Mothers who lose a second child to violence: 'Why him, why us, why me?'
After her 15-year-old son was shot and killed nine years ago, Barbara Pritchett-Hughes thought she would never experience such crippling grief again.
But in July, the unthinkable happened. Her oldest son was shot in front of their Watts home.
Pritchett-Hughes rushed to the emergency room at St. Francis Medical Center and saw the faces of her relatives. They were silent.
“Y’all need to tell her,” someone whispered.
Her husband shook his head. “DeAndre didn’t make it,” he said.
The killing propelled Pritchett-Hughes into the ranks of a small, largely hidden group of mothers who have lost more than one child to murder. In a city where violent crime has been rising again after decades of decline, at least two other mothers faced the same wrenching loss that month. Detectives suspect that gang members were responsible for all three killings, but none of the victims belonged to a gang.
The homicides follow a consistent pattern in Los Angeles, where African Americans make up a disproportionate number of victims in killings overall, but particularly in gang homicides. African Americans make up about 9% of the city’s residents but nearly 50% of people killed in gang-related slayings, according to LAPD figures through mid-November, the most recent available.
In the southern part of the city, the numbers are more stark. This year, nearly 79% of victims in gang-related homicides in the area were African American, up from 53% in 2011.
In all three cases identified by The Times in which mothers lost a second child to violence this summer, the victims were black.
LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Scott, who oversees the department’s South Bureau, said he recently met a woman who had four sons killed in South L.A.
“It’s really a tragic thing,” Scott said. “I won’t say it’s an everyday occurrence, but it’s not unusual.”
The cases demonstrate the devastation wrought by decades of gang violence in some of the city’s neighborhoods and how the victims include not just rival gang members but people who are targeted solely because of where they live, who their friends or relatives are, or the color of their skin.
Pritchett-Hughes’ oldest son, DeAndre, was shot while standing outside his home shortly before dusk on a Sunday evening. Police suspect that the man’s killing was part of a series of tit-for-tat shootings between local gangs that left three dead that weekend. DeAndre, who worked as a hospital technician, wasn’t involved in gangs, police said, but he knew people from the neighborhood who were, and it’s unclear whether he was mistaken for a rival or whether the shooters were aiming at someone else standing outside the complex. The killing remains unsolved.
For the second time, Pritchett-Hughes found herself picking an outfit for a son to wear in a casket, looking over photographs to add to an obituary and dialing homicide detectives for answers.
“Every day I ask, why? Why him, why us, why me?” she said.
For Jamsie Powers, the street dynamics in her Harvard Park neighborhood have upended her life twice.
On July 4, her 33-year-old son, Abrey White, was shot in the head outside her home in South Los Angeles. The killing came 14 years after another of Powers’ sons, Tyrone Riley, 21, was shot in the chest as he stood outside his apartment building less than two miles away. Neither of the brothers were gang members, but police believe the shooters were. No arrests have been made, but detectives this year began looking at Riley’s case again.
Powers recalled in a brief interview how she can see the spot where White was shot outside her kitchen window. She has since closed the curtains to block the view, unable to look outside without thinking of her youngest son taking his last breaths.
For Valarie Holyfield, a job loss years ago led her to cancel her adult daughter’s life insurance policy. After her teenage son was killed, she thought, “life would never be so cruel,” only to discover that it could.
On July 29, her 31-year-old daughter, Jennifer Ann Dickerson, was shot in the chest by a stray round at a barbecue stand in Harbor City.
The LAPD division that patrols the area has seen homicides almost double this year, to 19 from 10 in 2015. Other areas that are driving the city’s uptick in killings include the Southwest Division, which has seen an additional 13 people killed, and the Rampart Division, where killings have doubled, according to the most recent figures from the department.
In Dickerson’s case, detectives believe she was not the target, and they suspect a gang member was the shooter, though police declined to say why.
Holyfield found herself in the same hospital — Harbor-UCLA Medical Center — where her 15-year-old son, Harvey, was pronounced dead 12 years earlier.
“It was like the same emotion, the same feeling being there,” Holyfield said.
She had taken comfort after her son’s friend told her that Harvey had been asleep in a car when bullets tore into his body. She is convinced he didn’t suffer.
Now she wonders how much pain her daughter felt and what her last words and thoughts were. Did her daughter plead with God not to let her die?
Dickerson had her life on track, she said, and was working three jobs as she pursued her dream of making it in the music industry as a rapper. She used her brother’s killing as inspiration for some of her songs.
Both homicides remain unsolved.
In the months after Dickerson’s death, Holyfield has felt out of breath. She can’t sleep, yet has trouble getting out of bed. At night, she wanders her home and stands over her adult children as they sleep to make sure they are still alive.
“You just live with the pain every day,” Holyfield said. “You wash the pain. You feed the pain. You get dressed with the pain. You go out in public with the pain. You smile, you laugh, you talk, you cry with the pain that you carry.”
For the mothers, grief strikes in different ways. Some feel guilt that they are alive when their children aren’t. Some describe being in a daze, unable to comprehend how another child could have been slain. Each woman expressed a sense of overwhelming disbelief at having lost not one but two children, and wonder whether life will ever feel normal again.
