Unintentional Shooting Kills Friend, Torments Shooter: 'Why Did I Pick Up The Gun?'

'I Saw Her Fall Backwards ... Everything Just Froze'

Kingsley Rowe, 43, has both a bachelor's degree in information systems management and a masters in social work from New York University. He has a wife and a 1-year-old daughter. What he doesn’t tell people: He unintentionally killed his friend with a handgun in 1988. This is his story as told to HuffPost's Jason Cherkis.

When I got home for Thanksgiving holiday, my younger brother told me he had a handgun in the house. I don’t know how he got the gun. He was involved in the streets at the time and I suspect it was obtained through those circles. I was living in Washington, D.C., working for the FBI as a clerk. I just delivered mail around the FBI headquarters. I was in the midst of applying to Howard University.

It was a Raven MP-25.

I remember thinking how exciting it was: Wow, you have a gun. What are you doing with that? Where did you get that from? My brother didn’t really say anything much regarding how he obtained the gun. He just told me not to touch it. I had never touched a gun before. I didn’t have the friends who would normally carry around handguns.

I don’t remember if I knew where it was. He had it in his room. But I found it. I had no reason to take it out.

I was so impulsive at the time. I took medication most of my adolescence basically for ADHD. I still take medication now. When I saw the gun, I didn’t think about what could happen. None of those things entered my mind. If they did enter my mind, it was very fleeting. Wow, this is a real gun. That’s more of like what I was thinking when I saw it.

I put the Raven in my pocket. It was a pretty small handgun. There were bullets in the gun.

It felt like, you know, I don’t know how to describe it. You walk around the street and you have this sense that you are stronger than you actually are, tougher than you actually are.

I just turned 18 a couple months before that. I was 6’1, 6’2. At the time, I weighed 200 pounds, 220. I really didn’t fit well into my neighborhood. All the people in my South Philadelphia neighborhood felt like I was soft. I was good in school. I was always on South Street hanging out with skateboarder kids. I was a good writer -- my favorite subject. As a child, I always read Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. I’m very big into The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Manchild in the Promised Land, and The Catcher in the Rye. My mom didn’t allow me to really hang out on the street.

Several people in the house knew there was a gun and didn’t say anything to my mother. My older sister, my younger sister, and my aunt. But nobody actually told my mom that it was actually in the house. I should have.

I met Raenelle Cerdan, 20, on the corner of my block. She was one of the first, like, girlfriends I had. She had a crush on me. I had a crush on her. It took like four or five weeks for me to say something to her. I worked at a variety store and she would come and buy stuff. She was in college going to Millersville. She was a sophomore or a junior. She wasn’t like the girls in my neighborhood. She was just really understanding. She was kind of shy, just like I was.

We never had sex or anything. We just hung out. I didn’t date much. I was just like a kid. I was pretty afraid of women actually. I don’t know if I was mature enough. She was not the first person I ever kissed, but she was like one of the first people I started dating when I was out of school. We would sit on her stoop and talk. We would take walks and go to the park. Her mother was on drugs at the time. We used to talk about that a lot. I talked about hopefully going to Howard University. She was positive, she had substance.

But our relationship never materialized as a couple. Raenelle only knew me since the summertime -- June of '88. We weren’t meant to be partners. I was living in D.C. She had other things she wanted to do -- in college, with her life. We just kept in touch when I moved away.

We went to her aunt’s house and hung out there. We just sat around. I talked about what I was doing at the FBI. It was Thanksgiving evening 1988. After about 20 minutes, I told her aunt that I had a gun. She said I should take it home immediately. That’s when I began to get a little afraid. She said “you really need to take that home. Someone can get hurt.” Those were her exact words to me as I remember them.

I should have known better. I knew people that were murdered in the street. I’ve known people who were shot and killed. Until she said that to me, I didn’t connect the dots. It connected back to my own experience -- what the hell am I really doing with this? I’m working for the FBI. The gravity of having a gun started to dawn on me.

I walked out the house. I knew the Raven was loaded. I fumbled with it to take the cartridge out. I don’t know anything about the bullet in the chamber. It was a few people on the street. Raenelle was walking in front of me. I didn’t have any awareness of her. I’m looking down at the gun. And it’s pointed sort of up. It’s in my hand sideways. I’m sweating.

Raenelle is saying “Come on Kingsley. Come.” That was the last thing she said to me.

Everything is happening and then all the sudden the gun goes off.

When it went off, all I saw was Raenelle fall backwards. Everything just froze. I was in shock, just in shock.

I dropped the gun.

I went over to Raenelle and she was unconscious then the family was over her. The aunt did come out –- I believe she was crying and screaming at me. It’s very painful to remember everything. When I say it out loud, "I shot her," it feels so callous -– like there’s intent there. I shot her. it’s hard to say that. It’s just hard to say.

Raenelle was hit behind her ear. The police came. They put handcuffs on me and they put me in the back of the car. Some stupid person at the scene of the crime took the gun, actually took the weapon.

I stayed in jail for approximately a week to two weeks. My father bailed me out. These were his exact words to my mother: “I cannot see him like this.”

I was praying for Raenelle not to die. She never came to. She died about nine or 10 days later. My attorney called me and told me that they were going to probably come and arrest me. I turned myself in. I went to the precinct and they took custody of me. I wanted to kill myself when she passed away.

When I was actually remanded, they put me on suicide watch. I didn’t eat much, I didn’t go out for activities. After I made bail, I was on the street for a year before the trial. When I would see Raenelle’s family in the street, I would get different responses. Sometimes the aunt would scream at me. Sometimes she would hug me. She would just be crying. I didn’t even know what to say.

I was really depressed for a long time. I began to take medicine. I was taking Prozac. I was on Klonopin. I take different ones now. It was just unbearable to deal with. I contemplated suicide all the time.

Maybe I could take some pills. I don’t know what really kept me from doing it. My mother was trying to be strong for me. I just thought if I killed myself it would be a double tragedy for everyone. People gave me books to help me through -– Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I found that book very helpful. My attitude at the time: If I don’t kill myself, anything that happens to me I deserve it.

Why did I pick up the gun? I think about that question every day.

I was charged with third-degree murder. I just pled guilty. I was guilty. I wasn’t offered no deal. There were no negotiations around what the sentence might be at all. I was completely guilty. I didn’t care about the punishment. I sat in the courtroom with a blank stare. I was just out of it. Everyone around you is looking at you. All fingers point at you. It’s really overwhelming. Your family is there, but they are so far away.

In prison, you don’t really talk about your case to people. The people that heard about my case felt sorry for me. That was the most surprising thing. People who heard what happened -– felt sorry for me. The refrain I got was, "What are you doing here?”

Today I seen a psychologist about my depression. It was kind of awkward for me to express my feelings to a total stranger. She was a very understanding lady and her sincerity was felt. I talked about a great many things including my feelings of guilt and remorse, my feelings of having disappointed my mother and father, my inability to forgive myself, my rage and frustration, and my inability to get along with others including staff. -– Rowe writing in his prison journal on Oct. 2, 1995.

My psychologist in prison said I had hubris because I was too proud to forgive myself for what happened. I didn’t give myself permission to forgive myself because I felt like part of what I did was unforgivable. It’s very hard to see yourself in a positive light when you have this thing staring you in the face -– when you accidentally killed someone.

I was a block tutor. I actually made friends through tutoring. The guys that I tutored were some of the toughest guys in the prison, but several couldn't read a first-grade sentence. It was humbling for them.

“Every time I talk about R.S.C. [Raenelle] it never ceases to amaze how empty and sad it leaves me. It is still as painful as it was when it first happened six years ago. … I have never really resolved what happened that Thanksgiving night 6 years ago because I still live with those demons and they haunt me every day. -– Rowe writing in his prison journal on Oct. 2, 1995.

I would take computer classes over and over again. I dabbled in a lot of things. I was trying to find a way for me to explain the phenomena of what happened to me. I read a lot of books by the Dalai Lama: The Art of Happiness, Ethics for the New Millennium, Transforming the Mind, An Open Heart.

kingsley rowe in prison
Kingsley Rowe in prison with his visiting mother.

