Mourning most violent year, West Michigan seeks answers

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — They killed for so many different reasons: greed, fear, jealousy, hatred, retaliation.

In Grand Rapids and elsewhere in West Michigan, more triggers were pulled with ill intentions last year than ever before. More bullets hit their marks. More bloodshed, more collateral damage, more mothers’ tears and, with those tears, more cries to end the violence.

“Sometimes you go in the back of your office, you sit down and sometimes I would cry and ask the Lord, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What can we do to stop this?’” said Grand Rapids City Commissioner Nathaniel Moody, who also operates a funeral home.

Grand Rapids reported 38 homicides last year, a new record.

It was not the only city in West Michigan setting a deadly mark. The city of Wyoming had its bloodiest year with eight homicides.

“The danger, the violence that we’ve seen in 2020 is very concerning,” Wyoming Police Chief Kim Koster said.

Kalamazoo reported its most homicides in at least 25 years with 15 dead. When factoring in population numbers, it has a higher homicide rate than Grand Rapids.

“It was extremely troubling,” Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief David Boysen said. “I never thought that we would ever see that number of shootings in Kalamazoo. Never thought that would be possible.”

In Grand Rapids, the 38 homicides surpassed the record 34 set in 1993. A Target 8 analysis found that last year’s killings were far different than they were back then. Just a quarter of the city’s homicides back then involved guns. Last year, three quarters of them did.

“We’re going to scenes where having 20 to 25 casings is normal, and in my 25 years (in law enforcement), I have never seen this,” Grand Rapids Police Department Sgt. John Wittkowski said in September as police investigated four shootings that injured 11 people in a single weekend.

In Grand Rapids in 1993, a quarter of the deaths were street killings. Last year, most were — on sidewalks, in parked cars, in parking lots, even in a cemetery.

In the case of Aveion Cloud, victim no. 34, it happened outside a gas station on Thanksgiving morning.

An undated courtesy photo of Aveion Cloud.

“I was there when Aveion took his first breath,” Cloud’s mother Latasha Cloud said. “I wanted to be there when he took his last. I didn’t get that chance, though. But I did yell his name, at the scene, so he knew I was there, but I couldn’t get to him.”

Her 17-year-old son worked at McDonald’s and had big plans. He had gotten a certificate of welding.

She recalls being with her son once when he saw a man begging for money.

“There was an older man, sitting there with a sign,” Cloud’s mom said. “He (Aveion) got paid, gave him a couple dollars, gave him a couple slices of pizza. Real good, Aveion was. Very good spirit.”

Aveion was in a car at a gas station at Leonard Street and Fuller Avenue on Nov. 28 when an unidentified gunman opened fire for unknown reasons.

“Mentally, I’m still stuck at the gas station when I got the phone call to come to the gas station. That’s all I see,” his mom said.

She saw her son, stretched out on the ground, near pump number 4.

“To see my son laying on this cold ground,” she said. “I wanted nothing more but to nurture my son, so he knows that I’m there. That’s what I wanted to do.”

A photo of a deadly shooting on Leonard Street in Grand Rapids on Nov. 26, 2020. 
The scene of the shooting that killed Aveion Cloud on Leonard Street in Grand Rapids on Nov. 26, 2020. 

But even moms aren’t allowed at crime scenes.

“I yelled his name, ‘Aveion, Aveion, mom is here, I’m here. Aveion. Please get up, please get up, Aveion.’ I’m thinking maybe if he heard his mom, he would get up. Because I know Aveion didn’t want to die. This I know. This I know. He had too much life. He had too many plans, he had too many things going on for himself.

“I just want my son back. You know, I tell God all the time, I’ll take him as he is, just give him back. Seventeen was not long enough. I’m numb. Not only for me, but for the victims before Aveion, and the victims after Aveion.”

She flew with her son’s ashes back to family in Ohio.

