On the morning of his murder, Feb. 11, Devin Aryal, 9, dressed to the ticking of his race car clock. His collection of stuffed animals, won from those arcade claw games, stared back at him from their perch on his top bunk.
Devin felt he had outgrown the cutesy animal prints that had adorned the walls of his Oakdale, Minn., bedroom. He was in fourth grade now, after all. Without telling anyone, he had yanked the prints off his walls one by one. He had yet to decide how to fill up the blank spaces.
The night before, Devin had watched the Disney channel and played with his pirate gear and a couple of toy dinosaurs on his mother’s bed. He snuggled with her on the couch and watched more television. This had become their sleepy ritual. He’d explain the plot of the television show they were watching, or recount the highlights of his day -- a winning soccer goal, a new level beaten on one of his Nintendo DSi games.
"The morning was usual," recalled Melissa Aryal, Devin’s mother. "We got up and we got ready. I dropped him off at day care at 7:45."
On the seven-minute ride in their minivan, Aryal, 39, kept the radio off so she could talk with Devin. "He had so much to say," she recalled. Their morning conversation always ended the same.
"I love you,” Aryal told her son.
“I love you more," he replied.
“He would always win that game,” Aryal said. “It always gave me a good feeling.”
After a 34-year-old stranger with a 9 mm pistol and a backpack full of bullets shot Devin in the head for no apparent reason, Aryal only hears her son in her dreams. She is wrecked by the world she wakes up to, a world without Devin. He has become, for her, a composite of memories, conversation and images.
In the first week after the Newtown, Conn., massacre on Dec. 14, more than 100 people in the U.S. were killed by guns. In the first seven weeks, that number had risen to at least 1,285 gunshot killings and accidental deaths. A little more than three months after Newtown, there have been 2,244. The Huffington Post has recorded every gun-involved murder and accidental shooting death reported in U.S. news media since Newtown, revealing an epidemic that shows no signs of abating. The horrors cannot be contained behind yellow police tape or find resolution in a courtroom. For the victim's families, the grief deforms all it touches. There's the fear that the radio will play her favorite ballad. An airplane overhead, like the kind he flew, will strike panic. Home is not safe. One month, two months, two years, nine years since those fatal shots -- the grief never leaves.
Mere days into her own grieving, Aryal’s mind is dark, except for memories of her son and his last day. They were close as can be. But no matter how hard she tries, she can‘t remember what Devin wore that day or what Devin talked about that morning. “I hate to say this," she said. "Nothing stands out. How did I know this was going to be our last morning?”
Aryal rushed to her cashier job at a hardware store after she left Devin at the day care. She had to be there by 8. Her daughter, 19, slept through the morning and missed saying goodbye to Devin.
Devin greeted Pam Reilly, who runs the center in her toy-filled basement. Reilly's day care, across the street from Devin's elementary school, had been an early-morning fixture for dozens of kids for decades. It had been Devin’s second home for 5 1/2 years. Reilly was family.
That Sunday, the night before, had been Reilly’s birthday. Devin wanted to know if she had listened to the celebratory voicemail he and his mother had left for her. Then he wanted to talk to her about video games. “He had beaten this level on this game on my birthday,” Reilly recalled. “He thought that was pretty cool.” Aryal would later put that game in his coffin next to his body.
At about 8 a.m., Devin and the eight other children took seats at long black folding tables, surrounded by tall shelves stuffed with books and toys, and ate breakfast. Reilly served chocolate donuts, apple juice and Lucky Charms.
Devin had become the day care’s comforter-in-chief, an expert hand-holder and sharer. When a girl with cerebral palsy had trouble playing tag, he’d run a little slower so she could tag him. When his best friend Aaron got sad about his parents' divorce, Devin was there to counsel him about the extra presents he would soon get on Christmas. He assured Aaron he’d be okay. Devin had gone through it too.
“Devin was extremely anti-bullying,” said Amy Berger, 38, whose son was close to Devin at the day care. “If he saw anyone being bullied, he would be their friend instantly -- in school, day care, it didn’t matter. No one can pick on anyone. He wouldn’t allow it.” In a card left at the church, a classmate wrote of Devin: “He played with me when I was lonely.”
Just before 8:30 a.m., Devin walked across to Oakdale Elementary with Aaron and Aaron’s little sister Emily. Emily had difficulty walking. Devin held her hand.
At an extra gym period, Devin practiced jumping rope for a heart association fundraiser. He returned to Reilly’s basement at about 3:20 p.m., where he stayed until his mother would pick him up after her work. He quietly completed his homework. Forty minutes later, Reilly passed out Rice Krispies bars.
SpongeBob came on the day care television at 4:30 on channel 54. Devin had a choice between a black futon couch and an older brown couch. He played his DSi game system with Aaron. When Aaron left, Devin played with Berger’s son, Nathan.
By 5:30, most kids had left.
Upstairs, Reilly brewed a pot of Folgers regular. She had formed a little coffee club with a few of the mothers, mostly single parents. Camaraderie came easy. As the years went on, Reilly become something of an activity organizer for the grownups, arranging outings to a casino just south of Hastings, games of Yahtzee in her kitchen, horror movie nights in front of the TV in the living room. On nights when "The Bachelor" aired, she'd order pizza and the other mothers would come over and watch.
That night was “Bachelor” night.
Aryal wasn’t sure she could make it. She talked about maybe dropping Devin at her parents’ house. She wasn’t sure.
