By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Lela Jones said her son Devron could invite friends over while she was gone, as long as he followed one rule: No hanging outside. Her Visitacion Valley block was a hot spot for guys hustling drugs and oftentimes using, and she didn't want her sons associated with any of it. And Devron, the most social and mischievous of her three boys, was the one who she knew needed reminding on that Labor Day weekend in 2005.
Lela delivered the ultimatum with the same authority that banned explicit rap until age 16, that refused to buy gold teeth grills from Mr. Bling Bling she considered "ignorant," that grounded Devron his entire junior year when it came out he was failing every class at Galileo High. Guns, gangs, and hard drugs? In Lela's house, you didn't even go there.
But as soon as Lela reluctantly took off to celebrate the birthday of a friend's father in Reno, her rules slipped from Devron's priorities. As Saturday night swung into Sunday morning, Devron had been hanging out front off and on for hours.
Drugs aside, Lela's house sat in an especially bad zone for teenagers to gather. Her unit fronted Sunnydale Avenue, the main drag running from her home in Heritage Homes (which replaced the infamous Geneva Towers) to the equally notorious Sunnydale housing projects two blocks away. Toughs from the two turfs had been beefing on and off for years, and the language of disputes was often a bullet.
Although Devron had invited only his closest posse to spend the night, the group swelled to around a dozen, puffing on blunts and cigars. Devron remembered his mom's mandate about being outside, but he didn't invite the whole group inside because he didn't want to have to get ugly if one of his Playstation II games or Lela's collector Barbie dolls went missing.
A guy backed up his Toyota Supra to the garage — another Lela "no." Though she liked the guy, management was cracking down on tenants who allowed undesirables to hang in front of their units, and this kid's family was wrapped up in (as she puts it) "drama."
But why should Devron worry about violence anyway? He'd always stayed out of that gang stuff, so he figured he wouldn't be a target. Plus, Devron was feeling too good to be his mom's enforcer that night, and it wasn't just the high. He was planning to try out for the City College football team, the first step in a career he dreamed would end in the pros. As at home as he was on his block, Devron knew he didn't want to stay. Standing 6 feet, two inches tall and weighing 185 pounds — and growing — he had some size. And as captain of the Galileo squad and an All-City center, Devron thought football presented the most likely ticket out. That night it all seemed possible, and Devron shrugged off any possible danger.
The car's owner took off in another car to buy more cigars at the 7-Eleven, and Devron walked a friend to his place across the street so he could grab some stuff for the night. Both boys promised the friend's mother they'd go straight in the house. Instead, Devron popped back into the parked car's driver seat.
Across from him sat Dante Sagote, a 280-pound tank of a friend Lela affectionately called "Fat Boy," part of Devron's tightest posse, which called itself the Young and On the Block Mafia. The Maf wasn't any gang — most guys name their friend groups on Devron's block, and Lela approved of all the kids in Devron's circle. The Maf mostly smoked cigars and weed, recorded rap demos, ran to the corner store for Little Debbies and 99-cent Arizona drinks, and kept an ongoing tally of who had nabbed the most girls. When Devron received his diploma the previous spring, he set a new rule: All Maf members must finish high school.
Tomone Cross, Devron's 13-year-old brother, told the pair to come in, so Devron shook Dante, who was dozing off on his high. Dante opened his eyes to see a black guy standing across the street dressed in a dark hoodie and stocking cap. Then, he heard the gunfire.
Two boys, two split-second reactions, two fates: Dante lunged onto the floor behind the dashboard, waiting out the automatic gunfire with his knees to his chin. Devron whipped his head side to side: Who's shooting? Before he found out, the world froze in a single frame. Then, it went black.
At 12:35 a.m., the 911 dispatcher typed information from the first call: "poss 187." Possible homicide. Despite Lela's tenacity in keeping her sons in line and out of Vis Valley's snares, the 'hood finally caught up. And Devron was only the first one in the family to fall victim.
Lela was in her Reno hotel room when she got the news from Tomone. She dialed her friend who had persuaded her to go that weekend: "Devron's been shot in the head. We've got to go."
Back in Vis Valley, neighbors started trickling to the scene. First out was a guy in his mid-20s named Brandon Perkins, whom everyone called B-Low. With the teens stunned and crying, B-Low took control. Devron's head was hunched to the side, blood streaming out of a bullet hole above his right temple. B-Low raised the seat so Devron was sitting upright, and lifted his neck: "Stay with me, bro," B-Low repeated in an even voice, as tears trickled down his own face. "Breathe."
A swarm of cops descended on the block, herding back onlookers, taping off the scene, and picking up .762-caliber casings across the street — 17 in all. The bullets sprayed the car and pierced the front of Lela's house, the shooter having hit dangerously close to Tomone and a friend as they sprinted up the stairs to the unit's door.
Police radioed in at 12:46. There's a pulse. Breathing. Within minutes, medics loaded Devron into an ambulance to speed the well-worn route to San Francisco General Hospital.
At 1:24, Lela's friend, Mable Long, steered her minivan onto Interstate 80 west out of Reno, with Lela in the passenger seat. Mable had held many a brain while helping perform autopsies at an East Bay hospital. She knew a bullet to the delicate organ meant she shouldn't try to tell Lela her son would be all right. They headed back to San Francisco, the city that for Lela in recent years had become more and more of a place she wanted to escape.
Lela had moved to the city in 1986, a high school grad with a 6-month-old baby ready to trade the Chicago suburb she'd grown up in for big-city life on the West Coast. She moved into the Geneva Towers, blocks away from the Cow Palace, where she'd visited her aunt on summer breaks. Private developers had built the two 19-story concrete monsters that loomed over the valley for airport workers in the mid-1960s, but soon afterward took out a mortgage from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and started filling the units with folks down on their economic luck.
Though Lela recalled the building being pleasant back when she was visiting, by the time she snagged a job at the second-floor kids' recreation center in 1993, Geneva Towers had earned the dubious title of the first property ever foreclosed on by HUD because of the owners' failure to maintain safe conditions. Lela remembers men thrown off balconies. Urine spotted the hallways, and guys hustled crack out front and in the stairwells. The vast majority of tenants voted to implode their own home in 1998, but Lela didn't hesitate to return a couple of years later to one of the cheery, condo-style, affordable housing units built in their place. She still worked at the neighborhood rec center and had many returning friends, and she was optimistic that the towers' old ills had been destroyed with the buildings.
Beyond that, Lela had perfected the art of protecting her sons from harm, even on a limited budget from her rec center salary and help from their dads. Her boys filled their after-school hours at the center, their weekends on field trips or fishing with Devron's dad to show them life beyond the valley.
"Whatever she can do for her kids or for any other kids, she would," Mable says. "You don't find very many people like her."
Lela took a part-time job as a postal worker during the holidays to buy her kids Ecko brand clothes and Air Jordans from the outlet mall, and friends admired how she carried herself with confidence — braids neat, earrings dangling, toes adorned by rhinestones. She enrolled her kids in high schools across town where they'd be away from the peer pressure of the kids they grew up with, and during summers they worked at the center.
As a result, her kids' problems were child's play relative to those of their many peers. Devron often smoked weed before school and after that surge of F's after his grandma died, he had to sit out most of his junior-year football season. But even as Lela's efforts seemed to be paying off — "It's like roses growing out of concrete, you know?" — violence seemed to be picking back up. A steady stream of funerals dotted the family's calendar, and Lela started pondering an exit. In 2000, she began applying to other housing authorities: Oakland, Alameda, Contra Costa County, even out of state. Better get her name on the waiting lists, she figured, just in case she might have to get away from the violence surging in San Francisco.
When Devron was shot, the dangers that had always lurked around the neighborhood's edges had closed in. By the time Devron arrived at the hospital, the electrical impulses that snap through the mind's circuitry had stopped snapping at all — no cough, no pupil response, no breathing. Brain dead. It would have been legal to put him in a body bag, but S.F. General's policy is to hook the patient to life support until the family can pay their last respects. As the two women pulled into the hospital at 5:15 Sunday morning, Lela learned that if there were no changes, she would soon face pulling the plug.
No way, Lela said. It's too soon. Devron's face had swollen and lost its color; his hand felt cold. Rounds of neighbors had already been there, praying, and names of who did the shooting were already flying. Retaliation always menaces the 'hood, and earlier that morning, Vincent Mallory, Devron's father, called his cousin in Los Angeles: Don't let your sons drive up here and try something stupid. It would take a couple of days for the father to talk himself out of doing the same.
Dr. Geoffrey Manley, the chief of neurotrauma, studied Devron's CT scan during his morning rounds. The bullet had cut through the right frontal lobe and lodged in the left. He pressed Devron's forehead to see if he'd have any reaction to pain, and Devron rustled his hands. That means brain activity.
Still, the doctor reported to Lela that since he'd been brain dead for a period, Devron will probably be a vegetable. She was prepared to do whatever it took to care for him, as long as she didn't have to be another mother following her baby's hearse to Colma.
After a few more days of monitoring, doctors shaved off Devron's front dreads, and cut a question mark into his scalp. Inside, the brain was swelling, and to make way, a piece of the skull must come off, just as is done for traumatic brain injuries on the front lines of Iraq. The bullet stayed in. Fishing it out would have only caused more damage.
In the time between when Devron blacked out from the shooting and started to regain consciousness, he says he experienced heaven, and this is what he saw: Biggie Smalls was playing piano, and Tupac was rapping in the bright light. Devron's deceased grandma, Patricia, embraced him and said, "You're not supposed to be here."
Sometime after the surgery, Devron opened his eyes but could do little else than squeeze people's hands. Lela took a paid leave from work to stay by his side, and she made her two sons sleep at a friend's in Hunters Point, too scared to let them go back to the old neighborhood. Lela says she felt like an emotion-void robot at some moments; at others, she couldn't stop crying. One of the two therapists she started seeing prescribed her anti-anxiety medication to sleep.
Once Devron was transferred to California Pacific Medical Center, hibernating brain cells started to awaken. He first could only say "mmm hmmm," motion at his throat for food, and had to be told to chew and swallow. Days later, he could scribble why he was in the hospital: "Culz I was shot in da head." Soon he could walk, and put on his own clothes. But not all functions would reboot. The brain tissue carved out by the bullet and its radiating blast was destroyed. The frontal lobe acts as the decision-maker, telling which function to act when, solving problems, thinking abstractly, and controlling emotions. Doctors told Devron's parents he'd probably get mad easily, but, for the most part, he wouldn't emote much at all — just about the opposite of the boy Lela says was the "belle of the ball" who attracted people to him like flypaper.
Dante visited each day after school, and finally one day Devron looked at him and asked: "Wazzup with Shak3?" — Dante's nickname. And he remembered the elaborate Maf handshake. He asked how many females had visited him.
"That's when I knew he was cool," Dante recalls.
But doctors said there was one thing he could not do: play football. Further head trauma could be devastating. Devron started to cry.
"He ain't gonna tell me I can't play football no more. The only thing I good at," Devron said later.
Devron says he went to visit a friend's relative, who said he'd met the alleged shooter in jail when the man was picked up later on another charge. The man was from the Sunnydale projects down the street and thought he'd shot at the car's owner — who had dreads the same length as Devron's — and apologized for the mistaken identity. By some skewed logic of the street, Devron accepted that as a reasonable excuse. "It happens in life," Devron says. "Bullets don't got no names on it."
Skull flap replaced, Devron moved out to Sacramento to rehab at his father's house, and he started community college. He thought maybe he could be a physical therapist for football players. Lela and her sons finally tired of crashing at her friend's house and returned to Sunnydale Avenue. Once when Devron came to visit, he ran into B-Low.
B-Low said he'd kept the T-shirt from the night of the shooting with blood on it, making Devron think he really cared. Devron kidded B-Low about being an "OG," an original gangster, since he seemed to carry himself with more maturity than other cats in their late 20s who only seemed concerned about making a quick buck. Devron recalls B-Low's nugget of wisdom as this: Stay away from the neighborhood. Keep studying. "There ain't nothin' over here. For real."
Lela didn't need any convincing. She called the slew of housing authorities outside of San Francisco that she'd applied to years back, but none had openings. With monster hospital bills from Devron's stays, she had no means by which to escape. So Lela returned to work. Tomone joined the basketball team at Wallenberg Traditional High School, and life on Sunnydale returned to its familiar rhythms.
Still, Lela was desperate to get away from the valley. Gone was the old assurance that she could enjoy the neighborhood's good, and close her door on the bad. Her family had been violated by senseless violence once, and Lela couldn't relax until Tomone was inside for fear that it would happen again.
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.
Police say both brothers' shootings are still under investigation, an assertion that makes Lela burn. "They just full of shit," Lela says, echoing the sentiment of many back in Vis Valley who continue to be plagued by black-on-black shootings and murders. The case "wouldn't never open. ... They don't care about our kids." Denied the opportunity to see justice in the court system, Lela and Devron say God will handle it in the afterlife.
Lela says she thanks God every day for giving her back her sons, whom she calls "blessings." Though she says the last two years have made her stronger, her emotions are still fragile, shell-shocked. After talking too long about the shootings, she asks to stop: "It's starting to hit me." A violent movie or kids playing basketball in a park will bring tears. She fills the still-frequently sleepless nights with reading the Bible, and Mable notices she'll grow pensive at barbecues, her mind pulled far away from the here and now.
"She's more to herself," says a friend, Sheila Hill. "If she'd don't already know you, you won't get to know her."
Growing tired of being isolated from her friends and the more-than-three-hour commute each day from Stockton to the city to drive Tomone back to his old high school, Lela moved the family to Antioch with the help of a Section 8 voucher in July. Now living in a two-story house in a subdivision of tract homes, the family enjoys the trappings of suburban life even while Lela is surviving paycheck to paycheck as she continues to pay off hospital bills. Lela bowls on Sundays, Tomone transferred to Deer Valley High School in town, and Devron plays video games upstairs, ignoring the irony of occasionally pumping people full of bullets in Grand Theft Auto. Like the majority in the bedroom community she describes as "peaceful," Lela commutes — 40 minutes to the Boys and Girls Club Treasure Island Clubhouse, where she returned to work this summer.
With Lela's financial constraints, the living room is mostly bare except for two bookshelves hosting Lela's doll collection and Tomone's wheelchair parked at the bottom of the stairwell, where he gets out and uses his arms to scoot up the steps.
Of course some things never change. Devron still rolls blunts, even though a doctor denied his plea for medical marijuana. He walks the empty sidewalk along a busy four-lane road to buy cigars at Gas City as if it were the corner store back on the block. One of his Maf members, James Mackey, another refugee from the city's violence, is just a short walk away.
However, not all is calm in Antioch. A 16-year-old boy was shot to death in the movie theater parking lot just blocks away from Lela's house in March. It's part of the increase in crime seen by police in recent years as some people moving to the relatively affordable town from the inner city have brought their old lifestyles with them. Still, it's nothing compared with Vis Valley, Devron says: "There's nothing in that area but death."
Devron is used to being treated like "the angel on the block" when he goes back to visit — the kid who wasn't supposed to make it — but B-Low seemed especially focused on death the last time he saw him this summer.
Devron remembers the exchange like this:
"I'm so happy to see you, I thought you was gone," B-Low said, bringing up the shooting.
"I ain't gone. I'm right here, man," Devron said.
"Yeah, I'm happy to see you, bro, because I'd rather you be at my funeral than me be at yours. I want to see you at my funeral."
"I don't give a damn what's going on in your mind right now, don't ever say that to me. If it happen, I'm gonna snap and not care about nuttin. Shootin' people I don't even have business bein' shootin'. And then I'm gonna die."
"Don't trip," B-Low said. "I just want to see you at my funeral."
"I'll be there, bro. But don't say that."
Bogart, Devron's older brother who hung out with B-Low more than Devron, would later say that that was something B-Low always said to his younger friends, just a passing pleasantry in an area where violence is commonplace. But it was the first time he'd ever said it to Devron. Devron thought it was odd to talk so casually about your own funeral, but left it at that.
By the time Lela drove up 20 minutes late to the Fillmore church in August, only a few stragglers still hung outside the doors. The black hearse and two limos gleamed in the sunlight, and a pair of police officers stood across the street, eying the mourners as they entered — teenagers in recently printed R.I.P. T-shirts, little girls in billowy princess dresses.
The prophetic B-Low was shot down on Sunnydale Avenue around 12:50 p.m. on Aug. 2 while walking home from work at Goodwill. He spotted two men squatting behind a car, and rung a friend to report them. Seconds later, the shots started. He ran a block before collapsing inside the Britton Court Apartments complex where he lived, just a block away from Lela's old apartment. The police are still investigating, but word from many on the block is that he was a random target in a decades-old feud between Sunnydale and the guys who still associate themselves with the defunct Geneva Towers. B-Low was 29.
Devron lifts Tomone's walker out of the trunk and sets it before his brother in the passenger seat. This will be his public debut on leg braces — mostly he only practices at rehab and at home. The family walks slowly as Tomone, bent sharply at the waist, pushes out the walker and follows with labored steps. Push, step, step. By the time he crosses the street, he's huffing for air.
Inside the church, folks in the back pew make way so Tomone can sit down, and Lela and Devron lean up against the side wall at the standing-room-only service. Today, Lela has come looking like her old self — wearing a smart black suit and skirt set, rhinestones gleaming from her toes in her animal-print heels. A pastor asks emphatically: "When's the violence going to stop?" He belts out "I Won't Complain" to bluesy organ fills, yelling "Thank you for that beautiful baby that you had! Thank you, Lord!" with the full force of his baritone voice. Tears run down Lela and Devron's faces. Devron skips the line forming to pass by the casket and heads straight down to the altar to be the first to peer in.
B-Low lay under Plexiglas. Devron was feeling guilty that he'd been out in Antioch when it happened; maybe he could have talked B-Low into fighting off the death, just like B-Low had for Devron.
I'm right here, man. You see me at your funeral? Devron thought, making good on B-Low's request. The last conversation still haunted him. Why you had to say that to me?
Despite Bogart's assertion that the funeral bit was something he always said, to Devron, it was too great of a coincidence. Did B-Low really predict he was going to get killed? Maybe if Devron had died, B-Low would have left the neighborhood. If, if ... he didn't want to think about it too much. "Why stress yourself out over that?"
Devron thought about how he told B-Low he'd avenge his death, and the anger welled up again upon seeing him in the casket. But, in the end, Devron dropped it. That's just not the man Lela Jones raised. "Revenge," Devron says, "all that gonna do is to cause it to come back on you. ... They gonna have to pay on Judgment Day. Not me."
After a long while, Devron turns away from the coffin and embraces the white-tux-clad pallbearers in the front row. Lela carries Tomone's walker over to him on her way to get in line, but he shakes his head no. For Lela, the fact her family is away from the neighborhood's recent spate of shootings and homicides is yet another affirmation that she made the right choice.
"It's not getting better. It's getting worse," she says. "I'm so glad my kids are away from there. I'm so happy, I don't know what to do."
The family is going to skip the burial out in Colma today. Tomone's got a $1,000 charity shopping spree to cash in that his doctor submitted his name for, and they're headed to the mall. So after the funeral, Devron and Bogart lift Tomone by the armpits from the curb to Lela's car, then slide in the back seat. The four of them, like it always was. Lela accelerates out into traffic, passes the waiting hearse, and drives out of San Francisco.