Innocents Lost: When lives are shattered in the crossfire

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Qualiyah Davis, right, poses with her younger sister. Qualiyah, 10, was shot in the stomach during a drive-by shooting.

This story was reported by Mark Mueller, Karen Keller and David Giambusso. It was written by Mueller.

Al Davis wishes he could forget that Sunday afternoon, wash it away like the blood he hosed off his front porch.

But some images stick with a man. A gut-shot granddaughter is one of them.

Three weeks ago today, 10-year-old Qualiyah Davis was playing on the family’s porch in Irvington when a car rolled slowly down the block. Two passengers, one armed with a fully automatic weapon that spewed shell casings like popcorn, opened fire on a neighbor. They hit windows, walls, parked cars and Qualiyah, who fell to the ground in a daze, blood spreading across her T-shirt from a hole in her belly.

“I ran to the gate and saw her bleeding,” Al Davis said. “I lost it. I was just hoping she wasn’t going to die.”

Qualiyah survived, emerging from the hospital six days later with an angry scar and an acute new sense of fear.

She is the prototypical innocent bystander, the person who, by dint of bad luck or bad timing, falls victim to someone else’s war. And in what is shaping up to be a bloody few months in New Jersey’s more troubled communities, there are many more like her.

In just the past three months, at least eight people in Newark and Irvington were killed or injured by bullets intended for others. Since January, additional victims have fallen in Elizabeth and Trenton, the scene of a running feud between two factions of the Bloods street gang.

The dead cut across all age groups. They include a 70-year-old man who was crossing the street in his wheelchair, a 13-year-old boy who paused to talk to friends on the way to buy french fries, a 35-year-old mother of two returning home from the store and a 13-year-old girl leaving an anti-violence rally. At least two more children, ages 11 and 12, were wounded by gunfire as they went about the most mundane tasks. One was walking into a supermarket. The other was visiting friends.

“I can’t even watch the news anymore because I keep tripping over all these tragedies,” said Amarette Grisham, whose 13-year-old son, Justin Grisham, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Irvington June 26. “We shouldn’t have to be afraid to walk down the street. You can get hit by a stray bullet sitting on your porch, mowing your lawn, putting out the garbage. It has to stop.”

Amarette Grisham, left, gets a hug from her granddaughter, 9-year-old Ta-Tiana Carter, at her home in Irvington. Grisham’s 13-year-old son, Justin was the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting in Irvington.
Amarette Grisham, left, gets a hug from her granddaughter, 9-year-old Ta-Tiana Carter, at her home in Irvington. Grisham’s 13-year-old son, Justin was the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting in Irvington. (Patti Sapone/The Star-Ledger)

It is difficult to say with certainty whether the recent cases represent a trend or a random, unfortunate blip.

While police departments, prosecutors and the FBI track crimes of every kind, no agency keeps tabs on the number of unintended victims, and investigators are typically more focused on solving cases than on determining whether every person hit by a spray of gunfire was meant to be a target. Given the lack of clarity, the number of victims could be substantially higher.

In general, shootings are far less common than they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the crack epidemic ravaged America’s cities.

Despite the drop in crime, Jon Shane suspects more innocents today are caught in the crossfire. Shane, a professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spent 16 years with the Newark Police Department, retiring as a captain in 2005. It was toward the end of his tenure in Newark that he saw the number of unintended victims begin to climb, he said.

Newark may have been a far more violent city in the 1980s, he said, but the shootings were more targeted, focusing on drugs or money to buy them.

Certainly the drug trade remains a major source of violence, but urban communities have also undergone a cultural shift, Shane said. Shooters are younger, emotionally immature and caught up in a “campaign for respect,” he said. Trivial slights — a look, an inadvertent bump, a perceived insult — now too often lead to gunfire, regardless of whether the target is standing in a crowd or walking on a busy street.

“It’s a growing problem among the younger culture to turn to violence first because it’s easier,” Shane said.

In Irvington, a 2.8-square-mile township afflicted with the big-city ills of crime and poverty, police director Joseph Santiago calls the recent spate of killings and injuries a paradox.

