Waiting under the shade of pine trees, across from a church with boarded windows, is another teenager from the neighborhood, Malcolm Jackson. He clutches a .357 Magnum revolver in his trembling hand.
Malcolm points the gun at a 17-year-old boy.
“You ever been shot before?” he asks.
He turns the gun to a 15-year-old girl.
“Think I won’t kill you?”
It seems so unreal, so jarring on this sunny Friday, that nobody runs. Trequan looks at Malcolm, two 16-year-olds on different ends of a handgun in a south Minneapolis alley. Trequan, doubting the threat, turns to leave, telling the others, “Come on.”
Two gunshots. A bullet rips through Trequan’s back and opens a hole in his chest.
Malcolm bolts, ghosting through a neighborhood alive with cars and people, tossing his chrome revolver on a garage rooftop.
“It was aim and shoot,” he says later. “Just like a video game.”
• • •
Police caught Malcolm in four hours. Why did he pull the trigger that bright day in June last year? Witnesses knew his name. He was in plain daylight. And his only motive appeared to be an earlier fistfight over what he later called “some nonsense.”
Trequan wasn’t even the one he came looking for.
But Malcolm still opened fire — with a gun he had bought illegally for $300 when he was 14.
Minneapolis had recorded another senseless murder: a case of two teenagers, shooter and victim, both swept away in the river of guns flowing through poor urban neighborhoods in the Twin Cities and across the country, guns that constantly swap hands, guns from a shadowy marketplace that’s hard for investigators to shut down, guns that are cheap, plentiful and ever more deadly.
“Children know that guns are easily available, that they’re getting into the wrong hands, and no one is really addressing that issue,” said Andre Dukes, assistant pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries and family academy director of the Northside Achievement Zone.
As they struggle to prevent more teen funerals and prison terms, Dukes and other community leaders say the raging debate over gun control must include the bloodshed in the nation’s cities being stoked by a flourishing, illicit gun trade.
Urban gun violence does not typically erupt in nation-shocking massacres like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last December. On city streets, the devastation from gun violence comes and goes with little notice, day after day, with just a few shots, some fired randomly, often after a gang dispute or a petty grudge.
And then Trequan Sykes is dead.
Or 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr., killed by a stray bullet inside his home in December 2011 as he held a bowl of spaghetti for dinner.
Or 5-year-old Nizzel George, fatally wounded while sleeping on a couch after teenage gang members settled a score by firing bullets into his house last summer.
Since 2001, at least 116 kids have been shot dead in Minnesota. Nationwide, as many as 2,000 children and teens die a year from gun homicide — the equivalent of 100 Newtowns — the victims disproportionately young black males in beleaguered neighborhoods.
In the hands of adolescents and teenagers, guns may seem little more than toys. Researchers who have probed killings among young people say their still-developing brains can limit their ability to grasp the difference between a fistfight and a gunfight — until it’s too late.
“Many of them are sorry that they did use the gun, because it’s really quite easy to use; they didn’t mean it,” said Michigan State University Prof. Carl Taylor, who has studied urban youth violence.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the neurological difference between adult and teen offenders when it banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. The majority opinion noted that juveniles have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and that kids, unable to remove themselves from crime-soaked settings, are more prone to destructive influences.
Adolescents are driven by thrill-seeking impulses. The prefrontal cortex, which helps humans weigh risk and reward, doesn’t fully develop until the 20s. Teens are far more likely to take risks, and even more so when friends are watching.
The stakes are higher for black youth, like Malcolm and Trequan. The flood of illegal firearms in poor black neighborhoods, coupled with chronic fears of violence, combine to make gun homicide the leading cause of death for black teens aged 15 to 19.
That’s why Trequan’s family moved out of Chicago. They thought the streets of Minneapolis would be safer, that they could turn their backs on violence.
For a while, they were right.
‘I’ll eat the bullets’
Trequan Martell Sykes was born in Chicago on Oct. 19, 1995, with an enlarged heart and kidney, a partly formed spine and digestive system defects.
His mother, Phaedra Singleton, hardly had time to cradle her 7½-pound baby before doctors whisked him away. Singleton felt afraid to fully love Trequan at first, as he shuttled in and out of the hospital, as doctors wondered whether he would ever walk.
He was so sick. What if something happened to him? What if he died?
Trequan overcame his early medical problems so well that he joked to his mother that he wasn’t really human. He was invincible.
As it was, death and injury bled into their surroundings.
Singleton raised her children in Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where she taught them to drop to the floor when shots rang out. Once, when they were in the park, someone opened fire near them in retaliation for another shooting.
As her children grew older, Singleton wearied of daily news reports about people getting shot over nothing. She didn’t worry so much about Trequan — he was affable and coolheaded.
So in September 2009, after a close friend moved from Chicago to Minneapolis and urged her to follow, she did.
Her two sons joined the football team at Roosevelt High School, with Trequan playing running back and linebacker and his older brother Dre’Quan playing wide receiver and safety.