Devin knew what he wanted. He had decided that his hair was too long and told his mother he wanted a haircut. He could twirl his cowlick. That meant it was time for a trim.
Aryal thought the haircut could wait. It was their last squabble. Devin still wanted to go to the barbershop, Reilly remembered.
“Yes we are!” Devin said.
“I don’t think so,” Aryal said.
“Yes we are!” Devin said.
“I think we’re gonna wait,” Aryal said. “We’ll talk about it in the car.”
Devin put his hood up, grabbed his dark green backpack, and said his goodbyes. As he walked out, Reilly and a day care worker yelled after him: “Zip up your coat! It’s cold out!” Their last words.
He got into the back seat of their forest green 2004 Nissan Quest minivan. Aryal pulled onto 7th Street and began the same drive she had taken for 5 1/2 years. She was thinking it was too cold to go back to Reilly’s house for “The Bachelor.” She just wanted to go home and snuggle with Devin in front of the TV.
Devin talked about the double-digit multiplication homework that he had finished. He kept on about the haircut. His mom assured him she’d take him soon.
Aryal thought she heard a noise coming from under the minivan’s hood. She did not see the man in the green jacket and black jeans firing round after round into the street with a 9 mm handgun.
As Aryal turned left onto Hadley Avenue, her right arm suddenly went numb. Blood spurted.
She pulled into the Rainbow Foods parking lot, jumped from the minivan and dialed 911 on her cellphone. As she was calling, she turned and looked back. The minivan back window was shattered. The emergency dispatch operator came on the phone. Aryal's eyes found Devin in the back seat. “I just dropped the phone and I ran to him screaming,” she said.
She found her son slumped over in his seat, unconscious. He was making long, deep breathing sounds, and was bleeding from his head. “I’d seen the exit wound on the top of his head when I was holding him,” Aryal remembered.
She held her son’s head in her arms. “I love you. Just hold on. I love you. Just hold on. Mommy’s here.”
Aryal held on to her son until the ambulance took him to the hospital. He died within the hour. She learned the news while she was being treated for her bullet wound.
Two days after the funeral, she said she couldn't think. "I'm numb and just full of grief," she said. "I loved being a mom."
Fifteen days after Devin's death, she obsessed about her son’s last moments. She stays up every night unable to sleep until five or six in the morning. Her brain can’t stop flipping back to that night. “Seeing how bloody he was,” she explained. “It’s a gunshot.”
The immediate aftermath of violent death is red tape. Vast bureaucracies must be notified. Forms need filling out. Insurance must be contacted. The school must be told. The police must ask questions.
The police came to the house and handed over what was left inside the minivan: Devin's backpack, a laptop, papers, Devin’s rainbow-colored mittens and scarf, a case of pop, folding chairs they carried to his soccer games, and HappyMeal toys -- so much of it now freckled with blood. That same day in February, an official from the school district dropped off Devin’s belongings from his desk: a reading folder, a math folder, a box of Valentine’s Day cards the kids had sent to Devin. Aryal rooted through his backpack and found his completed math homework and handed it over to the school official, not wanting to rob Devin of his final achievement.
Nhan Lap Tran was arrested near the crime scene and charged with murder. Aryal tried not to read the newspaper stories. But she couldn't help herself. It didn't matter that she'd end up in tears. She needed to know why. According to the criminal complaint filed in Washington County District Court, police found Tran with a loaded 9 mm handgun about seven feet from where he had been standing. A round was in the chamber. He was wearing a black fanny pack crammed with bullets. He had two more loaded 9 mm magazines in his pockets. In his backpack, police found two large knives and still more ammo.
“Tran admitted to reloading at least once in order to be able to continue shooting,” the police wrote in their complaint. In a search warrant affidavit, police alleged that Tran confessed, saying that he thought cars had been following him, and that the drivers had been parking in front of his house, revving their engines, and waking him up.
Detectives found a note on a desk in Tran's bedroom. “Random Kill, Fake Plates,” it said. All over his walls, he had scrawled “12/12/12.”
“There’s not a clear motive that we are aware of,” prosecutor Jessica Stott told HuffPost.
A judge granted Tran’s defense attorney Susan Drabek's request for a mental-health evaluation of her client. “He has a history of mental health issues“ she explained. “The family was without health insurance. … There was not much they could do without health insurance. The resources available to them were virtually nil.”
On the one-month anniversary of Devin’s murder, Aryal attended her first support group meeting. She said she hasn’t managed to do much more than sit on her couch with the TV’s white noise. She has been in her bedroom only to grab clothes. “I try to get in and out of there quickly,” she explained. She keeps her bedroom door closed at all times.
Aryal hasn't forgotten the toys that Devin left on her bed on his last night. She cannot touch them. She cannot look at them. “They're waiting for him to come back,” she said.
Marquita Thompson's 21-year-old cousin Aleya Criswell had been the unintended victim of a shooting in her Fort Smith, Ark., home town on the afternoon of Dec. 29, 2012. Less than two months later, Thompson woke up in the middle of the night and headed to the bathroom. Peering into the living room, she thought she spotted Aleya sitting on the couch. So she sat down next to her.
“Did it hurt?” Thompson asked this vision of Aleya. She had always wanted to know.
Aleya giggled at her cousin's question. Yes, she said, she felt pain. “Like I got stung by a bee,” she assured. “That’s what she said,” Thompson recalled. “She told me to tell her mama that she loves her, that’s she’s okay.”