Through the first half of this year, shootings have declined by 50 percent, he said, but more innocent bystanders have been hit. Santiago, who previously served as police director in Newark and Trenton, blames more sophisticated weaponry in the hands of less sophisticated shooters.

“It used to be that people were using revolvers that shot five to six rounds,” he said. “Now, in one sitting, they’re shooting 15 to 20 rounds.”


Al Davis thinks it was some kind of machine pistol, a TEC-9 maybe. Davis, 54, said he doesn’t know much about guns, but this one was spitting out shells Hollywood-fast.

It was July 5 — a sunny Sunday afternoon — and Davis, his daughter and his two granddaughters were enjoying the time outdoors, talking with neighbors on 21st Street in Irvington and recounting the trip they’d taken a day earlier to the beach and an amusement park in Keansburg.

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Al Davis sits on the steps of the porch where his granddaughter was shot. (Patti Sapone/The Star-Ledger)

Shortly after 3 p.m., a car with three men inside came down the block. It stopped at the house next door, and one man climbed out with a handgun, firing at someone on the stoop. In the car’s passenger seat, another man opened fire with the machine pistol, Davis said.

“The shells were popping out as he was firing,” Davis said. “It was real bad.”

When the man on the stoop returned fire, the car began rolling, Davis said, but the shooter in the passenger seat didn’t adjust his aim. As a result, bullets hit the Davis house. One went through a screen window and lodged in the living room wall. Another bullet, possibly fired by the intended target, hit Qualiyah, piercing her liver and exiting her back.

It was over in seconds, the car screeching off and the 10-year-old girl left in a heap on the porch. In surgery afterward, doctors removed Qualiyah’s gallbladder. Physically, she is expected to recover, though she will always bear a large scar, the grandfather said. The mental recovery could be trickier.

“She’s been through a lot,” he said. “And she won’t get better living here.”

He said Qualiyah and her mother have moved out of Irvington, to a community they hope is safer. Qualiyah’s mother declined to comment.

Police have made one arrest in the case, charging a 26-year-old man, Davion Jackson, with aggravated assault and weapons counts. Days later, authorities charged Jackson in connection with a second shooting a month earlier. That one, too, left a bystander seriously injured. Police said that when Jackson opened fire on a man at a Newark apartment complex, several bullets went wild, striking a 12-year-old boy in the arm, stomach and back. The child’s name was not released.

Davis, whose father is a retired Newark police officer and whose brother currently serves on the Newark force, said he’s never seen it so bad on the streets, even if crime statistics paint a rosier portrait.

“The police are not showing any muscle,” he said. “It’s the street guys who are showing all the muscle.”


Nine-year-old Ta-Tiana Carter didn’t believe it when she heard her uncle had been shot dead the night before. Justin Grisham was only 13. Always laughing. Always tickling his nieces under the chin. At a neighbor’s house once, he put on a wig and pretended to be Diana Ross, making everyone crack up.

Ta-Tiana raced to University Place in Irvington, where she’d been told it had happened.

Justin Grisham
Justin Grisham in a photo collage.

“There was blood on the grass and on the tree,” she said. “It was thick. I didn’t know blood could get so thick.”

On June 26, Justin had been on his way to the Chicken Shack, not far from his home on South Munn Avenue, to buy french fries. He stopped to talk to friends across from University Middle School, where he had just finished the seventh grade and where he was a member of the wrestling team. Moments later, shots were fired from a passing car. One entered Justin’s neck, exiting the back of his head.

A month later, his mother still feels untethered from the world she once knew.

“It’s so hard to rebuild your life,” Amarette Grisham said. “Do you leave your city? Where do you run? Right now I just feel like I’m in the middle of a tornado, and I’m watching my life spinning around and around.”

An 18-year-old man has been charged in the shooting, which police say was not linked to Justin. Grisham said she’s trying to find forgiveness for the defendant, still a teenager himself.

