It's May of 2001. Michelle Butler, then living outside Philadelphia, has returned to her grandmother's home in Duquesne, to bury her 18-year-old brother Harry Coward. As she pulls up in a cab, she sees the silhouette of her mother's two youngest boys in the screen door: Don, 9, and James Jones, 12. Don is calling for her, his tiny voice stretching the syllables of her name.
At times, his voice still echoes through her mind.
Harry's murder was a moment that marked a shift in her family's history, one already wracked by substance abuse, violence, crime and trips in and out of foster homes. When Lueana Coward's oldest son was buried, it was like the tip of the first domino.
Within a dozen years, James and Don would be dead, shot like their brother for reasons that the family has never untangled. Sitting in her living room more than a decade later, it's that moment -- a scene not of violence but of emotion and innocence -- that undoes Michelle.
"I can hear it even today. I can hear it echo within my head and my memory, just his voice," she says, her voice cracking.
The surviving members of this family -- Lueana Coward and her three daughters -- now live with grief that's difficult to fathom. And while the string of tragedies that struck this clan is unusual, thousands in the region have dealt with some slice of their experience, losing a son or daughter, a mother or a father, a relative or a friend, to violence.
This kind of grief is particularly acute in the black community, which suffers a disproportionate amount of violence. In 2012, Allegheny County tallied 97 homicide victims. Of that, 73 were black men and boys and another six were black women.
In the small, close-knit communities of the Mon Valley, it's not uncommon for a person to know several people who have been murdered, to experience the ritual of the vigils, the memorial T-shirts, the funerals and the calls for peace.
For survivors, grief can take different paths. In its worst form, it can turn into post-traumatic stress disorder, the same condition experienced by veterans of war and by direct victims of crime. And even when it falls short of that, the effects of prolonged grief can torment the body and the mind, tear apart families and ruin relationships.
Traumatic loss and repeated exposure to violence can make children and young people unable to focus and reckless and, in a cruel twist of biology, can rewire the brain to make people more prone to become victims of violence themselves.
For Lueana, grief has given her life purpose. She lives her life steeped in the loss of her three boys, whose pictures and memorial T-shirts adorn her home in McKeesport. In 2009, three years after the death of her second son, she says, God spoke to her, moving her to found a group for those who had lost a child to homicide. God is listed as a co-founder of RELIEF, which stands for Recognizing Every Lingering Inward Emotional Feeling. She's written a book, "Unexpected Events," and honors the anniversaries of her sons' deaths.
But her daughters, who now have sons of their own, have taken a different tack. Michelle has worked hard to move on, and the walls of her house in Homestead are bare of the photos that once held pictures of her brother Harry.
Lueana's youngest daughter, Ebony Middleton, who plunged deep into depression after the death of James, openly admits she has not confronted her grief. The death of her little brother, Don, is something she's forced out of her reality. She pretends he's at "placement," in a boys' home as he often was when they were growing up.
"I never really dealt with either of my brothers' deaths," she says.
Ebony, 21, and Michelle, 37, also live with anxiety. How do they keep their own sons from falling victim to the same violence that befell their brothers? The third daughter, Ondrayia Coward, is struggling with alcoholism and addiction, her mother says.
A tour of her house in McKeesport, its exterior belying its comfortable interior, starts in the damp basement, where she has a shrine to the sons of the mothers who have joined the group.
Newspaper clippings and funeral programs are haphazardly pinned to the walls, dampened by a recent leak after a storm. On another wall, she's compiled the many sympathy cards she received after her three sons' deaths.
"The grief ain't never over," she says, "so sometimes I may come down here and grab one of these and read it."
Lueana is a walking whirlwind. Sometimes words stumble out of her mouth nonsensically, thoughts and sentences unfinished. When she tells a story, she frequently drifts off into an unrelated anecdote.
It's unclear if this is the way her mind has always operated, or if it's the result of a life filled with substance abuse, tumultuous relationships with men and mental illness.
She grew up in Duquesne, the youngest of six children born to a couple who moved to the steel town from rural Louisiana in the 1940s when the jobs there dried up.
Lueana lost her way early in life, which she attributed to hanging around her older brothers' friends. She was pregnant at 13 and had a second child three years later. She moved out on her own at 16, renting a house three doors down from her family's. Her first boy, Harry, was born in 1982, named for a man who continues to drift in and out of Lueana's life. Introduced to cocaine in the late 1970s, she continued to use the following decade.