“I shouldn’t have to bury my son. He should be burying me. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

She struggles to find the words to tell her youngest son that Aveion isn’t coming home.

“My 5-year-old asks every day, ‘Where’s Aveion at? Mom, Aveion’s been gone. It’s getting dark out. Why Aveion hasn’t come home yet?’ He knows that somebody hurt his brother really bad. He knows that much. But he thinks he’s still at the doctors. So he wants to pick Aveion up.”

Her son’s homicide is one of 13 still unsolved in Grand Rapids. Police have solved the other 25, most with arrests.

Latasha Cloud holds a photo of her standing with her son Aveion Cloud, who was shot and killed on Thanksgiving 2020.

THE WILD WEST

In some cases, Wild West-like shootouts led to the deaths, including one in a cemetery. The vanquished are later mourned and the victors walk away, not charged with killing them.

“I lost my other half,” said Deshowna Kirkland, whose twin brother was victim no. 13. “I came in this world with him. It’s heartbreaking; I just love him so much, and I miss him every day. I cry every morning to get through my days, and I pray, get me through this day, Deshowne. It’s just heartbreaking, you never expect things like this to happen to your own.”

Deshowne Kirland, two weeks into his 21st year, was at a vigil one year to the day after his friend, 21-year-old Jordan Brown, was shot and killed in Grand Rapids.

An undated courtesy photo of Deshowne Kirkland.

The vigil was held at Garfield Park Cemetery, where his friend is buried. The manager of the cemetery had been working all day, mowing the grass, as friends of Jordan Brown came and went.

“The kids were coming in all day long, leaving flowers and saying memories of what was going on,” cemetery manager Doug Cogswell said.

At 4 p.m., Kirkland and a former friend drew guns on each other to settle an old beef.

“They told me that they just got to arguing and shots were fired,” his twin sister said.

Kirkland lost. Two bullets hit him, including the fatal shot to the chest — a year to the day after his friend was shot and killed.

“So they both have the same date now: May 12,” Kirkland’s twin sister said. “One is May 12, 2019, and the other one is May 12, 2020.”

Police at the scene after Deshowne Kirkland was shot and killed Garfield Park Cemetery in Southeast Grand Rapids on May 12, 2020.

The blood of her twin brother spilled on the headstone of her brother’s best friend.

“I talked with Jordan’s dad after the incident, asked him what happened,” the cemetery manager said. “And his dad actually was that day cleaning the blood off his son’s headstone from his son’s best friend.”

The cemetery manager can lead a tour of murder victims he buried last year, about eight of them.

“It’s no value on life for some reason today,” the manager said. “I had a pastor in one day and said that you take God out of everything and all of a sudden there’s no value, no common language, and the common language today are the guns.”

In the cemetery shooting case, police say the prosecutor denied murder charges because of conflicting witness statements.

“Basically the witnesses said that my brother pulled his gun out first and they considered it self-defense,” the victim’s twin sister said.

The shooter, Donovann Braswell, 22, was sentenced in December to up to five years in prison for weapons charges in the shooting. He’d already served prison time for an assault in 2015. He’s the same man who back in 2016 won a $95,000 settlement from the city of Grand Rapids after claiming police brutality.

Victim no. 13’s sister was angry to learn her twin brother had armed himself.

“At the same time, you know the environment, the way we’re living, some people feel that they need to carry a gun around for protection,” she said.

But that’s not how she wants her twin remembered.

“It’s just his laughter. That’s one thing I miss is his smile and making me laugh. He was stomach-hurting funny, like tears. You don’t even understand,” she said. “I pray for those families, you know, but when you’re on the other end of death, you think about life totally different.”

‘BLACK LIVES NEED TO MATTER TO BLACK PEOPLE’

Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack, known on his local radio show as Robert S., has long fought against violence.

Kent County Commissioner and radio host Robert S. Womack.

“There definitely needs to be more of a community outcry about these lives,” he said.

