Friday, June 1, 2012

Survivor Story: The Shooting I Was In

I was in a shooting in the summer of 1990.  Luckily, I wasn't injured.  Today is the anniversary.

It was June 1 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and I was 18 years old, looking forward to entering college.  It had been an eventful summer already, with the robbery of my home a couple months earlier.  I had worked with a sheriff's detective to identify the three teens who had kicked in my door and robbed the place while I and my family were away, and I helped identify their motive (they pawned our things to pay off a drug debt to a biker called "Concrete").  I had also had a job working nights as a custodian at a local health club.  I was healthy, happy, and had a lot to look forward to.  With all that had already happened, I figured I had another couple months or so to relax and enjoy the warm summer nights of Arkansas before hitting the books in college.

I was getting ready to go to my night job that night when I got a call from my best friend, Jason.  He told me that a mutual friend, Ryan, was at the mall and was about to get jumped by some bullies.  He implored me to go and get Ryan and get him out of there, since I had a car and he did not.  I reluctantly agreed, since the mall was on my way to work.

It was getting dark when I got to the mall.  I looked everywhere, and over an hour later was about to leave when I finally found Ryan at the south entrance.  I told him my "mission" and tried to get him out, but he refused to leave until he had watched something that was happening just outside the entrance, in the parking lot.  Annoyed, I followed him and found a large group of teens clustered around a car.  Night had fallen, and everything was bathed in the yellow light from the parking lot poles.

A large boy, whom I later found out was an 18-year old named John Raper, was standing by the passenger side of a Mercedes talking to a boy inside the car, and I couldn't hear what was being said.  The boy inside was a slim 16-year old named Mark Haynes, as I later learned, more commonly called "Skater Mark."  He was clearly intimidated by the larger kid.  The large group of teens circled around them were expecting a fight.  I had never met either boy, nor particularly cared about them;  I just wanted to get Ryan and get out in time to get to work.  Much later, I learned that John and Mark had a feud over a girlfriend.  I also learned later that Mark had been drinking.

The argument between the boys became more hostile, and they raised their voices.  Not only was Mark visibly intimidated by John, but he no doubt felt he had to do something now that he was being scrutinized by a growing crowd of peers.  Mark suddenly threw open the door to the car and jumped out.  A shoving match began.  Mark was obviously frightened, but John didn't appear the least bit concerned.  He crossed his muscle-bound arms and smirked at the smaller boy.

That's when Skater Mark pulled out a black semi-auto handgun.  Everyone screamed, and the crowd pulled away.  Some kids ran.  I and another boy crouched behind another car.  A newspaper article later said the gun was a .9mm.

"I've got a gun, motherfucker!" Mark screamed at John, "and I'm not afraid to use it!"

John acted nonchalant, not raising a hand at Mark, but not backing down either.

"These are real bullets, motherfucker!" Mark screamed, wanting to scare John and seeming to fail.  He ejected the clip to show John, then slammed it back in the gun.  "I'm going to fucking shoot you!"

John's demeanor didn't change.  If he said anything at all, I don't remember it.

Then Mark raised the weapon and fired a shot into John's forehead.

I was only about six feet away.

The next few moments seemed to pass in slow motion.  John's head flew back.  His hat went flying.  His body fell backward against the side of the Mercedes and then slid down and slumped to the pavement in a sitting position.

Everyone screamed and scattered.  I and the other boy crouched lower and watched as Mark got back into the passenger side of the Mercedes.

I told the boy next to me to help me remember the Mercedes license plate number, thinking that Mark would speed away.  Instead, Mark jumped back out of the car and started off away from the mall, staggering, dazed and seeming to make a run for it.

I and some other kids ran over to John.  He wasn't moving and wasn't breathing.  I pressed my fingers to his neck, trying to read for a pulse and desperately trying to remember my Boy Scout first aid training.  He was clammy, and I couldn't feel a pulse no matter how I tried.  "I think he's dead," I said to a girl next to me.  There was a bullet hole in his forehead.  Strangely, I don't remember there being much blood at that time.

I looked up, and Skater Mark was now half-way across the huge mall parking lot.  I blurted, "We've got to catch him!"  I ran to my Bronco, which was parked nearby, and drove off after him, not really thinking about what I would do when I got to him.  It was a foolish thing to do, but I was young.  There is no way I would support someone doing such a dangerous thing now.

Seeing me, he started running, and dashed across the busy five-lane highway next to the mall. 

I didn't see exactly where he went, but managed to get across the traffic in my vehicle.  I flashed my lights at some bushes on the property of a church, and he darted out again, this time running back across the highway, back toward the mall.

