A Tragedy Repeated
Night has fallen on the West End in Louisville, Kentucky, as the McGee family arrives at Dino’s Gas Station, the place where LeeAndrew McGee, a son, brother and father, was killed when a bullet from a gun fired by his friend ripped into his body.
The McGees made a makeshift memorial with a teddy bear and balloons tied to a liquor bottle, and spend the night in tears, remembering the highlights of LeeAndrew’s life before being murdered at the too-young age of 26. Patrick McGee Jr., Bobby McGee and Aretha McGee hold each other in an embrace while friends attempt to comfort them. Liquor bottles are smashed out of anger while loud tears are heard from the family. The McGee’s hold each other tight for several minutes while friends tell LeeAndrew they love him.
Sometime later that week, the teddy bear left for LeeAndrew in front of Dino’s disappeared. By the end of the weekend, another gun-related homicide had occurred, repeating a continuing cycle of gun violence in Louisville that has sharply increased in recent years.
In cities like Chicago, Baltimore and Louisville, African-American men have become casualties of gun violence at an alarming rate. This project tells the story of a dozen murdered young African-American males in Louisville, twelve out of hundreds murdered in the last three decades. Some of them had children. All of them had mothers, fathers and many other loved ones who they left behind. In a family tree, when a branch falls that tree is never the same again.
Gregory Wilkins was murdered in 1996 during a home invasion while his daughter, Jasmine Wilkins, was in another room. SuWanda Cole was also murdered in 1996, when she was just 18, by a man with a gun who was playing Russian roulette. Three months later, her brother, Deron Cole, was murdered in the back kitchen of his home; his spleen burst and he died instantly. For their mother, Darlene McNealy, 1996 was a horrific year, but the pain of losing her children to gun violence was not over. In 2009, she lost another son, Joseph McNealy during a confrontation with an acquaintance.
A Tragedy Ignored
In the wake of the public outcry and media attention following the high-profile mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, a striking contrast results when it comes to the response to this violence. The general public largely ignores gun deaths unless the incident is considered a mass shooting committed with an assault rifle. However, the vast majority of firearm murders are committed with handguns, and most only target one or two victims at a time.
In a country where several reports show that there are more guns than people, these gun crimes in Louisville often receive only a mention in local broadcast news and newspaper headlines. They rarely make national news. Loved ones left behind express frustration at the lack of coverage and public interest in this epidemic of killings. The families of the dead are left to cope with their losses, grieving privately at home, in poignant remembrances on Facebook posts and through pictures of lost loved ones printed on poster boards and T-Shirts.
Craig Bland is a proud father who lost both of his sons to gun violence. Gun violence has a part of the Bland family since Bland’s brother was murdered in the early 1990s. He lost his nephews, James and Michael, 15 years later. He hoped he would never experience the pain of losing his sons as well. But in May 2012, a shooting on 32nd Street in Louisville shattered his hope, when his son, Craig Bland Jr., was shot and killed. This shooting did garner national attention, perhaps because Craig Jr. was one of three gun-related homicides that day, along with Tyson Mimms, who also died at Bland’s house, and Makeba Lee.
Craig Bland Jr. was only 22 at the time and was shot multiple times before his friends brought him to the front porch where he would die. Craig Bland Sr. says losing his son has left him devastated and hollow. The house he called his home since he was a teenager had become a notorious Louisville crime scene. He recalls how Tyson Mimm’s skull was torn open by the bullet and how he had to call authorities to clean up the blood in the front of his house. He says that all of the love in his family home is now gone and he lives in isolation. The ashes of his brother and his son are now resting on his bookshelf. “My daughter has my youngest sons ashes at her home, but I still have apart of my family with the ashes I do have. I rather cremate my loved ones for them to be around in some way than having to attend a grave site,” Craig Bland Sr. said.
Lost Futures, Few Solutions
As the nation continues the heated discourse on gun control legislation, young black males between the ages of 18-34 continue to be murdered on the West End of Louisville at an alarming rate. These young men all leave behind families, friends and a life that could have been. Some were promising athletes and students, others were going to job corps, one was a day away from attending his freshman year orientation at the University of Kentucky and still others were raising children. They were sensationalized in the news for a short time before becoming mere statistics in a long line of gun-related deaths.
Cases such as the accidental gun deaths of 7-year-old Dequante Lamarr Hobbs Jr. and 8-year-old Andre O’Neal Jr., as well as the home invasion murder of 15-year-old Gregory Holt did receive more news coverage and generated some heated discussion within the Louisville community about young people dying as a result of gun violence on the West End. However, Javon Jackson, Kentrail Robbins and Brandon Madry, all killed in black-on-black shootings, received one-time headlines in the local news. Jackson, 19, was a part of a Louisville gang called 4 Sides. Madry, 31, was an ex-convict. Robbins, 22, was identified as a Crips gang member.
Tyrone Booker Sr., a Deacon at Spirit Filled New Life Church in Louisville, says the alarming rate of young black men being murdered in the city is overwhelming to him. He can speak with some authority, since his own 21-year-old son, Tyrone Booker Jr., was gunned down on March 27th, 2016. “I baptized him. He gave his life to God, and he had my Grandson. So the legacy is still continuing, just that Junior isn’t there anymore,” Deacon Booker said.
