4 dead teens, 2 boys in jail, 6 shattered families

Murders of promising black teens point to persistent problems, no easy solutions

About seven hours after Tamesha Torrance’s son was gunned down a few steps from the front door of their Northwest Atlanta apartment, she logged onto Facebook.

Condolences had started to pour in for her 18-year-old son, Joshua Torrance, who had starred in multiple sports at the B.E.S.T. Academy, graduated with a 3.8 grade point average and was on his way to Albany State University with a HOPE scholarship in his pocket.

A message from a childhood friend stood out: “Tammy, my son was killed today, too.”

It was a sad coincidence; the friend lives elsewhere. But the botched robbery that ended Joshua’s life on May 30 made him at least the fourth young black male shot to death in Atlanta within a matter of days. All four had just celebrated milestones: a new job, a high school graduation, plans for college.

“My son wasn’t a bad kid,” said Frank Payton, whose son Grant Antonio Payton, 16, was killed in a triple shooting on May 28. “He wasn’t out doing anything bad.”

Just the opposite; Grant had recently started his first job at Chick-fil-A. He and Tyree Johnson, 19, were killed after making a food run to a different fast-food spot in the city of South Fulton. That same day, 18-year-old Trevon Richardson, who won state championships in football and track at Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood, was shot and killed. He had just graduated.

This week, the Richardson family was supposed to be out buying sheets and supplies for Trevon’s freshman dorm room at Valdosta State University, where he planned on majoring in business.

“Instead,” said his father Freddie Richardson, “we are designing his headstone.”

Local tragedy echoes troubling trends

The local shootings add to grim national statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34 as of 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are listed. Half of all black males in America who died between the ages of 15 and 19 were murdered. Only 9 percent of white males in that age range died as a result of homicides according to the 2015 stats, and the leading cause of death for white males ages 1 to 44 was the same: unintentional injuries.

Then there is the other side of it. 

In a study released in January by the Pew Research Center, African-Americans made up 12 percent of the country’s adult population in 2016, but accounted for 33 percent of the sentenced prison population.

Authorities have made arrests in two of the four late-May cases. Justin Collier, 19, is in the Fulton County jail facing charges of murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony in connection to Joshua’s death. Detavion McDay, 18, is being held in the DeKalb County jail on a murder charge in connection to Trevon’s death.

Four dead teenagers. Two teens in jail. Six devastated families.

In 2018, more than a century after the end of slavery, decades removed from thousands of black men being lynched in America between Reconstruction and the end of the civil rights movement, 50 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and less than five years since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the percentages of young black men being murdered or sent to prison troubles Illya Davis, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy.

“Many of our social institutions have failed to ascribe innate value to black lives and have subsequently thrown these lives into the dustbin of time,” said Davis, who teaches at Morehouse College, the nation’s only all-male HBCU. “We have to be committed to higher ideals of values like respect and incalculable ascriptions of moral worth to all lives equally. We have undervalued Blackness to the chagrin of all who value values and human integrity. Once we have circumscribed morally viable objectives for humane social interactions, we can legitimately expect to bring to fruition a more equitable and just social order.”

‘Don’t let that be you’

In his bedroom, a flat, half-empty can of Coke still sits next to Trevon Richardson’s video game console. His parents, Freddie and Nicole Richardson, haven’t touched his room since their youngest son died.

Their three other children all have college degrees and two have masters degrees. Trevon scored over 1000 on the SAT and was eager to follow in their footsteps.

On the Saturday before he died, Trevon’s family threw him a graduation party where friends and family lavished him with praise, gifts and money. Freddie Richardson cornered his son during the celebration to ask if he remembered an earlier conversation. He’d grown up in the Savannah projects and knew from personal experiences that the period right after high school can be the most precarious for a young black boy.

“Things always happened. Somebody ends up getting killed or end up going to jail. I told him ‘don’t let that be you,’” Richardson said. “Even though we moved into a nice subdivision and I tried to shield my children from things, I know how things are out there. I didn’t want that for my family.”

In the talk with his son he repeated advice he’d given before: Don’t put stuff on social media. Don’t carry a lot of money. Trevon nodded. He remembered.

The next night, Trevon went to hang out with friends. Police say he was robbed, then shot. His graduation money was missing.

‘I feel lost’

No arrests have been made in the shooting deaths of Grant Payton and Tyree Johnson. Police in the city of South Fulton aren’t saying much. Last week, a police spokesperson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that no information was available. Calls and emails were not returned this week.

Without answers, Frank Payton can’t find closure. Just two weeks before the shooting, his son had started working at Chick-fil-A.

“He was a hard worker, well-mannered and all about his grades and playing sports,” Payton said. “He never got in any trouble. The only thing is he played that daggone Playstation forever.”

Grant would have been a junior at Creekside High School this fall.

“It has been rough on all of us and I don’t know how to deal with it,” his father said. “I feel like I am lost.”

‘He didn’t see harm coming’

Joshua graduated at the top of his class and excelled in non-traditional sports – at least for black kids – like fencing and swimming. He sang in the school and church choirs, had a job hosting at a restaurant and dressed impeccably in clothes he bought wearing fake glasses he didn’t need.

“I used to instill in my children, ‘Do better than me.’ Joshua did better than me. He was a go-getter,” Tamesha Torrance said. “Josh wasn’t a thug. He was not on drugs or (dealing) drugs. He didn’t wear his pants sagging. He didn’t carry a weapon. He didn’t see harm coming to him.”

But for all of his confidence, swag and intelligence, Tamesha Torrance said her middle child lacked streets smarts. That could be why he went online to try to buy a cell phone, she said.

She had just gotten home from an overnight shift when she found her son still in bed on the morning of May 30. They greeted each other, and she went to sleep, while he said he was going out. When Tamesha Torrance woke up at about 1 p.m., she saw messages from the Atlanta Police Department.

She called back and a detective told her that her son had been chased into a wooded area of their apartment complex and shot in the back. Witnesses later said that as Joshua purchased the cell phone from someone, as another man approached claiming to own it.

Joshua died at Grady Memorial Hospital. 

“I really don’t even remember driving to Grady. I have no idea how I got there,” his mother said. “But I remember being in the waiting room when they came and told me. I thought I was in a deep sleep. I thought I was in a dream. But it was real.”

Death and rebirth

The morning she got out of bed to identify her son’s body was the last time she slept in that apartment. She is now staying with relatives, and is mourning another loss. In a cruel twist, her uncle Vincent Johnson, who gave Joshua his first job cutting grass and was helping Torrance’s family buy their own home, died unexpectedly just days ago.

“He was crazy about Joshua and I think he died of a broken heart,” said Vincent Johnson’s wife, Vickie Johnson. “But he was 59. He died of natural causes. That is how we are supposed to die. Not murdered in the streets.”

Tamesha Torrance listened and cried silently until her 20-year-old daughter, Tannis, walked in with a cup of ice cream. Tannis, a nursing student, is pregnant and is due in late September. But Torrance’s first grandchild is due Sept. 19. The family is hoping the baby Torrance’s oldest son, De’Aaron, and his girlfriend are expecting comes a few days early.

It’s a boy, and he’ll be named for the uncle who would have turned 19 on Sept. 14.


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