Try this experiment: Take a moment and ask yourself whether you can name the most recent mass shooting incident in the United States. Do you know where it took place? Can you name any of the latest shooting victims? Can you name a single shooting victim from the past year?
In the U.S., the frequency of gun violence means we have to grapple with a seemingly unending list of victims, most of whom we’ve never met and whose names we will never know. For these victims’ families, elevating their loved ones and affirming their worth in such an environment can be like swimming upstream.
Azim Khamisa remembers all the details of his son’s murder in 1995, and his life goal is to make sure you do too.
‘Bust him, Bones.’
On Jan. 21, 1995, a 20-year-old pizza delivery man named Tariq was out on delivery in North Park, California, a San Diego suburb. According to court testimony, soon after Tariq arrived, he learned he’d been given a real address but a fake apartment number. After knocking on a few different doors, Tariq headed back to his car with the warm pizza in hand. As he situated himself and prepared to back out of the complex, a group of three 14-year-old boys, acting under the command of an 18-year-old with them, descended on his car and demanded Tariq give them the pizza.
When Tariq refused, the 18-year-old leader gave an order to one of the younger boys.
“Bust him, Bones,” he said, using the boy’s nickname.
That night, Tariq Khamisa was shot and killed — as his father recalls, “over a lousy pizza.” A single bullet traveled what doctors referred to as a “perfect path,” destroying his vital organs.
As it happens, just months earlier, a California law had gone into effect that lowered the age at which one could be tried as an adult, from 16 to 14.
This meant that Tariq Khamisa’s killer, 14-year-old Tony Hicks, would become the first child in California charged as an adult for murder.
“I had my first out-of-body experience.”
Azim and Ples
There is painful detail in Azim Khamisa’s memory of his son’s death. He recalled, for example, being in disbelief when detectives contacted him with the news.
“I quickly hung up on Homicide,” he said, “and called [Tariq] fully expecting him to pick up the phone.”
He also remembers being immobilized by the realization that he’d lost his only son.
“I was in my kitchen, and I lost strength in both of my legs as I collapsed to the floor, curled up in a ball,” Khamisa said. He frequently likens the sensation to nuclear bombs detonating in his heart.
“I had my first out-of-body experience,” he said.
For the grieving father, what followed was a spiritual journey. Khamisa, a Sufi Muslim, contacted his spiritual teacher for guidance and later went on a personal retreat to Mammoth Mountain, California. There, he said, was where he discovered “how and why I wanted to live the rest of my life.”
That’s when he reached out to Ples Felix, the grandfather of Tariq’s killer, Tony Hicks.
Felix is a former Army serviceman who became Tony’s guardian when the boy’s young mother could no longer raise him in the violent streets of South Central Los Angeles.
He has an old-fashioned coolness about him; he is gifted with a natural storyteller’s rhythm, a distinctive way with words and a syrupy Southwestern drawl.
“Butch,” as Felix was affectionately called in his native Los Angeles, developed a reputation early on as a stern yet passionate man. His daughter, Tony’s mother, believed the stable structure in his home would suit Tony well.
But over time, Tony’s grades slipped, behavioral incidents at school recurred, and the boy’s anger began to mount. His grandfather sat with him for a frank heart-to-heart.
“Daddy, I feel as though if I can get away with it, I’ll do anything,” Felix remembers his grandson saying.
“I knew immediately what he meant,” he said.
“The idea that my grandson was out there and committed a murder, killed another human being -- it was unthinkable.”
One evening, Felix returned home to a note in his dresser. It read: “Daddy, I’ve run away. Love, Tony.” It was Jan. 21, 1995.
When Felix located his 14-year-old grandson at a friend’s apartment the next morning, he was hesitant to enter, apprehensive about what might await him. Instead, he reluctantly called the police. When officers arrived, they emerged from the apartment with Tony, but they told Felix he wouldn’t be taking his grandson home.
He later received a call from the precinct. “Mr. Felix, I’m sorry to inform you that your grandson, Tony Hicks, is our prime suspect in a murder that took place this past weekend in North Park,” the officer said.
Felix remembers grappling with the news.
“The idea that my grandson was out there and committed a murder, killed another human being ― it was unthinkable,” he said.
In the following months, Felix leaned heavily into his own meditative techniques, much like Azim Khamisa. His Southern Baptist roots led him on his own journey for answers until, months after the murder, Azim Khamisa called.
“It just so happens that tragedy reveals the true nature of people.”
The Tariq Khamisa Foundation and Tony Hicks
Khamisa contacted Felix through Tony’s public defender. His personal journey made clear to him the need for forgiveness, Khamisa said: “God sent me back with the wisdom that there are victims at both ends of the gun.”
When he and Felix met in the attorney’s office months after the shooting, Khamisa extended a hand of forgiveness and offered Felix an opportunity to join his newly founded nonviolence organization, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.
“That was an answer to my prayers,” Felix remembers.
He credited Khamisa for harboring an energy that makes their companionship possible.
“Azim is my brother,” Felix said. “He’s always been my brother — we just didn’t know it. It just so happens that tragedy reveals the true nature of people.”
This year, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation celebrates its 24th anniversary. Since its creation, Azim, his daughter Tasreen, Ples and their supporting staff have shared their story of tragedy, forgiveness and solidarity with more than 4 million kids across the country.
Khamisa says the process of deterring kids from violence is our collective responsibility ― and he doesn’t wish ill on Tony for his actions.
Instead of blaming Tony, Khamisa focuses on the circumstances that made him. He urges people to direct their anger toward “the societal forces that force many young men to join gangs at the age of 11.”
“That’s the real culprit,” he said.
“We’ve talked to a lot of kids in that middle school age that I know we’ve saved, but Tony will save many, many more.”
Azim Khamisa met Tony Hicks for the first time five years after Tony murdered Tariq. He has visited several times since, serving as a confidant of sorts to Hicks, who is now 38.
In 2018, Hicks was eligible for parole. He’d earned his GED while spending 22 hours a day in a cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. At the hearing, Khamisa was among those who spoke on Hicks’ behalf, urging forgiveness. He described Hicks as a changed man with a great deal of work left to do. But that work, he suggested, had to be done outside the confines of a cell.
When his hearing ended, Hicks was granted parole. Should California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) sign off on his release, Hicks will be freed this year, into the arms of his “Daddy” and a truly unexpected friend.
And when he’s ready, there will be a job waiting for him at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.
“We’ve talked to a lot of kids in that middle school age that I know we’ve saved,” Khamisa said. “But Tony will save many, many more.”
Video for this piece was produced by Chai Dingari.