It’s the children she worries about most, she says. Kids like Barsh Bryant, 14, a friend of Justin’s who says he no longer walks down the street without repeatedly checking over his shoulder.

“You never know if someone’s gonna come up behind you and do something crazy,” he said.

Charizma Walker, 13, doesn’t stray off her front porch when the sun goes down. Even during the day, she doesn’t walk around unless it’s with a friend.

Her little sister Imani, 8, knows to hit the floor if she hears gunshots. Justin’s funeral was her first.

“It’s sad that people have to get shot,” she said.


Alonzo Canty finally had freedom.

Hobbled by three strokes in recent months, the 70-year-old Newark man had been all but a prisoner at Stephen Crane Elderly, the senior citizens complex where he had lived for 14 years. Canty had difficulty moving the left side of his body. He could no longer play the conga drums, entertaining residents in the courtyard with Latin rhythms. Walking was a chore.

Then in May, Canty received a new motorized wheelchair. It was a cause for celebration, said Cora Martinez, a friend who lives in a neighboring building at the North Sixth Street complex.

“As soon as he got it, ‘I’m free! Electric wheelchair!'” Martinez said. “He went traveling. It gave him freedom.”

On the night of June 3, a Wednesday, Canty used that freedom to venture outside the complex. Residents said they’re not sure why he went out after dark. Martinez says Canty may have gone to see a friend at an apartment building down the road.

Shortly after 11 p.m., police responding to a report of gunfire found Canty slumped in his new wheelchair, a bullet in his chest, a few blocks away from his building. Because he hadn’t been robbed and had no known enemies, authorities suspect he was hit by a shot meant for others. Several more bullets struck nearby homes.

In the wake of Canty’s death, Martinez said, the building’s elderly residents are even more fearful of the streets than usual. Most go in before dark, ceding the neighborhood to others.

“When you shoot a gun, a bullet has no name,” Martinez said. “It just flies.”

Down the street, at the low-rise buildings across from the shooting scene, an elderly man said the fear of random gunfire keeps residents close enough to their front doors to run for cover if need be. The man, who declined to give his name, citing fear of retribution, said he once tended a garden outside, planting tomatoes and mint. Now it’s just a patch of dirt.


Darschan Stephens says it’s as if a light has gone out in the two girls.

Christine Allen, 17, and Keyandré Allen, 14, had been best friends with their mother, 35-year-old Nakisha Allen. Some teenagers keep secrets from their parents. Christine and Keyandré felt comfortable confiding in their mom, seeking out her guidance when they encountered the sharp edges of adolescence, Stephens said.

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Darschan Stephens lost her sister-in-law, a mother of two, to random gunfire.

With a husband in prison and an apartment in a Newark neighborhood rife with drugs and gangs, Nakisha Allen kept a tight rein on her girls. But she always sprinkled in laughter, said Stephens, 49, Allen’s sister-in-law.

“She laughed a lot,” Stephens said. “She was fun to be around.”

At 1:30 Monday afternoon, Allen had just returned from the store and was chatting with friends outside Carmel Towers, her apartment complex on Elizabeth Avenue, when a burst of shots came from a passing car. In all, some 20 bullets were fired into the crowd, police said. One found Allen, killing her. Three other people were wounded in the attack, which remains unsolved.

When she learned of her mother’s death, Christine Allen crumpled to the sidewalk near the shooting scene, shrieking and sobbing uncontrollably. Days later, the feeling of loss is no less acute.

“Every so often, they’ll just bust out crying,” Stephens said. “I told them, ‘Anything, my phone is always on.’ But there’s nothing like a mother’s love. And she loved them.”

For some time, Stephens said, Allen had wanted to move out of Carmel Towers, away from the neighborhood she knew all her life. Stephens understands. She wants out, too.

Shootings on Elizabeth Avenue have become less common in the past two years, she said, but someone is killed every summer, and violence always seems a hard look away.

“It takes so little now for someone to pull a gun on you,” Stephens said. “These kids out here now, I wish they understood how precious life is.”

(Published in The Star-Ledger July 26, 2009) 

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