WEST PALM BEACH — A creator who dropped everything to help with the sound production for a theatrical performance.
A son who bought strangers lunch when they seemed down on their luck.
A friend who saw himself as a phoenix who would one day rise from the ashes.
This is how family and friends describe Romen Phelps, a 33-year-old man who was shot dead by police on May 13 in the theater at Dreyfoos School of the Arts. Phelps recently crashed his van on campus in what those close to him described as a mental health manic episode.
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But those who cared for Phelps didn’t want to talk about how he died.
Dozens of his friends, classmates and family members held a vigil for him Saturday afternoon and evening across from the Dreyfoos campus where he was happiest and where he was killed. The vigil was packed with messages about mental health awareness and how to get help. Friends shared songs and poems, and family members told stories about Phelps. It wasn’t a protest against the police.
“No one is really here to get upset or start a fight, but rather to honor their legacy so they will be remembered, not as someone who scared children or stormed a campus, but as someone who had a mental health crisis said Stephanie Cimino, a Dreyfoos graduate student and classmate, told the Palm Beach Post.
Phelps’ mother, Robbin Jackman, who worked in community service, and his stepfather, Tony, attended the vigil. They met up with their son’s classmates and friends and want the world to know that Phelps’ manner of death masks what he really was like
“He was such a happy person and he was so genuine,” Jackman said. “There are so many people around us and if Romen looks down he would be very happy.”
Jackman declined to comment on whether her family will file a lawsuit against the West Palm Beach Police Department.
Phelps was “cheerful” and volunteered in the Dreyfoos theater department
Phelps was born in Palm Beach Gardens and has an older brother and sister. He attended Bak Middle School of the Arts and graduated from Dreyfoos in 2007.
He lived with a roommate in an apartment in Gardens and worked as an all-around handyman before he died.
But that wasn’t what Phelps was really passionate about.
The theater is his “safe place,” Jackman said. Long after graduating, he volunteered in the Dreyfoos theater department. Phelps directed lighting, assisted show directors, and encouraged others who lived the art.
Friends who attended the vigil said they were surprised no one on Dreyfoos’ campus recognized Phelps when he was on campus before he was confronted by police. Jackman and Cimino said he put in dozens of hours each month at school helping out in the drama department.
“It seemed like he always had the keys to every room you wanted to get into. He always seemed like a pro, like, ‘Do you go here or do you work here?’” Cimino said.
Phelps was fun, kind, caring and loved the school, which had been like a second home to him, alumni told The Palm Beach Post.
“He was just a dedicated artist,” said Jacquelyn Guzman, a classmate. “Romen was just a pleasure to be here. He always had a big smile.”
Guzman last saw Phelps on April 30 when the two saw Lil Wayne at SunFest in downtown West Palm Beach. “Every time I saw him it was just as cheerful and we would sit down and have a beer and talk about the past and how we missed the camaraderie we all had. Because we were like family.”
During his years at Dreyfoos, Phelps was liked and appreciated by staff and fellow theater students, and was awarded a scholarship.
When he was a student, teachers nominated him for a Pathfinder Scholarship award, writing in their nomination that he was a “leader” and a “shining star.”
“He teaches us every day with his attitude,” wrote Ed Blanchette, Dreyfoos’ stagecraft instructor, at the time. Blanchette, who was Phelps’ mentor, died in 2021.
Phelps has “managed” mental health issues for years.
Phelps was hospitalized the day before his death. Jackman said he had dealt with mental health issues for several years, but those issues were “managed.”
Phelps had a history of “manic-depressive bipolarity,” according to a petition for a domestic violence injunction filed against Phelps by Kimberly Dennisson in August 2020.
Dennison wrote that Phelps was involuntarily hospitalized three times for mental illness and required medication for mental health issues. She wasn’t sure if he was taking his medication.
The judge granted the restraining order. Phelps was not allowed to own firearms.
On May 12, Phelps was with his friend Skyler Meany at Meany’s home in Palm Beach Gardens when Phelps began behaving in a way that Meany said made him feel unsafe.
“Looking back, I realize he wasn’t trying to hurt us, he was trying to get us to hurt him,” Meany told The Post last week. “He wanted to be in a jail cell or somewhere where he wouldn’t pose a threat to himself.”
Police came and Phelps went to the hospital, but the hospital didn’t accept him overnight, Meany said. Phelps later returned to Meany’s home to pick up his van and wallet.
“He said they tried to slow him down with medication in the hospital but they couldn’t,” Meany recalled.
Early on May 13, Phelps posted a series of videos on TikTok showing him and his friends at a bar on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach. The videos showed snaps from a photo booth, close-ups of someone’s tattoos on their arm and Phelps singing outside.
Later that morning, Phelps sent an invitation to a play he wanted to put on to a Dreyfoos teacher with whom he had stayed in touch. He posted on social media about a musician he admired.
When Meany found out about a van that brought down the school gates, he said he and his friend Abeni Matthews felt it was Phelps. And Meany wasn’t surprised that Phelps went to the school theater.
“It was one of his favorite places on earth. One of the places he was most comfortable in,” Meany said.
Meany overheard Phelps being stopped at the former workshop of his stagecraft mentor Ed Blanchette on his way to the theater.
Katherine Kokal is a journalist at The Palm Beach Post, covering northern Palm Beach County. You can reach them at [email protected] Support our work, register today!