Caught in the Crossfire

Here it comes, ripping through the air at 2,000 feet per second. That's nearly the length of seven football fields — in a sneeze. That crack, the one that sounded like a rusted 1978 Chevy Malibu backfiring, that was an explosion of gunpowder spraying the air. There will be no ducking, no diving, no running, no hiding. Too late for that superhero shit. Remember, it's moving at 2,000 feet per second — per second — which means the only way to avoid it is to move faster than that. And that ain't happening. Because, really, how many bullets even travel 2,000 feet? Exactly. They go a few hundred feet or, more likely, just a few feet. That means you don't have a second. You have a sec. . . .

It's a Wednesday. Freezing. And dark. A young woman who came to this country only last year rides the subway home, sitting quietly, looking down at her feet. They're swollen. And sore. But she doesn't care. Inside, she's beaming. She's eight and a half months pregnant. With her fourth child. First boy.

It's a Friday afternoon, and a suburban couple is just sitting down for a quiet dinner of roast turkey in their split-level home.

It's a Saturday night. The sidewalk in front of the city's biggest movie theater is packed. A young man stands outside with his friends beneath the bright white marquee.

It's a different Saturday. Early evening. One of those summer nights when the sun seems to dangle over the horizon forever. On a plastic swing in a park a little girl flies back and forth over a sandpit, up toward the heavens, down toward the earth, up, down. She's 10. An angel with a smile that won't quit and the world at her tiny feet.

It's a Monday. A brisk fall afternoon. The booths in this popular lunchtime restaurant are packed with lawyers and cops from the nearby courthouses and the locals who come for their burger and beer fix. Two off-duty policemen, both in dark suits, settle into their table after a morning in court. They've got the midnight shift ahead, so they're anxious to leave behind the clanking dishes and get home to their wives and kids before pulling on the uniform for another shift.

None of them knows it yet, not the subway rider, or the couple, or the teenager, or the angel, or the cops, because they haven't done anything wrong. But that faint clicking sound they can't hear — that's the hammer of a gun being pulled back.

Just as the sniper spree in and around Washington, DC, was terrifying because there was no sense to it, no reason for those people to die, bullets have been flying here in places just as public, with results just as deadly and victims just as helpless. What's even scarier is this: There is no sniper picking people off. There are just a bunch of people out there with guns who don't seem terribly worried about where they're pointing them. And any one of us could end up in the crossfire. One more scary prospect in a world that seems to have become increasingly crowded with risk. The sweet girl in Dorchester, the pregnant woman on the T, the bold lunchtime shootout, last month's fatal shooting of a prominent physician near the crowded main lobby of Mass General Hospital — these are the ones you've heard about. But how about the teenager in front of the Loews cinema on Boston Common just last winter? That teenager was shot to death there on the same Tremont Street sidewalk you've probably walked a dozen times. It wasn't 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. It was 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday. He was with his friends. He died because he got into an argument with a guy police say decided to end it with bullets instead of words or punches. And that guy actually hit his target, not someone else standing a foot away.

“There aren't superpredators roaming the streets,” says David Kennedy, a senior researcher at the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. “There's no question those guys roaming around with a shotgun had evil in their hearts. But there's not a lot of strategy in what was going on. Almost invariably, it's the product of misintention. Nobody meant to hurt this little girl. Nobody meant to hurt this poor woman on the T. It's just a mistake.”

A comforting thought, it's not.

There are no statistics about this. Even bad guys have good aim — usually — so no agency has ever bothered to track those rare reports of bullets finding the wrong target. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does track “unintentional firearm deaths,” and it puts the number at 776 for the year 2000. The majority of those, however, are gun owners killed accidentally while cleaning their weapons or toddlers playing with the triggers of their daddies' guns.