It was about 3 a.m. Thompson thought she talked to Aleya for about seven minutes before she flashed "a real pretty smile" -- just like in the photo a Texas aunt had made of her with angel wings -- and "floated up to my ceiling." Thompson was suddenly back in her bed. She felt a little scared
“It was like a dream to me,” Thompson, 29, said. “I don’t know if it was a dream.”
Thompson called her grandmother. It was one of those nights where nobody could sleep. Thompson’s grandmother told her she had just gotten off the phone with Aleya’s mother and one of Aleya's aunts. Neither had been visited by Aleya. They were just unable to stop thinking about her.
On the phone, Thompson started to cry. The two ended up talking for an hour.
Aleya’s death had felt so unreal, so arbitrary.
The first of the many dominos leading to Aleya's death fell the night before, at a high school basketball game. The sister of Aleya's partner fought with the sister's boyfriend -- her baby's father -- after he showed up with someone else. It got heated and physical. But later that night, the two patched things up. Only Aleya’s partner, Nikki, wouldn’t let it go. She arranged to confront her sister's boyfriend at a park the next day.
Nikki, her mother, Aleya’s brothers and other relatives went along. Aleya took a seat in the back of their van. When the boy didn’t show, they thought better of it and drove off. As they were leaving, they saw the boy with a friend. Jonathan Jackson, 23, opened fire on the van at May Avenue and North L Street, police said.
Aleya’s brothers won’t talk about the shooting. Shortly after it happened, Thompson said she got the brothers into a room. The driver gunned the van as the shots were fired. Once they got down the street, Aleya giggled. "Y’all, I think I was shot,” she said. The brothers thought Aleya was playing. “No, you all. I’ve been shot,” she said. She had been hit in the back.
They drove straight to Sparks Regional Medical Center. Relatives gathered by the dozens in a quiet room. When doctors broke the news Aleya had died, her mother, Clarissa Tucker, fainted. It took at least five minutes to revive her.
A few days earlier, on Christmas, as everyone in the family gathered to open presents, Aleya began to sing in the kitchen. “Everyone got real quiet,” recalled an aunt, Niecy Cannon, 44. “We were just listening to her. I’ve heard her sing but not like that. … Everybody cheered her on. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Y’all heard that?” Aleya asked. Singing was the only time she could get church-mouse shy.
Aleya was slowly coming into her own. After bouncing around, she had gotten seasonal work at the local Walmart that she thought might stick. She had effectively become a mother to her 3-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew -- and liked it. She was still young enough to dream big, a bedroom gospel singer with aspirations for a real stage, runway beautiful who wanted to smile at something more than a cellphone camera.
Charles Thompson Sr., 74, Aleya’s grandfather, spends most of his days by himself while his wife Martha works as a health aide. Aleya visited often. He digs in his garden and tinkers with a ’76 Chevy pickup -- anything to stay out of the house, he said. Once inside, where he's not so busy, his granddaughter’s death will hit. “The minute I get in the house and sit down after about five or 10 minutes, I’m thinking about her,” he explained. “I try not to think about her too much but I can’t keep from it.”
Kathie Thompson, 47, one of Aleya’s aunts, said she can no longer listen to music. After a fire, Aleya and her girlfriend had moved into her apartment for a while. Every Sunday, the two would sit and listen to the slow jams program on 102.7 FM. She bought a little radio just for that purpose.
The radio sits on top of her microwave, unplugged. “I just don't do it anymore. I'm scared I might hear a song she liked on the radio,” Thompson said. “It’s just way too difficult.”
Tucker can still hear Aleya in the house.
"I have been having really bad anxiety attacks,” Tucker said. “I keep thinking I hear her. I have to realize that she's not really there anymore. I can hear her singing."
Kathie has seen her, too, once while staying at Tucker's after Aleya’s death. Her little niece had seen something at the back door and woke her. “We were sleeping in the living room,” Kathie Thompson remembered. “I raised up. It was a shadow. You know how you know a person’s face? It was her … We all just stared at the back window.”
Cannon said she had seen Aleya twice sitting in her living room. A couple of weeks ago, she spotted Aleya standing in her hallway. She couldn’t go back to sleep. Her husband, she said, has yet to see his niece. “He sleeps too hard,” Cannon explained. “If I see her I’ll tap him … I’ll ask him ‘Did you see her?’ and he’ll say no. He’ll go back to sleep and he’ll try to hold me. But that doesn’t help.”
Courtney Robinson, 19, used to date one of Aleya’s brothers, Tino. Even after their breakup, she still talked to Aleya all the time. About 10 days after the killing, she tried to chat with Aleya on Facebook. “Hey girl,” she wrote. It took Robinson five minutes to realize Aleya wasn’t going to write back.
Shortly after Aleya's death, Tino discovered she had saved a recording on her phone of herself singing. He quickly downloaded it and passed it from one family member to another and another. It’s been on heavy rotation since. “We all got it on our phone," Kathie said.
Marquita said she thinks Aleya recorded it in her bathroom. Tucker insisted she recorded her daughter in her dining room before Thanksgiving. It’s one minute, 19 seconds long and Aleya doesn’t start to sing until 17 seconds in.
The slow R&B sounds far away and distorted. You need headphones to hear Aleya’s soft, high pleas. She knows this is not a good take. Midway, she complains that her voice is cracking. Toward the very end, she says half-jokingly, “I fucked up.” She barely raises her voice above the canned beat.
“You say you wanna be with me,” she coos just high enough so you can hear the words. “But you cannot right now.”
Kathie plays that one minute and 19 seconds every morning. “That’s all I do,” she said. “I have to hear her voice. … That’s the only voice we got.”
Gun violence happened before Sandy Hook elementary and the Aurora theater shooting. In some instances, the media took an interest. Several print outlets, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported on the discovery of Melanie Colon’s body on May 12. The 22-year-old mother had gone missing a few days earlier. She was found in a wooded area behind an apartment building, a 10 or 15-minute drive north of her home. Colon was struck six times at close range with 9 mm bullets. Reynaldo Torres, the male friend she was last seen with, hasn't been seen since.
Outside Melanie’s house is a large spray-painted mural of her framed in bands of heavenly yellow. The mural, hung on a utility pole, is can’t-miss on their skinny street in North Philadelphia. At night, when the feeling strikes, the family will illuminate the sign with white Christmas lights or candles on a wicker shelf they've tied to the pole. They'll offer Catholic prayers to her.
Inside the house, there’s another large picture of Melanie on the mantel in the front room with more pictures tucked into the frame. Upstairs, there’s her bedroom. It’s a sunny Tuesday in early March. But it’s like her murder happened yesterday.
“Yo man, I didn’t know that was your daughter.”
The man was in Louis Colon’s ear. He had come across the narrow street, this man in the orange Polo shirt, to give Colon a grip and a message. “When you find that nigger, I got some hot shit,” he promised. “We’ll light [him] up.”
Colon just nodded, slumped his rounded shoulders, and made his I-got-to-goes to the man.
He jumped into his silver SUV. He just wanted to take his murdered daughter’s 5-year-old son to the playground. He'd just gotten off the phone with his therapist and was talking about seeing him that evening. Those sessions had been a near daily activity since the murder.
He knew the man in the Polo shirt from prison, where they served together -- Colon doing four years for distributing cocaine nearly a decade ago. The man had recently gotten out. Colon was surprised to see him, and even more surprised how little he'd changed. “Yo, I don’t like that,” Colon said from behind the wheel as his car snaked past his neighborhood’s trash-lined vacant houses and bombed out lots. “If I see him, I’m going to avoid him.”
Colon's face, already damp, started to perspire more heavily. “I just want to leave,” he continued, his voice rough and low. He has asthma and keeps an albuterol pump with him at all times. Every breath sounded like effort. “I should have never came back to the neighborhood. If I could have never came back to this neighborhood, maybe my daughter would still be alive.” In the neighborhood, he'd been robbed at gunpoint twice. A week after Melanie was killed, a man was fatally shot in the face. His wife found the man and comforted him until the police arrived.
This revenge offer was not unusual, Colon said. As soon as Melanie's body was found, the whole neighborhood seemed to offer itself up as gun dealer, getaway driver, whatever needed to be done. Friends, associates, just guys Colon knew as faces on the block urged him toward revenge. He hated the pressure.
“The worst part is thinking about it -- murdering somebody,” Colon said, pacing in his front room, Melanie’s big picture staring down at him from the mantel. “That’s not me. I wasn’t brought up like that. … They think it’s going to trigger me.” He'd gotten close to 10 offers, he said, most right after Melanie was killed.
“I had to get rough with a guy,” Colon said. “Not rough, but a little hostile. … What good is it going to do? For real, I don’t want anymore killing. I don’t want anybody else to die.”
It’s hard keeping it together. Colon and his wife Marybell, who he married after his prison stint, are raising nine children and grandchildren between them. They have Melanie’s son on weekends. Marybell works during the day at a nonprofit that helps teens and young adults earn their GED and enroll in college. At night, after a few Budweisers or Coronas, Colon will put on some of Melanie’s favorite salsa or merengue music and dance in the street staring up at her mural. Sometimes he doesn't remember doing it.
Colon suffers from depression and has for years; he was diagnosed with it in prison. He said he felt guilt about getting locked up and not being there for his kids. He and Marybell have been going to Bible study on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Every day, at noon, Marybell calls her husband. "Where are you?" she asks. "What are you doing?"
“He doesn’t talk about suicide or anything like that. You just don’t know,” explained Marybell, who has known Colon since grade school. “Because of that, I watch him a lot, you know? I keep in touch with him. We all keep in touch with each other. We are all watching each other.” Every night, Marybell goes through two questions with Colon: What was your high? What was your low?
When he is not going to counseling, Colon operates as the family’s safety net. Throughout the day, he checks in on everyone, taking care of doctor appointments, handling the groceries, making runs to the playground. When his schizophrenic son can't sleep, Colon will stay up all night with him. Another son has autism and lives with a grandmother down the block. If he calls in need of one-on-one time, Colon is there, ready with his son's favorite McDonald's. Around the corner, he makes sure to look after his sister and her three kids. "I call him 'The Eagle,'" Marybell said.
The morning of Melanie’s disappearance, Colon’s arm went numb. He thought it might be early signs of a heart attack. Melanie urged him to go to the emergency room. He had to be transferred to another hospital. The checkup took all day. After running an errand, Melanie returned home. She talked to her father one last time. “She’s home,” he said. “That’s what comes into my head -- she’s safe.” He pointed to his head. “I told her stay home with the baby.”
During my visit 10 months after the murder, the home was bare, as if preserved as a Melanie museum. There was no clutter. No warm food smells. Tuesday night was Melanie's night to cook. Two weeks ago, Marybell found one of Melanie’s green dress shirts in a pile of clothes in the basement. She put the shirt up to her nose. “It smelled like her,” she recalled. “I just bawled. I couldn’t take it.” She went upstairs and showed Colon.
Louis' son, Ralphiee, 18, discovered his parents in communion over the shirt. “You want to see something crazy?” he asked. He went upstairs and retrieved a mesh laundry bag full of Melanie’s clothes from his closet. The bag had been his secret. He met the family in the front room and offered up the bag filled with her old shirts and long johns.
“Everyone started pulling clothes and smelling them and crying,” Marybell said. “It was like Melanie was still there,” Ralphiee explained. “Her scent was still on the clothes.”
By then, Ralphiee had decided that he couldn’t live in the house anymore. “We’re angry all the time,” he explained. “It’s mixed emotions at my house. My sister lived with us. She lived with mom. She lived with dad. I hate being in this house. I hate being home.” He didn’t make a big deal about it. He just moved into his younger cousin Dominic’s house. Even there, he wakes up crying.
Melanie had been Ralphiee's safety net after his father went to prison and his biological mother entered rehab. Melanie made sure that he was picked up from school, that he was well fed, that he was happy. Even after their father returned home and married Marybell, Melanie could be fiercely protective. Just a few weeks before her death, Melanie heard that Ralphiee had tussled with a guy who was high on PCP at a nearby Chinese carry-out. It was past midnight, but Melanie grabbed a bat and went looking for the guy. When she found him hiding in a house, he refused to come outside and fight her. "If anything would happen to her brothers and sisters, Melanie was on it," Marybell said.
Ralphiee was the last family member to see her alive. He was supposed to go with her that evening, but he couldn’t fit in Torres’ Mazda two-seater. Melanie said she was just going to get her son something to eat; she'd be right back. In his dreams, she looks the same way she left him on May 8. “Her hair is short, blond, crimped-up like it was,” he said. “She had her black tights on, her black flats, and she had her checkered red and white shirt on. She looked really beautiful that day.”
Ralphiee was in the process of finishing high school. Now he visits her grave at night and posts photos of those trips to the Facebook tribute page he created. It’s become his home -- the place where he can write about his lowest moments, post from an endless cache of old snapshots (Melanie at prom dressed in lavender silk, Melanie with her son, Melanie with her eyes closed blowing a kiss), encourage justice for his sister and chat with “#Team Melanie.”
"I'm not letting MY SISTERS CASE GET COLD," Ralphiee wrote his Team recently. "Don't never give up."
Revenge means helping find his sister's killer and seeing him get justice in a courtroom. About four months ago, Ralphiee said he got a tip from a girl in Camden. The girl claimed to have spotted the man Melanie was last seen with -- Torres. Ralphiee texted her. He and his father arranged to meet her in Philly. “I thought it was real,” Ralphiee said.
Colon remembered his heart pounding as they waited in the car for the girl outside a downtown shopping mall. “It was crazy, man. We really thought, oh man.” He pauses from his seat on the couch. He just stops talking. They waited three hours. But she never showed.
Detective Charles Grebloski, one of two Philadelphia police investigators assigned to Melanie's murder, said the case is cold. “Right now, Torres is the only lead in the case,” he said. “There’s nothing. They dumped her in a park, a public park. We have no witnesses there of her getting dumped. It looks like she was just dumped there. You could tell it was there for a day or two.”
In October, Colon’s namesake, “Little Louis,” was arrested after fighting with one of his father’s friends. The friend had fallen on hard times and had been staying with the family. Marybell and Ralphiee think Little Louis's grief sparked the fight.
Little Louis had argued with Melanie before her death. He never got the chance to offer a real apology. His anger issues have gotten worse. He is still in jail on charges stemming from his arrest.
The police thought Little Louis had a gun and searched the house. They didn’t find one. The family is conflicted over whether Little Louis ever brought a gun home.
Marybell said she thinks he had something. Colon said he confronted his son about it and he told him it was a BB gun. "He wouldn't lie to me," Colon insisted. "I don't think he would."
Although he never saw the gun, Ralphiee is sure his brother had one. He said Little Louis had told him about the gun, that it was for protection. “After Melanie, you can’t trust nobody out here,” Ralphiee remembered Little Louis telling him.
“I thought it was a real gun," Ralphiee said. "He always told me he was going to get a license to carry. Do you need a license to carry a BB gun?” Marybell said she worried that if he had a gun, he might use it on whoever he thought murdered Melanie.
In mid-March, Colon’s therapist threatened to call the police on him during a morning session. “He wanted me to talk about my daughter. He wanted to ask me some questions about what I’ve been going through. I didn’t feel like it. He said 'you’re not [being] compliant.'”
Compliant. That's a prison word. Colon had enough. He kicked a chair across the therapist's room. “I felt a little relief,” he said.
1 Year, 11 Months
Al Roberson, 61, lives next door to the house where his 26-year-old son Cory was murdered on March 25, 2011. He sees the one-story wooden house, beige with white trim, every day, and still regularly makes a pilgrimage to the property's edge in the old part of Bakersfield, Calif. He has the blueprint memorized. He thinks sometimes he can see Cory inside peering out from the window in the room where he was shot to death. It's been vacant since.
The house was last occupied by Roberson’s sister. Moments after Cory was shot, she ran next door and told him what had happened. She had the gun -- what looked like a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle -- in her hand, he said.
