The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eight years after one of the District’s deadliest mass shootings, grief and pain persist

Kevin Attaway and his mother, Lavenia Attaway, in her Northeast Washington home. For nearly eight years, Kevin Attaway has lived with a bullet from an assault rifle lodged in his skull. Doctors say surgery to remove it would be fatal. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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For eight years, Kevin Attaway has lived with a bullet from an AK-47-style assault rifle lodged in his skull. Doctors say surgery to remove it would be fatal. Traumatic brain injury has diminished his mental capacity, leaving the 35-year-old in what his mother calls a “childlike” state.

Ra’Shauna Brown was 17 when shots from the same gun ripped through her leg and back. As Brown fell, she watched as her 16-year-old friend was fatally shot in the head. For years afterward, Brown was haunted by nightmares, depression and anxiety attacks that forced her to drop out of college. Even now, as she juggles retail jobs and takes online courses, she remains filled with guilt.

Why did she live, and her best friend die?

Brown and Attaway are among the survivors of one of the District’s deadliest mass shootings. It was about 7:25 p.m. on March 30, 2010, when men in a minivan opened fire on a group of young people who had gathered at South Capitol Street SE. They were there to remember a friend whose funeral was held that day.

In all, nine people were shot. Three, including Brown’s best friend, Brishell “Bri” Jones, died. Another person, a 17-year-old, was killed minutes earlier by the gunmen as part of a robbery tied to the shooting.

With renewed attention nationwide on gun violence following February’s deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school, the survivors and families of victims of the South Capitol Street shooting say their stories are an example of the long-term struggles.

As they reach the eighth anniversary, they continue to wrestle with emotional and physical scars. Some have turned to advocacy, pushing for ways to reduce violence, but found a fight that can be frustrating. Others are just trying to focus on everyday life.

“It still sucks. I don’t even know how to explain it,” Brown, now 25, said as tears fell down her face. “I’m trying to make sense of what my purpose is. I think about it often. Now I feel I really have to make something out of my life. Just to make it really, really worth it just because something was lost. Sometimes it feels as if it’s getting easier and then sometimes, it just doesn’t.”

Fueled by revenge

The shootings were sparked by misplaced revenge, prosecutors said, over a missing gold-painted bracelet.

Five District men were arrested and ultimately convicted of more than 200 charges between them, including first-degree, premeditated murder and gun offenses. They were ordered to serve sentences ranging from decades in prison to life terms.

[Shooting suspect describes gunning down of mourners]

As lead prosecutor in the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Brittin and his colleagues called 100 witnesses and put on some 1,000 exhibits. It remains one of the most memorable cases of his 33-year career.

“All but two of the victims were 20 years old or younger. And they had been to a funeral and simply gunned down. For attending a funeral,” Brittin said.

The young man the group was mourning had been shot because he was mistakenly suspected of stealing the bracelet from a party. That sparked retaliatory violence that ended with the South Capitol Street shootings.

Also killed in the group were 18-year-old DaVaughn Boyd and 19-year-old William Jones. “All of this occurred over a missing piece of costume jewelry,” the prosecutor said.

The case, he said, is a “pretty vivid example” of how when guns get into the hands of “young criminally minded individuals, pretty bad things can occur.”

'A silent tomb'

Today, Nardyne Jefferies calls her townhouse in Southwest Washington a “silent tomb” for her daughter. Brishell’s dolls and ballet awards remain in her lavender-painted bedroom.

In the refrigerator, Jefferies keeps a Domino’s Pizza box that holds three slices covered with ham and pineapple, remnants of Brishell’s last meal. On the outside of the box is a computer generated time stamp of the order: 5:30 p.m., March 30, 2010.

“It’s been a living hell for me,” Jefferies said.

She said she wrestles with guilt for allowing her daughter to attend the funeral. Guilt for allowing her daughter to gather with others afterward. “I even blame myself for buying this house and moving here,” she said.

Jefferies, who works as a data-entry analyst for a Virginia-based company, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, as well as trichotillomania, a disease that causes her to pull out her hair and eyelashes.

