The first thing Darryl Towns did, after he was shot, was stagger toward his mother’s bedroom. She wasn’t home. He knew that. But bleeding from the chest, the life oozing out of him, he retreated to the safest place he could think of: Mama’s room.
He had always been his mother’s son. How many times, as a little boy, had he tiptoed down this same short hallway, curled up at the foot of her bed, and watched TV with the volume low until she woke up?
Now he came to her doorway with two bullet holes in his body. It was the middle of another evening in the middle of another week and he had been shot. Over what? Over nothing important. That’s how it works in the city. He grabbed his mother’s cordless phone and stumbled back down the hallway.
Darryl’s strength was ebbing now, and he wobbled near the stove, knocking it forward as he tried to stay upright. He fell, dropped the phone, and went face down. The floor began to moisten red.
Darryl’s been shot! Darryl’s been shot!
Neighbors quickly gathered outside. Darryl’s friend Ronald Stewart — Ron-Ron, they called him — came pushing through the side door. He saw Darryl on the kitchen floor, heard him mumbling, and dragged him out to the driveway.
“You’re gonna be OK . . .” Ron-Ron said, panting, “you’re gonna be OK.” But police cars were coming and women were crying and Darryl Ray Towns Jr., a 15-year-old who had never done a criminal thing in his life, was not going to be OK. In a few more minutes, he was not going to be alive.
This is your son, Detroit. This is the kid you want to raise. A good kid. A trouble-free kid. A kid who went to school, listened to his mother, was embraced by his neighborhood, played wide receiver on Cody’s junior varsity football team, and loved basketball so much he took catechism classes so that he could continue to play in a nearby Catholic church league, backing his 6-foot-3 frame into the lane, turning, shooting, hearing the crowd cheer.
This is the kid who makes you say, “Man, if they could all be like that one, the city would be a better place.”
He was that one.
He’s still dead.
‘His body was still warm’
Annette Towns, 46, sits at her kitchen table, holding a picture of her son in his basketball uniform. On the evening of Sept. 9, she was working her usual shift as a secretary at Sinai-Grace Hospital when someone said, “Annette, there’s an emergency phone call….”
Next thing she knew she was racing her car through the north side of Detroit, the string of small houses blurring past her windows. She turned down her street and saw flashing police lights. Crowds of neighbors.
A woman named Teresa grabbed her first. “I tried to do CPR, Annette! There was too much damage, too much internal bleeding….”
Annette’s head was spinning. Internal bleeding? Yellow tape around her front porch? “WHERE IS MY SON?” she demanded. A police officer said he had just been taken to Sinai-Grace.
“But I work there! I just came from there! . . .”
Minutes later she was back at the hospital, running instinctively to the trauma room, because if the victim is in the trauma room, she knew, it means he’s still alive and they’re trying to save his life.
But Darryl — her youngest child, her movie partner, her kitchen helper — was not in the trauma room. He was in a room off to the side, alone, on a gurney.
And suddenly, Annette Towns was at the hospital not as an employee, but as next of kin.
“His body was still warm, and I held him and kissed him,” she whispers now. “I stayed there with him alone for 15 minutes. They gave me that, I guess, because I work there.”
She is sitting inside her small but tidy house on Fielding Street. A strongly set woman with an easy smile, she is not only a single mother who has raised an educated family, but she has worked for years in emergency rooms and intensive care wards. She has seen doctors crack open rib cages to give heart massages. She has seen babies born with organs outside the skin.
You would figure Annette Towns has seen it all. But as she dabs her eyes with a tissue it’s clear that she never figured to see this: her two older children, Kevin, 25, and Monique, 21, safe inside the house.
And Darryl, her baby, never coming home.
“I keep expecting him to come through the door, you know?” she says. “I keep expecting to hear him say, ‘Mama, did you get me that jacket I wanted for Christmas?’ I keep expecting to hear his basketball bouncing out in the driveway.
“I mean, everyone loved Darryl. The whole neighborhood knew him. I don’t understand. These boys were his friends! Why would friends do this?”
Why would friends do this? The incident that led to Darryl’s death was so small, so …nothing, that you can only shake your head at the senselessness.
Here is what happened, according to police reports and interviews with witnesses: On that Thursday evening, Darryl was at home. A couple of girls from the neighborhood were in the house visiting. Two of Darryl’s teenage friends, Lynell Drake and Jonathan Nettles — better known as John-John — came by and knocked on the door. They wanted to play basketball on the hoop behind Darryl’s house, a hoop his mother constructed years ago by cementing a pole into the middle of a tire.
