Mothers who have buried their sons share stories of heartbreak

Kim Washington holds a picture of her son Quenton that she often carries with her when she shares her story of losing Quenton to violence. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)
Kim Washington holds a picture of her son Quenton that she often carries with her when she shares her story of losing Quenton to violence. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

 

By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

(First of a Two-Part Series)

Every day, Jacqueline Jones sheds a tear.

Her 26-year-old son, Quentin McDaniel, was killed during a robbery attempt on June 7, 2016. His killer has never been brought to justice.

Jones tries to focus on the good times she had with her child.

“… [A]t one time, I was really not believing it. But each day [that] goes by I’m still thinking, knowing that he’s not coming back—not ever,” she said solemnly. “I birthed my son and [didn’t] know I’d have to bury him. I didn’t know that that would happen.”

Kim Washington’s son, 23-year-old Quenton Washington, was murdered on April 28, 2008. She never got a chance to say goodbye.

“… Every day that I talked to my son, I would tell him that I loved him and to be careful,” she said through tears. “… I didn’t say [it that day] because I knew I would have time when I saw him later on. … I just knew I would have that opportunity to tell him that, and I didn’t because he was taken so young.”

Jones and Washington are two of several mothers who spoke to The Birmingham Times about the pain and grief of families who have lost loved ones to gun violence in Birmingham.

The number of homicides in Birmingham has increased 80 percent over the past three years and is on track this year to surpass triple digits in the city for the first time since 2006. According to statistics provided by the Birmingham Police Department, there were 92 homicides in the city in 2016, up from 51 in 2014.

Early this year, the murders of two 17-year-old Wenonah High School students within a week shocked the city.

“[There’s] got to be a stopping point,” said Washington. “Life has to matter! Life has to matter, and the young people have to realize this. I don’t know what it’s going to take.”

“I don’t wish this feeling on anybody,” she said. “I’ve been … inducted into an organization that I never asked for membership in, and the membership dues cost me dearly. It’s too much. It’s just too much. There’s no remorse. People take lives, and they go on with their lives not thinking about … who they’ve hurt or what pain they’ve caused.”

 

Quentin McDaniel died June 7, 2016 and his killer has not been arrested his mother Jacqueline Jones and older brother Darius McDaniel near his gravesite where they often visit. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)
Quentin McDaniel died June 7, 2016 and his killer has not been arrested his mother Jacqueline Jones and older brother Darius McDaniel near his gravesite where they often visit. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

Families Shattered

The murders of these young men have devastated families. Siblings are left without brothers. Mothers are left without sons. Children are left without fathers.

Jones said her youngest son is not doing well.

“He’s really depressed,” she said. “I have to go into his room and check on him and tell him how much we care, how much we need him. Quentin has children, and we have to stay strong for them.”

Jones called Quentin her “hands-on” son, someone who was “loving when it came to family.”

“He was a family [man] and a working man,” she said. “I used to have to be at work at 4 o’clock in the morning, and some mornings he would just pull up on me and buy me coffee or [ask], ‘Mom, you need breakfast?’ … Whatever I needed, I was always able to call on my son to do that. … All of my children have different characteristics, [and] he’s my hands-on [son].”

He “would do anything in the world for anybody,” she said.

“I’ll never get the chance to … see him grow into a different chapter of his life because it has been cut short—and it hurts,” she said. “That was a true, loving father [and] son. He had a fiancée. He had cousins, brothers. [He was a] grandson. Everybody loved my son, and he loved each and every[body].”

Carolyn Johnson’s son, 20-year-old Rodreckus Johnson, was killed on Nov. 22, 2003, as he was trying to park his car at a party. His birthday was March 1, and he would have been 33 years old this year. Instead, his family struggled through the day without him.

“It’s been very difficult, very hard for them,” said Johnson, about her two other children. “It has affected our family in a tremendous way, to the point where we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know how to handle this.”

“Having God—and I’m being honest with you when I say that—having God has been my strength,” she said. “That’s what has kept me here.”

