They were best friends, boys 13 and 14, loners drawn together by their love of video games and scared of the drugs and crime outside their apartment complex on Downing Street in Northeast Washington.
On Tuesday night, they apparently were inside the older boy’s third-story apartment in Brentwood, playing with a loaded handgun that either went off or was fired, according to police and relatives. At least one bullet struck the 13-year-old, Tyrin Caldwell, in the chest. The eighth-grader died less than four hours later.
The shooting has left two families from adjacent apartment buildings heartbroken, though both say they don’t believe the gun was fired intentionally and don’t want charges to be filed. The father of the boy who died and the mother of the boy who might have pulled the trigger are friends.
“I’m sure it was an accident,” said Tyrone Celey, the victim’s 31-year-old father.
D.C. police Cmdr. George Kucik, head of the criminal investigation division, said the “preliminary investigation indicates that this is an accidental shooting.”
But police said they were continuing to investigate and to question both the teenager and his mother to get a clear picture of what happened inside the apartment. Authorities said they do not yet know how the boy obtained the weapon, though neighbors talked among themselves Wednesday about the circumstances behind the shooting.
“We are trying to sort out what is rumor and what is fact,” Kucik said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.“We want a clear understanding of exactly what happened.”
Celey was standing outside the apartment building talking with the 14-year-old’s mother when the shooting occurred. He didn’t hear the shot but said another child ran down to tell him his son was hurt. He raced upstairs and found Tyrin lying on the floor. “Daddy, hurt,” he repeated over and over again.
Celey said he obtained custody of Tyrin last year after a long struggle with his mother, who lives in Southeast. “I feel like I failed,” he said as he stood in his courtyard Wednesday, talking to relatives about funeral arrangements and watching over four other children. “I’ve been trying to get my mind around this. If only my boy had been somewhere other than that apartment.”
A handful of neighbors gathered along Downing Street near the corner of Montana Avenue NE as police continued to investigate Wednesday. Detectives and forensic experts were inside the apartment while armed private security guards stood watch at the entrance, forbidding entry and admonishing reporters who tried to talk to residents.
Relatives and friends of both boys live throughout the yellow buildings of the apartment complex called Brooklyn Manor, and in rowhouses across the street. There seemed to be no animosity among them. “My heart goes out to both sides of the family,” said Jessie McPhaul, who has lived on the street for 40 years. “And I feel sorry for all the young people. I’m sure the kids don’t want to tell what happened, but they don’t have anyone to turn to.”
Her neighbor is 26-year-old Keith Pryor, who said he is the 14-year-old’s godfather. He was at work but rushed home when he heard what had happened. “They were best friends,” he said of the boys. His godson, Pryor said, “wouldn’t have done anything to hurt his friend. I just don’t understand how this happened. It’s definitely an accident.”
The 14-year-old’s mother could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The Washington Post is not identifying her son because he is a juvenile and has not been charged with a crime. Pryor said he has no idea how the youth obtained a gun and said none were kept in his apartment.
Pryor said his godson and Tyrin quickly became friends because they were so much alike. Both were withdrawn and preferred the close company of just a few friends. Pryor said the 14-year-old often could be found playing basketball alone. Both stayed inside a lot to get away from the drug dealers who worked nearby Saratoga Avenue.
Celey, the victim’s father, said he could not recall what he first saw when he rushed upstairs to the shooting. It was unclear whether the child who first told him was inside the apartment when Tyrin was shot or rushed there afterward. Celey said he grabbed a phone “trying to get an ambulance here in time. I guess I didn’t.” He said the 14-year-old was crying and told him he didn’t mean to shoot.
Tyrin was in the eighth grade at the Langdon Education Campus, a six-block walk from his home. His 14-year-old friend attended a different school. But after classes and on weekends, “if you saw one, you saw the other,” Celey said. “They were inseparable.”
They often played basketball and the popular John Madden football video game. But on Tuesday they were playing with a gun, authorities said. “They were doing something they shouldn’t with a gun,” Celey said. “They knew it was wrong. They were old enough. And a life was lost in the process.”
Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.