With or without Darryl’s permission — it is not clear — the two teens played ball. Eventually, John-John wanted to enter the house. He and Lynell banged repeatedly on the door, yelling to Darryl: “Let us in! Let us in!” Darryl refused. He had instructions from his mother that only certain friends were allowed inside when she wasn’t home. John-John was not one of them.
The banging and yelling continued. Darryl got angry. His friend Ron-Ron came over, tried to calm him down, but by now the teens were into one of those “He can’t do that to me” things, Darryl thinking “they can’t disrespect my house in front of these girls,” and John-John thinking “he can’t lock me out in front of these girls.”
Foolish? Yes. Unusual? No. Darryl finally went outside and got into a tussle with John-John. It didn’t last long. Darryl was 10 inches taller. When it was over, and John-John had “lost,” he went away embarrassed and angry.
“You better watch your back,” he allegedly warned Darryl. “You’re gonna get your cranium cracked.”
An hour or so later, John-John returned. And, as is so often the case, he had company to help him exact his revenge. Lynell was there. So was another 15-year-old named Patrick Roberts. Unfortunately, so was Patrick’s older brother, a 24-year-old named Damon Smith.
And Damon had a gun.
You can pretty much finish the tale yourself. John-John banged on the door. There was yelling. More yelling. Eventually Darryl made the mistake of going outside. A fight broke out. The others got involved. They skirmished in the driveway.
And then, as Patrick later told police, “I was hitting Darryl and I got up and I saw my brother Damon with the gun.
“Darryl was still on the ground.
“My brother shot him.
“We took off running.
“We ran back to the car.
“Jonathan dropped me and Damon off….
“We walked home.”
And that’s the end of the story.
Kill like adults, pray like kids
The funeral was held at St. Suzanne. Father Dennis Duggan, who had watched the Baptist-born Darryl come every Sunday to learn Catholicism — just so he could keep playing on the church basketball team — presided over his death service.
Darryl’s teammates put basketball medals in his coffin. His No. 33 jersey was retired, although “retired” seems ironic when applied to a 15-year-old.
The Cody High football coaches mourned the talent that would no longer catch touchdown passes.
The eulogy pamphlet, with pictures of Darryl as a smiling little boy, included a poem:
Little one, little one,
Where have you gone?
Your going has darkened
the brightest dawn …
On butterfly’s wings?
In the heart of a rose?
Who knows, who knows,
where a little one goes?
The four suspects were arrested. They face murder charges and possible life in prison. One is a man. The others are barely old enough to drive.
And this week, Annette Towns placed a Christmas wreath on her son’s tombstone.
“My kids keep asking me, ‘Mama, why you keep going to the cemetery?’ ” she says. “I say, ‘Because it’s quiet there. I can talk to him. I can say what I want to say.’
“I’m going today to give Darryl a Christmas blanket. He always loved Christmas. He’d stand by me when I made the sweet potato pie and he’d say, ‘We gotta test it first, Mama.’ And he’d eat a whole big piece….”
Kids fight. They always have. Had there not been a gun involved in this story, this might not be a story. There would have been black eyes and bruised egos and nothing more.
Instead, because guns are so available, because this country balks at the slightest limitation on bearing arms, and because the inner city is the last place anyone seems concerned about children, kids like Darryl come out of fights not with bruises but with bullet holes.
Over what? Over nothing. “We were all friends,” Ron-Ron says now, almost pleading. “We played basketball together. Why’d that guy have to have a gun? .
A month after the slaying, Annette Towns received a letter from one of the suspects, 16-year-old Lynell Drake. It read, in part:
I look at the results of my actions, the actions of being a follower, and I sigh …why am I in this predicament? …
The incident was a total mistake…. The life of a future president or a famous star has been taken because of “fear.” Fear to take a fight on the losing end. Fear to be embarrassed. …
Each night I cry and pray myself to sleep. I cry and ask that God and the family of Darryl forgive me for having even the slightest part in the death of another “being.” …
I ask that I be given the life back that I once had and never cherished, so I can continue learning in school. …
PLEASE FORGIVE ME!
They pray like children.
They kill like adults.
In the tidy house on Fielding Street, a block where everyone knows everyone else and where everyone liked her son, Annette Towns has only a scrapbook of pictures to hug and kiss.
“Not too long ago, I had a dream about Darryl,” she says, forcing a smile. “He came to me and said, ‘Mama, don’t worry. I’m OK. I’m always home.’ “
But that’s the thing. He was already home. He was following her rules. He was doing the right thing. “If they could all be like that . . .” we say.
But Darryl Towns was like that. It couldn’t save him. And today, at the end of the century, because we can’t control our children, our tempers, or our guns, there is a Christmas wreath hanging on a tombstone. And another piece of our city’s future is buried beneath it.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM