taking the bar exam there.
“I’m still realizing my dream, but I’m also taking care of myself,” Michelle Shirley said on the It’s Up to Us campaign video. “If you receive a diagnosis of a mental disorder please take it seriously and seek help because ignoring it can take away years of your life.”
Deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Special Operations Bureau and the District Attorney’s Office are continuing to investigate the shooting. Toxicology tests no doubt will reveal whether Michelle Shirley was taking her medications.