In Boston last year there were 179 shootings, an average of one every other day. There's no way of knowing how many of the bullets in those shootings found their intended targets and how many took down the wrong victims, but it's a safe bet they can be counted on one hand. Maybe one finger. But even if it happens once, what if it happened to you? “No murder makes sense, but those in which an innocent victim loses his or her life are particularly tragic,” says David Meier, chief of the Homicide Unit for the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.

He's right, of course, but even he knows they're hollow words for the relatives and friends of Darlene Tiffany Moore, the 12-year-old Roxbury girl killed while sitting on a mailbox, or Jermaine Goffigan, a nine-year-old boy killed while counting his Halloween candy, or Jacqueline Bispham, killed when gang members sprayed an innocent group with gunfire, or 15-year-old Louis Brown, erased by two stray bullets near the Fields Corner MBTA station, or the Brockton girls miraculously spared after being caught in a hail of gunfire, or the Natick couple eating dinner in their home when a bullet ripped through their kitchen cabinet, shattered a mirror, and lodged in their living room wall.

They were simply going about their days like the rest of us when a bullet came calling — which is also precisely why these are often the hardest cases to prosecute.

There may be a roomful of eyewitnesses, but they're all amateurs when it comes to describing the faces, the clothes, and the weapons. They have no idea why it all happened. All they remember is the sound of firecrackers going off and the panic that followed — and that's if they come forward at all. Crime scenes that should produce dozens of witnesses often produce few, and it's this chaos that defense attorneys exploit. During the trial of the two men accused of shooting Bispham, an innocent woman killed in a drive-by in Boston in 1995, the attorney for one of the men said: “There is no DNA, no fingerprints. What the commonwealth wants you to rely on are the frail memories of witnesses who saw a traumatic event for only seconds or maybe only fractions of a second.” That time, however, those witnesses held up and the shooters were convicted and sentenced to life.

Other cases are shakier. Shawn Drumgold was convicted of shooting Darlene Tiffany Moore in 1989, and 14 years later he's still pleading his innocence and has convinced a judge to allow more interviews to take place to check his story. If he's clinging to any hope, it's because of Donnell Johnson, who spent five years in prison after being convicted of killing Goffigan before new evidence suggested he was innocent, and he was released.

“Not only does the commonwealth have to prove the factual testimony of what people heard and saw,” says prosecutor Meier, “but we have to give people a reason for why it happened.”

That's especially challenging in random shootings because, as Kennedy, the Harvard expert, says, those who “cheated death” are still scarred. “Near misses can damage them forever,” he says. “Posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and sleeplessness are all common reactions.”

Nearly a decade after he was one of the diners at the 99 Restaurant & Pub in Charlestown when four men were shot to death in front of a packed lunchtime crowd, the Reverend Robert Hennessey, pastor at Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston, still would rather just leave it alone than tell his story. “I spoke with a few other people who were there,” he says, “and they preferred I not talk about it.” Click.

You almost made it into this world. Thisclose. After eight and a half months, your fingernails and toenails had grown in, your brain was ready to control your body temperature and breathing, and you had the bulk you'd need to survive. You were ready. Besides, home was getting cramped. You'd gotten so big, nearly 20 inches, that you couldn't stretch out and kick anymore, so you had to curl into a ball, with your arms and legs drawn close to your chest and your head pushed toward your knees. This is the position you were in as your mother took her seat on the Orange Line train on a brisk Wednesday night, heading home to Lynn from Jamaica Plain, where she braids other people's hair for a living.

It's close to 8 p.m. as the train pulls into the Massachusetts Avenue station, near Symphony Hall and Northeastern University. You are the son your mother cannot wait to give your father, who works as a meat cutter in Allston. They already have 7-year-old twin girls and a 13-year-old daughter who live with relatives back in their homeland of Guinea, a country in Western Africa roughly the size of Oregon. But only a son will carry on the family name.

“A son will bring a bride to the parents,” Anne-Marie Wamba, a psychotherapist in Dorchester who came to Boston from the Congo, says of African families. “It's very important for a man to carry on the father's name, so it will go on and become a legacy.”

