At a Wawa gas station and minimart in Newport News, Virginia, a landscaper named Scott stood in line to buy a bottle of Gatorade. He had been working for the city, weeding and replanting a wide median strip and a flowerbed at the mouth of an off ramp, which surrounded a sign celebrating the incorporation of the municipality from one of the original Virginia colony shires in 1896. The job—half a day, Scott thought, most of the day maybe—was adjacent to the store.
He was a community college student taking a break from classes for the summer. He was twenty-four. He had been thinking lately about joining the Army Reserves. He thought sometimes about being a cop, but he worried about the small spider-web tattoo on his neck and the letters P-E-A-C-E inked over the top of his right knuckles. He had an on-again, off-again girlfriend named Courtney, with whom he had a two-year-old daughter. He had some minor legal troubles, pot possession and an old DUI, and more than a few bad decisions behind him, including housing an uncle who had an arrest warrant out on him for thousands of dollars of parking tickets and three skipped court dates. He had a heat rash forming on the inside of his left thigh, which I know about because I would later see it in the morgue.
Like most of the subjects, the people, I wrote about back then, I knew very little about Scott, what he was like, who he really was. He was the victim of a crime by the time I got to him. And in that way, I was like a vulture, hovering over the maimed and the newly dead, picking at them, collecting what useful bits I could. My job was to shape some version of a true story around a criminal incident. Keep it simple. Vocabulary hovering around sixth-grade level. Eighth grade was a little fancy. Six-hundred to twelve-hundred words in the crime section, C 1 to C 3.
In the store, standing in line at the register, Scott, who was white, watched as a group of three black youths came in. They were twelve, thirteen, and thirteen. One was a Jamaican citizen, a cousin recently relocated to live with extended family. The store clerk behind the cash register was a South Asian man, Pakistani, in his mid-thirties.
As a crime journalist, I was reminded almost daily of the complex workings of class, race, and ethnicity, though I never explicitly wrote about them for the paper because my editor, a nice, red-faced fat man named Billy, said it was speculative and “theoretical” to talk about such things as causative to anything, not to mention dicey and sensitive and asking for hate mail from both white people and black people. He forbade it. He liked to remind me that I had failed to become a humanities professor, that my cultural analysis—he always said this with derisive emphasis—was not part of this newspaper gig. Stick to who, what, when, where, he’d say. And I’d say, What about why? It’s the five W’s of journalism. And he’d say, Why is bullshit. Newspapers have never once gotten Why right so we don’t even try anymore.
It’s true, what he said. Why is nebulous, an educated guess, a stab in the dark. Newspapers recount a foregrounded story of a crime. They are so wedded to the dubious notion of facts only that the truth—always gray—is often lost, sometimes never touched. City newspapers in conservative areas of the South like the one I worked for mostly turn their gaze from the elephant in the room—the background of race relations, institutionalized prejudice, the determining nature of history and laws, poverty, and inequality in America, which is so often at least part of what has brought us here, to these moments of violence about which I spent a decade writing. Not that any amount of philosophy or theory (or politics!) ever stopped anyone from ending up worm food.
Am I sounding hard-boiled? Or more like a boring sociologist? This is the point in a crime novel—and I’ve read hundreds and happen to be ABD (all but dissertation) in English Literature, with a specialty (no shit) in a neo-Marxist theoretical approach to the origins, history, and forms of American noir and crime fiction dating back to Poe—where I would reveal to you, as your narrator, my moral seriousness, my sketchy and tragic past, and my self-destructive tendencies that happen to be part and parcel of a single-minded devotion to, an obsession with, truth and justice. There is something to this in my case—maybe I am a kind of classic narrator, an over-read and self-conscious cliché—but my intention here, in what follows, is not to write a treatise or a memoir about my meaningless emotional life but to return to some of the newspaper dispatches I wrote as a reporter and retell them, with a bit more depth, I hope, because I feel I failed first time around in my obligation to the Truth, which is obviously not a thing but rather a process and a pursuit, and in my complicity in producing tepid and trite half-truths, and in my unwillingness to pursue Why. In the end, Why is the most important question, the bloody and beating heart of every criminal matter.
Getting ready to pay, the cashier asked Scott to keep an eye on the boys while he cracked open a sleeve of pennies and another of dimes, pulling apart the pink paper, looking down into the change-tray compartments so as not to spill coins all over the floor. He told Scott they—the black kids from the surrounding neighborhoods, but really he meant young black males in general—came in and stole candy and sometimes bottles of malt liquor and screw-cap wine. No problem, Scott said. I’ll watch them.
