Deontrey "Trey" Southers was gunned down at his front door at 1501 E. 50th St. Jan. 21—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—yet another casualty in Chattanooga's long-running gang wars. Details of the incident aren't completely clear, but according to various reports, members of the 126 Athens Park Bloods approached the door and asked for Trey's mother's boyfriend, Bobby Johnson, a member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods. With the door still closed, Trey asked who was outside. Not knowing it was Trey who was asking, the shooter fired through the door, hitting the teen in the torso. Trey fell and yelled for his mother. After racing to the room and finding Trey on the floor, Shanerra Southers opened the front door to see if the coast was clear. The gunman (or gunmen) then fired more shots into the house, sending glass bursting around her and her bleeding son before speeding away. Trey died en route to the hospital. He was 13 years old.
According to neighbors and police, the incident was the result of a dispute about a woman. Looking to prevent retaliation, police soon picked up Trey's uncle, Rodney "Rah-Rah" Southers, a Rollin 20s Blood, as well as Athens Park Bloods members Ladarrel Bradley and Floyd Davis. Southers, a convicted felon now in federal custody, had an open warrant for domestic assault and also had bullets in his pocket, which could lead to a lengthy jail sentence without the possibility of parole. Bradley was picked up for possession, while Davis was picked up for violating his probation. Johnson, the intended target of the shooting, is in hiding.
No one has been arrested for the shooting.
"He wanted more."
Trey attended East Lake Academy, where he was a linebacker for the school's football team. He also attended The Refuge Church and was actively involved with both Gear Up and the Goodwill Youth Mentoring Program. His mentor was Patrick Hampton, who said that Trey was like most middle school kids trying to find themselves.
"He was a very street-smart and thoughtful kid," Hampton said. "If I gave him a scenario, he would always ask 'what if?' hypothetical questions."
Trey was raised in and around gang life. Most of the boys in Hampton's mentoring program are placed with him because a close relative is in a gang, and Hampton said that had Trey lived, he likely would have been "racked in" by the Bloods next year. He said that when Trey was first placed with him, the teen had a suspicion that his family's gang affiliation might have something to do with his placement.
"Deontrey caught on to things really quick," Hampton said. "The first day of our group session, he screamed out, 'We are in this group because we are bad, aren't we?' I said, 'You are in this group because I have a job waiting on you when you turn 16.' He quickly perked up and got with the program."
Hampton said that although Trey was a bit of a handful at first, he had potential to be a success story "considering what he had come through." The Friday before Trey died, Trey's teacher met Hampton in the hallway and told him that Trey was doing so well in class that he should be rewarded. Hampton agreed. Instead of attending Hampton's class that day, Trey would be allowed to play in the gym—but not before he was held up as a positive example in front of Hampton's other students.
"I wanted to show the other boys that they could be rewarded if they showed improvement," Hampton said. "Deontrey strutted out of the room with pride that he accomplished what no other student accomplished. He got out of my strict classroom not because of bad behavior, but because of good behavior. That really summarized Deontrey Southers."
Hampton said Trey was also a natural-born leader who would often show up unannounced at Hampton's office after school.
"That let me know he wanted more," he said. "He did everything we asked him to do."
"I'm sick of this!"
When Trey was laid to rest Jan. 26, police officers were on hand to provide security inside and outside the funeral home. Maria Johnson and her 9-year-old son, Jarvis Craw, were among the many who were there to pay their respects. Jarvis and Deontrey were cousins. They were extremely close, and Trey made a special point of looking after Jarvis and his mother.
"He was the first friend that I ever made," Jarvis told WRCB. "He was always there for me, and ... he was my best friend."
Johnson said that Trey would walk Jarvis to the bus stop every day and would also make sure that she was at home when he walked Jarvis back home after school.
"He'd knock on the door and say, 'I just wanted to make sure you were here,'" she said. "He was a good child."
Johnson and her son used to be neighbors of Trey's but moved away from East 50th Street when, she says, the neighborhood got too dangerous.
