Grover Arbuthnot was charming the customers at Cafe Reconcile and working toward his own apartment, a car and a GED. Then he was gone.



"That job really gave him a lot of self-esteem that he didn't have," says his aunt. Arbuthnot felt good about getting paychecks in his own name, starting his own bank account and staying out of the way of the police. "I barely get stopped now, now that I have a job," he told White.

His dreadlocks were also a signature part of who he was. They were short and whimsical, and he was constantly twisting them. After all, says Conyers, Arbuthnot had spent most of his teenage years incarcerated and shaved nearly bald. "Now he could have hair, and nobody could tell him to get it cut. It was a big thing for him," she says.

"The last time I talked to him on the phone it was about him getting his hair done," Conyers recalls. "His little cousin was graduating and he wanted to make sure that his hair looked good for the graduation."

Lately, the pull of the streets seemed weaker, says Franklin. Her nephew had never really known anyone who went to college, but recently he bragged to her about playing basketball on the Tulane University campus with new friend and co-worker Carl Irvin, a Tulane honors student. Arbuthnot's short stature didn't matter on the court, where he was quick, says Irvin, nor did it matter at work, where he would rap Jay-Z cuts in a low tone as he bustled around the restaurant. "Grover was like a little floor manager almost -- telling people what to do, like he was an authority. He was so small, but his demeanor, the way he acted was so much bigger."

That big personality made Arbuthnot eager to talk about what he'd learned, says White. "He'd say, 'This is what you tell kids: Stay inside for a minute, figure it out, don't go hang on the corner the first day out or you'll probably get caught up in something real bad real quick.'"

Arbuthnot strictly followed his own advice, whether he was staying Uptown with his aunt or grandmother or, more recently, with a friend in Hollygrove. No matter where he was, he would not leave the house after 6 p.m. But, on Wednesday, June 2, Boyd says, he made a seemingly harmless exception, to check on a friend and co-worker whom the chef had suspended that day.

Around 8 that night, neighbors saw Arbuthnot riding on the handlebars of a friend's bicycle. What happened next is unclear. Just before 8:30 p.m., the New Orleans Police Department responded to reports of gunshots at the corner of Nelson and Dante streets in the Hollygrove neighborhood. They found Arbuthnot on the ground, dead, with multiple close-range gunshot wounds to the head. According to the NOPD, no one has yet been charged. Off to the left of the closed casket, a church member leans toward a stereo and presses play. "I grew up in the St. Thomas project," says a young man's voice. It's clear and distinct, audible even above the choir of electric fans fighting the 90-degree June heat.

The First United Baptist Church is filled on this Tuesday morning, its wooden pews lined with men and women of all ages. Some hold little boys in crisp shirts or small girls in frilly dresses and fancy ribbons in their hair. Young men, most clad in baggy pants and extra-long white T-shirts, congregate in several pews in the back.

All lean forward to hear the voice of 21-year-old Grover Arbuthnot. "I grew up with my grandmother, my sister and my brother," he says on the tape. "My mother got killed, my daddy got killed, so it was like kinda a rough life, you know."

He wasn't too much into education, he explains, but mathematics was his favorite subject and so, at school, he'd skip other classes but not math. He'd become similarly devoted to his job at Cafe Reconcile, where he'd worked for the past year. "I always knew my whole life, if you take time with something, something good's going to come of it," he says. "That's how my family always was."

That audio excerpt came from Brice White, a former youth advocate at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). A few months earlier, as part of a JJPL project, White sat down with Arbuthnot and recorded a candid, between-friends chat about Arbuthnot's life. Arbuthnot had already put in some time on the microphone -- probably a few dozen interviews with local and national media in just one year's time. Typically, he'd describe his experiences with Cafe Reconcile, juvenile justice, or violence in the community. But reporters most often sought his opinion about Louisiana's juvenile lockups, where he'd served a four-year stretch for armed robbery starting at age 15.

