WHY DID KENNY HAVE TO DIE?

First in a series on heartbreaks and hopes of unsung Detroit area athletes.

His 17th birthday was held in a cemetery. His family, friends and teammates gathered on a cold October afternoon with gifts, balloons, even a cake. The ground was wet, so they spread out plastic trash bags and sat down. They lit a maize-and-blue candle from the University of Michigan, where he had hoped to play football one day. And as the skies darkened, they sang a soft rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

They sang it to a tombstone.

Later, as they left, the wind whipped up and blew out the candle. It lifted some of the balloons over the fence and into a nearby tree. If you drive past the graveyard now, you still can see a shrinking balloon stuck in the branches. In some ways, it is like the teenagers on the streets below, trapped by location, slowly oozing life.

Let’s talk about a neighborhood where nobody walks home from school anymore, where metal detectors are at the school doors, where nearly every student has a gun or knows where to get one. Let’s talk about a neighborhood where a young football player named Kenny Baumgart, the son of two cops, took a bullet through the lung from a kid he didn’t even know, over an argument that nobody can even remember. It happened in the school parking lot. Several shots were fired. People screamed. Next thing you knew, his older brother was carrying Kenny’s limp and bleeding body into Holy Cross Hospital, yelling, “Somebody help me, my brother’s been shot….”

Let’s talk about a neighborhood that is not in the Middle East, not in the Wild West, but is right here, in your hometown, just a bullet trajectory across Eight Mile Road, the invisible border that separates Detroit’s city from Detroit’s suburbs — and, for many people, caring from not caring.

That has to stop. We all need to care. Kenny Baumgart was 5-feet-9 and 165 pounds, played football like a tank, talked tough and didn’t back down from fights. He was no angel. But he didn’t deserve to die. When he crumpled that Monday afternoon in the asphalt outside Pershing High School, a piece of the city went down with him.

If we can’t keep the son of two cops alive, how much hope do we have?

Family sought safer ground

“The ironic thing is, we moved here because the gangs in our old neighborhood had us worried,” Debi Hillock says. She sits at a table in the bungalow house on Norwood, on Detroit’s northeast side. She is wearing a sweatshirt, puffing a cigarette. A veteran of the police force, she has seen death in all its forms. She always came to work the next day. Since Kenny died, however, she has not returned to the force. She looks less like an officer now and more like a mother, one who has cried too much in the last few months for her face to look well-rested.

Sitting next to her is her husband, Kenny’s stepfather, Jim Hillock, also a Detroit cop. He had endorsed the move to this neighborhood. As a youth, he, too, had attended Pershing. So when Kenny said he wanted to go there because he liked the football program, Jim thought, “Well, I survived it….”

Yes, the Hillocks and their family are white. Yes, they live in an almost exclusively black neighborhood. No, that didn’t bother them, and it didn’t bother Kenny. His girlfriend was black. Many of his friends were black. His teammates on the Pershing junior varsity team were almost all black. One of them was named Ventonio Johnson, a tailback he met on the first day of football practice.

“Who wants to try and get past this guy?” the coach asked, pointing to Ventonio.

“I’ll go, Coach, I’ll go!” Kenny yelled.

Ventonio was bigger. Kenny sized him up. Kenny plowed into Ventonio and knocked him back three feet.

They were friends ever since.

This should be celebrated, no? Color-blindness in the inner city? Well. Not everyone was so open-minded. The gangs that own the streets in the Hillocks’ neighborhood took a quick dislike to Kenny. Maybe because he was white. Maybe because he didn’t back down from an argument. Whatever the reason, that was the end of the peaceful coexistence.

And the beginning of his death.

“You want to know how this whole thing started?” says Dujuan Davenport, another black Pershing student who counts himself as a close friend of Baumgart’s. “The whole thing started when this guy Elijah went up to Kenny’s girlfriend after Kenny and her had a disagreement. Elijah said, ‘You want me to whup his ass?’ She was like, ‘Nah, it ain’t like that.’ But Elijah wanted to impress her, so he found Kenny and he wanted to beat on him. But Kenny’s strong, man. He beat Elijah instead.

“So Elijah goes back and tells his friends, and some of them are in the gang, and that was it. Kenny was white and he wasn’t from around here and he was dating this black girl and he beat one of their boys. It was just a matter of time after that.”

Dujuan rubs his soft, young face, which seems at odds with his explanations about murder, and the fact that he often carries a gun to school. He looks at Kenny’s mother. She shakes her head.

“Truth is,” Dujuan says, “around here, you don’t need a reason to pop somebody.”

A few troubling incidents

Fifty-three teens from ages 15 to 19 were murdered in Detroit last year. Murdered. Not illness, not car accidents. Murdered. Many were gang-related. And many of those killed were innocent bystanders, caught in crossfire. Some will tell you Kenny Baumgart was asking for his bullet. That’s insane. Who asks for a bullet? It is true, Kenny went through life the way he went through a defensive line — with a hard head. In football, as a tailback, he never ran out of bounds. He was quick to defend a teammate, even if it meant fighting.

And off the field, he could be just as stubborn. He fought with his parents once about having to go on a trip to Texas, and it got so bad they tried to teach him a lesson by locking him in a youth home. The incident gave him a juvenile record.