He turned, as if looking out the window at traffic moving slowly through the hot and hazy day. And out of the corner of his eye he saw one kid lifting his shirt and shoving a big bag of Skittles into the waistband of his shorts. Kid was brazen about it.
“Hey, little man,” Scott said, turning quickly now, no hesitation at all, acting like that cop in training he wanted to be. “Drop the candy.” He walked toward the kid. “Fucking drop it right now, you little bitch.”
The clerk, finished with the change, walked quickly toward the door to block their way out. It was going to be a collar, a citizen’s arrest.
Scott told all the kids to lift their shirts up. They said, Fuck you, man. Then he got in their faces, one by one, and shouted for them to lift their shirts or he would beat their asses right here.
They lifted their shirts, revealing more stolen items in their waistbands and their skeletal ribcages.
The clerk cursed at them, then went toward one, who grabbed his arm at the elbow and pushed him hard to the side. Then a commotion, pushing, pulling shirts, scuffling and running (all of which I saw from a diagonally downward angle in grainy black-and-white surveillance footage later). All three kids somehow ran out the door in a scramble of dropped items and a tipped-over newspaper rack (the newspaper I worked for).
Scott gave chase. He was pumped up on adrenaline. I think he imagined the cops shaking his hand and thanking him later. He sprinted for a couple of blocks, into a poor, all-black neighborhood, and looked like he was going to catch at least one of the kids. But they knew the neighborhood, turned a corner, leapt a fence, squeezed between trashcans and kicked-open bags in an alley, and were gone, a stealth unit of candy thieves.
Scott panted and cursed in the bright Virginia heat and humidity. He returned to the store, where he shook hands with the Pakistani clerk for their badass stand for honesty, which was also caught on tape. He got the Gatorade and a candy bar free. He went back out to the wide median strip, smiling about his righteousness and bravery, to finish his work. He had left a wheelbarrow, a hoe, and a shovel out there, assuming it would be hard to steal them with the heavy traffic to get through (though this was a place where an unlocked bike would vanish as if teleported). It was two in the afternoon. An hour later, the clerk would become a key witness.
One of the kids was named Damian Childs. That name never made into my articles because he was a minor. He was a seventh grader at the nearby middle school, a place with a full security staff and metal detectors and regular visits from the cops. He was a decent student, almost finished for the year. No problems at school. No arrests. Teachers thought he was great, especially relative to some of the behavior problems with the other students. Principal sang his praises as a polite, quiet young man.
Damian had gone to the store to steal a bag of Skittles for his sixteen-year-old cousin, Big Alvin. Big Alvin had told him to do it and, according to the people I would later interview, none of whom would speak on the record, Damian had to do it or Big Alvin would have beaten him bloody and senseless.
In structural or Marxist criminology, if you’ll indulge me for a second, the theory is that all crime is caused, at base, by a history of inequality and profoundly unjust social systems, which cordon off the poor and those outside of power, through housing and education and judicial policies and court actions, in legalese and over decades and even centuries, causing an unceasing set of negative pressures on lives, families, and communities that eventually lead to abnormally high instances of crime, including theft, narcotics abuse, rape, and murder. (I read a lot of sociology and criminology during my decade as a crime reporter, and plenty before that as a burnt-out Ph.D. student, but none of this stopped me from getting jumped a few times and having my nose broken by a thrown bottle.)
Big Alvin fit nicely into Marxist criminological theory. It would go something like this: American slavery, more than half a century of Jim Crow and lynchings of black males, economic and judicial pressures that stress and destroy families, an inability to acquire equal education or wealth to pass on to the next generation, a cordoning off of communities into poor and dangerous neighborhoods and low-employment areas and sub-par schools, further stressing and destroying families, and a heavy police presence in these neighborhoods—public health “hot zones”—which results in high-volumes of criminal charges, criminal prosecutions, and unfair plea deals, which the charged, black males in my example, often take to avoid wild over-sentencing because of inferior criminal defense provided by the state, the same state that is policing and prosecuting them, the same state whose laws and policies have perpetually disenfranchised them. Follow that sentence and, according to Marx, right after the period you can end up with a guy like Big Alvin, a very pissed-off, violent young man with no false hope and no delusions about having a good, safe, happy life according to the rules and systems of his homeland, all stacked against him, a guy who knows he’s headed for jail or death and thus really does not give a fuck. Don’t get me wrong: he was an asshole, but he was an asshole in a very distinct American historical, social, and cultural context. His history and situation and life would make an asshole out of, say, nine of ten people.