Again, I managed to get across the traffic and found the boy next to a car full of teens, likely trying to get them to give him a ride.  This time I drove back across the parking lot, back to the scene of the shooting, where I saw that the police had arrived.

The scene of the shooting had perhaps two hundred people around it now, mainly teens, with police and an ambulance.  I stopped my car and ran to what I thought was a police officer, but turned out to be mall security, and tried to tell him where I had last seen the shooter.  The man was a moron and refused to listen to me.  Annoyed, I looked around for an authority to talk to, when suddenly everyone yelled and pointed.  "There he is!" they shouted.

Skater Mark had returned to the scene of the shooting and tried to blend into the crowd.  The police quickly caught him and put him in the back of a cruiser.

I spent the next half hour or so at the scene, comforting a couple of other witnesses and watching in horror as paramedics tried in vain to resuscitate the victim, who was now lying in a pool of blood.  Then they loaded John on an ambulance and drove off.  He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

It was during this time that I discovered the 14-year old younger brother of my friend Jason, named Jeff, in the crowd.  He, too, had witnessed everything.

I gave my information as a witness to a police officer, and he asked me to take Jeff and go to the police station to be interviewed, which I did.  I waited at the station all night long with a couple dozen other teens, including Jeff and Ryan.  There had been another fatal shooting that night, which was gang-related, which delayed the police investigators.  We waited and waited, with local ministers coming to help comfort some of the kids. Finally, around maybe 3 AM, I was the last of the witnesses to be interviewed by the two weary detectives.  I identified the shooter from a photo lineup and gave my account of what happened.  I agreed to be a witness at the trial, if subpoenaed, and was released just before dawn.

During the interview, I finally learned some details about the shooting, like the victim's and shooter's full names, the reason for the argument, and the caliber of the gun. 

I also learned that the gun had jammed and was found in the Mercedes.  No one knew who Mark had tried to shoot the second time.  John, again?  Himself?  A witness?  Me?? 

Weeks passed.  Unlike the other witnesses, I wasn't plagued by nightmares, nor afraid of the scene of the shooting.  Maybe it was because I didn't know the shooter or the victim, or maybe it was because this wasn't my first encounter with gun violence (a friend had committed suicide three years before), but I was able to get past the trauma.  I was subpoenaed, as expected, but didn't have to go.  Skater Mark pleaded guilty, and I got to go to my college freshman pre-orientation instead.

I quickly immersed myself into college life and put my traumatic summer behind me.  Because of this, I'm sorry to say, I never learned what Mark's sentence was.  Since I wasn't family of the victim or the shooter, I wasn't allowed information from this juvenile case, even now. 

The shooting was just one in my town that year, a town overrun with gang violence, so the community quickly grew numb to what had happened.  The blood was cleaned up.  The blurb in the newspaper was forgotten (click on the photo to read it).  The only remnants left were the traumatic memories of the witnesses and the shattered lives and families of two teen boys, one dead, the other in prison.

What lessons can be learned from this event?  Where did the gun come from?  The shooter had been drinking.  Where did he get his alcohol?  Why did he feel it necessary to carry a gun?  If he knew a fight was coming, why did he go to the mall?  In our gun-crazy society, was he bolstered into using a gun by the popular image of a powerful, gun-wielding underdog?  Why didn't he just leave the fight?  Why did he feel it necessary to pull the gun?  Of course, these questions may never be answered. 

Mark bares the responsibility for his actions, but the mistakes made by others that night don't need to be repeated.  Wherever the gun came from, it clearly wasn't locked up away from this young shooter.  Every gun in the hands of a child must first pass through the hands of an adult -- a careless one, in this case.  Alcohol likely dimmed Mark's senses and increased his risky behavior, so another adult enabled that aspect as well.  And if anyone else knew that Mark had a gun that night, they failed to alert authorities to it.  They are responsible in their own way, too.  And lastly, why didn't John back off, instead of continuing to intimidate Mark?  Was he drunk, too?  Didn't he realize his peril?  He had risky behavior of his own, in bullying Mark at the start and continuing to egg him on, even after the gun was drawn.  There was a time in America when a fight like this would have been handled with fists, and no one would have had to die.  Why is it so easy for children to get their hands on guns?  And why do they feel it necessary, all too often, to use a gun to solve their problems?

Now I'm a father.  I work hard now to try and prevent shootings like the one I was in, prevent guns from getting into the hands of those who shouldn't have them, and encourage commonsense gun regulation through education and legislation.  If we do it right, my children will never need to witness what I did.   

It's time to make a new trajectory for our nation, away from gun violence.

UPDATE (9/10/16):  Here is another eyewitness account of that shooting, by David Hill, who was age 13 at the time: