By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Then, it did.
Devron had persuaded Tomone to go break his $5 bill at the corner store so Devron could take the bus to a dance he'd been invited to on Feb. 10, 2006. The Little Village Market sat just two blocks away, but that was Sunnydale projects turf, so the brothers and a couple of Tomone's friends hiked the four blocks to Sun Valley Dairy Liquor & Food Mart, cutting through a park with basketball courts as dusk enveloped the valley.
When the boys weren't in the house when Lela returned from work after 6 p.m., she rang Tomone. They were already on their way back, he said. Less than a minute later, Devron called back. Someone was shooting, he yelled. Tomone's lying on the basketball court and can't say anything.
As the paramedics came and cut the shirt off Tomone, Lela saw the two nickel-sized bullet holes in his back. After the hours-long marathon surgery at General during which Tomone almost bled to death on the operating table, the doctor detailed the path of destruction: the slugs had torn through his spleen, blew through one kidney and ripped the other one in half, pierced his colon three times, and left a gaping hole in the liver. With so much damage, his life was on the brink. If he did live, he probably wasn't going to walk. A bullet had bored through his spinal cord.
Lela walked through the hospital halls alone, weeping.
After weeks of sedation to let his insides heal, Tomone was transferred to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's rehabilitation facility at the end of March. The 14-year-old learned how to get in and out of a wheel chair. Lela quit her job and moved into Mable's house in Pittsburg.
Paying for private insurance was steadily eating through her $22,000 life savings and retirement. Finally, disability checks kicked in. Diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder. The soldier's disease. Lela's confident charisma had withered, she'd rarely initiate a conversation, and sometimes only answer questions with a "yes" or "no." Planning the details of Mable's upcoming wedding distracted her during the day, and she would watch TV throughout the night.
"You don't want to see your friend in pain like that," Mable says. "We always say things happen for a reason, but do we really believe that?"
Returning to the city wasn't an option. After months of sleeping on Mable's floor, Lela received a forwarded letter: The San Joaquin Housing Authority, which she had applied to years earlier, had an opening. Neighbors packed up her remaining things in the old apartment and the family moved to Stockton in August, part of the steady trickle of families that's taken the city's black population from 13 percent of the its dwellers in 1970 to roughly 7 percent as of 2005, and has officials scrambling to halt the tide. "We're here to help the families take back their communities," says Sgt. Kevin Knoble, a gang task force officer who patrols the valley. "They shouldn't have to be leaving the community to be safe." Lela had fought for the neighborhood for over a decade, but "I've seen and heard so much. I was just tired," Lela says.
Tired of the fear embedded in her psyche, tired of thinking that it seemed more peaceful everywhere other than the city streets that plunged two of her kids into the shadow of death, Lela and her sons were finally out of San Francisco for good.
Two years after the shooting, Devron now says God was telling him to slow down. "I'm goin' fast like I'm already 35 and I'm only 16 or 17. Smokin', drinkin', gettin' at every female walkin'. Not every female you know, but all the fine ones." But a reason for Tomone's shooting still eludes him: "Out of all people ... why my little brother? What you put me through, wasn't it enough?'"
Now 19, he figures he was sent back from death for some reason; he just has to find out what it is. He's one semester away from earning a certificate in food technology and dining services at City College, since working in the restaurant industry is his backup plan in case the physical therapy option doesn't work out. Devron saunters through the kitchen's chaos at a lackadaisical pace, seemingly impervious to the flurry of activity surrounding him. He remains patient with himself when his red rice burns to the bottom of the saucepan or when he can't figure out how to bias-cut a celery stalk because his spatial perception is a bit off. He talks loudly to hear himself over the constant ringing in his right ear — which is otherwise deaf — and relies on his right eye, since the left has been fuzzy since the shooting. Sometimes when telling a story he'll become overly excited like a runaway train, other times he must pause to drag up a word, making it impossible to freestyle rap. The guy who says he once "ran the school" at Galileo, feels like the bullet threw him off his social game. He doesn't flirt much anymore.
"He feel like he's slow," Lela says. "The confidence is gone."
Perhaps the biggest change in Devron has nothing to do with the brain injury: His once-easy trust in people has diminished. He saw how many people grew distant while the family struggled.