The killing in Grand Rapids started on the third day of 2020, and the pace stayed steady, pretty much three a month. It didn’t pick up in the heat of the summer; didn’t slow down in the cold.

The Rev. Nathaniel Moody is a Grand Rapids city commissioner and a mortician. He figures his funeral home handled services for about half of the city’s homicides last year.

It is not lost on him that most of the dead were people of color — 33 of the 38. Thirty were Black.

In a city that’s two-thirds white, 90% of the victims were Black or Hispanic. In Wyoming, all but one of the eight victims were people of color. In Kalamazoo, 13 of the 15 homicide victims were black or Hispanic.

After 48-year-old Darnell McIntosh was shot and killed in June, becoming victim no. 15, Womack announced it to his radio audience. He grew up with the victim.

“Here we are in the middle of the fight against COVID-19; here we are in the middle of the fight against police brutality and once again, the crime within the area, it seeps right back upon us, and this isn’t just a number, this is a life,” Womack told his audience. “When I say Black Lives Matter, it’s not only when our lives are being taken by those in blue uniforms, it’s when those lives are being taken by anybody, including ourselves.”

Still no protests, little public outcry.

“Because there isn’t a protest and outcry, young people feel, no one cares that I shot somebody, that’s not big,” Womack said. “Nobody got up and protested when a young Black man went and shot another young Black man in the head, but millions do protest when somebody of another color kills somebody Black.”

All but four of the 19 Grand Rapids homicide suspects identified by police were African-American.

A still image of Romito Jones from a Hillary Scholten campaign ad. (November 2020)

Among them were two suspected members of a gang known as the Sevens, who opened fire on 35-year-old Romito Jones, who had no known connections to his killers, no gang connections. Jones, a father of five who was well-respected in his neighborhood, had helped his neighbor Hillary Scholten with her run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

His cousin, Datasha Chapman, wears a Black Lives Matter COVID-19 mask.

“Black lives matter,” she said. “One thing I always tell people is Black lives need to matter to Black people. How can you expect other people to respect your life, expect them to love you, but you don’t love yourself?”

COVID-19, GUNS AND CIVIL UNREST

That the numbers kept climbing and the bullets kept flying alarmed everybody, but it wasn’t confined to only West Michigan, and experts agree there are many reasons behind the growing violence.

“You can’t just pick one piece of the puzzle,” Kalamazoo Deputy Chief David Boysen said. “There’s a lot of things that led to the perfect storm that created gun violence, not just here in Kalamazoo.”

Homicides in the 67 biggest U.S. cities jumped by 28% in the first nine months of 2020 compared to 2019, according to a survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. Homicides were up in 57 of those 67 cities.

“We had a perfect storm last year,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

He puts some of the blame on COVID-19.

“So what we’ve seen is an increase in violence in a lot of crimes of passion where he just loses their cool, makes a split-second decision,” he said.

That’s especially bad, he said, “in a nation where we’re all armed.”

He also blames big-city justice systems that are releasing violent criminals on low bonds, only to see them go out and kill.

“And, you know, again, that was a combination of a court system that is absolutely at a standstill,” he said, with trials and hearings on hold for months.

In Kent County, not one of last year’s murder suspects has gone to trial — all blocked by the pandemic.

While Grand Rapids’ 38 homicides set a record, it’s still nowhere near as violent as Detroit or Chicago or Flint, for that matter. Flint, which is less than half the size of Grand Rapids, had 60 homicides in 2020, just seven below its record.

Target 8 also compared Grand Rapids to 10 other U.S. cities of its size and found it ranked third in homicides.

It was far behind Birmingham, Alabama, which is about the same size as Grand Rapids, and ranked first with a record 121 homicides. That’s more than triple the number reported in Grand Rapids.

As for the reasons behind the violence, West Michigan police also put some of the blame on COVID-19. Just two years ago, before the pandemic, Grand Rapids had only nine homicides.