For Kathy Wooten, whose two sons were shot to death 52 days apart in 2008, the killings continue to dominate her everyday life.
Her sons, Branden, 26, and Kejuan, 23, were football standouts at Jordan High School in Watts, but also gang members. Branden was killed at a South L.A. party in a fight between rival gang members over a woman. The slaying sparked a series of back-and-forth shootings between rival gangs that left four dead and at least 13 others wounded in just a few days.
Nearly two months later, Kejuan was gunned down in the parking lot of a roller skating rink in Cerritos. Authorities believe the killing was part of the same gang dispute that began when Branden was shot.
Wooten’s husband rarely speaks of the killings, she said, but Wooten has dedicated her life to stopping similar violence and helping others cope. She quit her job as a home healthcare provider and now works for a city-funded program designed to prevent violence near the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts. She started a foundation in memory of her sons and hosts a yearly Mother’s Day event for grieving families. She also holds a monthly support group for mothers who have children who were killed.
“A part of me wants it to be a lifelong process,” she said, “because I just don’t want to ever forget them. Part of me feels like if I don’t talk about them and I don’t do the things I’m doing in my community, then their memories will just fade away.”
Nevertheless, she still feels a sense of emptiness. Since the deaths, Wooten has been able to sleep only a few hours at a time. In July, she had a stroke. She is still slightly weak on one side and wonders whether the stress from her sons’ deaths finally caught up with her.
“Sometimes I feel like, ‘How am I living? How am I waking up every day in a good mood, happy, living my life, and my sons are dead?’” she said recently.
When Barbara Pritchett-Hughes’ son Dovon was killed in 2007, she didn’t think of moving away from the Watts home she shared with DeAndre, her daughter, Dwaina, and her husband, Dwain Hughes. It was still safe, she thought.
Dovon was walking home from a high school graduation ceremony when an SUV pulled up to his group. A gang member in the vehicle began shooting. The teenager, who was later convicted of murder, testified in court that he was not aiming at Dovon.
At first, Dovon’s mother didn’t go to the scene of the killing in South L.A.’s Green Meadows neighborhood, because it was too painful. Then, she began making sure that the area always had flowers or candles. She amassed a collection of T-shirts screen-printed with her son's face. When she wanted to feel close to Dovon, she'd visit his grave at the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
As Pritchett-Hughes grieved, she said, she felt as though her oldest son, DeAndre, tried to fill the void by assuming Dovon’s lighthearted personality. DeAndre began joking more with his family and trying to make them laugh. On Dovon’s birthday the year he was killed, DeAndre bought his mother 16 long-stem pink roses to represent how old his brother would have been that day.
The weight of the killing ebbed as the years passed, but never left. Pritchett-Hughes no longer woke up to realize she had been crying in her sleep. She could laugh about the memories she shared with her son, like the way he beamed the first time he fried chicken at his part-time job at the local burger stand.
But on the anniversary of Dovon’s death this summer, she cried all day, the first time she had in years. Two weeks later, DeAndre and her daughter threw her a western-themed surprise party for her birthday. DeAndre wore a custom denim shirt with Dovon’s photo on the back.
On July 17, DeAndre was enjoying a day off from cleaning and preparing the operating rooms at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. About 5 p.m., Pritchett-Hughes left home to celebrate her sister’s birthday in Hemet. Her son was on the living room floor, his head propped on a pillow, watching TV. At some point, he grabbed ice cream from a nearby truck.
DeAndre was outside the family’s apartment complex when two people approached from the street and started shooting, police said. Pritchett-Hughes’ daughter, who was napping upstairs, ran outside.
Dwaina saw her brother’s body. She immediately thought of her mother. “How do you tell your mother that her second son is dead?” she wondered.
As friends and family began getting word, they wanted to bring flowers and candles. Pritchett-Hughes wouldn’t allow it. The next day, she took her son’s clothes and locked them in a closet. At first, she wouldn’t wear any shirts with his picture.
Pops like firecrackers rouse her from her sleep. Sometimes she walks outside her door and stands in the spot where her son was killed, to try to feel his presence. An L.A. native, she plans to move out of L.A. County to escape the memories.
“You worry about losing your child out on the streets,” Pritchett-Hughes said. “But he lost his life at his own home. He lost his life where he should have been comfortable.”
On Oct. 12, she visited Inglewood Park Cemetery to mark Dovon’s birthday. He would have been 25.
As she entered the cemetery’s gates, she brought two sets of flowers and two sets of balloons.
As she walked up to the familiar spot where she had been many times before, she visited two graves.
Photos: (Top) Barbara Pritchett-Hughes shouts, "Its done. It's over," as she closes her son DeAndre's casket at his funeral in July. Credit: Dillon Deaton / Los Angeles Times. (Second) Abrey White, with beard, and Tyrone Riley. (Third) Harvey Dickerson and Jennifer Dickerson. (Fourth) Kejuan Bullard and Branden Bullard, in football uniform. (Fifth) DJ Harris, Dovon's brother, comforts Pritchett-Hughes at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times. (Sixth) DeAndre Hughes, in blue, and Dovon Harris. (Seventh) Pritchett-Hughes at Inglewood Park. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.