By John Wright
Although they dated for less than a year, Taylor Shirley says he and Stephen Sylvester were deeply in love.
After meeting at a party in College Station in March 2014, the couple lived together at Shirley’s home in Houston for six months before splitting up.
Shirley, now 22, says he and Sylvester parted ways because both “had some growing up to do,” but they eventually planned to get back together.
Then, on July 17, 2015, the 19-year-old Sylvester was brutally murdered by his new boyfriend, Bryan Michael Canchola, according to Austin police.
Since then, Shirley has attended every court hearing in Canchola’s case, alongside Sylvester’s family. And last month, as the one-year anniversary of Sylvester’s death passed, Shirley was speaking out in hopes of expediting justice.
“I’m basically wanting it to be back in the public eye. It’s kind of gotten swept under the rug,” Shirley said. “I’ve stayed in it this long and will continue to because I love Stephen. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I had been killed, Stephen would do the same for me.”
Arrested on the day of Sylvester’s death, Canchola was released from the Travis County jail after his bail was reduced from $500,000 to $250,000 on August 19, 2015, court records show. A week later, a grand jury indicted Canchola, now 21, on a charge of first-degree felony murder.
Canchola, who’s living with family in McAllen, wears a GPS tracking device as a condition of bail, but remains free awaiting trial in part due to a backlog in forensic testing.
“I feel like if it got more attention, it would put the pressure on the DNA labs in Travis County to push it forward,” Shirley said. “All of us just want Bryan to be put away for as long as possible.”
Andrea Austin, the assistant Travis County district attorney who’s prosecuting the case, confirmed she’s awaiting scientific evidence before it can be set for trial. She said she’s hopeful the DNA test results will come back soon, but declined to discuss the case in more detail.
Leo Pruneda of Pharr and E.G. Morris of Austin, both listed as attorneys for Canchola in court documents, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Shirley said that after their breakup, Sylvester moved to the capital to be closer to his family in Marble Falls. He needed a place to live and moved into a West Campus apartment with Canchola only a week after they met on a dating app.
On the night of Sylvester’s death, he and Canchola had been out drinking with friends, according to an arrest affidavit. Shortly after 4 a.m., their roommate, William Landry, heard shouting and banging in their room—with Canchola screaming at Sylvester, “Why would you cheat on me?”
Sylvester’s beloved Yorkshire Terrier, Harlow, was yelping in pain. And Landry heard Sylvester yell, “Let go! I’m trying to leave!” and “Let the dog go!,” the affidavit states.
When he forced open the door, Landry found Sylvester bleeding profusely from the back of the head. He later told detectives Sylvester had taken “quite a beating at the hands of Canchola.”
As Landry and Sylvester tried to leave, Canchola threw beer bottles at them and threatened to kill Harlow while they were gone. Landry took Sylvester to nearby University Medical Center Brackenridge, where he checked in but then left unexpectedly without being treated, possibly because he wanted to try to rescue his dog.
Unable to locate Sylvester, Landry returned to their apartment complex, where he called 911 from a friend’s residence. Thirty minutes later, Canchola also called 911 and reported that he and his boyfriend had been fighting, and that Sylvester was unconscious.
Before emergency crews arrived, Canchola changed his clothes and washed Sylvester’s body, the arrest affidavit states. Sylvester later died from head trauma at the hospital.
In addition to murder, Canchola was charged with animal cruelty for strangling Harlow.
Sylvester’s mother, Andrea Sylvester, said Harlow is still recovering from the incident and now lives with her. She cherishes the dog as a memory of her son, but said she’s “jealous” of Canchola’s mother.
“I don’t get to [spend time with] my son,” she said. “I get to go to a gravesite and visit. I don’t think he [Canchola] should be living a normal life.”
Andrea Sylvester still has questions about how her son and Canchola, both minors at the time, were able to consume alcohol at gay bars on 4th Street in Austin. She also wants to know why her son was allowed to leave the hospital given the seriousness of his injuries. No matter what, though, she believes Canchola—who’s shown no remorse at court appearances—bears ultimate responsibility for Stephen’s death.
“I want justice for my son, and I want people to know that whether you’re gay or straight or purple or black, domestic violence is not tolerated,” she said. “I can just tell you that friends and family have lost a great ray of sunshine.”