She was a 92-year-old widow who enjoyed hosting luncheons for her friends on her newly remodeled back porch and traveling to Atlantic City every few months to play the slot machines. He is an 18-year-old with a tragic history, raised by his grandparents in a well-kept apartment building, a ten-minute walk from her home in Williamsbridge.
They didn’t know each other, but the lives of these two strangers intersected in the most devastating way in the early evening of Oct. 20, 2009.
Sadie Mitchell was watching television and getting ready to prepare dinner. On the streets outside her home on 224th Street in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, a fight among young people escalated. A teen pulled the trigger, and a bullet pierced Mitchell’s first-floor living room window, taking her life in its path. Two days later, police arrested Jamal Blair, charging him with second-degree murder and weapon possession.
But is he the murderer or a second victim? Or both?
Shortly after the shot on 224th Street, the phone rang in Mitchell’s neighbors’ home. Mitchell told John Fields and his wife, who live across the street, that she was wounded, and they came running. They found her on the living room floor. At about the same time, Blair threw the gun to the crowd and walked off to his friend’s house, according to his confession to police. Forty-eight hours later, he was behind bars.
Blair, an 18-year-old high school freshman, has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. His life is on pause in Rikers Island, where he is being held without bail. “I’m sure it’s difficult for him,” Angelo MacDonald, Blair’s lawyer said. “I’m sure he’s obviously very scared and concerned.”
Even before his imprisonment, Blair had it tough. When he was two years old, his father fatally shot his mother right in front of him. His father fled and was never convicted or even found, according to MacDonald. Blair’s grandparents, who both work, have raised him since then.
The family lives in a comfortable well-maintained apartment building on 233rd Street, nine blocks from Mitchell’s house. “For him to be in this situation is very troubling and sad for them,” MacDonald said. “They’re concerned about him.” Blair’s family is paying his legal bills, and MacDonald has met with Blair’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
If Blair were convicted, the maximum sentence would leave him in prison for 25 to life. It seems Blair’s entire family are doing their best to keep that from happening.
While Blair’s story may be a glimpse of the Bronx’s troubled future, Mitchell’s life is the picture of a more stable past. She was a housewife who was very active in Community Board 12 and in her church, Our Lady of Grace, where she was a parishioner for over 40 years.
“I can’t even eat; it hurts,” said Gloria Lord two days after the murder. She lives across the street from Mitchell, whom she called “the mother of the block.”
The day before the stray bullet ended Mitchell’s life, she and her daughter discussed a trip they were planning to Atlantic City. Mitchell wanted to make sure she had evening clothes to take with her, and talked about shopping for a new outfit. “She loved clothes, she loved shoes…she always dressed…the nails were always done,” said Mitchell’s daughter, Shahron Williams van Rooij, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
Mitchell, who read both the Daily News and The New York Times daily, had just come home from an exercise class at a local senior center on the day she was murdered. Her daughter said she was waiting for her favorite game show, Jeopardy, to air on television, and was about to make dinner when the bullet ended her evening plans, ended her Atlantic City vacation plans, and ended her life.
“I never felt the fear of being shot or stabbed,” van Rooij said of her childhood in Williamsbridge. “The Bronx was a very pleasant place at the time.” She said the only gang she knew was in the film West Side Story.
On recent visits to her mother, van Rooij said she noticed that the neighborhood had declined significantly, with more drug dealers, more teens in the streets during school hours, and a lot of young people fighting. Yet, her mother never felt unsafe. “That’s the irony of it,” she said.
Many Williamsbridge residents believe that the stray bullet is a byproduct of stray lives: teenagers who grew up with troubled childhoods in broken families or working families with little supervision or discipline.
“I don’t feel any safer,” said Mitchell’s neighbor, John Fields, on the day Blair was arrested. He is nervous that teens are still a threat to the neighborhood.
An Epidemic of Crime and Fear
Teen crime, especially robbery, has been on the rise, according to a 47th Precinct officer, who would not identify himself by name. He said the precinct’s school unit has increased to 10 officers, doubling since 2007. “I think it’s definitely the way parents are raising their children today,” he said. “Without a doubt.” He has been in the precinct, which covers the northeast Bronx, for 14 years. “The crime up here in general has been going up,” he said.
Relationships between police and Bronx teens are tense as officers try to maintain order in the 47th Precinct. On Thursday, Nov. 19, police walked a teenage boy out of A2Z Convenient Store on White Plains Road in handcuffs as they told a group of about 15 teenagers to leave the area. As police wrote down the teen’s information at the cop car, a girl approached one of the cops to make sure they knew that the boy did, in fact, pay for his juice. The officers were not amused by the situation, but were quite casual, as this was a nuance they had faced so many times before. “They’re really out of control,” one officer said. He blamed poor parenting and said that Williamsbridge has a high concentration of gangs, many involving teens. Another stepped in after hearing the first officers concerns, “They’re not brought up,” he said. “They’re brought down.”