The Lueana of today is a master of coping, helping other women through their pain, becoming a model of resilience. But in the early 1990s, she says she was locked in an abusive relationship and too embarrassed to escape. So in 1992, shortly after the birth of her youngest son, Don, she began using crack cocaine. Lueana's habit grew to $300 a day. She sold her nicest clothes -- dresses of leather and suede -- and jewelry. She sold her blinds and living room furniture.
By then, her boys were acting out. Harry was in trouble by age 12, sent to a reform school for burglarizing a home. While home for Christmas in Duquesne, he was shot in the buttocks, which he said was self-inflicted.
On Valentine's Day in 1996, two weeks after she left her four youngest with her grandparents to check herself into rehab, Allegheny County Children, Youth and Family Services took them and put them in foster care. Don was carried away from the home by the police in stocking feet and all the children were placed in different homes. James, then 9, called his grandmother that night frightened, saying he didn't know where Ebony and Don had gone.
Once, Lueana unsuccessfully went to court to try to regain custody of her children. When she failed, they banged their heads on the courthouse walls, Lueana says.
But she cleaned up and got them back 16 months later. She was lauded as a success story, called on to give inspirational talks to rehab groups.
At home, though, Lueana struggled, particularly with the boys. All three suffered behavioral problems. Don and James were both diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and at times had outbursts so frightening that a social worker had to teach Lueana how to restrain them safely.
"I went through so many outbursts," she says. "I couldn't use glass tables."
Lueana says she tried her hardest. As a recovering addict, she was under the watchful eye of several social service agencies -- so many that she recalls having them all over for coffee. She vowed never to lose her children again.
"I had every agency to get help for my children and for myself," she says.
May 11, 2001
The spring of 2001 marked a homecoming for Harry Coward to his grandmother's house in Duquesne. Though he was fresh off a prison stint for drug possession, Harry's presence buoyed hope in the household.
The family believed that Harry, who was blossoming as a rap star under the handle Hardcore, might be their way out of Duquesne. He was legendary there, Lueana says.
On the night of May 11, Harry headed out for a party on Ferndale Avenue in Duquesne.
An hour after he left the house, about 10:30 p.m., partygoers told police they heard a chorus of yelling and then shots. Guests frantically scattered from the party, leaving Harry lying in a side yard near a kitchen door.
Someone called the house to tell the family Harry had been shot. Ebony remembers Lueana driving them up to the scene and seeing police everywhere. She remembers feeling her adrenaline rush, feeling a mix of fright and anxiety and sadness that she couldn't understand.
The ambulance screamed down the street taking her mortally wounded brother to UPMC McKeesport. She caught a glimpse of her brother when the ambulance doors swung open as he was carted into the hospital. She and her mother went to the family room and waited in silence.
She remembers the doctor coming in and delivering the news: that Harry was shot 10 times, that he didn't make it. As the adults around her broke into sobs and screams, 9-year-old Ebony struggled to understand what was happening.
"I was in like in 'Alice in Wonderland.' I'm falling down in circles," she says. "I understood that he was dead, but it didn't seem real."
For Ebony, it would be a scene that would replay itself 11 years later, with the death of her little brother Don. It was the same hospital, the same family room and the same rabbit hole.
Sgt. Scott Scherer, a homicide detective with the Allegheny County Police, says there were upward of 75 people at the Ferndale Avenue party when Harry was shot at close range. Not one would identify the shooter, even after Harry's face was plastered on a billboard along with a message advertising a reward for information leading to a conviction in the case.
Although police have identified a suspect, a man already imprisoned, he'll never be convicted unless a witness identifies him, Sgt. Scherer says.
Police believe his death was likely connected to a rivalry between Harry's nascent music group, Hardcore Entertainment, and another loosely affiliated group of musicians. Lueana believes rival artists were jealous of Harry's talent.
"Jealousy and envy got my son murdered," she says.
Lueana's daughters often ask why. Why all three of their brothers? Plenty of people survive gunshot wounds. Why couldn't any of their brothers -- even just one -- have made it, could have lived to see 20?
"This is crazy," Michelle says. "Sometimes I be thinking this is some kind of like curse or something because I've never seen something like this in someone's family."
