After teen's death, grief and questions

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 9:03 PM

In the parlor of the rowhouse where Joseph A. Sharps Jr. lived, relatives kept telling his mother, Cynthia Sharps, to hurry up. She had to be going soon. It was a little past 2 p.m. Tuesday, and she was due at the D.C. morgue by 3 to identify her 17-year-old son, killed by gunfire on the street the night before.

But Sharps, 51, had a point she wanted to make about the death of Little Joe, as the slain teenager was called. In a city where lethal mayhem among the young is common, sometimes the killers and the killed blend as one in the public's mind - just thugs murdering thugs out there. "And it's a myth," she said.

"Because a lot of good kids get killed, too."

Including Little Joe, she said.

Joe Sharps, a senior at the District's Spingarn High School, was gunned down shortly after 8:30 p.m. Monday on Holbrook Street NE in the violence-plagued Trinidad neighborhood, a half-mile from his home in the 1500 block of Queen Street NE. A classmate walking with him was wounded, but not critically.

"My son and his friend were just jawing at each other, you know, fooling around, talking trash, is what I was told," said the dead boy's father, Joseph A. Sharps Sr., 54, a lube manager at a car dealership.

He stood on the front porch of the brick rowhouse in the autumn sunshine, waiting to leave for the morgue with his wife of 18 years. "And three guys, so I'm told, they thought that they was talking to them, as far as I know. The one guy says, 'What'd you say?' And he just pulled out a gun, and he shot my son. Shot the both of them."

Police wouldn't comment on the shooting except to say that it was under investigation by homicide detectives.

"Killed my son for what reason?" the father pleaded.

Behind him, Cynthia Sharps leaned on a doorjamb in the parlor. Her sister-in-law Wanda Davis, 44, was perched in a corner with a computer on her lap, typing an obituary. The victim's sister Abrianna Sharps, 16, sat slumped on a sofa between two friends, the three girls struggling for words. What can be said about a life barely lived?

"He was lots of fun," Brittany Lewis, 16, said in a tiny voice. "He had lots of friends."

"He really liked sports," Abrianna added. "Football. Baseball. Basketball."

Spingarn High is a tough place, said the girls, all students there. "Lots of drama," Abrianna said. "Like, beefs between kids, them fighting all the time." Whether the shooter knew Joe from school is a mystery to the relatives. They said he got caught up in some fights at Spingarn but never had trouble with police.

"Kids fighting because of turf," the father said. "You got Trinidad. You got 21st Street. And Nineteenth. And you got E Street. . . . Most of the time, we'd have to pick him up from school, because he's scared of walking past that way or taking the bus."

Cynthia Sharps, a home health-care aide, said she set boundaries for Little Joe.

"He knew my policy: No drugs, no alcohol. And I'd get after him about language. You know, he did the slang words, that street language. I'd say, 'You have to learn how to talk!' And he'd say, 'Don't worry, Ma, when I go somewhere, I know how to talk.' "

He wasn't allowed outside late at night, she said. "The children Little Joe has been around, they all come from good families. They stay off the streets. They play sports. They go to school. All of them are school-minded, to go to college."

About 7:30 p.m. Monday, he finished his homework, then went out, she said.

"He asked for two dollars. He always did that. He was going to get two candy bars, a Snickers and a Reese's. That's what he does, either at the gas station or the CVS. Every night, he'd ask me for two dollars, walk down, get him a Snickers and a Reese's and come back home. Him and his friend, that was his routine."

It was past time for her to be going to the morgue, but instead she led a reporter through her small kitchen and downstairs to Little Joe's basement bedroom, where his Monday night homework was still on his desk. His music teacher had assigned the class to write the definitions of some words. Little Joe did it in cursive with a pen.

Timbre - Combo of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume.

Heterophony - Playing or singing of two or more versions of a melody.

Nine definitions in all. "Joseph Sharps," he wrote at the top of the page, "11-8-10."

"He was an honor student," his mother said. "And then he fell down with his grades and stuff. And he was building it back up. So this semester should have been pretty good."

She said: "He wanted to go to college in Florida or NYU. He didn't want to play sports there or anything. He was more, like, he wanted to be financial."

"He wanted to own ESPN," his half-brother Adrian Kinard, 21, said with a grin.

"He sure did," his mother said, shaking her head.

"It's the truth," Kinard said. "He'd say it every day. He wanted to own ESPN."

Putting on her jacket to leave, Cynthia Sharps managed to smile.

"That was his main goal," she said. "He had a lot of them."

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