Katherine Keeler was at the hairdresser on a Friday afternoon with two close friends before she had to go downtown later for work. For the previous six years, she had worked the night shift at Harrah's Casino as a slot-machine attendant. The trio had spent most of the afternoon at the neighborhood salon laughing and talking the way they always did when they went to get their hair done.
Keeler's oldest son, Tarik, 18, called to let her know that the FEMA trailer repairman had come by to fix the septic tank problem for the trailer in front of their Central City house. She thanked him, and he told her he would wait there with his best friend Ronnie Williams to show her what the repairman had done. Their house was three blocks away from the salon, but Keeler's three youngest kids -- Caprice, Korie and Wendell -- grew restless and popped in to check on her. She assured them she was almost done and told them to go back and wait with Tarik and Ronnie.
Minutes later, 13-year-old Caprice burst back through the door. "They killed Ronnie! They killed Ronnie!" she screamed.
"What?" said the mother.
"They shot him up. They shot him up!" said Caprice.
Keeler jumped out of her chair and ran toward the house.
"It was already blocked off," says Keeler, reflecting back on that day. "And I couldn't get down there. But I saw Ronnie on the ground and there was something inside me saying, 'Well, where is Tarik at?'" He was nowhere in sight, and he wasn't answering his cell phone. "Can you tell me where my son is, where my baby is?" she asked police. "I know he's somewhere because he was just here." They repeatedly asked her for physical descriptions of her son but wouldn't say much more.
She saw the stretcher come out of the ambulance and thought it must be for Ronnie. But the stretcher went in the opposite direction.
"Oh Lord, they got my baby, where he at?" she thought. From the family's vantage point, they couldn't see clearly who was put on the stretcher. Friends and neighbors speculated that it was too big to be Tarik. However, he was still missing. "I knew he was gone," says Keeler. "I knew he was gone, but ..."
The family was escorted to the trauma center at Charity Hospital in Elmwood Medical Centre, now assuming that it was Tarik who was on the stretcher -- even though no one had explicitly told them so. "When the doctor came out," says Keeler, "I'm thinking he was going to tell me, 'Okay, well, he's been shot so many times, but he's okay.' Or, 'He's paralyzed from the neck down.' I would have been okay with that, whatever. But don't tell me he's ..." She trails off, unable to finish the thought. But the doctor wasn't saying anything.
Finally, Keeler's sister asked, "Is he gone?" The doctor just shook his head. That was it.
For nearly 20 years, thousands of families in New Orleans have experienced losses similar to that of the Keeler family. The majority of the victims have been young black teenagers who grew up in the pockets of poverty spread across the city. In addition to poverty, the current generation of youths has grown up with a fierce cycle of street violence that started to rise in the early 1990s -- when they were little kids -- and has, for the most part, sustained itself throughout their lives.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, the rising murder rate, changes in the school system and some high-profile violence involving youths have exposed many of the longstanding failures of the city and the overall community to provide hope and opportunities for young people. New reform efforts are underway to fight crime, improve education and build a sense of community, but many argue that it's not a matter of method. Skeptics cite previous reform efforts that failed. Crime in particular exposes the problems that plague New Orleans -- poverty, education, drugs, race and politics. Time will tell if the new reform efforts will succeed. Meanwhile, the new generation faces the immediate prospect of becoming a lost generation. For the Keeler family, it already is.
The month after Tarik's passing was tough on Katherine Keeler. Tarik was actually Keeler's nephew by birth, but she had raised him since he was 8 months old. Rumors and speculation from friends and family crept into her mind about why Tarik was killed, but nothing was certain. "We were all just questioning what was going on and nobody could figure out why," she says.
In addition to being unable to get answers from the police, Tarik's death caused her to wonder what else she could have done to prevent him from being killed. "It took a toll on me because I was questioning like, why didn't I see? If it was something he was into, did I not see it?" asks Keeler. She admits her son wasn't perfect, but it never crossed her mind that something like this would happen. "He wasn't an angel, he wasn't the straight-and-narrow child; he wasn't, but he wasn't into all that craziness."
Her next oldest son Traydell, 17, also took Tarik's death hard. Traydell was the more confident one, and he often would include Tarik in things around the house when his older brother was reluctant to join in. "They were close, but if you were on the outside looking in you wouldn't think so. But they were close," says Keeler, adding they weren't the type to go everywhere together. "But when one needed the other, they were always there, they were always talking," she says.
The two brothers found themselves hanging out and playing video games together, especially the car racing game their mother had bought for them. Traydell was known as the "Mr. Fix It" of the house because of his fondness for computers and putting stuff together, while Tarik liked basketball because he was the tallest.