If only you could see what your mother sees now on this train, how welcome you'd feel. It's the United Nations of subway cars. Haitians. Cubans. Asians. Italians. Irish. This is the sneaker, jeans, and backpack line, with a few baby strollers thrown into the mix. Soon, that'll be you.

But there's something else you would see here. Against the backdrop of the train's plastic seats and mud-soaked, black rubber floor, glimmers of silver everywhere. His belt buckle. Her knapsack zipper. His briefcase. Her purse snap. His watch. Her bracelet. His pager. Her cell phone. His headphones. Everywhere you turn, a sparkle here, a flash there.

“Shiny objects, now they catch my eye,” one young woman, 22-year-old Latia Smith, would say a few weeks later as she boarded her Orange Line train at Mass. Ave. just before 8 p.m. “I'm constantly looking around and over my shoulder.”

Standing a few feet away, a landscape architect, Douglas Evans, says he's aware of something else. “I look,” he says, “to see how people keep their hands.”

They weren't like this before. These jitters from fidgety fingers and all things silver, that all began on this Wednesday night.

“He has a gun! Get down!”

The train is stopped, the doors are open, and a blast of cold air rushes in, along with the smell of turkey subs from the sandwich shop upstairs. Then panic. Everyone's running and screaming. Well, almost everyone. Your mother is not exactly in a condition to bolt for the nearest exit, carrying you around the way she is. Plus, she's confused. She sees the commotion and hears the shouts, but the words, they're gibberish to her. She speaks Pular, not English, so even though she hears this tall, strapping, sharply dressed young black man moving through the train yelling for everyone to run away, he might as well be yelling for everyone to stay put, stay calm, because your mother doesn't understand a word of it. Eventually, she does stand. Everyone else is leaving, so she's caught on that whatever that man was yelling, it's probably not good.

What's that — that flash of silver? She doesn't see it, but it doesn't matter. The bullet's out of the barrel. It pierces one side of your mom's belly, then you, and then comes out the other side. Doctors pull you out during an emergency C-section, but you die shortly after.

Your mother's resting now, and your father's still in shock at losing the son he so desperately wanted. Because there are questions about their status in this country — your father is seeking political asylum and your mother is an illegal immigrant — they have spoken publicly only once since that day, and their friends are protecting them. “I never thought something like that could happen in America,” your mother tells the Boston Globe. “It was very painful and hard. I was in a lot of physical pain. I was physically hurt, and I was morally hurt.”

Two teenagers are in custody who officials say were on the train that night. Police say one of them had a gun, but they don't know yet if he was the one who killed you. He's only 18, and in court a few weeks ago he just stood there, in a black parka and handcuffs, with a cold look on his baby face, silent. Afterward, his father was silent, too, walking out of the courtroom without saying a word.

Now you also are silent, the first son of Hawa Barry and Mamadou Bah. But just because your parents never heard you cry doesn't mean they never felt your pain.

In this little park wrapped in a chainlink fence, there are three swings and a sandpit and a toy car with four steering wheels and a green jungle gym and two basketball hoops and a wooden horse. But what's not here are kids. It's a perfect afternoon, so you sit on a bench to try to understand why. Citgo station across the street. Brick office building at the corner. Stoplight with cars backed up in all directions. Leaves blowing over the grass.

Then a car honks, and you spin around so fast you tweak your neck, and that's when you remember why it's empty here, why you can't relax. This park reeks of death.

It's named after the city's then-youngest murder victim, a nine-year-old boy shot while sifting through his candy corn and M&Ms after a Halloween party, his face streaked with paint. That was years ago. The neighborhood had moved on, and this street, Blue Hill Avenue, became one of the city's great urban revival stories. Then one evening last summer, 60 pellets came flying out of a sawed-off shotgun from the back seat of a stolen gold Honda Civic, and another child, Trina Persad, a 10-year-old girl leaving Jermaine Goffigan Park with her aunt, crumpled to the ground. Of course, the shotgun wasn't aimed at her, and police impressively made two quick arrests, but none of that matters.