“… It’s every day that you have to think about your child, that you miss your child. You just want to know, ‘What would he be like now? How would he look now? What would he be doing now?’ … Birthdays are hard. His anniversary day is hard. Holidays are hard. The changing of the seasons is hard. It’s a never-ending situation that you have to go through. It’s just a lifetime of pain.”

Rodreckus’ son was just a year old at the time of Rodreckus’ murder. Now 15, he asks about his father.

“His son is always asking about him. He asks questions like, ‘Grandma, why [did] my dad have to be killed?’ or ‘Who killed my dad?’ I tell him we don’t know,” said Johnson. “… People are always telling him he looks like Rodreckus or sounds like Rodreckus. He has days when he gets depressed from not having his dad in his life because he can’t understand why he doesn’t have a father.”

Johnson’s youngest son, who witnessed his brother’s death, also struggles with what happened that day.

“… To see that … it’s had such a devastating effect on my family,” she said.

Washington said her son’s younger brother has had a particularly tough time coping with his brother’s death.

“It’s been hard because they were really, really close,” she said. “He made comments like, ‘Mom … if I had not been at work, my brother and I would have been together.’ I think he feels like if he had been with [Quenton], this wouldn’t have happened. … I have to let him know that it still would have happened, but the possibility of me losing [them both] would have existed at that point.”

Washington also grieves for her grandchildren, who will never know their father.

“He has a son who will never know his father because he was born after my son was murdered,” she said. “He has daughters that he’ll never get to walk down the aisle. This hurt is … a pain you can’t even imagine. It’s constant. … It’s just like trying to fill a hole you can never fill. That’s all I have in my heart. I can’t fill it with anything. There’s just that vacancy there.”

Shelisa Nichols lost her 21-year-old son Kourtney on Dec. 23, 2009, after two young men tried to rob him in his apartment—an apartment he’d just moved into four days before the shooting. She said she has had to live in the moment.

“I just had to learn that either … I was going to lay down and die or I was going to get up and live,” she said. “It’s just been really hard. No two days are ever the same. … Day by day, minute by minute, it’s been hard. It’s changed the whole family dynamic.”

Nichols and her husband have two sons and a daughter. Her youngest son has yet to heal from Kourtney’s death, she said.

“… He and Kourtney were born 15 months apart,” she said. “… He’s not really doing well as a result of this. He ended up going to prison. He was literally breaking into pharmacies trying to get medicine to take—not to sell, to take—and ended up going to prison because of this. He’s … still crying every day and just having a hard time. He can’t seem to get it together.”

Kourtney’s daughter, Kennedi, is now 9 years old and only knows her father through stories.

“She talks about him a lot, and I just hate that he didn’t get to be in her life … to be [a part] in all of her milestones,” she said. “… She’s the spitting image of him, looks exactly like him. I hate that he’s missed out on that.”

Carolyn Johnson holds a picture of her son Rodreckus Johnson who was killed as he pulled up to a birthday party. He was shot as he parked and was hit by a bullet fired by two people arguing, his killer has never been arrested. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)
Carolyn Johnson holds a picture of her son Rodreckus Johnson who was killed as he pulled up to a birthday party. He was shot as he parked and was hit by a bullet fired by two people arguing, his killer has never been arrested. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

Life-Altering Calls

No one ever expects to get a call that will change their life forever.

On the day of her son’s death, Washington received a call early that morning.

“At about 12:07 a.m., the phone rang. Usually, no one calls here at that time of the morning,” she said.

When she answered the phone, a young man told her Quenton was dead. When her husband called the number back, Quenton’s friend confirmed the message.

“It was like the life was sucked out of me,” Washington said. “I couldn’t breathe. It’s calls like that you don’t want to believe [are] true.”

Lisa Pruitt’s son, Tavarious Pruitt, was only 17 when he was killed on Aug. 15, 2005.

“The night he was shot and killed, he was with some friends,” she said. “One of the friends called me and said, ‘Miss Lisa, we were shot at.’ I asked, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘We’re right around the corner from your house.’ … Once I got to the crime scene, it was like having an out-of-body experience. Never had that to happen before. Words can’t describe it. I’ll never forget it.”

Tavarious’ stepsister has had to cope without her stepbrother.

“It was hard for her in the beginning,” said Pruitt. “As time has passed, I’m sure she’s healed somewhat, but it’s hard on everyone. It’s still hard on everybody.”

Senseless

The murders are senseless.

Nichols said her son was killed after two young men tried to rob him in the apartment he had moved into less than a week before the shooting.

“[Kourtney] was at home in his own apartment, and they tried to give him a false name to get him to open the door,” she said, adding that the robbery was orchestrated by someone who knew her son and stayed in the car while the others were at Kourtney’s apartment.

“They gave him a fictitious name, and he told them nobody by that name lived there,” she said. “… I’m assuming [Kourtney] figured it was somebody looking for somebody who previously lived there in the apartment. … They tried to force the door open, [Kourtney] was trying to close it, and they shot him through the door.

“… I made it to the hospital and saw them bringing him in. From there, that was it,” she said. “I knew when they brought him in that he was dead because he didn’t look the same, he didn’t look right. Something about him didn’t look right, and I knew in my heart of hearts that he was dead because he died twice in the ambulance and they had to revive him. I didn’t want to accept it, but I think I knew.”

Johnson’s son was struck down as he was trying to park his car at a birthday party.

“A young girl was turning 18. … Rodreckus; my youngest son, who was 17 at the time; and [their] little cousin, who invited Rodreckus to come to the birthday party, … left home to go to the party. Rodreckus was driving,” she said.

“When they got to the house, a fight that had started inside the house spilled into the street,” said Johnson. “At the time, Rodreckus was pulling up and was trying to park his car. The guy started shooting, and one of the bullets pierced the front windshield of Rodreckus’ car. The bullet hit Rodreckus in the head.”

The case is still unsolved.

“There were a lot of kids out there that night, but no one has come forward to say who that shooter was that night,” she said.

Even when the murderer is apprehended and jailed, the pain does not go away, said Washington, who said her family dynamic ended the day her son died.

“That link was broken because this individual felt it was his right to take my son away from us,” she said. “… He took a father. He took a brother. He took a grandson, a nephew, a cousin. He took all of that away.”

 

Lisa Pruitt sits in her Central Park living room with a large portrait of her son who was murdered when he was 17. Pruitt tears up when she talks about his birth on Christmas Day 1997 and how it is hard to celebrate on that day after his death. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)
Lisa Pruitt sits in her Central Park living room with a large portrait of her son who was murdered when he was 17. Pruitt tears up when she talks about his birth on Christmas Day 1997 and how it is hard to celebrate on that day after his death. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

‘Hurts So Bad’

What young people don’t understand, said Jones, is that gun violence affects far more than just the victim.

“I don’t think they understand the depths of the impact it can have on family members,” she said. “When my son died, it not only took a lot from me, but it had a large impact on my other children and family members. They don’t understand that [they] took a life, which means I’ll never ever see my son again. He’ll never ever see his children raised. That hurts so bad. This is something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.”

All the mothers agreed.

Nichols said, “I think they don’t understand that you don’t get a reset. … You don’t get a do-over. Once you do this, it’s done. They don’t understand the trauma that is placed upon a family once this happens to someone. You never get over it. …The only thing that’s going to [help you] get over it is when you die.”

Pruitt said, “… When you take a life, it cannot be replaced. When [young people] get angry, they don’t understand that they need to go somewhere and cool off. They get so angry that they feel they have to go to the next level, they feel like violence [solves] their problems. It’s so sad that they feel this way. They don’t realize the impact that it has on the victim’s family, even their own family. When it boils down, both sides lose. I lost my child, and they lose their loved ones to the penitentiary. It’s not worth it.”

Johnson said, “I don’t think they think about the consequences of what they’re doing. I don’t think they understand what they’re doing to their lives. I don’t think they understand what they’re doing to that person’s family when they take it upon themselves to take somebody’s life and kill someone. They just don’t think.”

Washington said, “They have no conscience. There’s no remorse. I don’t think they think about it. It’s just something they do because they feel they have the right to take a life. I don’t know if it’s to prove that I’m better than you … but there’s no … there’s no sense of right or wrong. Somewhere, there’s a breakdown that [life matters].”