Anyway, Big Alvin was a cold, hard killer, though at sixteen, at the time of this incident, he hadn’t killed anyone yet (he wouldn’t do that until he was nineteen, when he would kill two men and a woman with a stolen police baton and a hunting knife over some drugs; total carnage, but that’s another story).
Damian and his two friends knew there was a problem. Big Alvin told them to do something and they had failed to do it. They gathered behind a fence, panting from the run, to try to figure out how to save themselves.
One of Damian’s friends suggested they say the white guy jumped them.
They had to say something.
Big Alvin sat on two milk crates stacked on top of each other. His throne, in a wide back alley behind a strip mall. He asked where his shit was. The boys said a white guy jumped them, that he was acting like he was a cop though he wasn’t a cop. He took everything.
Big Alvin, Damian, and six other kids, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen, walked toward to the store. Scott was in the median, in the middle of afternoon traffic, finishing the weeding and planting.
“Hey,” Big Alvin yelled. The kids were standing on a sidewalk, across two lanes of traffic. “Hey, sheriff!”
Scott was on his knees. Heard something over the roar of traffic. He looked up. He was perplexed at first. Then he saw the three shoplifters from earlier and knew this was a posse that had come just for him. He stood up. He yelled, “Go home, boys. Go back to your fucking daddy-less ghetto where you belong.” There were six of them, but they were young. Half hadn’t gone through puberty yet and were small. Scott wasn’t scared. He was pissed off.
The rest happened in less than two and a half minutes, according to the police report, which had many quotes from the Wawa clerk.
The boys ran across the lanes of traffic, setting off honking and screeching tires. Big Alvin, who was bigger and stronger than Scott, threw Scott to the ground, and the rest of the boys kicked him in the ribs and neck and head. One boy, no one knows who, hit him in the head with a shovel. When they stopped, Scott was covered in blood, but still trying to get up off the ground and fight. He had a concussion, would have been dizzy and confused.
Traffic had stopped in the nearest lanes on either side of the median, but the other lanes were still moving slowly, with people honking.
Scott was spitting blood, slurring, and swinging. Still spewing racial slurs. Big Alvin handed Damian the shovel and told him to hit Scott.
“Nah, man,” Damian said. He felt sick now, looking at this white man covered in blood, still mumbling and swinging. “He’s done. Let’s go. He’s done.”
“Hit him and we’ll go,” Alvin said, no hurry at all. People were getting out of their cars now, half of them already talking on cell phones. “He punked you, man. He called you a bitch. Said he would beat your ass. Hit him!”
So Damian, 12, swung and hit an already bleeding and bumbling Scott in the shoulder, spinning him around a quarter turn to face traffic. Scott was delirious, barely conscious, and wobbled out across the first lane of traffic, which was stopped, and into the second lane of traffic, where drivers had their vision obscured and didn’t know what the holdup was. Scott walked in front of a mother driving a pickup truck. The impact of the truck’s grill threw him hard to the ground, where he hit his already concussed head and went into a seizure and died within a couple of minutes, well before the ambulance showed up (because of the traffic jam). Big Alvin, Damian, and the four other kids were a block away by the time Scott’s heart stopped.
I heard most of this story while interviewing a friend of the boys and then a couple of the boys’ mothers, one aunt, and three grandmas (all off the record). Damian was seen hitting Scott with the shovel last, sending him out into lanes of moving traffic. He and the other boys were picked up the same day and were set to be charged, most likely, with aggravated assault and second-degree murder. Big Alvin said he had nothing to do with any of it—he was just there—and the other kids were so afraid of him that none of them went against his story when talking to the police. Then, strangely, Damian confessed to the crime, admitted to being solely responsible for Scott’s death, which got the more serious jail-time charges dropped against his cousin and friends and got his charge pled down to second-degree manslaughter. I found this perplexing—I often found the law and the courts perplexing—given what I’d learned in interviews.
A couple of weeks after this confession, wanting to understand the reason for it, I went unannounced to Damian’s house. His grandmother, a school nurse, had posted his bail (which I doubt would have happened if he were any older than twelve and she was not something of a known activist in the community), and he could stay at home until his court date, where he had agreed to plea, though he had many restrictions and regular visits from the police and social services. (And he was safe from any potential vigilante justice because no whites—except me, I guess—would go into those poorest Newport News neighborhoods.) Most kids like him—I mean poor black kids from these blocks—just stay in jail until the hearing. For the most part, it is only middle-class and rich white kids who’ve mown someone down while drunk or raped a girl or injured someone badly in a bar fight who get to go home and sleep in their own beds until trial or sentencing. Is this progress, a poor black twelve-year-old making bail after a murder? In a way, yes, it is. Trust me, I was a crime reporter.