Many Williamsbridge residents remember a time when they did not live in fear. Jacqueline Sams, 74, who grew up in Williamsbridge, remembers a different neighborhood. “In the 1940s, all parents weren’t working, she said.” She never came home to an empty house, but said now so many children are born into either single-parent homes or households with two working parents that no one is ever home. Sams no longer leaves her house after dark. “We actually changed our lifestyle gradually to feel safer.”
Almost all area high school students recognize that many of their classmates are in gangs, and some estimate that up to a third of their classmates may be involved.
Teens have their own ideas about why some of their classmates are drawn to gangs. “They’re easily vulnerable, so they do things that they shouldn’t,” said Matthew Anderson, a senior at the Evander Childs High School Campus on Gun Hill Road. He focuses his energy on acting, playing Malcolm in the school’s performance of Macbeth, and he credits his mother with keeping him on the right path. “My mom is still strict,” he said.
“I worry about getting robbed,” said O’Dell Davis, a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. He hangs out casually with some teens who are in gangs, but keeps his distance because he does not want to become involved. “They don’t all carry guns,” he said. “Most of them fight.” But he added that around Williamsbridge, “you can get a gun faster than you can get a job.”
Teens have handshakes and hand signals that are specific to their gangs, and they make signs to each other during class, said Davis’s friend, D’shawn Stevens, also a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. “They’re nice in school, but after school they’re a whole different person,” said Stevens, who has recently been staying inside more often, especially at night.
Other Bullets, Other Victims
An escalation of violence in the last few months justifies the uneasiness. Mitchell’s murder fits an alarming pattern of teen violence, stray bullets, and unintended victims.
In September, a stray bullet killed 25-year-old Aisha Santiago in front of her son as she was about to help her best friend do laundry in Mott Haven. A 25-year-old was charged with second-degree murder and a 16-year-old with attempted murder. In November, a stray bullet struck 14-year-old Vada Vasquez on her way home from school in Morrisania. After brain surgery and two weeks of fighting for her life at Lincoln Hospital, Vasquez has moved on to rehabilitation and doctors expect a full recovery, according to the Daily News.
On Nov. 23, at the National Day of Outrage vigil at the Bronx County Court, Aisha Santiago’s mother wept openly as she shared her pain. “I have problems sleeping because I still see her body lying there,” Yvette Montanez said. “I struggle to get up in the morning to go to work.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. held the National Day of Outrage, to stress the need for community action. “We will be proactive from now on, we will not be reactive,” he said.
Diaz pointed out one problem in particular that has led to teen crime. “Many of these young men don’t have male role models,” he said. “The Bronx has the highest number of single mothers. Fathers need to step it up.”
At the vigil, Heriberto Rodriguez, 20, who graduated from Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx, said Bronx communities are partially responsible for teen violence. “There’s not a lot of programs for the youth,” he said. He added that the Bronx needs more community centers, an issue that has been addressed by many local activists lobbying for a center in the Northeast Bronx. Rodriguez now interns at Banana Kelly and helps organize a group of teens against violence called United Playaz, several of whom attended National Day of Outrage, where they held a sign that read, “It takes the hood to save the hood.”
George Stewart, 42, who grew up in the Northeast Bronx and whose family has been active in the community, blames his generation for problems with teens even though he has no children of his own. “My generation specifically, we’ve dropped the ball,” said Stewart, who is president of a debt recovery business. “We have to get black men engaging these young black males,” he said. Out of frustration, he sometimes stops kids on the street to tell them “where that style of grunge came from.” Wearing pants too low, he explains, is actually a signal used in prisons: “The farther down your pants, the more available you are.”
A Confession and a Life on Hold
The concern for teens that has been pouring through the Bronx recently may be too late for Jamal Blair.
“I went to a bush and pulled out a .22 caliber gun, and shot one shot in the air,” he confessed to police before pleading “not guilty.” “The gun belonged to an older man who lived on the block…and told me anytime I need it it’s there.” Blair said he and two friends were being chased by teens from the nearby Edenwald Houses when he shot the bullet.
Police have not found the gun, or if they have, no one has told Blair’s lawyer, Angelo MacDonald. The police have not released their investigation, so MacDonald has not formulated his defense. He has heard a rumor that Mitchell was struck by a 9 mm bullet, which would significantly weaken Blair’s original confession of shooting a .22 caliber gun. It’s still unclear whether Blair’s confessed shot was the shot. MacDonald implied that the case may not even go to trial if there is not quality evidence, and a murder weapon would certainly constitute quality evidence.
So, Blair sits in Rikers Island, waiting. His future depends on whatever evidence police uncover. He will appear in court on Jan. 8, when pre-trial motions will be made.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s home on 224th Street appears exactly as it did when she was living inside. From the street, there is not even a visible crack in the window, but now the tidy light green house with a small fenced-in front yard is empty.