Saturday, January 31, 2015

Severed Lives

What, then for those who loved them?

Comforted by his friends, Diane Adams makes her monthly visit to the yet-unmarked grave of her son Kareek. He was 16.
Comforted by his friends, Diane Adams makes her monthly visit to the yet-unmarked grave of her son Kareek. He was 16. APRIL SAUL / Inquirer
Comforted by his friends, Diane Adams makes her monthly visit to the yet-unmarked grave of her son Kareek. He was 16. Gallery: Severed Lives

Diane Adams coaxes three of her son's friends toward his still-unmarked grave at Philadelphia's Greenmount Cemetery. Would they like, she asks softly, to tell him anything?

I love you, dog.

You was like a brother to me.

We love you, Kareek. Rest in peace.

This visit last month, which began with a prayer circle, has not gone badly.

Kareek's cousin Larry, who had been dragged from the grave sobbing on other visits since the August murder, is only weeping quietly today. Before disbanding, the visitors manage to smile as they listen to Kareek's rap music, saved on their cell phones.

Which is ironic, because it was a rap contest, Diane Adams says, that started the argument between Kareek, 16, and the 18-year-old being sought in the fatal Frankford shooting.

"My son loved to rap and challenge people," Adams says. "I told him, 'I want you to stop battling, because some people can't handle things.' The grudge came in because my son beat him rapping... and one thing led to another."

Kareek Adams was one of 24 young people - ages 3 to 17 - who were killed by gunfire this year in the eight-county Philadelphia region.

Nearly half appear to have been killed mistakenly - in gun accidents or by assailants aiming at others.

Almost all the rest were shot because of jealousy or perceived disrespect, or disputes over turf, drugs or girls.

"Is it just expected for the children to kill each other with guns?" asks Israe Gilliard. In July, her nephew Jarrett Gore, 15, was preparing to settle an argument with fists when he was shot by an acquaintance.

Long after rain washes the blood from the sidewalks of the city, after kids are placed in their coffins, and after T-shirts dedicated to the memory of "Mook" and "Goub" and "Gussie" are tucked away in dresser drawers - what, then, for those who loved them?

The haunted

For weeks now, Adams has haunted the El like a ghost, using her cell phone to photograph strangers who look like the mug shot of the man police think killed her son.

The other day in the grocery store, she was sure she saw the gunman. She got so close and stared so hard that when she finally realized it wasn't him, she lied and told him she thought they had once dated.

"Maybe one day," she says hopefully, "I'll look up and snap the right picture."

Diane Adams doesn't just call homicide detectives every day. "I pray every night," she says, "that God will help them find the guy that killed my son."

In Philadelphia, there have been no warrants or arrests in a third of the cases.

Lawanda Welton's son Tariq Blue Jr., 14, was gunned down at a South Philadelphia recreation center in March; police have not found his killer.

"I trust no kids," she says, "because this same child who's going to walk up to me and be smiling in my face could be the same child that pulled the trigger and killed my son."

With no arrest in the April slaying of her son, Vincent, 17, in a Northeast Philadelphia drug house, Donna Thomas believes she has been followed. Her daughter has been jumped. "I'm always looking over my shoulder," she says. "I feel like a sitting duck."

The family of 17-year-old Robert Pierson III is as frustrated as it is frightened. Although the teen who allegedly shot and killed Pierson in the spring is in jail awaiting trial, five other youths who had set out to rob people in Fairmount with him are not, with most charges dropped.

Recently, a kid from another neighborhood pointed a gun at Pierson's younger sister, Monica, 14, who is slated to testify in the trial. Was it a random attempt to start trouble, or friends of the accused trying to intimidate a witness?

When two teens robbed Robert's other sister, 19-year-old Lauren, in September, she was "more mad than upset." She refused to give up her purse until one youth suggested they shoot her; then, when the boy with the gun fled, she chased the other, who had taken the bag. She asked him to give her back something - anything - from the purse. "I said, 'Really, my brother just died. I don't need this!' "

But he refused.

Some survivors have plunged into their jobs. Some are on antidepressants or so paralyzed, they miss months of work.

Donna Thomas is "going through the motions" - barely able to eat and sleep, much less pick up her son's belongings at the morgue.

Others have found their voices in tragedy. When no witnesses came forward to identify her son's assailant, Lawanda Welton spoke out repeatedly on television and at community events.

"That's not me," she says. Under normal circumstances, "I shy away... but my son needs justice." Even though the case is unsolved eight months later, Welton won't stop. "Believe me," she says, "I'll be back on the news again."

When Chelena Hammond, whose son, Raphael Glee, was shot in North Philadelphia, demonstrated for stronger gun laws in Harrisburg, she placed a packet in the mailbox of every state legislator. The envelopes contained accounts of his death - two days before his 18th birthday - and autopsy photos "so they could actually see it."

"I don't know what else we could do," she says. "They need to find out how it's so easy for someone so young to get a gun."

Hammond does have one consolation: an arrest. "I do feel blessed," she says, "that they have my son's murderer."

The empty desk

It took a couple of weeks for someone to tell Nache Rennick she was sitting at the dead boy's desk.

New to the school, the 17-year-old had no idea the chair had been occupied for the previous two years by Terrence Adams, killed in August by a drug dealer who police say was trying to rob people.

Martel Davis, another senior at the Parkway Northwest School for Peace and Social Justice, finally told her:

"I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but the seat you're sitting in was Terrence's, and if it wasn't a problem for you, you could move."

The horrified girl changed her seat, and the small classroom was transformed.

"After that," Martel says, "everybody just started looking at the seat and remembering that he wasn't coming back, and then everybody started getting emotional."

Not all the students were comfortable with the outpouring. "Some people thought, 'Get over it. Don't keep bringing it up,' " says Nifia Medley, 18. "Other people felt, 'Bring it up, because that's what I need to get over it. It'll soothe my heart.' "

It also moved many of them to take action, joining the march in Harrisburg and plunging into projects against violence.

For Martel, who visits Terrence's sister Tasha "to let her know I'm still here for her," a cherished friend is gone. "You can never be the same after that," he says. "Sometimes I need to laugh, but it's hard because you're not laughing with all the people you're used to. You're missing this one laugh."

It's also a reminder of the world they inhabit, where the smallest slights can bring on bullets.

"Our generation," says Martel, 17, "lives from TV, what they see, what they hear, what they think is cool. And that's being a gangster, being a hood, having street credibility."

He and his classmates say that, in Philadelphia, being in a neighborhood not your own can make you a target - and that's just the beginning.

"I'll fight if I feel threatened, but not over stupid stuff, like a girl, or an argument, or somebody's sneakers," Martel says.

Since Terrence's death, he's loath to do battle at all, "because you don't know what the other person's going to do."

Nifia, too, is amazed at the ease with which her peers shoot each other. "Back in the day," she says, "drugs were the reason for everything. But it's not even about drugs now; it's about the dumbest things ever."

Fury and forgiveness

Augustus Favors wasn't worried about Gussie and guns.

"I talked to my son about drugs, about smoking, about getting high," the father says sadly of his 15-year old, killed in a gun accident in Northeast Philadelphia in February.

"I didn't think I had to talk to him about guns."

Gussie Favors was at Sadir Reddy's house that day with Evens Occean, and the three friends were about to go shopping downtown.

According to court testimony, Sadir, 16, had been showing off his prized .380 semiautomatic for weeks. The question was: Who would carry the gun to the Gallery?

Gussie volunteered because he had the biggest coat. He started "twirling" the weapon - a weapon shared so often among the friends that during Sadir's trial it was referred to at least once as "a community gun."

According to Evens, Sadir had taken the pistol back to adjust the safety when the gun fired into Gussie's chest.

Gussie's dad doesn't buy it. "I think he meant to do it," Augustus Favors says of Sadir, although he acknowledges that "if that was my son that shot him, I might be thinking a different story."

Immediately after the shooting, Sadir called 911 to say a mysterious gunman had shot Gussie. Then he ran from the scene where his friend lay dying.

"His lack of character, integrity and basic decency could not be clearer," said Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner, adding at one point: "And I don't care that there are other idiots who wanted to carry his gun!"

Moments after the judge convicted Sadir of involuntary manslaughter, Gussie's and Sadir's loved ones brawled fiercely outside the Criminal Justice Center.

Epithets and bodies flew across the pavement until the guards, who see this all the time, shooed them home.

Tanya Bullock's son Jarred, 16, died at the hands of best friend William Leon in May while the two were playing with guns. She was just as surprised as Favors that her son would be interested in weapons.

But she is as forgiving as Augustus Favors is furious.

"In a million years," says Tanya Bullock, "nobody could ever make me think he meant it. They were like brothers. If God could forgive me, who am I not to forgive William?"

William Leon, 15, had taken two guns from his uncle's collection to his buddy's Northeast home to show him. "But Jarred had a gun in his hand as well," his mother says. "It could just as easily have been his gun that went off."

Prosecutors initially pushed for first-degree murder, then backed off to third-degree. It couldn't have helped their case that, at a preliminary hearing, both boys' families sat together - on the defendant's side of the courtroom.

William Leon did as much as Sadir Reddy to make himself look guilty. Prosecutors say William warned a third boy - who was in the bathroom at the time of the shooting - not to snitch, and even dragged Jarred's bleeding body into the alley behind the house.

Yet Bullock, who credits the Leons - "a really nice, Christian family" - with helping to raise Jarred, thinks she knows why.

"He's a child," Bullock says of her son's killer. "I would panic, too."

Dreams of escape

Terrell Anderson, 16, pleaded with his mother, Angel, to get him out of their South Philadelphia neighborhood. But like so many other frightened families, they had nowhere to go.

Terrell was terrified even before a teen, apparently gunning for him, fired three bullets into his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, outside the family home at South 21st and Sigel in April.

"I'm sorry, that's not him," the young shooter blurted to a shocked Angel Anderson before running away.

His family says that after a dispute over a girl, Terrell had bested his nemesis in a fistfight - more than enough to get you killed in this part of town.

After Christopher was wounded, Angel told her boys that they couldn't go anywhere for the next two years.

Four days later, Terrell was told the feud was off. Elated, he went to meet friends and was gunned down within hours.

A grieving Angel Anderson still dreamed of moving - maybe to New Zealand, where she imagined her family on a farm. Or Chestnut Hill.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority offered her 44th and Brown. "Why move," she asks, "from one war zone to another?"

In October, Kyle Brown, 17 - Christopher's close friend, who lived four doors down - was gunned down while hanging out with friends. Kyle's older brother had been killed in May.

Chris fled to another part of the city, moving into his girlfriend's house.

Lawanda Welton, whose son was gunned down in nearby Point Breeze, says, "It's a disaster. I'm leaving South Philly. They can have it."

She wants to tell the kids, "You're all killing each other, but the neighborhood will still be here. You'll be dead or in jail for trying to claim a corner, a corner that's always going to stand!"

Some parents manage to leave a rough part of town, then lose their children anyway. Two families moved to Lansdowne - from Frankford and West Philadelphia - only to see sons killed this year visiting friends in their old neighborhoods.

Chelena Hammond moved from North Philadelphia to "a nice section of Olney" last year to try to keep her son, Raphael Glee, safe. She really worried in the summer when he couldn't find a job; she kept calling his cell phone to check on him.

Her efforts failed. He was gunned down on a Saturday afternoon in August near his old turf at 25th and Cecil B. Moore.

"If you don't take them out of the neighborhood while they're young," Hammond says, "it's not going to work... . He was already 16, and all he knew was North Philly. I think it was pretty much too late."

Remembering

The names of the dead children are spray-painted on walls, tattooed on their mothers' arms, and ironed onto T-shirts, tote bags and jackets.

"I don't want my son's name to ever die," says Darcell Winn; her Darnell was killed by an assailant who says he was aiming at someone else.

At least two of the victims - Scott Sheridan, killed in Chester County, and Yagouba Bah of Olney - have elaborate Web sites where hundreds of classmates share memories. Terrence Adams' family plans to set up an art scholarship in his name, and a scholarship has been established at Cardinal O'Hara High School in memory of Scott Sheridan.

After Angela Burke's 16-year-old son, Shadeed, was shot in the family's Camden home, she and her husband, Johnny Strong, took solace in his baby - until DNA test results arrived after the funeral.

"We found out he wasn't my grandson," Burke says sadly. "That was a big blow there. But I see him and treat him like he was."

Yet nobody can deny the brutal, bloody, bottom line that Chelena Hammond, mother of Raphael Glee, says "hurts your soul."

"I will never, ever see his smile again," Diane Adams says of her son, Kareek.

"I will never, ever hear him say, 'Mom, you're a weirdo' because I like to watch the Animal Channel."

The 2006 Toll

This year, 24 children and teenagers 17 or younger have been killed by guns in the eight-county region.

22 were killed in Philadelphia - two more than last year.

All but two were between 14 and 17 years old. The others were 3 and 5.

All but three were black; all but one were male.

For April Saul's columns and slide shows on every youth who died of gunfire this year and an interactive homicide map, go to http://go.philly.com/guntoll


Contact April Saul at 215-854-2872 or asaul@phillynews.com.
April Saul Inquirer Staff Writer
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