By the time he was released, in August 2002, Arbuthnot was nearing 20. Gambit Weekly first spoke with him nine months later, for a story about the now-closed Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, where he'd spent some time toward the end of his sentence. Even a few minutes into that hourlong interview, Arbuthnot's particular combination of intellect and sincerity shone through. Before leaving the interview, he wrote down his aunt's phone number and suggested that one of the best times to call him was 6 a.m. Like many older inmates released from prison, he'd found that, even months later, his body continued to wake just after dawn, as if ready for roll call.

That may have been partly because he couldn't get into a good routine here, in what inmates call "the free world." As a young man with no work history, no training, no diploma and no GED, he simply could not find work. He ended up stumbling for a few months, but came back up, thanks in large part to the program at Cafe Reconcile on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Once he started working at the cafe, he began stepping up his visits to JJPL's nearby offices, stopping there almost daily to say hi, seek advice or simply clown around in the lobby.

At Cafe Reconcile, Arbuthnot, a 5-foot-4-inch charmer with short dreadlocks and a big personality, became a favorite among lunchtime diners. There, he held a special status among judges, probation officers, attorneys and anyone else juggling caseloads where successes can be rare.

For those at the Juvenile Justice Project, Arbuthnot became both a friend and a daily reminder of why they came to work each day to advocate for "at-risk" kids like him. "Grover had his priorities in order; he knew what he needed to do -- get his own apartment, get a car, go to school," says JJPL attorney Angela Conyers. "He was our most successful client in terms of staying out of trouble and doing a steady job. Then boom, just like that, he was gone."

"WE NICKNAME ALL THE KIDS -- nickname them whatever their characters portray," says Arbuthnot's uncle, Nevelle Franklin Sr. "Grover was a tough little guy. What he went through with his mama and dad and all that, he had to be a little rock to withstand it all. That was my Rock -- we miss him bad."

In 1983, within one month's time, Grover's father, Calvin Hatch, was shot not far from home in the St. Thomas housing project, and his mother, Lili Arbuthnot, died of complications from a miscarriage. She passed away on Sept. 5, 1983, while in custody at Orleans Parish Prison for failing to appear in court on a shoplifting charge. According to The Times-Picayune/States-Item, at 10:30 p.m., several hours after being booked into the jail, she was admitted to Charity Hospital with severe abdominal pains. In the newspaper account, coroner Frank Minyard ruled out foul play and noted that Lili Arbuthnot had had three other children by Cesarean section, including a 9-month-old boy -- Grover.

His father's sister, Catherine Franklin, has heard that a fight in the jailhouse prompted the miscarriage. "It's just so sad," says Franklin. "Because his mother was young -- she was 21 when she died."

Franklin says that her mother, Arbuthnot's paternal grandmother, immediately filed to adopt baby Grover, but suffered a massive heart attack soon afterward. Next in line was his maternal grandmother, who ended up raising him. It wasn't easy, Grover Arbuthnot told White. "My grandmother already was old, you know, so she was struggling to grow us up."

"Grover had a lot of freedom at an early age and he would be running around the project," Franklin says. If he wasn't inside at curfew, he was locked out and would have to find a place to sleep at a friend's or an aunt's house. Then his grandmother would call and he'd be headed back to her apartment. "Coming up like that, he was just confused," says his aunt. "But he always was a sweet child; he loved both sides of his family, in spite of the back and forth."

His uncle recalls a restless, curious child, from elementary school on. "We used to call Grover the little mouse of the school because he was a small little boy and he would be just running around the school all the time," he says. "He always wanted to be into something, but he was confused about what he wanted to be and what he wanted to do."

As Arbuthnot got older, the murder count began to surge in the St. Thomas. "I didn't really pay too much close attention to it when I was younger, but I saw a lot of dudes get killed back there," Arbuthnot said in his interview with Brice White. When he was about 12, crossfire caught a kid his age. "I was outside and he was in the middle of the front court," Arbuthnot recalled. "These dudes started shooting at somebody, then made a mistake and hit him in the head. That wasn't the first time I seen people on the ground dead, but it was the first time I seen a young dude get his life took."

It was around that time that Arbuthnot ran away and didn't return home for a few weeks. He slept and ate in various places within the project, cutting school so that no one would find him. When the police finally stopped him one day, he was placed in Families in Need of Services (FINS). Not long afterward, a judge sent him to a group home in St. Bernard Parish "for not listening to his grandmother," Arbuthnot said. He ran away from there and in the end spent his early teenage years back in the St. Thomas, where he earned the nickname Tenth Ward Knockout, for being good with his fists.

On New Year's Day 1998, just after he'd turned 15, Arbuthnot and five other kids went to Magazine Street, where the group robbed some visitors from Mississippi at gunpoint. Police, tipped off by an informant, got the kids a few days later -- Arbuthnot was taken out of his class at Walter L. Cohen Senior High School in handcuffs. The teens were brought to juvenile court. There, in the courtroom of Judge C. Hearn Taylor, the victims appeared, telling the judge that they were Christians and asking him, unsuccessfully, not to incarcerate the teens.

Like all sentenced teenagers in the state, Arbuthnot first was processed at the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth near Baton Rouge. After processing, kids either stayed at Jetson or were sent to facilities at Bridge City, Monroe or Tallulah. Arbuthnot was assigned first to a Jetson dorm. He was OK with Jetson, partly because his Aunt Catherine and Uncle Nevelle could make the drive to see him there, and partly because he generally liked the staff. "They only hit you if they have to," he said. Once he was transferred to Tallulah, his outlook changed. The drive was too long for visitors from New Orleans, he said, and the environment was awful. "Look at it this way -- either you're going to be raped at Tallulah or else you're going to be fighting every day," he said in 2003. He told Gambit he also saw guards busting heads open with walkie talkies and kids stripped naked and stuck into cold, concrete-and-metal lockdown cells. At Tallulah, he said, kids could expect old food, six-day waits for bed sheets and counseling only "once in a blue moon."

Arbuthnot emphasized, however, that he would've never been in Tallulah if he hadn't done something wrong. "I had to take my lick," he said. He was also philosophical about the years he'd spent in juvenile prison. "They say God puts you in a place for a reason. I think God probably put me there so that I wouldn't get killed," he said. "Where I was living in the St. Thomas project, they was wild, killing people."

He's probably right, says his aunt. "Even when he was in Tallulah, he'd often say, 'Auntie Ca'rine, another one of them little dudes from the St. Thomas got shot in the St. Bernard.' If he hadn't gone to juvenile, he probably would have been dead then, in the St. Thomas."

"THAT WAS THE HARDEST PART when I came home, the job part," Arbuthnot told White. Right after his release, White recalls, they would scour the want ads and fill out applications all over town.

The result: absolutely nothing. "They'd tell me they'd call but they never would," Arbuthnot said. It was maddening, says White. "He couldn't get a job. Even with folks like us helping him, he couldn't get a job."

After several months, Arbuthnot seemed to give up. "I didn't have no job, and I was just roaming the streets during the daytime," he told White. Soon, he got picked up on petty charges -- one, he told Gambit, for trespassing when he was sitting on a friend's porch. Within a few months, police spotted him in a stolen car and he ran. He was given 18 months probation and -- with some help from JJPL -- a spot in the Cafe Reconcile training program, which teaches kids job skills and connects them with GED classes and other necessary services.

ARBUTHNOT TOLD WHITE HE WOULD NOT have landed anything on his own. "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have that job I have now. I probably never would've gotten a job," he said.