The day before Thanksgiving, a month and two days after Tarik had been killed, Keeler was at the bank with family members running last-minute errands for a holiday that was sure to be difficult, having just buried her oldest son. She also carried the added burden of worrying whether she would have enough money for the family during the holiday weekend -- because she had just emptied her savings account to give Tarik a proper funeral.
She got a phone call from a friend and stepped outside to take the call.
"Where's Traydell," the friend asked.
"For what?" Keeler asked.
"Please, tell me you know where Traydell is," repeated the friend.
"For what? He's Uptown. What do you mean, 'Where is he?' I just dropped him off like 30 minutes ago with his friend. Why?" Keeler pleaded.
"Because ... just call," the friend said.
"Please, tell me --" started Keeler.
"Just call, something happened," said the friend.
Keeler started screaming. Her family members found her outside the bank. They piled into their van to rush back to where they had just dropped off Traydell. During the frantic ride, she found herself saying, "Somebody, tell me. Please, just tell me. God wouldn't do this to me. God wouldn't take both of them from me like that. Tray, if something is wrong, I'm on my way. Just know I'm on my way. Don't leave me like that."
When they arrived at the scene, it was too late. The same nightmare had happened again.
"He's gone," she reflects through tears. "They wouldn't let me go see him. I just wanted to let him know I was there. If he knew I was there, I know he would have gotten up."
She repeats, "If he knew I was there, I know he would have gotten up, I know he would have. He wouldn't leave me. He was supposed to take care of me. That's what he always said. Him and Tarik were going to take care of me. No matter what, they were going to take care of me and they said it. That's why I worked so hard because I had to make sure they would be all right, and make it to the age where they would be all right, and I wouldn't have to do anything else because they said they were going to take care of me. They've been saying this since they was babies, they always said they would take care of me. I knew he was going to do it. I knew ..."
Keeler stops her reflection. The tears are too much.
Speculation abounds as to why the brothers were killed and who killed them. There are stories that their deaths involved a dispute over a girl; that it stemmed from a fight that Tarik got into at a dance; that the boys were part of a drug turf war; that somebody had a problem with Traydell and killed Tarik to get even, whereupon Traydell tried to retaliate and missed, and the group later came back and got him.
There's also speculation that the first shooting of Tarik was a mistake, that his friend Ronnie was the only intended victim.
For Keeler, rumors only add to questions spinning around in her head. She believes her sons were good kids. "They weren't out there doing none of this stuff, and I could say that because Traydell went to school. He had started working, and he was coming inside. Tarik wasn't hanging around the corner no more."
She adds that she would be the first one to admit if she thought her kids were mixed up in something like drugs because she knew her sons. She also has the safety of her three smaller kids to think about. "They were not straight-and-narrow kids, but they was no hard-down gangbanging, hard drug-selling, drive-by-shooting kids. They weren't. If they were, they kept it from me, all the way from me."
"Not straight and narrow" refers to a time when the boys were around 13 or 14 years old, Keeler says. At that time, they started staying out past midnight. "I was able to buy all of the things my kids needed -- and about half the things what they wanted," she says. But apparently that wasn't enough. "They didn't figure what I was doing with the clothes was enough, they weren't getting it like they thought they should get it, so they went about a way to get it themselves," she says, referring to Traydell's first arrest for possession of marijuana, which she thinks he was trying to sell. She says it marked the beginning of a rebellious phase during which the boys weren't listening to her like they used to.
However, Traydell did appear to hear more than he let on. As part of his probation for a misdemeanor offense, he ended up at the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), a non-profit outgrowth of the Juvenile Justice Project that provides intense legal and case management for kids with offenses like Traydell's.
Traydell continued to rebel when he first arrived at the center, but eventually things started to turn around. He took more interest in school and started going back to church, something he did faithfully when he was younger. He also had gotten a summer job at a clothing store, where he excelled.
Melissa Sawyer, YEP executive director, handled Traydell's case and worked with him almost daily for four years. "I can tell you that Traydell should have been in college. And I can tell you that he could have come back here, and he could have been a doctor, he could have been a teacher, he could have run a youth diversion program. He could have done so many wonderful things and made a real positive contribution and could have been one of those people who had the ability to straddle both worlds and to be a cultural ambassador, bringing back his stories and his tales to really educate those folks who don't know the reality of growing up in the streets or growing up in the projects or growing up in a really poor area of New Orleans."
Tarik didn't have the turnaround that Traydell had, bouncing in and out of high schools until he dropped out. Yet, there were plans to enroll him in a GED class at YEP, and his mother insists he was a good kid.