"It's a shame that a child [died] this young," she said. "He had so much life in him. He had a full life ahead. All this violence and everything need to stop."
One of Trey's aunts agrees. Toward the end of the funeral service, she got up, grabbed the microphone and angrily addressed the crowd.
"I'm sick of this!" she exclaimed. "The FBI, SWAT team and the military need to round all you gang members up right now. This boy was killed over some grown-men feud. Instead of shooting innocent kids and pregnant girls, kill yourselves or take your butts to Afghanistan!"
She then dropped the mic and walked off to a standing ovation.
The words of one man in attendance, former mayoral candidate Chester Heathington Jr., echo those of Trey's aunt.
"This here should be the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said. "This child's death should not go unresolved. I hope this right here will be the pivotal point where the community says, 'Hey, let's stop … Let's start saving ourselves and our young people.'"
Saving our young people
Heathington is correct: Trey's death should be a catalyst for change. But so, probably, should have been any of the hundreds of people who've been killed in this city before him or any of the people who've been shot in the couple of weeks since Trey was shot. Those committing violent acts must be neutralized so that the business of nurturing lives can fully take place. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke says the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative is doing just that—as well as giving offenders a chance to turn their lives around.
"The goal of the VRI is specifically to reduce violent crime," he told The Pulse last week. "The outreach and support it includes involves people who are currently involved in the world of violence. If you are willing to leave that life, there are vocational training, alcohol and drug counseling and educational opportunities available."
The initiative, which is modeled after cease-fire efforts across the country, works as follows: First, different groups are mapped out across the city. Second, bold action is taken when shootings occur. Next, authorities send a clear message that, if a shooting occurs, law enforcement will focus in on individuals and groups for any and all crimes committed, no matter which person pulls the trigger. Lastly, vocational support and alcohol and drug rehabilitation services will be offered to those who are willing to put down their weapons.
In addition to taking some violent offenders of the street, this initiative, I hope, will prompt some of them to do some crucial soul searching. Maybe it will cause some to reconsider their gang memberships or associations. It might sound overly simplistic, and also perhaps crude, but the thug life is not a life. Many of those who are active in gangs think they have to be in order to survive. But many of them are not surviving—and they're taking others down with them. Scores are never really settled. As unrealistic as it might sound, forgiveness always beats revenge. The deadly cycle of retaliation must be broken.
Equally (if not more) important than breaking the cycle of violence, however, is intervention in the lives of young people before they are lost to that life. Violent offenders in this city—including gang members—approach and recruit kids while they are still in elementary school. Often, the kids go along for protection—and all too often because the kids are lacking other, better role models. Hampton said that kids have plenty of questions about life and are more than willing to learn, but there are simply not enough caring adults willing to be there for them.
"Every future gang member, robber and murderer is in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade right now," he said. "Let's put all our resources there."
Resources are currently being directed toward at-risk youth. The Youth and Family Development Department offers reading and mentoring programs to young people. Hampton and the Goodwill Youth Mentoring Program mentor kids in multiple schools each week, and the kids are thriving. And there are other groups. But it's not enough. More mentors are needed—from parents reclaiming their families and homes to residents pitching in in their communities to the community at large stepping out of its collective comfort zone to come alongside organizations that are already making a difference.
"We have to get out of the 'we're studying this' mode," Hampton told WGOW's Jeff Styles last week. "People need to be trained to understand where these kids are coming from. People need to be seen in the community and to build relationships with these kids. We need to tune out the negativity, and we need people to be on the ground to do the work."
Trey was being reached and had enormous potential to reach others. It's a tragedy that he will never get that chance and an even bigger tragedy that he had to die before he could finally live in peace.
Chattanooga is a fantastic place with a lot to be proud of. Just a few days ago, The New York Times touted our lightning-fast Internet. Sadly, our bullets are flying even faster.
"Our downtown looks great," Hampton said. "Hixson is booming. East Brainerd is growing like none other, and Volkswagen is making beautiful cars. But the inner city is dying."
It doesn't have to.
Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.