Within the environs of Cafe Reconcile, Arbuthnot blossomed. "Grover was by no means perfect," says Cafe Reconcile's chef, Don Boyd. Arbuthnot would sometimes be late or a no-show, causing Boyd to suspend him on a few occasions. But, say co-workers, the two had a father-son relationship. Boyd agrees. "Grover was my right-hand guy," he says. Arbuthnot was making huge progress. He had only one more payment to make to criminal court, was slated to start GED classes in mid-June, and after saving $120 for a deposit, planned to move into a little transitional-housing apartment in two days. He already had the keys.

It was a tremendous transformation, says Boyd. "He could knock you out with his fists. But he would knock you out with his smile -- he had a wicked smile that would melt you."

The Juvenile Justice Project may have gotten him in the door, White says, but Arbuthnot didn't give himself enough credit. "Really, it came down to him making a choice and sticking with it," says White. "I think it was something within him -- he was determined."

AT THE FIRST UNITED BAPTIST CHURCH, the family opens the microphone to the congregation, and 24-year-old Timothy Dennis comes up the center aisle, moving his lips and his arms to the pulse of a silent rap as he walks.

This is the third funeral he's spoken at this week, he says as he stands at the podium. Opening a red spiral-bound notebook, he reads his beginning lines, about how he's sorry he didn't get to say goodbye. The poem concludes with a warning against revenge. "Please don't worry about the killer," he reads. "Please don't worry about the catchback. Just let it go and let God."

As the service comes to a close, two funeral directors stride to the coffin, smooth its satin lining and gently shut its lid. The crowd files out of the church followed by six young pallbearers, dressed in baggy pants and bright white cotton gloves. Tears rolling down their cheeks, they carry their friend's casket across the front sidewalk and into the waiting hearse.

Timothy Dennis watches them from the church's front steps. He leafs through his spiral-bound notebook. Its lined pages are filled with handwritten verse, poems about people like Arbuthnot and circumstances like this. "When someone dies young," he explains, "that endears me with them, because I'm young, too."

Arbuthnot was new to the Hollygrove neighborhood, but Dennis had talked with him, and he admired what Arbuthnot was doing with himself. "He put the assholes to the side, excuse my French, and tried to learn something new," Dennis says. "If that little boy would have had a chance to do some of the things he planned, he would've been a bad black man."

Dennis was only a block away, he says, when Arbuthnot was killed. When his sister came and told him whom the shots had hit, he didn't have the heart to go look.

Arbuthnot knew that sinking feeling firsthand. "Most of the dudes who came out around my time got killed or are back in jail doing time," he told White.

The toll was far too high, says his aunt. "Since he's been home, I'm going to tell you, about 10 or 20 of those guys have gotten killed," she says. "It's all boys around the same age -- 20, 21, 22, 23." She tried to keep his spirits up, she says. "I would tell him, 'I know that those are your friends. Go to the funeral and view the body but don't let it get to you.'"

She became increasingly worried this spring, she says, reciting a tragic litany. "One guy was missing the Thursday before Mother's Day, they found his body burnt up, shot in the head; he was 23 years old; Grover knew him. Then Chocolate, he was one of those little guys he used to be with in the project; he got killed. Anthony got killed; he was up there in Tallulah with him. Then that guy Wilson, he was riding with another guy in a car and the police were chasing them and they ran into a tree. He knew those two."

Wilson -- 21-year-old Wilson Young -- died in April after crashing a stolen SUV into a tree on Carrollton Avenue. Arbuthnot was torn apart. "I've never seen a young person react like that," says JJPL youth advocate Melissa Sawyer. The two young men had known each other since they were toddlers, she says. They'd grown up together; they'd done juvenile prison time together; they were best friends.

Soon after the crash, Arbuthnot visited JJPL attorney Conyers. "He came to the office," she says, "and I've never seen him so sad." He told Conyers that he had warned Young not to get into that truck, that it was stolen, he said. But he also was struggling with something else -- he wondered whether his friend would know him when they met up again. "He said that he had always heard that when people die, all of their life's memory goes," she says. Alarmed to see Arbuthnot so despondent, she looked him in the eye and talked to him about grief counseling. He told her that he would really like to talk to someone.