Tyrone Booker Jr.’s homicide made more headlines in
Louisville because he was apart of the “Misidentified 4,” a group of four
young African-American males who received a 1.6 million-dollar settlement from
the city after they were wrongfully arrested and imprisoned in 2014. “I told my son not everyone is your friend. Many so called friends are going to walk in your life because you have money. I tried to tell him if you keep on doing what your doing your going to end up in someones grave site, and that’s were he is now. In someones grave site,” Deacon Booker said.
The tragic stories continue. Javon Jackson’s father, Autour Love, says there has not been a thorough investigation of the murder of his son and he thinks that he will never get an answer from the police. DaeQuan Smith became frustrated with the Louisville Metro Police Department because of their lack of interest in following up on his brothers case. “The police knew who killed my brother but they never cared to catch the killer or none of that, they used to drive over to the neighborhood in Victory Park and laugh over the situation. They just expect retaliation from the family against the killer, and for us to shoot each other,” Smith said.
Staggering Statistics, Searching For Closure
The homicide rate in Louisville has reached record numbers in the past two years, with 2016 having the highest number at 117, with over half the the recorded homicides being gun related. The previous homicide rate record reported by The Courier-Journal newspaper was 110 in 1971. Louisville accounted 107 homicides in 2017, with the majority being gun-related homicides. According to the Courier-Journal on February 12th, 2018, the Louisville Metro Police Department were investigating 15 homicides for the year with over a dozen homicides announced since than. These recent disturbing statistics have left the Louisville community reeling and searching for answers.
For years, members of the Louisville community have talked about stopping the violence, especially since the 2012 shooting that left three dead and three injured. Autour Love believes that today’s children who are at the same age or younger than his son when he died are careless when dealing with guns. He says that when he was young, teenagers would fight if they had a problem with one another, but this generation of young people would rather shoot someone with a gun than fight. “This young generation of people are lame. They think their big and bad with an assault rifle. When I was their age we would fight and keep life going. These young man can’t let situations go. They pull triggers,” Love said.
Loved ones left behind say that the hardest part of these losses is not finding closure. Kenney Forbes lost his son, Kenney Forbes Jr., on December 23rd, 2012. He says that since that day he has been suffering from PTSD. He adds that though there are cures for colds and flu, there is not a grief pill to take for parents who lose their children. “We lost a member from our M.O.M.S (Mothers of Murdered Sons) group,” Forbes says. “She died from heartbreak. Simple as that. When a parent loses a child and loses a child from a person with a gun we will always be effected with grief. The grief of a suffering is unbearable. The grief of a father losing a son is unbearable.”
Forbes created M.O.M.S three years ago as a coping forum for other parents in Louisville. He believes this is the best way for parents to deal with suffering when they want to be left alone but can still deal with suffering through talking to other parents who share the same story of grief. Judy Wilkins says that for several years she was mad at the world because there has never been an arrest for her son Gregory Wilkins murder. His shooting and death – while his daughter, Jasmine, 1, was in the another room nearby – is one of many cold cases languishing in the Louisville Metro Police Homicide office. Wilkins says that there has not been one lead uncovered in the 22 years since her son’s death. This has left the Wilkins family devastated, and knowing the murderer is still out there makes it especially difficult to deal with their loss.
Tonya Madry says she is cautious whenever she leaves her home because she is unaware of who murdered her son. The homicide occurred July 30, 2017, and there are still no leads in the case. The shooting happened across the street from Brandeis Elementary school in Louisville. The only chance Tonya Madry had in uncovering clues were the surveillance cameras at the school, but since the semester had not started yet, the security cameras were off.
The locations where many of these young men were murdered are places that should be considered safe. Kentrail Robbins was murdered walking by a barbershop. Javon Jackson was walking out of a convenience store. Craig Bland Jr. was in the front of his own home. Ricky Jones was driving from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Kingston Avenue in Louisville to help out a friend of his, Delivia Carron. LeeAndrew McGee was walking outside of a gas station.
Trying to Cope
But life goes on. Someone now lives in the apartment were Ricky Jones was murdered. Craig Bland Sr. still lives in the same house and walks outside the same porch were his son lay dying in 2012. The housing project of Beecher Terrence, which has endured a high homicide rate over the years and destroyed many families, is now in the process of being torn down.
A high school can never be the same after a high school shooting. Students may again be walking the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, but moving on is another story. Family members of the those killed by gun violence in Louisville say that there is not a moving-on process. They say the only coping mechanism for them is to hope one day is better than the next. Depression is a constant cloud over them, and the and medication to deal with their loss is often a constant companion.
These losses, broken
branches, permanently alter the family tree. Parents lose children who will
never have a chance to have their own children and carry on the family legacy. Phyllis Murphy
and Craig Bland Sr. will never get to see a Grandchild. Loved ones in
Louisville are left with only memories of what was and what could have been,
and a faint hope that their community will wake up to face the gun violence issue and
find solutions to what is tearing their community apart. For those left behind,
this is the only consolation that their losses have not been in vain. The victims stories will live on through the families but a missing family member will not live to tell their story; and a broken branch will never form back together to make a completed tree. The family tree will still have other branches, but the broken branches will remain gone forever. Deacon Tyrone Booker Sr. statement rounded up the situation best “Once we get the community together, than we are all going to be all right. We can work on stopping the violence. If we can work on stopping that violence than we are all going to be OK. We may not be able to get rid of the guns but we can try to get rid of all of the animosity here,” a statement that holds true to all of the victims families and even more meaning as the homicide rate is raised in the city of Louisville.
Photos by Michael Blackshire and Gabriel Scarlett
Written by Michael Blackshire and Gabriel Scarlett
Stats and Graphs by Shaban Athuman