Roberson wondered what his sister was doing with the rifle. He didn’t waste time trying to get a straight answer. He ran to Cory, finding him on the floor in a pool of his own blood in the back room.
Cory was shot in the back of the head behind his right ear. He wasn’t moving. Roberson held his son in his arms and begged him to wake up. He realized Cory wasn't breathing, and laid him down. "Not him Lord," Roberson said, standing in prayer. He could do nothing but pace in circles in the room, trying to think of what to do, and what to say. “My whole body just got limp,” he remembered. “I was weak. I was in a daze.” The ambulance arrived.
The events that led to Cory's death are still being debated. But the identify of Cory’s killer was never in dispute. Cory’s 21-year-old cousin, Daniel Torres, confessed to being the triggerman.
Self-defense, he claimed. He said he'd been fighting with Cory and had fired the gun by accident in panic. Torres' small build was no match for Cory, who was 6-foot-3 and linebacker strong -- at least that was the theory. Torres wasn’t so confident in his tale to stick around after the murder. He fled the crime scene in a ’97 Oldsmobile sedan, according to the one news brief that told the story. He didn’t surrender to police until two days later.
A definitive narrative of Cory's murder would never be dissected in a courtroom or find a verdict from a jury box. The two cousins would never get their day in court. Law enforcement authorities saw enough in Torres' account that they decided not to prosecute him. “Every lead we got was followed up and investigated extensively,” explained Bakersfield police Detective Richard Dossey. “The District Attorney’s Office said it was a self-defense issue. … I know the family was not happy. However it was not my final decision.”
The investigation instead continued among family members. Those on the Torres side avoided all discussion of the subject. On the other side, Cory's mother and former girlfriend talked to witnesses and tested their own common sense. That side, Cory's side, found big holes in Torres’ story. It's split the family further apart. There may never be a reasonable outcome.
“There are so many levels I feel about my son,” explained Camille Mooney, 52, Cory’s mother. “The loss goes on and on and on. Cory was our protector. He was the man of the family. It was just me and his sister.” Mooney and Roberson split up when Cory was 5 years old.
“We live in a neighborhood that could be dangerous. We did never worry about it because we had Cory," she said. "He was well known. He protected our family. I feel so exposed to the world because I don’t have my son to protect us anymore. People have come into our yard and stolen things that were in our yard. That would never have happened when our son was in the yard.”
Cory's protective nature had once extended to his killer. Mooney and Roberson both recalled that a year prior to Cory’s death, Torres had called on Cory to help him get rid of a gun. Torres had supposedly shot somebody at a convenience store in the southwest part of Bakersfield. Cory raced across town to help his cousin dispose of the evidence. He took the gun and went to a friend’s wrecking yard and had it melted down, Mooney said.
As a teenager, Cory had tried on a thug persona, but it didn't fit. Unlike a lot of his peers, who entered the ranks of Bakersfield's Bloods, Cory didn't need a gun to make a living. He drove an 18-wheeler and then did temp factory work. He dated his high-school sweetheart Irene Delgado off and on his entire adult life. Due to a childhood injury, Cory could not conceive children. When he and Delgado broke up and she had two daughters by other fathers, Cory raised them as his own. He was in the delivery room for her oldest. They had broken up again just a few months before his death. But they were never far from a reconciliation. “If he loved you, he never stopped loving you,” Delgado said. “He loved hard, I guess you could say. If he loved you like with me, he was always in tune with his feelings. He knew at an early age who he was.”
Cory was alone on the road a lot and had time to think. If he struggled with something, he shared openly. He could be the opposite of macho, showing up at his mother's doorstep just looking to talk. “He trusted me enough to lay in my lap and cry as a grown adult man,” Mooney said. “It’s a rare thing that a mother gets to have with her son.”
Now, Delgado has developed a routine if she needs to cry over Cory’s death. She waits for her daughters to go to sleep. Then she goes to her living room and puts on their favorite songs -- “Second Nature" by Destiny’s Child is one -- and looks at pictures of Cory. She has a specific spot on the couch -- “the left side” -- where she will sit.
“Usually when it’s late, I will cry myself to sleep,” Delgado explained.
The Cory who cried in his mother's lap, who evokes tears, who listened to Destiny’s Child, isn’t the Cory as described by Torres’ family on the night of his death. That Cory, they say, wanted to kill his cousin. Despite repeated requests, neither Torres nor his mother would comment for this story.
Mooney's side has heard a different version of events. Earlier that day, Cory thought Torres’ girlfriend had disrespected his aunt. Cory, who had been drinking, and Torres had words. When Roberson saw them hours before the shooting, he thought they had cooled off. He said he saw Torres take Cory home.
Mooney said Torres dropped Cory at her house. He was laughing and joking, she remembered, maybe a little buzzed. "I didn't even know they were having words," she added. "He didn't even mention it. It couldn't have been that important."
Delgado had heard directly that the two had been hanging out and laughing at a convenience store an hour or so before the shooting. She told me she passed on every tip to the Bakersfield detective -- even the rumors about the shooting being premeditated -- but never heard back.
If Delgado can find no resolution, she's decided to create one. She recently started writing a novelization of her life with Cory and his murder. In the novel version, she calls herself "Adonia" and Cory “Thaylen.” When they first meet, there are references to gods and goddesses, charm at full throttle.