White, too, remembers the sorrow, so deep that Arbuthnot had cried for days. "I think to Grover, losing Wilson was as close as it could get to him," White explains. This spring, Arbuthnot and Young had gone shopping on Canal Street and gotten "completely matching" Easter outfits, from shoes on up. "These two kids were basically reflections of each other," White says.

Young's outfit went unworn. He died on April 9, Good Friday -- two days before Easter.

ALREADY THIS YEAR, MELISSA SAWYER has attended funerals for several JJPL kids. "Dealing with people whose lives are so vulnerable," she says, "success is such a fragile concept." Sometimes, she says, simply staying alive is a success in itself.

This month, Sawyer, Conyers and their JJPL co-workers began a program called the Youth Empowerment Project, which will allow them to reach out to kids leaving juvenile lockups. Eventually, they hope to provide intensive case management and support to 40 New Orleans kids each year.

As part of the project's launch, Sawyer says, they're creating a plaque to honor the five kids they've lost since September. The inscription is simple: "May their deaths remind us of the pain that's behind us and the work that lies ahead of us."

Still, every day, right around 4 p.m., the JJPL lobby seems far too quiet. Angela Conyers won't even sit downstairs by the front door anymore. "Because every time somebody walks around the corner, I think, 'It's Grover, coming to visit,'" she says.

On a recent Monday, the tables at Cafe Reconcile held little memorial placards bearing Arbuthnot's photo. It was a busy day, says Boyd, and he was expediting the line, making sure that waiters were carrying each finished order from the kitchen to the tables. "I always yell out the names," he says, "and I turned around and in the middle of a full restaurant said, 'Grover!'" "It hurt," says Boyd. "He was still there for me."

Keyiron House, Kayla House and Amanda House wear T- - shirts memorializing their cousin Grover Arbuthnot. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Keyiron House, Kayla House and Amanda House wear T- shirts memorializing their cousin Grover Arbuthnot.
A young Grover Arbuthnot (in back, on Nevelle Franklin Sr.'s shoulders) and his extended family celebrate Super Sunday. "I always knew my whole life, if you take time with something, something good's going to come of it," Arbuthnot once said. "That's how my family always was." - CATHERINE FRANKLIN
  • Catherine Franklin
  • A young Grover Arbuthnot (in back, on Nevelle Franklin Sr.'s shoulders) and his extended family celebrate Super Sunday. "I always knew my whole life, if you take time with something, something good's going to come of it," Arbuthnot once said. "That's how my family always was."
"Grover was a tough little guy," says Grover Arbuthnot's - uncle, Nevelle Franklin Sr., pictured with Arbuthnot. - CATHERINE FRANKLIN
  • Catherine Franklin
  • "Grover was a tough little guy," says Grover Arbuthnot's uncle, Nevelle Franklin Sr., pictured with Arbuthnot.
Arbuthnot as a young teenager at Jetson Correctional - Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, where he served the - first part of a four-year stretch in the state's juvenile - detention system. - CATHERINE FRANKLIN
  • Catherine Franklin
  • Arbuthnot as a young teenager at Jetson Correctional Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, where he served the first part of a four-year stretch in the state's juvenile detention system.
Arbuthnot as a young teenager in the Jetson Correctional - Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, during visits with - Catherine Franklin (left) and Nevelle Franklin Sr. His - family could visit him in Jetson, but when he was moved - to Tallulah, those visits became more difficult. - CATHERINE FRANKLIN
  • Catherine Franklin
  • Arbuthnot as a young teenager in the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, during visits with Catherine Franklin (left) and Nevelle Franklin Sr. His family could visit him in Jetson, but when he was moved to Tallulah, those visits became more difficult.

Add a comment