“You should be able to walk the streets here,” the girl's mother, Bernadette Fernandes, says almost a year later. The anger in her voice hasn't faded since the days after her daughter's death and the rallies the neighborhood organized, like the one being planned for June 29, and the impassioned pleas she made for the gangs to lay down their guns. She's one of the few people who still come to the park regularly. Sometimes she sits by herself, imagining her daughter's laugh and the way she loved to sing and dance. “I have to go to the park. It's how I relax.” But then she pauses and says: “Every time you hear firecrackers, you duck to the ground. When I see paramedics go by, I think of my Trina.”

When she heard on the news about the Orange Line shooting, she says she knew exactly the terror Hawa Barry must have felt. “I know what she was thinking,” she says. “It caught her by surprise.”

Soon after her daughter died, in the corner of the park a white sign appeared with black lettering on it, tacked to a tree by the stairs. “Trina's Flower Garden,” it reads. Fernandes says she was told a judge put it there. At the bottom of the stairs, hanging from the rusted metal bars, there's a small wooden box with an open top. A dusty old Raggedy Ann doll lies inside, along with a stuffed bunny rabbit, a plastic pink purse, and a picture of a smiling little girl in a silver frame. The glass is cracked.

Even if you were a soldier who'd stared down the barrel of an AK-47, a surgeon who'd held a dying man's beating heart in your bare hands, even if you had a loaded .40-caliber Beretta resting on your hip — as Robert Hall did — you still would have pissed your pants if you'd been as close to those bullets as he was that afternoon. So what'd he do?

“I was in court that day to ID a kid,” he starts off. “Then afterward we went over to the 99 in Charlestown.”

He's sitting in a doughnut shop in Everett, wearing a gray sweatshirt and black cargo pants tucked into his tightly laced black boots, and as he thinks back almost eight years, the details come rushing back. With his sharp features, brown eyes, and jet- black hair, he still looks the part of a 29-year-old just two years out of the police academy, not a 37-year-old Everett detective and father of three, with a fourth on the way.

He was with fellow officer Paul Durant that day, his softball buddy and classmate through the academy, but only Hall had his gun. “I always got in the habit of carrying my firearm,” he says. “When I was at the courthouse, I was being paid by the city; it was at the city's expense.”

Inside the 99, Hall recognized a waitress, and he and Durant took a seat in her section, ordering beers along with a plate of nachos, wings, and potato skins. “We were just talking about work, vacations, kids,” Hall says. “It was loud in there, probably 60 or 70 people.” After a half-hour, the table next to them filled up with, as he remembers, “some very large guys with big cigars.” They were up and down over the next few minutes, until a point where Hall can still, to this day, see two of them standing just to his left, an arm's length away.

Hall can still smell the gunpowder almost a decade later, but then he was 3 feet away when the shooting began, so close that his white shirt was splattered with blood.

“All of a sudden,” he says, “there was a lot of movement. And instantly, maybe two or three seconds, you hear the popping.”

As everyone else ducked beneath the tables or sprinted for the door, Hall spun around to lean back in his booth, lifted his feet off the ground, grabbed his Beretta, and focused in on one thing. “You get tunnel vision,” he says. “I tunneled in to the gun. It was a large-caliber semiautomatic. Black. It's all going in slow motion. What I could hear was the gunfire. And you could smell the gunpowder.”

Eight or nine shots were fired, he says, and as bodies fell and dishes smashed to the floor, there was, for a second, stillness, as if someone had p-u-s-h-e-d p-a-u-s-e. Then they hit play again and two men ranforthedoor. “I jumped out of the booth and chased them outside,” Hall says. From behind, he hears more shots, and now he has to wonder if someone's firing at him or at the men he's chasing, and if he's about to get snared in their crossfire. The shots are back inside, though, and he corners and pins down the two men who took off. “You're frightened,” he confesses. “You just want to survive.”