But he was also an “A” student at Pershing who would cook pork chops and hamburgers for his younger brother and smother his mother in kisses like a happy dog. Hey. He was 16. He talked tough and tried to act tough, maybe too much. Then again, in this neighborhood, what choice do you have?

When football season ended, Kenny’s problems escalated. There were incidents. Threats. Fights with the gang members. Teens jumping other teens. It is not even worth recounting them all because they began with such trivial confrontations — “What are you looking at, you bleep”; “I heard you were talking about me, you bleep” — that it only makes them more depressing.

The worst part is, these confrontations don’t end with words anymore, they end with weapons. “Just about everyone I know has a gun,” Dujuan Davenport says.
“You can get into school with one easy.”

What about the metal detectors, he is asked.

“They go off all the time. Kids wait until the bell rings, then run through, and the guards just wave you in and say, ‘Hurry up, hurry up.’ “

This may or may not explain how the gun that killed Kenny Baumgart got onto the Pershing premises that day. You would first have to explain how the shooter got there. His name is Darrell Hagerman. He was not even a student at Pershing. He attended Frederick Douglass Academy, an alternative school for troubled kids. But he was in Pershing’s halls that Monday morning — even though you’re supposed to have an ID — and that’s when Kenny’s friend, Ventonio, bumped Hagerman’s cousin, a freshman named Michael McCune.

A bump? That’s what this was all about?

The two teens had words. Later in the day, they had more words and a teacher had to separate them. Hagerman left school and came back with a .357 Magnum. That’s how tough it is for kids to get a weapon in Detroit. You go home and grab one as if you forgot your lunch.

“The thing is, Kenny really wasn’t involved in that whole fight,” says his older brother, Shawn. “It was just because he was friends with Ventonio. After school, they were getting ready to leave together. I was in the parking lot, too, in my car. And those guys came up and started arguing.”

Those guys were McCune, 15; Hagerman, 16; and another freshman, Larry Walker, 15. The arguments were the awful macho boasting that leads to tragedy.

“You ain’t s—.”

“No, you ain’t s—.”

“F— you.”

“F— you back.”

Finally, Shawn says, he yelled to his brother and Ventonio to let it go and get in the car. Kenny acknowledged his brother’s advice, waved a dismissive hand at the trio and turned to walk away. That, Shawn says, is when Hagerman pulled out his death toy and started firing.

“I ducked onto the seat and heard one shot, then two,” Shawn says. “Then I saw him firing in the air a few times. Then he put the gun back in his pants and left.”

Shawn looked across and saw Ventonio staring at his brother, who was lying in a heap. Shawn thought Kenny might be protecting himself, too.

He wasn’t. A bullet had entered Kenny’s back below his left shoulder blade and had gone through a lung, nicked his heart, aorta and esophagus.

He was already dying.

Shawn lifted him from the spreading blood and put him in the front seat. He drove madly to Holy Cross Hospital, jumping lanes, running lights, going on curbs, yelling all the time to his brother, “Don’t die. Come on! Don’t die!”

His thoughts, he says now, were: “This ain’t no movie.”

When he reached the hospital, he screeched to a stop and carried his brother inside. Blood was soaking Kenny’s black Pelle Pelle jacket, his favorite Christmas present from last year. His eyes were closed. Shawn hollered for help. A woman yelled “this way” and he followed her into an elevator and upstairs, then placed Kenny on a rolling bed and watched helplessly as he was taken away by doctors, another what-for in a city full of what-fors.

He was dead on arrival.

The suffering continues

These days, the Hillock family stays mostly inside the house on Norwood. Christmas, they admit, will not be very festive. Kenny’s younger brother, Robert, 15, fears for his life. He has been told the gang won’t be happy until he is gone, too. Sometimes his stepfather sleeps near the front of the house, with his weapon nearby, just in case. Again, we remind you, this is not in some far-off country. This is, depending on where you live in the suburbs, maybe two miles, three miles, five miles away.

“It’s a hell of a life, isn’t it?” Jim Hillock says.

It is not a life at all. Debi is trying to make a new start, out of state. She says she can’t take living in a place “where 16-year-olds say, ‘If it’s my time, it’s my time.’ ” She hasn’t gone back to police work at least partly because “I can’t tell people lies anymore. I can’t tell them someone will help them.”

Meanwhile, Kenny’s friends, like Dujuan Davenport, wonder whether they’ll have to pay for a continued friendship with the family. Not long ago, a car pulled up alongside Dujuan with several gang members inside. One of them reached down, perhaps for a gun, and a kid in the backseat smiled at Dujuan and waved bye-bye.

“I thought my life was over,” Dujuan says.

What did he do?

“I pulled out my gun and started shooting and they drove away.”

There is no point in looking for innocence in this story. Innocence is an unaffordable luxury. For all the talk about the revitalization of Detroit, there are far too many parts where dodging bullets is still a childhood activity. When police officers are mourning their kids, something is out of control.

Darrell Hagerman was convicted of second-degree murder. He cried at the verdict. Kenny Baumgart was buried in his Pershing football jersey. To this day, some people say he was simply in the wrong place. The problem is, it’s all the wrong place, isn’t it? A school is no place for a gun, a cemetery is no place for a birthday party, and these streets are no place for our children. The question isn’t what side of Eight Mile Road do they live on. The question is: Are we going to save them, or aren’t we?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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