A day in the death of America
A two-year-old shoots himself with a gun he finds behind the sofa, a shopper is
killed by a security guard, one brother fires on another – so it goes. Nine
dead in 24 hours
Saturday June 9, 2007
11.31pm on Saturday November 25 2006, Gerardo Parraga withdrew $120 from a cashpoint
machine in Throggs Neck, the Bronx, and walked the last 10 minutes home. Ordinarily,
it’s an uneventful jaunt through suburbia. Gerardo, 19, had just finished a
12-hour shift as a security guard at New York Law School and this was the final leg of his 90-minute commute.
It was the end of a long day, at the end of a long week. Within minutes, it
would be the end of his short life.
As he left the bank, he called his girlfriend, Yamil Mejia, to say
he thought a car was following him. Soon after, she heard a struggle over the
phone and then the line went dead. At home, his mother had just finished
decorating the Christmas tree when she got a panicked call from Mejia, asking
if Gerardo had made it back yet. When his mother rushed out to look for him,
she found his bloodied body lying in the street a few blocks away. He had been
shot in the back. Someone who lived across the street found him with his eyes
rolling and blood bubbling from his mouth and nose. The bullet had punctured
Rodolico, who lives in the apartment above the Parragas, remembers that
evening. "We heard the commotion downstairs, but they weren’t the kind of
family to scream and yell," she says. It wasn’t until the following
morning they learned what had happened, when Gerardo’s father called out to
Stephanie’s husband and started crying, "John, John, they killed my
father came to the US from Ecuador and the whole family were doing their
best to live the dream. Throggs Neck was a move up for them. Were it not for
the planes flying low over the Long Island Sound on their way to La Guardia
airport, it would be a quiet neighbourhood. Madonnas stand, arms crossed, in
glass cases on clipped lawns. Crime is down and on the porches American flags
are up. Gerardo had enrolled in a part-time course in software engineering,
computer programming and web design at Columbia University, targeted at promising students from
low-income families. "You hardly ever saw him," says John Rodolico.
"He was either at work or at school."
death, the Parragas moved to Queens. On the corner where he fell, a bouquet of dried flowers hangs
from a lamppost. "His mother couldn’t keep walking past the spot where he
died every day," Stephanie says. "They came to this area to better
their lives and this is what happens. It shocked all of us."
On an average
day, eight Americans aged 19 or under are killed by firearms – over a year,
that adds up to more than the number who perished in the World Trade Centre on
9/11. Of those eight victims, according to Centres for Disease Control and
Prevention figures for 2004 (the last year for which statistics are available),
seven are likely to be male and one female; variously, three are black, four
white and one Hispanic; five are likely to be the victims of murder, two
suicides and one classed as "unintentional", "undetermined"
or "legal intervention" – a police shooting.
respects, then, Gerardo’s death set the scene for just another day in America. Over the following 24 hours, on this
day picked at random, another eight children would lose their lives. Gerardo
was the eldest; the youngest was two. Eight were black and one was Hispanic.
They died in housing estates, suburbs and malls, at parties and on porches, in
areas of average income and of above-average poverty. They were shot by a
relative, friend, unknown assassin, a pizza delivery man, an off-duty police
officer and by accident. It was Thanksgiving, the biggest travelling weekend of
the year, when people are returning home after joining their families for the
holiday. By the time the day was over, nine families were one member short.
Gerardo Parraga’s life was ending, Jonathan Jacques’ night out in the Dorchester area of Boston was just beginning. At 9.30pm, he had given his mother, Martine, a big
kiss, and she had watched from her bedroom window as he set off to meet
friends. "He loves to party," she says. "He likes hip hop,
reggae and R&B." She still wavers between present and past tense when
talking about her son, who was 18 when he died. He and his friends were heading
for The $hort $kirt Affair, a three-day party that had been advertised on
MySpace: $5 for boys and $2 for girls. At around 2.45am, one of the loudspeakers caught fire and
the partygoers moved outside. Some of Jonathan’s friends called it a night, but
he was still there after 3am when an argument started. Locals,
disturbed by the noise, were ready to call the police when at 3.20am there was the sound of gunshots blended
with shrill teenage screams. Two girls, aged 14 and 15, and two boys, aged 16
and 17, were wounded. Jonathan was shot dead.
One of his
friends called Martine, who rushed to the hospital. "He died
instantly," she says, "but someone told me that the hearing is the
last to go. So I got to hold him and talk to him and I thought, even if he was
dead, maybe he could still hear me."
known as 40 Cal – as in 40-calibre pistol. It is a testament to the pervasiveness
of gun culture among US youth that his friends insist his
nickname owed nothing to street violence. His middle name was Calvin and he was
6ft 4in and reed thin, like the barrel of a .40. "He’s a comedian,"
Martine says. "You could never stay mad at him for long. He had a very
playful personality. People would always ask him to babysit." Martine, who
was born in Haiti and came to the US when she was eight, says she has good
days and bad days – "Days when I can’t talk about it at all." She
still has the soap from his last shower. "Every time he left the house, he
would look in the mirror and ask me how many phone numbers I thought he would
get that night."
dropped out of school. He had a part-time job at a Stop & Shop supermarket,
but wanted to go into real estate. Martine had only recently moved from north Dorchester, where she worried her children might
get into trouble. She’d thought about moving to the suburbs, but believed
Jonathan would then be harassed by "racist white cops asking what he was
doing there". There had been a time when Jonathan hung out with the wrong
crowd and had had a few brushes with the law, but all of that was behind him
now. "He was no hoodlum," his mother says. "He was a good
Since her boys
were teenagers, she had been haunted by the fear that guns might take them.
There is a connection, she believes, between the violence that blights America and the country’s actions elsewhere.
"When people see what we’re doing in the rest of the world, they think,
why not in my neighbourhood? The government sets an example of violence and
then it gets played out on the streets."
A mile or so
away, at the Louis D Brown Peace Institute, Clementina Chery says American
society is failing its children. "This violence did not just happen
overnight," she says. "We allowed it to happen. This country does not
help people to help themselves. I love Dorchester. But we live in hell. The only resources
we get are helicopters, police, cameras and prisons. These are the hellkeepers,
but we have no resources to find the peacekeepers."
Louis D Brown, was 15 when he was shot 14 years ago. The institute that bears
his name aims to assist families of both victims and perpetrators in the
immediate aftermath of shootings, and works in schools and the community to
educate people about gun violence. When Jonathan was killed, Chery knew how to
help. As the sun came up on the morning of November 26, a memorial for
Jonathan, complete with candles and flowers, was already forming in the
neighbourhood where he’d grown up. "The victims and perpetrators are
getting younger and younger," Chery says.
Addison, two years old, was staying with his
37-year-old father, Timothy, in Tampa, Florida. The west coast of Florida simmered in
the mid-70s that day and, amid the palm trees and Spanish moss, you could
almost forget that one in five families in this part of the city lives below
the poverty line. Timothy had had several brushes with the law, including time
in prison for cocaine possession. But neighbours say he was an attentive father
who often looked after Timberlan at weekends. Renee Henderson, who lives across
the road, described Timothy as "a sweet person". Her daughter,
Marquita, was pregnant with his seventh child. Timberlan was his sixth.
morning, the two of them had gone out to get some breakfast. Back home,
Timberlan was playing, climbing over the furniture, when he reached behind the
couch and found a Sig Sauer 9mm semi-automatic. According to the police report,
Timothy said he had the gun for protection – there had been several burglaries
in the neighbourhood – but usually left it in a safe when his son was home.
Timberlan pulled the trigger. When Timothy heard the bang, he picked up his
crying son to comfort him, thinking he was just scared. Only when he saw the
blood seeping through his red-and-white striped T-shirt did he realise that
Timberlan had shot himself.
across the street with Timberlan in his arms, knocking and shouting for Renee.
When she opened her door, she saw the baby slumped in one of the white plastic
chairs on the porch. She tried to staunch the blood by putting a towel to his
chest, and then called an ambulance. Michael Spirk was the first policeman on
the scene. He "observed an adult black male holding a small black male
child, lying on a sofa in the living room. The adult black male was extremely
distraught." When he tried to give Timberlan mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,
"copious amounts of blood would run from his wound".
taken to Tampa General Hospital. Timothy was taken to the station for
questioning while the police searched the house. They allegedly found two 1oz
bags of marijuana in the microwave and more seeds on digital scales on the
kitchen counter. They also reportedly recovered a Glock semi-automatic pistol
and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including some for an assault rifle.
"He was then handcuffed," reads the police report, "and placed
under arrest for being a felon in possession of a firearm, after which he was
told that his son had expired as a result of the gunshot wound. Mr Addison then
became overcome with grief, and began screaming and crying. After a short time
he became more agitated and refused to sit in a chair or be cooperative. He was
then transported to central booking by uniformed officers."
later, Timothy was arrested while at his construction job and charged with
possession of marijuana with intent to sell, parole violation and possession of
a firearm during a drug crime. He still faces state charges of culpable negligence
for leaving the gun where Timberlan could get hold of it. Timberlan’s mother
was at the hearing, where she reacted angrily to the charges. "I forgave
him from day one," she said. "These people are not taking into
consideration that this man lost his child … He wakes up every morning
crying. He feels like it’s his fault."
All of this
made Timberlan’s death newsworthy for several weeks – far longer than any of
the teenagers killed by gunfire that day. It is nothing unusual for a shooting
to rate a few paragraphs in the local press and then disappear altogether from
the public record. "Over the past few years we have seen America become more desensitised to gun
violence," says Alicia Horton of the Brady Campaign, an advocacy group to
prevent gun violence. "I’m not sure if it’s an emotional reflex or a
coping strategy or what, but people have just started to turn the channel. They
shut down in a way that they didn’t used to."
2pm The case
of Brandon Martell Moore, a 16-year-old killed in Detroit, caused barely a ripple. Moore was shot by an off-duty police officer
outside the National Wholesale Liquidators on 8 Mile. Brandon was never named by the authorities or
the city’s two main newspapers. "Why would I want to live in a place where
my son can’t even be remembered?" says his father, John Henry Moore Sr.
"That means he didn’t mean nothing to this city."
Brandon was a quiet boy. According to his sister Ebony, the only
time he had anything to say was when "he was seeing a girl or making
jokes". He and his younger brother were such devotees of Beavis and
Butt-head that his mother had to hide the video so they wouldn’t keep watching
it. "At the funeral, lots of girls I didn’t even know came up to me crying
and said, ‘I was his girlfriend,’ " says his mother, Susie Burks,
laughing. "There was a whole row of them there."
Wholesale Liquidators, a warehouse store, sprawls along the edge of Bel-Air
mall on the corner of a road lined with boarded-up houses, empty lots and
abandoned stores – a burned-out carcass where the heart of a community once
beat. On the front door, a sign says that those 16 years and younger must be
accompanied by an adult. Brandon had come with four friends to buy video
games. They didn’t see the sign but, since one of them was 22 and another 19,
it didn’t apply to them anyway.
Police say Brandon was part of a gang making trouble in the
store, and that one of the staff had asked them to leave. On their way out,
they ran into an off-duty police officer (who was moonlighting at the store as
a security guard): "One teenager took off his coat and rushed the off-duty
police officer," according to a police spokesman quoted in the Detroit
Free Press. The others got involved and the officer opened fire, killing one
and wounding another.
from the local black paper, the Michigan Citizen, was the only reporter to
pursue the case and heard an entirely different account from those who were
with Brandon that day. They had split up and were
walking round the store when Brandon‘s older brother, John Henry, saw his
friends being thrown out. They argued but left anyway, before realising that
one of their number wasn’t with them. One of the boys (not Brandon) tried to
get past the security guard and back into the store. A tussle began. "I
saw something fall to the floor. I thought it was a cell phone, but it was a
gun in its holster," John Henry said. "The man didn’t realise at
first. Then he picked it up, put one arm on top of the other arm and started
aiming at us. Brandon wasn’t involved in anything. He was the last one to take
off running, I guess."
the autopsy, Brandon was shot in the back. When his father asked for a police
report, an officer allegedly told him, "I’m not fucking giving it to
The man who
killed Brandon is Eugene J Williams. His badge number
is 4174. According to various press reports, he has had a colourful history
with Detroit‘s finest. In 1971, he was sacked after
he was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while under the influence of alcohol.
He was reinstated in 1974 on appeal. Five years later, he shot dead an armed
and drunk 31-year-old man while in a neighbourhood dispute. Five years after
that, he shot his wife in the side during a domestic dispute in which he
claimed she lunged at him with a pair of scissors. She survived, and he was
able to continue his career in the police force.
not suspended for the shooting of Brandon Moore; instead, he was assigned to a Detroit traffic unit. When I called the unit,
Williams answered the phone and, after some initial equivocation, denied ever
having heard of Brandon. Last month an investigation ruled that the shooting was
hour and half after Brandon died, and 700 miles to the south-east, a 13-year-old took
his late great uncle’s shotgun out of a closet and shot his cousin Terry Hayes,
14, square in the face at point-blank range. The bullet went through Terry’s
left cheek and took off the back of his head. The boys had just returned from
church in Petersburg, Virginia, a sleepy town that feels more southern
than its geography would have you believe. By all accounts Terry was a regular
kid. He wanted to be a businessman or a pro-footballer. He loved sketching, and
playing video games with his cousin. "They were always hanging out,"
says Tania Hayes, Terry’s stepmother. "They were beyond cousins. They were
best friends." She recalls a time when she grounded Terry only to find his
cousin at her door demanding access. "Mrs T, you’re either gonna let me in
or let him out," he told her.
extended family had been having a tough winter. A few weeks earlier the
13-year-old’s great uncle, James Brunt, had been killed by a drunk driver.
Uncle "Bo" always told him to stay away from the closet, but now he
still trying to find out where the gun came from," said police lieutenant
Tom Young. "We think it was stolen but whoever stole it never checked to
see if it was loaded."
Last month the
boy appeared in court, but sentencing was postponed pending psychiatric
evaluations. "The judge was asking him simple questions, like, ‘Where do
you live?’ and ‘How old are you?’" explains Young, "and he kept
saying, ‘I don’t know.’ "
Terry Sr, has been in the military, stationed in Europe, and knows American gun culture is not
inevitable. "I’m torn," he says. "I respect the right to bear
arms. But you don’t know what fool out there might have a gun or what child in
the next room might pick one up next. And then – bang!"
… Continue in the next post.