Socrates and Plato –- I read all that stuff in there. The things that stuck -– I read a lot of self-help books -- Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins. I read about Nelson Mandela and how he dealt with being incarcerated, Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. l read a lot of African history books.

Today was history in the making a million man march of black men. It was beautiful to see so many black men standing strong in harmony and peace. I stayed in the whole day watching this beautiful happening. Farrakhan spoke masterfully about black unity, white supremacy, governmental hypocrisy and personal responsibility to ourselves, our women and our communities…I was definitely there in spirit -– Rowe writing in his prison journal on Oct. 16, 1995.

I was trying to find a spiritual chain to grab onto so I could understand what happened to me. In Days of Grace, Arthur Ashe said when he was winning he said he never asked, "Why me?" He never said, "Why is this happening to me?" He said when he was diagnosed with AIDS he never asked why. In his perspective, all things came through God. It really doesn’t matter why me.

I had my health. I was able to read. I was able to survive. That was something to be grateful for.

On March 28, 1999, I walked out of SCI Smithfield prison in Huntingdon, Pa. It had been 10 years. I had one change of clothes and like $100 and a chest full of books -– 300 books. I had done everything I was supposed to do as far as my self-development, even graduating with honors with an associate’s degree from Saint Francis University. I took a train right up to New York City.

kingsley rowe out of prison
Rowe on the day of his release from prison.

When I was paroled, my mother was living in Delaware. Her husband had issues with me living there. He didn’t want me to come back to the house. My mother and father had gotten together and talked and thought it would be better for me to go to New York. I lived with my father for like two months. I rented a room out and went from there.

I got out at 29. I felt like I was 20. I had to learn how to socialize in professional and social settings. I had to learn how to navigate the subway. I had to learn how to navigate the Web. My mother called me all the time to see if I was okay.

I got a job with Macy’s as a salesperson and I worked there for two years. They helped me survive. I worked in Macy’s sports. I sold athletic equipment. I preferred the stocking, because it was a more solitary job. I had time to myself. In prison, I had cellmates the whole time. You can hear your own thoughts. It’s your own space, all yours to yourself. It gave me a peace of mind. I worked at Macy’s full time and I started school. I was enrolled in New York University in September 1999.

At NYU, I never talked about it. I just went to school and did my work. I really didn’t speak too much about myself. I kept very superficial relationships. Being in prison for 10 years, I developed certain habits that were really hard to break. One thing that kept me safe inside, was staying to myself, never borrowing anything from anyone, keeping a surface relationship with people so I could protect myself. Outside, I never told people about myself, where I came from before I lived in New York City. I liked to go to the movies by myself. Friday nights, I studied. I felt like I had to catch up.

Trying to make a living, trying to meet my parole obligations, and trying to finish school -- that's the only three things I was concerned about.

I started learning with a rabbi in 2004. I converted that next year -– Sept. 28, 2005. I’m now Jewish. I used to go to a shul and it’s funny no one knew about my path. They treated me very special and very well, but at the same time they didn’t know where I came from. All of that is a part of me. I had to erase this other part. I had to be a half a person.

I went to Philadelphia in 2006. I passed by that street –- Emily Street between 7th and 6th streets. Horrifying. Super-anxious. Empty. It brought back all those feelings of being afraid, scared, of feeling helpless and not being in control of my own life. You know there are consequences coming, it’s impossible to stop those consequences coming.

I did not go on the street. I was not ready. I don’t know if I’m ready now. This stuff is lifelong.

My brother and I didn’t talk for like 10 years. I was really angry with him. I love my little brother. He was my first best friend. When the shooting happened -- that tore into our relationship. When we finally got a chance to sit down, I told him when I saw him last year: “I just want you to know that I love you and I don’t blame you at all for what happened. I should have told Mommy about the gun. You don’t have any responsibility.” He hugged me and said he felt like people thought it was his fault. I think he kind of felt responsible for our lives.

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