“Of course that increases tensions and kind of eliminates those stress relievers that people have: you can’t go out and work out, go to the gym, go to the movies, do those things that kind of help people relieve stress and tension,” Wyoming Police Chief Kim Koster said.

“An idle mind is a devil’s playground,” Latasha Cloud, the mother of victim Aveion Cloud, said. “So they have nothing but time on their hands to get out here and BS around and do a bunch of crap that they shouldn’t be doing.”

“It’s simmering, it’s definitely simmering and then the boiling point, who knows what that boiling point may be,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said. “It could be a bad word between two, could be a simple road rage incident, it could be a whole host of things that just all of a sudden triggers it.”

In Kalamazoo, COVID-19 forced police to holster a program that had focused on known violent criminals, helping them through social programs — perhaps with housing or finding a job — as long as they put down their weapons.

“It’s not just put the guns down, it’s put the guns down and there’s help available if you want it,” Boysen, the Kalamazoo deputy chief, said. “When we had to shut down for a few months, we lost it, we lost control because you had a group that was a victim of a shooting, and they’re going to retaliate, and it just keeps spinning out of control.”

As a result, what he calls group-related shootings in Kalamazoo jumped from eight in 2019 to 50 last year.

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne also blames COVID-19, at least in part.

“A lot of it is blamed on COVID alone, but we didn’t have COVID in ’93, ’94, when we were seeing these type of numbers, so I think we have to look at some of the underlying things that are occurring,” he said.

Payne was a street cop in the 1990s, the last time homicides soared.

“Unfortunately, back in ’93, I was at many of those scenes and I’ve been at many of the scenes (in 2020),” he said.

He points to poverty, education and bad parenting, and how easy it is for criminals to get guns.

“We had a rash of gun stores that were broken into, so there’s a proliferation of guns that are out there that are available, and there’s a lot of them that are being stolen and getting into the wrong hands,” Payne said.

“Those gun store break-ins, they’ve been sold,” Prosecutor Becker said. “We know they’ve been sold, they’ve been sold here, they’ve been sold up in Muskegon, so these gun store break-ins, they’re not doing it to collect them, they’re putting them out on the streets.”

It was no surprise then that nonfatal shootings last year tripled in Grand Rapids and more than doubled in neighboring Wyoming.

“My concerns is the amount of gunfire that’s occurring and people being shot and some intended targets, some innocent, are being shot at. It affects the entire community,” the Grand Rapids police chief said.

In July, a 2-year-old girl named Madison was in the back seat of a car driven by her dad in Grand Rapids when gunfire erupted — a rolling gun battle. A bullet tore through a bone in her right arm.

2-year-old Madison recovering from a gunshot wound in the arm. (July 18, 2020)

“A 2-year-old is our future,” Payne said shortly after that shooting. “For that baby to have to experience gunfire, senseless gunfire, that’s not acceptable. It has to stop.”

Just last month, a school bus with one student onboard was caught in the crossfire of a rolling gun battle.  Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

“We have groups of individuals who are, for one reason or another, unhappy with each other, and they’re taking aim at each other on the street,” Wyoming Chief Koster said.

Womack, the radio host and county commissioner, lives in the Southeast Side, where he’s been approached by gun sellers:

“I have people approach me, ‘Do you want to buy a gun?’ Do I want to buy a gun?’ And before I can say no, they’ll pull it out, show it to you, tell you how much.”

A gun, he said, means power for some.

“Here you have what you consider power in the hands of someone coming out of poverty, somebody who’s been pushed around, been oppressed, has never really had power.

“Someone who for the first time has power in their hands and when they’re offended, what do they do with this power?”

Fred Trevino lost his son, Jewelian Trevino, a father of two, to gunfire on Sept. 27, 2020.

An undated courtesy photo of Jewelian Trevino.

“To lose your child, it’s a pain that you can never feel unless you go through it,” his father said. “It changes the way you sleep, it changes the way you walk, it changes the way you think, it changes the way you eat. You’ve got anger in you sometimes that you never thought you had.”

Juju, as his son was known, had given a ride in his car to a friend of a friend — a convicted felon with a gun. One shot from back seat to front.

Victim no. 27.

“It’s a number that I will never forget,” his father said. “It’s a number that will stick in my head. I’m like, how could that even be possible? He was 27, he was the 27th person to die that year, and the date was the 27th. How can that be? I ask my God every day.

“It’s like, God, not only did you let him get away from me, but the pain he was in when he was there, and then to die by yourself. That was my baby.”

A convicted felon, 29-year-old Darrius Hardges, is charged with careless discharge of a weapon causing death and other weapons charges.

Another explanation for growing violence: Some point to civil unrest over the summer after nationwide cases of police killing unarmed Black people.

“Everything that happened over the summer eroded trust in law enforcement,” said Boysen, the deputy chief in Kalamazoo. “So we had less people willing to cooperate and come forward and talk to us, and when you have less people coming forward, you have less closure on some of these shootings, and then you have a greater chance for another shooting in retaliation.”

FINDING SOLUTIONS

More often than ever last year in West Michigan, sagging yellow police tape was strung between trees and stop signs and small yellow evidence tents marked shell casings spread across sidewalks and streets. Crime scenes at night were soaked in alternating flashes of blue and red.

Back in the 1990s, some bent on ending the violence put a mirror in a casket and called up young people.

“When they got up there, and they saw that mirror inside and they saw themselves, the reflection was on them, and the reflection is this: do you see yourself in here or do you see yourself being productive in society?” said Grand Rapids City Commissioner Nathaniel Moody, who also is a mortician. “In essence, what it was saying was let’s stop this violence or you will be next.

“In 2021, we have to do something different.”

The hope, of course, is that once the pandemic ends, violence will at least subside. But it’s likely not that simple.

Back in the 1990s, in response to violence, the city offered its first gun buyback. Last year, the city held its second-ever gun buyback, taking in more than 250 weapons.

“Since September, we’ve taken over 100 guns off the street that were involved in crimes,” said Payne, the Grand Rapids police chief. “We’ve had our gun buyback where legal guns were turned in. There are a tremendous amount of guns out there that are available and unfortunately people are using them.”

“If you are illegally selling guns to the youth in Kent County, we need to put you on alert that we want you and we don’t want to let you go anytime too soon,” said Womack, the county commissioner. “Because a young person with a gun in their hand is experiencing a power that they do not know how to handle.”

But there’s more to it than that.

“It’s more than guns and bullets,” Commissioner Moody said.

Grand Rapids is spending $225,000 on what it calls an evidence-based program to reduce gun violence and retaliation. The police department in July is expected to start assigning cops to neighborhood beats to get to know neighbors and rebuild trust.

Womack has proposed a joint task force between the county and city to focus on gangs, arresting leaders and helping followers.

“Finding out, how can we help you get out the gang before you get into some serious crime?” Womack said.

The city of Wyoming is adding four new cops, in part in response to the violence. Kalamazoo police have restored a program that helps the most violent offenders as long as they put down their guns. COVID-19 had shut it down.

Local leaders say it will take more.

“Even though there are lots of systemic reasons there’s violence in our community, at the end of the day it comes down to us valuing lives,” Womack said.

“We can’t put this on the city,” Moody said. “We can’t put it on our police department. We have to pick up the mantle and say we have to figure out a way, as a community, to stop these killings.

“We need jobs, we need jobs and we need businesses, and I think that will curb the killing,” Moody continued. “The federal government needs to step in and assist the city and give the city the money it needs to do programs, programs more so in terms of helping people find jobs, helping people create businesses.”

“We have to change the culture of what’s going on out there on the streets to make this not acceptable,” Becker, the county prosecutor, said. “We’ve been talking about that for years, so I don’t think there’s anything new there. But it really takes everybody.”
 