Four guilty of first-degree murder in 2010 shootings; fifth convicted on lesser charges

One recent day, Brown came to visit, sitting with Jefferies in her living room. Brown and Brishell had been best friends since middle school. Brown calls Jefferies “ma.”

The two laughed and chatted about memories of Brown and Brishell growing up together, sleepovers and music. They also talked about antidepressants and sleep aids they have needed.

“Knowing that I am here and she’s not. I am trying to make sense of that. But for the last couple of years I have been coping with it and not beating myself up about it,” Brown said.

Brown said she did not hear the gunshots that night, just felt her leg give out and then pain. As she looked around, she saw Brishell’s body.

“I just kept screaming, ‘Brishell! Brishell!’ ” she recalled.

That fall, Brown entered Marshall University in West Virginia as a freshman psychology major. She spent a little more than four years at the school, but had trouble focusing. She, too, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually, school became too difficult, and she left. Two years ago, she returned to the District and now takes online college classes while working in retail.

After her daughter’s death, Jefferies focused on advocating for gun control. She is on the boards of several organizations for parents whose children died in gun violence.

Jefferies petitioned city officials to have the street where Brishell lived — just blocks from where she was killed — named after her. In January, Jefferies, Brishell’s father and other family and friends joined city leaders at the corner of South Capitol Street SE and Danbury Street SW as Danbury was renamed Brishell Jones Way.

A stronger me

Across town in Northeast Washington on another recent day, Attaway relaxed on the sofa at his mother’s house with Jagger, a pit bull and Labrador mix at his feet.

Attaway has a scar and slight indentation on the left side of his head. He does not remember the shooting and said he learned only weeks ago what happened. “I was like, wow. I didn’t know that,” he recalled.

His mother, Lavenia Attaway, later corrected him. “He has known for years. He just forgets. You can have a conversation with him and minutes later, he will forget everything you said.”

Still, Lavenia Attaway said she is “grateful” and “blessed” that two of her sons who were shot on that corner survived.

Although Kevin Attaway did not attend the funeral that day, his younger brother Jamal Blakeney did. After the service, Blakeney, now 28, telephoned him to hang out with friends. He was shot in his back and spent a week in the hospital. Attaway, more seriously injured, needed months of rehabilitation to learn to walk and talk again.

Attaway still loves to play basketball and, at 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, walks to a recreation center to shoot hoops several times a week. He also spends time with his 17-year-old daughter.

These days, he is focusing on losing a few pounds, he said as he let out an animated laugh: “My doctors tell me I have to stop pigging out.”

He does not focus on the shooting. “Why bother?” he said. “I pulled through. I just got to be a stronger me. Real talk.”

No one has listened

The day of the shooting, many of the victims had gone to the funeral for 20-year-old Jordan Howe.

Howe, mistakenly suspected of stealing the bracelet, had been shot with the same AK-47-style rifle while sitting in a car in Southeast Washington. In trial testimony, it was found that a woman who also attended the party had casually slipped the trinket on her wrist.

Witness’s testimony highlights complexities of D.C. shooting trial

Howe’s father, Norman Williams, learned many of the details of his son’s death during the 2012 trial.

The heartache still feels fresh. “I’m still hurting,” Williams said, his eyes flooding with tears. “I don’t know what closure is when your heart has been ripped out of you. I can never find joy.”

Williams keeps a bag of his son’s belongings, including boxing gloves and title belts. Howe, a welterweight, was scheduled to fight in his first professional match that summer.

A middle child among Williams’s 10 children, Howe had something “special,” his father boasted. “He had the looks. He had the talent. He was going to be a star.”

Williams, Jefferies and others close to the victims have attended anti-gun-violence events, including meetings with parents of the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting.

But Williams grew weary. “After a couple of years of doing that, going to these different rallies and meetings, I felt that nothing was changing,” he said. “I felt useless and helpless.”

Today, Williams works with children at a Georgetown recreation center, allowing him time to smile as he watches them play.

The national reaction to the shooting in Parkland, Fla., Williams said, inspired him. It has also angered him.

“This isn’t the first mass shooting. This isn’t the first school shooting. We’ve been calling for gun change for years, and no one has listened to us,” he said. “All lives matter. Those kids in Florida and our kids here in Washington. All lives matter.”