Damian wouldn’t talk to me on the day I showed up at his door. His court-appointed lawyer had told him not to talk to anyone. He was tall for his age and skinny. He wore a LeBron James basketball jersey and long black shorts. He sat in a lawn chair on their small porch, metal bars over the window behind him, while I talked briefly to his mother before she shuffled me away. He seemed, understandably, nervous and depressed.
His mother was young, maybe thirty, thirty-two, with neat, bronze-tipped dreadlocks held back by a yellow and green cloth headband. She was impatient and forceful and had a low opinion of me and my showing up at her door.
By this point, I had figured out that Big Alvin was the main culprit, and while I thought Damian deserved to be punished, along with the other five kids, I knew that none of this would have happened had Big Alvin not bullied Damian into first stealing the Skittles and then later hitting Scott with the shovel that final time. Damian had tried not to kill Scott by hitting him in the shoulder, I was convinced, which caused him to stumble out into traffic and to his death. Witnesses had submitted statements that Damian had not taken part in the beating until the end, when he was forced to do so by Alvin, but none this mattered after the confession. The prosecutor ignored most of the record to tell a clean story about the guilt of a violent twelve-year-old, take a plea deal, and move on to another case in a backlogged system.
“Alvin will kill Damian,” Damian’s mother said to me that day. “Damian rolls on Alvin, he’s dead. He rolls on anybody, he’s dead. I’m dead. His grandma’s dead. Plain as that. You don’t know this place.”
“But Damian could get a couple of years of incarceration,” I said, “maybe more, and he’s only twelve.”
“Oh, he will. I know that,” she said, looking at me and then at a sullen Damian. “He knows that. His lawyer knows that. But he’s hard and he can do the time and then he’ll be out on probation and if he can stay clean until he’s eighteen, they’ll take the whole thing off his records. See, Alvin and Alvin’s older brother already explained all this to me, made it real clear, you know. If Alvin goes down, he’ll be charged and sentenced as an adult. He’ll get hard time. Decades. Cousins or not, Alvin and his brother will kill you for a wrong look. Like I said, I know what they will do to me and Damian if we give Alvin twenty years in prison.”
All of this was off the record, so I couldn’t write about it. But my boss wouldn’t have seen any of this as worth many column inches, anyway.
Damian was sentenced a little more than two months later to two years in a state juvenile detention center, which can make a redeemable kid angry and hopeless, and then community service and probation until his eighteenth birthday. I had other crimes to cover. I lost track of him.
The last interview I did for this story was with Scott’s girlfriend, Courtney. She had platinum-blond hair and wore a tight tank top and jean short shorts. She lived in a small, subsidized apartment with their daughter. A pizza box, an ashtray filled with cigarettes, soda cans. She was out of work and temporarily on welfare. Her cute, half-asleep toddler, blond like her, but naturally so, sat on her lap. She and Scott had been estranged for a few months before he was killed. She showed no signs of grief over his death. In fact, of the time I was with her—maybe forty-five minutes—she spent most of it explaining how Scott had life insurance through the city worth 50K. She asked me if I knew a good, cheap lawyer who could help her sue Scott’s parents. She felt the 50K belonged to her and Scott’s daughter, and Scott’s mom and new boyfriend believed it belonged to them.
I didn’t know any lawyers who did that kind of work.
Then she asked me, kid still on her lap, if I would like to get high and hang out together after she put her daughter down for a nap. It would only cost me twenty bucks.
I looked at her. I looked at the kid, drowsy and newly alive and unaware. I had a vision of Scott dead in the street, hit by a shovel, hit by a truck, and another one of twelve-year-old Damian in a dorm full of angry kids, wearing an orange jumpsuit and slip-on shoes, cut off from the world. I said no thanks. I gave her twenty bucks anyway for answering my questions.
Greg Bottoms is a writer of literary nonfiction and fiction. He is the author of a memoir, Angelhead (2000), an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year,” two books of essays about American outsider artists, The Colorful Apocalypse (2007) and Spiritual American Trash (2013), and four prose collections, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (2001), Fight Scenes (2008), Swallowing the Past (2011), and Pitiful Criminals (2014). His work has appeared in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Mississippi Review, North American Review, Oxford American, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Texas Review, Witness, and numerous other literary journals and magazines. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is a Professor of English.