Information provided by the New Orleans Police Department paints a different picture of the boys. They cite criminal records that include multiple arrests, many of which were narcotics related -- including several felony charges that were later downgraded to misdemeanors.
"Not exactly your average, go-to-school kids," says Officer Sabrina Richardson, a spokesperson for the NOPD. The department also said that while the investigation of Traydell's murder was still in the early stages, cops have not established a connection to Tarik's shooting. In fact, they believe that Traydell's murder was over a girl and not drug-related. Detective DeCynda Barnes said that Traydell's killer called him on his cell phone to get him out of a residence on Second Street, then shot him as soon as he came outside. In addition, no drugs or weapons were found on either Tarik or Traydell when they were killed.
For YEP's Sawyer, trying to figure out how or why doesn't matter. "The reasons to me are a lot less important," she says. "Maybe they had done some bad things in their lives, I don't know. ... But the side I saw of Traydell, since that was who I knew and worked with, I saw a great, smart, talented kid, full of life, full of potential, someone who was polite, someone who loved his mother, someone who was respectful, someone who would do anything you asked, someone who would call you every Thanksgiving or Christmas to wish you well. Every holiday he would always call. It's just sad that they are gone."
In many ways, trying to figure out why Tarik Sparks and Traydell Keeler were killed is like trying to figure out why the violence continues to surround another generation of youths in New Orleans. There is no shortage of institutions or individuals to blame -- the kids themselves, their parents, police, the criminal justice system, the community, even the leadership of the city. Ask any 10 people and you're likely to get 10 different answers.
The quintuple murder of five teenagers in June catapulted the city's violent streak into the national spotlight as things appeared to be spinning out of control. Gov. Kathleen Blanco responded by deploying the National Guard to assist NOPD in maintaining order.
Some of the murdered teens' mothers did not know where they were at the time of the shooting, which occurred in the middle of the night. A few months later, as schools began to reopen, a series of fights broke out at several high schools, most notably John McDonogh High, where students knocked a security guard unconscious and put a teacher in the hospital.
While those incidents did not involve guns, McDonogh principal Donald Jackson told Gambit Weekly that he saw a gun come out during one of the fights -- and that he feels lucky that nothing more serious happened. The McDonogh incidents also highlighted another odd post-Katrina reality: many kids, including several that were involved in melees at John McDonogh, are living in New Orleans by themselves while their parents remain evacuated in other cities.
Many would suggest that unsupervised teens are the main reason for escalating violence. In reality, the reasons are not that cut and dry. For example, overall juvenile crime is actually down 92 percent, according to Juvenile District Court Judge David Bell. It should be noted that "juveniles" include anyone under the age of 17 -- and that the No. 1 age group for crime has traditionally been 17- to 25-year-olds.
No one has a definitive reason as to why juvenile crime is down so drastically, but few can dispute the statistic's significance. That may be cold comfort to the family of the 16-year-old who was killed in the quintuple murder in June. Until last week, he was the only juvenile killed this year in New Orleans, according to Bell. Additionally, while some blame parents for sending their kids back to the city on their own, Principal Allen Woods of Frederick Douglass High School says most of his students who are on their own are the responsible ones. They cared enough to come back and actually finish school, he says. Others say unsupervised teens are not really a "Katrina issue" because so many kids here have always lived on their own -- or with little parental involvement.
NOPD's Richardson disagrees with that notion, having encountered many youths while patrolling the streets at night in the Sixth District, which includes crime-riddled Central City. "My heart went to the families because they lost their children," says Richardson of the kids killed in the quintuple murder. "But how do you not know where your child was at one, two o'clock in the morning? Either you know your child was out there doing something he had no business doing -- and you just didn't care enough to intervene -- or you just have no clue. Either way, you are responsible as a parent. And that totally bothers me. Parents have to take more responsibility and get involved in their kids' life."
Jimmy Keen, a 30-year NOPD veteran who for years served as commander of Homicide Division, says it's not that simple. "I caught a 12-year-old kid once with a crack rock this big," he says, motioning with his hands the size of a softball. Keen says the child "hid this crack from his mother because she was turning tricks for crack in the house that he grew up in. He would hide it from her so she wouldn't smoke it ... . How are you going to tell that parent to be responsible?"
Keen, whose hard edge probably comes from seeing so many murder scenes for so many years, scoffs at the idea of blaming drugs for all of the city's problems. He says that bad environments, such as one that forces a kid to hide crack from his mother, would still exist. Such environments are what breed kids who don't care about their own lives, he says.
"How are you going to care about someone else's life when you don't care about your own?" he asks. "The police cannot arrest their way out of this problem."
On the flip side of that problem, says Sawyer, is the majority of kids that you don't hear much about. Those are the kids who won't propel themselves out of their environments on exceptional talent or scholarships but who also don't subscribe to the street life. Those kids are caught in the middle. If they develop a tendency toward violence, it's more like a resignation that it is a constant presence in their lives, Sawyer says.
Derrick Davis is a prime example of that resignation.
Having finished high school without a diploma at Walter L. Cohen High because he failed the LEAP test too many times, Davis is currently working on his GED in hopes of going to community college. He also has sickle-cell anemia, which kept him away from the street and inspired him to want to become a nurse. He says he wants to relate to patients the way nurses related to him when he spent an entire year in the hospital.
Growing up on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Davis has been robbed at gunpoint at least six times. In one holdup, the gunmen actually pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. When asked if he was scared at that moment, he simply says, "No. It wasn't my time to go. I only fear the Lord." When asked if he might have been scared after that to walk the streets, he says, "No. If my life's going to end, it's going to end."
Sawyer says Davis' mind-set is common among young people she sees. "Every young person you meet who grew up here has witnessed murders or knows someone who has, and it's been a part of their growing up," she says. "It creates this sort of numbness. It is just part of what their life is like."
In addition to troubled home and neighborhood environments, the struggling public education system of New Orleans is often cited as contributing to the cycle of violence because public schools don't teach or equip many students to seek higher education or skilled employment options. The system's long history of mismanagement, poor performance and corruption has been a particular focus because the city's schools have been so heavily populated by the same group of poor, mostly black young people that have grown up surrounded by street violence. While pre-Katrina New Orleans was officially 67 percent black and 28 percent white, the public school population hovered near 93 percent black and 3.5 percent white. Post-Katrina, despite a modest shift in the city's racial makeup, the demographics of the city's public schools remain largely unchanged.
As for any potential connection between bad public schools and violence, most educators cite factors that are beyond their control -- parents, poverty, the politics of the school board and even the violence itself. In fairness, school-based violence is a national issue. Drugs, fights, security guards and metal detectors are becoming commonplace in many urban school districts.
While society measures the cost of violence in statistics, families like the Keelers are the only ones who truly feel the impact of a generation lost to it. Katherine Keeler fondly remembers one Sunday morning when she had just arrived home from work, around 4:45 a.m. She heard the rest of the family get up about an hour later to get ready for church, which started at 8 a.m. As each one of her five kids passed by her bed to see if she was going, she rolled over and told them she was too tired.
Then, she says, "I feel somebody still sitting there. I'm thinking 'I wish they would go 'head on and go to church already.' Then all I heard was, 'Ma! You going to church?!'" She sprang up and it was Traydell. He always insisted everybody went to church and was on time. "I got up like I was a kid, and starting putting on clothes," she laughs.
Keeler has other fond memories, such as the times she used to dress the two boys alike when they were younger -- and Traydell was bowlegged and Tarik had a big head. Or when Tarik got older, how he wasn't bashful about giving his mother or his grandmother a kiss and telling them he loved them. "That's what I miss," she says. "That's what I miss most."
When asked what she would say to the people who murdered her sons, she thinks carefully for a moment and chooses her words deliberately. "It's hard enough just to live in New Orleans," she says. "It's hard enough just to be who you are in New Orleans. And you just add to it when you do the killing, you just making it worse. You are making yourself a statistic. You are making people say, well, that was just another black man killed on the street."
Keeler reflects back to when she was standing at the scene of Traydell's murder. "When Traydell was killed, they took his body, put him in the back of the van and just sprayed his blood away like it wasn't nothing. It's like they just washed him away. It was like he didn't matter," her voice quivers. "I just want people to know they mattered. They were my babies."
- Joseph Rodriguez/Anarchy Images
- Traydell Keeler, 17, takes a break from riding a scooter in the Central City neighborhood where his brother was gunned down. Not long after his brother's funeral, Traydell too was shot to death.
- Joseph Rodriguez/Anarchy Images
- Norris Henderson (front, right) of safestreets/strong communities, and Norris Earl Truvia, a youth advocate for Youth Empowerment Project, pay their respects at the funeral of 18-year-old Tarik Sparks.
- Joseph Rodriguez/Anarchy Images
- During a happier time, Katherine Keeler (second from left) and (l-r) her sons Traydell Keeler and Tarik Sparks entertain Katherine's cousin "Bird" (far left) and Traydell's friend Benny in their FEMA trailer in Central City.