Jeremiah Adams

The following post is from the Chicago Reader. It was written by Steve Bogira.

By: Steve Bogira

e many Chicagoans, Latoya Winters was stunned by the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Shamiya Adams at a sleepover in July. Shamiya and several friends were in the bedroom of a home in West Garfield Park. They were circled around a pretend campfire, about to microwave s’mores, when a bullet fired at some boys outside came through a window. It struck Shamiya in the head; she died the next morning.

Winters lives a few blocks away. “I ride past that street all the time, and it’s hard to take in,” she’s telling me on an August morning. “I have a lot of little cousins and nieces. We have sleepovers at my sister’s house, we paint nails and watch movies and order food. Who would think that you aren’t safe inside a house, doing little girl things?”

But Winters knows that children anywhere in her neighborhood aren’t really safe. She’s spent most of her life in West and East Garfield Park, neighborhoods besieged by poverty and violence when she was born 26 years ago, and ever since.

She grew up looking over her shoulder. “I feared for my life, and I feared for the life of the kids that I lived with, that I went to school with, all these young kids in the neighborhood I knew. You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even in the right place at the right time, and something bad can happen.”

We’re in an office at Marillac House, the 100-year-old social service agency near Jackson and California, where Winters works with children in summer- and after-school programs. Some of the younger kids in the summer program have had questions about the sleepover shooting, she says. “They want to know, ‘Why was that girl killed at that party? She wasn’t doing anything wrong.'” Since there isn’t a good answer, Winters mainly listens sympathetically.

We talk about another fatal shooting of a child that happened seven days after the one that claimed Shamiya. This one was in East Garfield Park. Shortly after 6 PM, a car drove up to the corner of Lexington and California, and a passenger stepped out and opened fire on a group of mostly youngsters in front of a convenience store. Thirteen-year-old Sam Walker was shot in the head and killed, and six others were wounded, including three 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old. Police say it was a gang-related shooting.

After ambulances had taken the victims away, a shaken 12-year-old girl had tearfully describedthe distressing sight of her dead friend to a Tribune videographer: “I saw the gunshot wound that was on the side of his head. . . . And the way the blood splattered from Little Sam, it was just like water the way it poured forth.”

That shooting was less than a mile from Marillac House. The kids in the summer program there had questions again, Winters says: “Why was that boy killed when he was only going to the store? I went to summer school with him—he was my friend.”

She worries about the girls who were with Shamiya when she was killed, and about the kids near Lexington and California who saw the aftermath of that attack. How will the abrupt and inexplicable deaths affect them? Winters knows from her own experience that “things you never see coming, they will really stick with you.”

She was talking recently with a friend who’d lost both parents to cancer. “Time heals all wounds,” the friend said. Winters politely disagreed. “I have some wounds—time has passed and passed, and they’re still open,” she told the friend. “There are things that happened to me years ago that still feel as if they happened yesterday.”

Winters woke up early on May 7, 1997, and began dressing for school. She was eight. She and her six brothers and sisters lived in their grandmother’s brick two-flat, just east of California on Jackson. Their mother, a drug addict, was in jail. Winters was looking for her shoes under the bed in which two of her sisters, ages six and ten, and a teenaged brother were sleeping, when she saw flames in the room. She recalls her screams waking others in the apartment, “but not the three people that I’m trying to wake up.” With the smoke thickening, she ran outside. Her two sisters were found “hugged up together” in the bathroom. They died of smoke inhalation.

The family split up while the two-flat was rehabbed; she stayed in West Garfield Park, with her father, then with her paternal grandmother. Her grandmothers told her that her sisters had gone to a better place—that they were in heaven. It didn’t console Winters much. She cried herself to sleep on many nights. “I was confused—I didn’t know what had happened or why.” She didn’t receive any regular counseling. At school, she had trouble concentrating. And though she couldn’t label it until years later, she was afflicted by guilt—the feeling that she could have done more to save her sisters.

A year after the fire, her family was able to move back into the two-flat on Jackson. She had mixed emotions about this—joyful memories of the place jumbled up with the deeply painful one.

Winters kept busy after school in the art and recreational programs for kids at Marillac House. “I was never just hanging out on the streets or in the parks or just walking around in the neighborhood,” she tells me. “But I knew that walking from my house to Marillac, or Marillac to my house—it’s just a block, but something could happen.”

Drug dealers worked the street corners. Her brothers and cousins were among them. Several were in gangs, so she overheard stories about fights and drive-by shootings.

Then one spring evening in 2001, when she was 12, she was shaken awake by her cousins. She remembers hearing the rush of footsteps in the two-flat, her relatives upstairs racing down the steps and outside. She and her cousins ran out after them, and Winters saw her mother across the street, “all fell out.” Other family members were shrieking and crying. Her oldest brother, Lamont, had been shot multiple times at close range. Her uncle had already loaded him on his pickup truck and sped off for the hospital, but there was no saving Lamont. He was 23.

Winters later learned that the shooting was a retaliation: Lamont had been a Gangster Disciple, and he’d executed a rival gang member a couple of weeks earlier. “My brother lived a very dangerous life, and it was bound to catch up with him,” she says.

She attended the funeral fearfully; she’d heard that some of Lamont’s rivals were going to shoot it up. Lamont’s two killers were caught, convicted, and sentenced to 55 and 65 years, but that brought little solace.

About a year after Lamont was killed, Winters was sleeping in the living room one night when pounding on the front door awakened her. She opened the door, and her 20-year-old cousin Lorenzo fell across the threshold. He was bleeding so profusely that Winters feared he was dying, but he recovered.

In eighth grade, Winters had her own close call on Jackson, a block east of the two-flat. “There were some girls that jumped on my cousin, so our family came out, and it became a bigger and bigger fight.” Some of the other girls got some boys from Rockwell Gardens, a housing project in the neighborhood that since has been demolished. One of the Rockwell youths brought along a gun. He waved it in Winters’s face, then pointed it elsewhere and started shooting. One of her cousins and two others sustained minor gunshot wounds.

She still has difficulty sleeping. “If you drop a safety pin, I will wake up,” she tells me. She has nightmares about loved ones who are already dead. They’re alive in the dreams, but “they’re getting shot or killed.” For years, she’s distanced herself from others. “I felt like any person I built a relationship with, they’re just gonna die on me.”

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