“She opened her eyes then looked around as she began to have a feeling that someone somewhere was watching her close by. Her eyes caught his. She didn’t know who he was but, he was the most beautiful man she had undoubtedly ever seen. Her heart was stuck in her throat and she felt as if it were beating 100 times a minute. Adonia didn’t believe in love at first sight, had always debated with people about the subject matter. However, the feeling that consumed her eyes, body, mind and soul, well, she accepted with defeat what she was now experiencing would be the closest involvement to that emotion she would probably ever feel in her life …
He knew he needed her now and would always need her. He had been very aware of how he felt about people at an early age. He knew even if he wasn’t honest with anyone else he had to be honest with himself. Opening up his heart to love was a rare commodity but when he did he loved hard. He couldn’t fathom what it was about her that made him want to give her all of him. I don’t even know this girl but I’m gonna find out, he thought to himself.”
Like in real life, Delgado said that the Cory character will be murdered by a family member. But this time, she and Cory will have a child together. "His son is going to end up seeking justice once he grows up," she explained. "It's going to end up being a thought-out successful way. ... He figures out some evidence to convict the guy."
Roberson hasn't found such an outlet. He just keeps watching over that house. He’s the one caught in the middle between the families. It’s still his nephew who murdered his son. “My son was pretty big, okay?” he said. “I feel maybe Daniel was scared. [Cory] might have jumped at him or said something and the gun went off. That’s what I’m hoping.”
But Roberson knows better. “It looked like the way Cory was laying, he might have been sitting down,” he said. He wondered how his son came to be shot in the back of the head, and why his sister took the murder weapon.
“I wished it was somebody else,” he explained. “I would have handled it myself.” He told me he would have “emptied a gun” into his son’s killer. “But it was my sister’s kid. I just swallowed it. Cried inside."
On Jan. 20 of this year, Cory’s sister’s fiancé, Otis Taylor II, was fatally shot outside his grandmother’s house in Bakersfield. Two decades earlier, Taylor’s father had been killed blocks from there.
On March 12, Cory’s sister gave birth to a baby boy. She named him Otis Taylor III.
Mooney said only Torres' sister has come to visit the newborn. The rest of that side of the family has stayed away. "They haven't laid eyes on him," she said. "That's great with me."
Nine Years, Two Months
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jenny Heyman drove 45 miles or so from Riverside to Whittier, Calif., just south of Los Angeles. There was traffic all the way. She felt relief when she finally made it to the flower shop near the cemetery. The people in the shop know her well and are patient with her. After reviewing the flowers that were available, she made sure to pick out something that would last in the heat -- an important consideration she had learned from trial and error over the years. Roses or daisies, she found out, can’t hold up in the Southern California heat. She picked purple chrysanthemums and ordered three dozen.
Heyman then made her way to Rose Hills Memorial Park, Rainbow Gardens Lot 1035, Grave No. 3, to see her son, Chris, who was 17 when he was killed. To the east, she had a view of a meandering pond and tall, swaying weeping willows. It was unusually hot, about 95 degrees. Heyman brought an umbrella to shade the headstone.
Chris was born on Nov. 6, 1986, and died on Jan. 18, 2004. On the headstone, he beams from his high school yearbook photo, sitting in front of a generic sky blue background in a maroon-collared shirt and dark tie. A surfboard under a palm tree and an airplane had been engraved into the black stone. On their memorial website, his parents wrote: “struggled a long time to finally get this done."
The headstone lies flat on the ground. Heyman took out an edger and cleared away the scruff. After she was finished, she poured water over the headstone and dried it with a white terry cloth towel. She then got out a toothbrush to scrub the grime from the etchings, her back to the blazing heat. Finally, once the headstone was cool enough and clean enough, she rubbed it with a waxy gel called “cultured marble clear polish."
“I needed to see him,” Heyman said. “It calms me down to be with him." Her mother-in-law had just undergone heart surgery. Her daughter and her daughter’s family had moved in with Heyman and her husband, Bert, temporarily while they sell their house. For the past three months, she had been having pain in her joints that doctors couldn't seem to figure out. At times, she hasn't been able to walk.
Heyman talked to Chris about “everything and nothing.”
Heyman had been there for hours and still wasn’t done. “I’m still cleaning it,” she said. Finally, she declared, "it looks pretty again." As she got ready to leave, she cried. She gave him a kiss and walked away. She hit rush hour and it was hell getting home. In the car, she sang along to Usher, remembering that Chris once danced to the R&B singer as he watched him on TV. For a while after his murder, she'd talk to Chris while she was driving.
Heyman had waited up the night Chris was killed. He hadn’t made it home before curfew. Normally, he’d call. “I was calling him every half-hour and it was getting late and he was supposed to be home and I kept calling him and calling him and he never answered,” she said.
She was alone when the police knocked on her door at 4 a.m. The police showed her Chris’ driver’s license. That’s not Chris, she told them. Her husband Bert was working the graveyard shift at the Miller Brewing Co., Irwindale plant. When the police reached him, they told him he needed to come home right away. “Can’t this wait another couple hours when I get off?” he asked.
A man emptied a modified AP-9 fully-automatic submachine gun into the Mustang that Chris and his friends were driving. They were at the I-210 freeway overpass, about a mile from home. Chris and a friend were killed. The shooter, and an accomplice, had gone out in search of meth, and believed the Mustang had almost hit them. It may have been a different car. That's all it took. Nearly 50 shell casings were found at the scene.
In the weeks leading up to the shooting, according to trial evidence, the shooter had fired on two others with the machine gun. This time, Chris died instantly in the back seat with fatal wounds to the head and neck. His friend, Blake Harris, slumped over dying in the passenger seat.
The Mustang driver pulled into a McDonald’s and called 911. According to the transcript, he told the dispatcher: “Something happened. My back window is shattered and my two friends are like almost dead. Their heads are bleeding dramatically.” The dispatcher replied: “OK. Was somebody shooting?” The friend explained: “I don’t know. My back windows are shattered and both of them are down bleeding. … One’s bleeding like all over.”
In the aftermath, their town of Rancho Cucamonga and Chris’ high school embraced the Heymans, offering endless tokens of healing. The night after the murders, residents gathered at a nearby church to mourn and tell stories. The mortuary donated Chris’ light blue and silver casket for the standing room-only funeral. The high school instituted two scholarships in Chris’ name and named the December soccer tournament after him. Every year, Heyman and her daughter Tanya hand out the trophies to the winning team. In a rose garden on school grounds, the staff added a plaque in Chris’ memory. The local newspaper put Chris’ death on the front page every day for a month.
The night of Chris' funeral, Lanny Woosley was arrested and charged with the murders. He was convicted of both murders as well as nine other crimes including three counts of attempted murder and a carjacking. He was sentenced to multiple life sentences. Heyman said the district attorney “was a great guy.”
“He promised us in Chris’ honor he was going to have the trial within two years of when he was killed,” Heyman said. “It was two years to the date that it happened.”
About a year later, the Heymans packed up their house and moved 20 minutes away. It got to be too difficult to even go to the grocery store. There was always someone staring at them and whispering. It didn't help that the shooter's mother worked at the checkout. The Heymans were tired of seeing the freeway overpass, of trying to avoid it. All the reminders could leave Jenny Heyman mute.
The conviction and all the anniversary vigils and trophies in her son’s name have never been enough. Heyman had stayed home to raise Chris. Now she spent her days as a postal worker delivering mail. Once on her route in a new development in Corona, she lost it when a Cessna airplane flew overhead. These were the types of planes her son flew in flying lessons. It knocked her hard. Heyman called her boss in tears. He had to tell her to breathe.
The post office job has turned out to be an ironic choice. Even nine years later, grief has a way of disorienting Heyman. When it boils up, she starts forgetting things and can lose her sense of direction. She might as well be on another planet. “It’s something I can’t control,” she said. “All the sudden you don’t realize where you are going. All the sudden I forget everything.”
Boys that look like Chris still throw her. “I have to realize it’s not him,” she said. It takes a moment to shake the sensation. Seeing his old high school friends now as grown men confuses her, too. "I think that timed stopped at Chris' age," she explained.
Heyman said that November (the month of his birthday) through January (the month of his death) is her “numb period.” She feels nothing. She can't control it. She doubts antidepressants will make a difference, so she doesn't try. The numbing is just the way her body deals.
Every year on Chris' birthday, she returns to the overpass. Twenty-one was tough. Heyman bought a piece of chain-link fence and tied it to the bridge. She weaved a ribbon through it to spell Chris' name. She was proud that she thought of something that didn't blow away. "Sometimes I think it would be easier to be dead than alive," she said.
The day before our first interview, Heyman said she experienced one of her mental fogs. I asked what triggered it. “Talking to you,” she replied matter of fact.
At least Heyman can talk about Chris. Almost a decade later, the loss still has the power to overwhelm Chris' dad, Bert. The grief has only gotten worse, more impossible. After a few minutes answering questions, he broke down and stopped talking. He agreed to email me instead. That night, after finishing work at the brewery, he found a quiet office and began to write and cry. He finished the email from home.
“I’ve always loved my kids equally as much as possible, but there is something special about a Dad’s relationship with his Son just as there’s a special relationship a Dad has with his Daughter. I guess for me he was a chip off the old block, that’s my boy, he was my buddy,” he wrote. "All the hopes and dreams that I didn’t achieve, were what I’d hoped he would. And that was taken away. … I’ll always have to think about what could have been.”
Something as routine as eating lunch still sticks out. Every night, Chris would stop whatever he was doing and make his father lunch before his graveyard shift. “How many Dad's can say that their Son's made them lunch, yes I paid him $5 bucks a day to make my lunch to give him some extra spending money, but he would be out with his friends and he'd come home before I left for work so he could make sure my lunch was as fresh as could be, he'd then go back out with his friends and still get home by curfew,” he wrote. “Amazing kid, I still miss those sandwiches, I always knew they were made with love. Or when Carl's Jr came out with the $6 dollar burger and my wife wasn't home, there would be a Carl's Jr bag with burger, fries and a coke. He'd buy it with his own money, never expecting me to pay him back. Just wanting to be sure that I had something to eat.”
Bert goes on in another email the next day. I had asked about Chris’ flying lessons. “I can remember Chris' solo flight like it was yesterday, it was agony and ecstasy all at once. I was as proud as I could be watching him take off in a small two seater Cessna from #24 runway at Cable Airport in Upland, CA. ... To watch him take off and bank left was amazing, to watch him circle the airport come in for a touchdown and take right back off exhilarating. He did that I believe 4 times, (we have it on 8mm tape) when he landed and came back to where we were waiting.”
Benjamin Hart, Alana Horowitz, Peter Finocchiaro, Melissa Jeltsen, Brad Shannon, Mark Hanrahan, Adam Goldberg, Chelsea Kiene, William Wrigley, Preston Maddock contributed research to this story.