Womack has regularly gathered with family, friends and neighbors of victims to march against violence.

“The majority of the people that show up are women. We’re always outnumbered about eight women to every man,” he said.

Women like Aveion Cloud’s mom.

“I cry every day,” she said. “My eyes are never dry, never, never dry.”

Latasha Cloud’s son, Aveion Cloud, was shot and killed in Grand Rapids on Thanksgiving 2020.

“The mothers are on the forefront of this battle and the men in this community, I continue to call them out and say, we can’t leave those mothers out there by themselves,” Moody said.

“Us coming together and saying we have to solve this, we have to be the biggest voice,” he added. “These are young men pulling these triggers, and if we’re not the leading force telling them (that) this is not the route to manhood, going to prison doesn’t make you a man, going to prison isn’t something you should be proud of, killing your own brother is nothing you should be proud of.”

ASHES IN LOCKETS

Survivors of those killed in the most violent year don’t want them remembered by the order in which they died.

Some carry the wrongly departed’s ashes in lockets.

“This second necklace, you see is his ashes,” said Deshowna Kirkland, whose twin brother was shot in the cemetery.

“I have his ashes in here,” said Olga Alvelo, pointing out a blue, heart-shaped locket.

Whenever Olga Alvelo’s son wasn’t home and she heard sirens in her neighborhood, she grew fearful.

“My son got shot, that would be my first thought, always on edge,” she said. “He’s in a better place though. He doesn’t have to worry. I don’t have to worry.”

Her 22-year-old son, Giovani Alvelo, was shot and killed in November outside the Wealthy Street Market. Police arrested his accused killer.

The world, Olga Alvelo said, lost a “kind, loving, caring, intelligent man, lost a son, a brother, a father.”

His mom also wears an organ donation bracelet — her son’s legacy.

“He did save six people’s lives with his organs,” she said.

Victim no. 1, Tony Stewart, a 29-year-old father shot outside Miss Tracy’s liquor store allegedly by a four-time felon, also donated his organs.

tony stewart
An undated courtesy photo of Tony Stewart.

“He saved so many people; he saved like eight people’s lives,” his cousin, Kandyss Standifer, said.

“He passed away on my son’s birthday,” his cousin said. “My son had turned 3 that year. He got shot on the third, passed away on the fourth, and my daughter and my son were expecting him to be at the party, and they wanted him to… They had prayed and asked God to make him come back alive again.

“My daughter has been having dreams that he’s back alive. It’s hard. The babies know him, they loved him. They got to know the Tony I grew up with, loving and fun cousin.”

The mother of Grand Rapids’ last victim, victim no. 38, keeps her son’s ashes in a box next to her favorite chair. Her apartment is his memorial.

An unknown gunman ambushed her 28-year-old son, Marquis Townsend, the youngest of five, a father of three, on Dec. 27 in a church parking lot not far from his sister’s home.

An undated courtesy photo of Marquis Townsend.

“A guy just came from nowhere and started shooting,” his sister, Latroya Townsend, said.

“He didn’t deserve that,” his mother Aletha Townsend said. “He never did nothing to nobody, so I don’t see why, like why, why, why would you all do that to him? It hurts so much.”

Since her son’s death, she has fought against crying.

“I tell my people like this,” his mother said. “My son came to me and told me don’t cry, and I’m keeping that promise. I got to keep it.”

A short time after her son’s death, she called his cellphone, hoping for an answer.

“I did it one time,” she said. “I called him, I said, ‘I love you, I miss you. Call me.’ But I know it wasn’t going to happen.”

Those who lost the most have one message:

“I say put the guns down,” Deshowna Kirkland said.

“I just wish it all to stop,” said Aveion Cloud’s mom. “It needs to stop. Like, put the damn guns down.”

Marquis Townsend’s mother Aletha Townsend and sister Latroya Townsend.