Trequan excelled at more than sports. He was gifted at drawing cartoons and wanted to study art. He loved cooking and hoped to follow the chef career of his mother’s longtime boyfriend. He made pancakes, barbecue and other dishes for his family; while his siblings relaxed one recent Thanksgiving, he was in the kitchen helping his mother cook the turkey.
But more than anything, Trequan liked being around people, easily making friends, making everybody laugh.
The police officer stationed at Roosevelt, Dennis Milner, saw his promise.
At first Trequan, wary of police, averted his eyes and said nothing when Milner greeted him at the school entrance every day. After months passed, Trequan looked up, smiled widely and replied, “I can’t keep ignoring you, because you’re always so nice to me.”
“He had a natural leadership ability about him; his smile was very infectious,” said Milner. “He just had something about him that drew people to him.”
Their new south Minneapolis neighborhood was no Englewood, but Trequan the Invincible once made a crack about gunfire.
“If I get shot, I’ll eat the bullets,” he told his mom.
“Boy, you know a bullet would kill you.”
Choosing a weapon
Malcolm Maghundi Jackson also grew up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, where gunfire and gangs were common. Some of his cousins were Vice Lords and Black P. Stones, and their rivals would ask him on the street, “Are you affiliated?”
The Gangster Disciples dominated his route to an after-school program called Wicked Truth, which shows Chicago teens how to produce video projects that explore community issues. Some of the Disciples tried to fight him. He learned to box, but decided it wasn’t enough.
“After a while,” he said in an interview, “you get sick and tired of people coming at you, jumping you.”
When he was in eighth grade, Malcolm met a gun dealer inside an abandoned north Chicago duplex. Diapers and dishes littered the floor, and the air reeked of urine. To find this place, Malcolm just asked around the neighborhood — there were guys who knew guys who knew guys, and none of those guys cared that he was only 14.
The dealer lined up the selection on a coffee table, among them a “deuce deuce” revolver, a .380 Beretta, a Glock 19. Malcolm’s eyes went to the .357 Magnum. He liked the idea of a revolver — it didn’t jam and didn’t drop casings that police could find later. He handed over $300, which also bought six rounds.
Malcolm didn’t yet know how difficult a .357 is to fire, how heavy. How the trigger takes deliberate effort to press, and then, once the finger pulls back the right amount, how quick it is to fire, how vehemently it kicks, how loudly it booms. He had never shot a gun.
A year and a half later, halfway through his sophomore year in high school, Malcolm moved into a two-bedroom south Minneapolis apartment to be with his mother and three brothers.
He left the revolver and a white sock holding the six bullets with a friend in Chicago. He thought he wouldn’t need them anymore.
They might have been buddies.
Same age. Both from tough parts of Chicago. Moved as teenagers to the same south Minneapolis neighborhood. Liked sports.
But they went to rival schools and ran in different circles, and their first meeting last May was a confrontation.
Malcolm was walking near Trequan and Dre’Quan down Lake Street after school. Though everyone acknowledges that there had been a recent brawl between kids from their two high schools, Dre’Quan and Malcolm offered diverging accounts of what happened next.
According to Dre’Quan, Malcolm turned around and taunted them, saying that the Roosevelt kids had gotten whupped.
Malcolm referred to Dre’Quan as “son.”
“I’m not your child,” Dre’Quan replied.
Malcolm threw the first punch. Dre’Quan punched back, telling his siblings not to jump in.
When Malcolm’s friend tried to step in, Trequan hit him.
Malcolm, for his part, recalled walking with his friend in front of the brothers. He overheard Dre’Quan loudly ask his crew if these were the same guys involved in the Roosevelt-South brawl. Malcolm stepped toward Dre’Quan, but only to walk past him and join his girlfriend, who was farther down the sidewalk. Dre’Quan misinterpreted that as him stepping up for a fight, and threw down his backpack.
Malcolm punched, Dre’Quan hit back, and they went down to the ground tussling. The brief fight sent Malcolm to the hospital that evening for stitches on his finger.
Over the next few days, a girl Dre’Quan knew from South High passed along rumors that Malcolm was saying he would kill him.
That’s just what people said after getting beat up, Dre’Quan thought.
“Stop fighting because they’re taking it to another level,” Trequan’s mother warned both her sons. “Next time somebody tries to fight you, walk away.”
Trequan’s family turned its attention to something much more important: his mother’s upcoming wedding to her boyfriend of four years.
They traveled on the Megabus to Chicago for the May 26 ceremony at First Timothy Missionary Baptist Church. Trequan was ecstatic to see his mother and her boyfriend finally exchange vows. Trequan wore a red vest to match his mother’s dress as he gave her away, smiling widely as he walked her down the aisle.
Days earlier, Malcolm had also taken the Megabus to Chicago. He was visiting family. He had something else on his mind, a fear that the fistfight on the sidewalk would escalate, that he needed something to protect his life. Malcolm paid a visit to his friend and asked for his gun back. He tucked the revolver in his bag.
Back in Minneapolis, he stashed the gun under the bed. He hid the sock holding six rounds in a vent.
On June 1, Malcolm decided he would confront Dre’Quan. That morning, he put the revolver in his backpack on the way to school. Hiding his hands in the bag, he inserted two rounds into the chamber.
Showdown in an alley
Trequan and his brother stayed home from school that day, still tired after returning from Chicago. They talked about throwing a party that night to celebrate the beginning of summer.
Dre’Quan pestered Trequan to join him in meeting a new football coach at Roosevelt that afternoon, but Trequan declined, saying he would get the house ready. He had just stepped out of the shower when a friend stopped by. Everyone streamed outside to hang out with her on the front steps. A friend named Brian Thrower joined them.
From the porch, Brian saw Malcolm and two of his friends step off the bus, look straight at them, and pause. The boys then cut through the back lot of a store to the alley behind Trequan’s apartment.
Trequan, his sister and their friends ran out to the back.
Malcolm was waiting for them with his revolver.
“You ever been shot before?” he asked Brian.
“I’ve never been shot before, but if you’re gonna shoot me, then shoot me,” snapped Brian.
He moved the gun to point at Trequan’s 11-year-old stepsister; his 14-year-old stepbrother, Perry; and his 15-year-old sister, Shadana.
Trequan took control. He looked at Malcolm.
The gun was in his face now. But something about the way Malcolm was talking, his shaking hand, made them think he wouldn’t do it.
“He’s not about that life,” Trequan told his siblings.
Trequan began walking them down the side of the house.
The first bullet brushed Trequan’s elbow and hit the wall of a church. The second whizzed right over Perry’s head and struck Trequan’s back.
Trequan, still making his way down the side of the house, smiled at Perry and Shadana. “I’m OK,” he said, “now go into the house.”
Blood streamed out of his chest. He staggered around the corner of the house and up the four porch steps. Shadana threw open the door to the building. He walked up several stairs inside. Then collapsed.
His stepsister bounded up the stairs screaming, “Tre just got shot, Tre just got shot!”
Shadana took off her shirt, bunched it up and pressed it against his back wound as he lay facedown on the stairs, arms sprawled out.
As the ambulance later sped away, officers directed the children to get in a police car. They drove them to the Juvenile Detention Center downtown and placed them in a room. It reminded Shadana of the room in “The First 48,” a TV show that chronicles police investigations in the days following a homicide.
After telling the cops what happened, she called a friend from Roosevelt.
Shadana could hear her friend sobbing over the phone. “Tre is dead.”
It happened so fast that Malcolm lost feeling.
Trequan’s back was turned; he was walking away. Malcolm had heard a rumor that Dre’Quan had a gun (Dre’Quan and his family said this was untrue). What if Trequan was walking back inside to get it?
“They knew I lived somewhere on the block, so I wasn’t about to get set up later on,” Malcolm said. “I thought he was going to his house to grab something so I just — did it.”
Malcolm sprinted from Trequan’s back yard, throwing the gun on top of someone’s garage. Malcolm saw his mother standing in their front yard and ran in through the back.
Malcolm went to nearby Stewart Park and played an NBA video game against a friend. He walked his girlfriend to the light-rail station. His mother called, asking if Malcolm could come home and baby-sit his little brother.
As he walked through the door, she asked if he knew somebody had just been shot down the street.
“No,” Malcolm said.
The person was dead, she told him. The enormity of what Malcolm had done hit him. “That’s messed up,” he said.
His mother left, and Malcolm walked upstairs and got himself a plate of barbecue chicken that she had cooked that day.
He sat down on his bed.
His middle-school-age brother burst in. “The police are downstairs!” he said.
Less than three weeks later, Malcolm pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
‘It was just a fight’
They buried Trequan two weeks after he walked his mother down the aisle. He was in the same black pants he had worn to her wedding.
The fear Trequan’s mother had felt of becoming too attached to her son only to lose him had finally been realized, 16 years later.
Days later, Singleton was standing outside at Malcolm’s arraignment with tears in her eyes when she saw his mother start to approach her for the first time. Please don’t let this lady come talk to me, Singleton thought. She didn’t know how she would react.
Malcolm’s mother wanted to apologize.
Singleton just looked at her. She put her hands out and shrugged. What was she supposed to say?
On July 24, when she watched Malcolm sentenced to 25 years, she didn’t feel anger. She saw him as a kid who was hurting. She wanted to hug him and tell him it was OK.
“I know ‘Sorry’ won’t bring him back, but I am. I truly am,” said Malcolm, turning to face Trequan’s sobbing parents. “My actions ... I wasn’t thinking. I’m so sorry. I wish this would have never happened.”
Malcolm’s projected release date is in June 2029, less than a month after his 33rd birthday. Weeks before Malcolm entered the state prison in St. Cloud, Trequan’s family moved to a new apartment in northeast Minneapolis because they couldn’t bear the memories of his death.
Their new house is quieter without his large presence.
Dre’Quan, now 18, sometimes tells his mother that it should have been him. Not Trequan.
“No, it shouldn’t have been neither one of y’all,” his mother says. “Neither one of y’all deserved to die. It was just a fight.”