Advocacy

The mothers of Birmingham’s slain young people have become active in the anti-violence movement.

Johnson created the Parents Against Violence Foundation, a nonprofit organization that informs local youth about gun violence and increases public awareness about issues leading to violence. The foundation allows Johnson to work with parents who have lost their children and keep the memories of those killed alive.

She also created two campaigns: Who Killed My Child and It Ain’t Snitching If It Happens To You.

“A lot of times, people don’t tell because they don’t want to snitch to the police officers, so I started the campaign to say, ‘It ain’t snitching if it happens to you,” she said. “… If it happens to you or your loved one, you want someone to talk. But if it happens to someone else, you don’t want to be the one to talk. They don’t tell unless it happens to them.”

Johnson also succeeded in getting the Birmingham Police Department to develop a cold-case unit under then-Police Chief Annetta Nunn.

“When Rodreckus got killed, they didn’t have a cold-case unit,” Johnson said. “… I championed for them to establish [one] so they could work on Rodreckus’ case and other cases like his that are unsolved.”

She also published “When Your Child is Murdered,” a book that details how a parent feels as a result of gun violence.

“In the book, I talk about things that people don’t understand,” she said. “They don’t know what the devastation is like … to have to bury a child, especially a child who has been murdered like that. People think you should get over it, like it’s just something that happened, and that’s it. No. You don’t get over it.”

Johnson is also a sought-after speaker around Birmingham to help steer young people away from a life of crime.

“… There’s no one to hold them accountable, to teach them love, [to teach] them respect about themselves and other people, to [teach them] how to value life. That’s what’s missing. That’s something you have to keep drilling into children,” she said. “We have so much social media now. … It’s nothing to them to watch a video of someone being beaten to death or beat down. They look at this stuff and laugh, not knowing that this is a human life that is actually being taken, that [the person] has loved ones who [are] going to be affected.”

Many who have heard Johnson’s story come away changed.

“… It’s been a big help because I have kids come up to me all the time and hug me and tell me, ‘Ms. Johnson, thank you for speaking at my school,’ or ‘You came to my church and spoke. Thank you,’” she said. “… That makes me feel good when that happens. That lets me know some of them are listening.”

Shelisa Nichols holds a picture of her son Kortney Nichols at his graveside. Kortney was killed on December 23, 2009. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)
Shelisa Nichols holds a picture of her son Kourtney Nichols at his gravesite. Kourtney was killed on December 23, 2009. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

‘I’m His Voice’

Each of these mothers knows the importance of telling her story.

“It’s been real important,” said Washington. “I didn’t think I would be able to, but I have, [and] people need to know. Young people need to know before they get out there, they need to think. …Too many lives are affected when these types of crimes are committed. They need to think before they act.”

Nichols said, “… I not only want people to know the impact this has on families, but I want to be able to keep [Kourtney’s] voice alive. It’s like I’m his voice. I’m able to speak for him.”

Pruitt said, “It’s time to stop all this killing. It’s been time. It shouldn’t have even gotten started. … If you can stand up and take a life, be willing to give up yours [to prison]. We need more laws … [so young people] know the consequences. Don’t give them a pat on the wrist, like they’ve been doing. Let them know that once they go behind those bars, they will stay there until death. [They need to know,] ‘This is your life. You made choices in your life, and you have to live with them.’”

Jones said she went as far as trying to reach out to the mother of the young man who killed her son to talk with her about how gun violence has affected her family.

“I even tried to go and talk to him because I want him to see my face, to see that this hurts,” she said. “It is not our job to take a life. It is not for us to do that. They have other things they could be doing with their hands besides pulling a trigger and taking somebody else’s life.”

Washington said her faith and her family have helped her. But it’s her son, who was protective of her in life, who is still helping her in death.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my son and relive that phone call we received like it was yesterday,” she said, “But you have to put one foot in front of the other and move on. My son was a beautiful person. He loved life. I draw strength from that because he wouldn’t want me to be in a dark place always.”

(Part Two will appear Thursday, March 23 on this site and in The Birmingham Times. The article will feature interviews with Birmingham neighborhood association presidents and also lawyers who speak on violence in the city).