The family struggles to understand what led Don and James into the path of gunfire, although the signs of lives lived near violence were abundant.
Harry's death was like a loose thread on a sweater, unraveling the family further. The boys found their way to "the streets," where they fell in with the wrong crowd, friends who slung heroin, friends who had guns. Lueana calls these other young men "frienemies."
"I guess they were trying to be the men of the family," says Ebony. "First it was James. He ended up staying out in the streets more. Don, always following his big brother, went right behind him."
Michelle wonders if things would have turned out differently for James and Don had Harry not been killed.
"If James and Don would have had Harry around, then I don't think they would have fell down the path of that they went through," she says. "They'd ... have someone else to look up to."
But there may have been something else at play, too. Toya Jones is a social worker and therapist with the Center for Victims of Violent Crime based in East Liberty. She believes that repeated exposure to community violence -- hearing gunshots, seeing dead bodies and knowing loved ones who have died -- can rewire the brains of teenagers.
In the face of danger, a healthy person will have an appropriate response that bypasses the conscious self, ducking at the sound of gunfire, for example. But those who have been repeatedly exposed to that kind of stimuli develop a tolerance for it.
She's encountered teenage boys who tell her they've stood unflinching when someone points a gun at them. What may be interpreted as reckless behavior might be driven by a brain desensitized.
"To someone that is numb or frozen, it will go straight to that part of the brain and say, 'No, someone pulling a gun on you is not a dangerous situation. React this way,' " she says. "It's misfiring."
It translates, too, in how children interact with authority.
"They won't respect authority. They won't keep with rules or guidelines because [their] boundaries aren't set," she says. "[They] don't have appropriate fear. Fear keeps us alive."
Ms. Jones believes that children who grow up in communities acutely impacted by violence develop a morbid expectation that they, too, could die young. It shapes the way they see their future and, inevitably, their choices today.
Russ Carlino, the head of Allegheny County Juvenile Probation, says many of the children who end up under his auspices in the county's juvenile justice system have been exposed to violent death.
After Harry's death, James was adjudicated delinquent on several misdemeanors in juvenile court, though the details of those records are not public. Then, when he was 15 or 16, he was arrested for felony possession of heroin. A juvenile court judge sent him to the Lawrence County Youth Development Center in New Castle, a jail-like facility where the system once sent its highest risk offenders. It was the last stop for juvenile offenders the system hoped to reform.
After his release in mid-2005, he was enrolled in a seven-day-a-week reintegration program at The Academy Schools in Baldwin. Lueana struggled to get him to go, threatening to cut him off from his girlfriend and to call his probation officer. She saw him to the bus stop, but he often didn't make it all the way to school. When she found him wandering the streets, she had a jitney driver to take him all the way there, she says.
In the days before he was killed, James disappeared to a cousin's apartment in North Versailles, to Lueana's chagrin. She says she planned to go looking for him, but on the fourth day after he left the family's West Mifflin apartment she still had not done it.
On that snowy day in December, James begged his sister to drive him to Century III Mall to buy a new cell phone. Michelle, then doing side work as a jitney driver, picked him up in North Versailles. But another young man, Duane Alston, climbed into the car with them. Duane needed a ride to Duquesne, and then to the North Side.
Michelle took Duane to Duquesne, where he picked something up from an apartment, and then directed her to pick up his cousin, Marcus Tompkins. Michelle then drove the trio of teenage boys to an apartment on Rhine Street.
As Marcus later told the court, Duane planned to sell the men in the apartment a bundle of heroin, valued in the thousands of dollars. Michelle says she had no idea what was going to go down, and claims her brother had no knowledge of the transaction either.
At the apartment building on Rhine Street, a man named Stanley Roebuck let them into the building, leading them into a narrow hallway. The three were ambushed by a pair with guns, one of whom held Marcus up against a wall with an AK-47.
Then there was gunfire in the hallway, although who fired the shots is not clear. The young man with the AK-47, later identified as Elbert Tyrone David, was struck in the shoulder.
From outside in her idling car, Michelle heard the gunshots. Then she saw the front door fly open and Duane stumble out. James followed just steps behind him, but as he was halfway through the door, Michelle saw an explosion of orange sparks behind him, and watched him fall.
Duane and Michelle loaded him into the car, his body limp, his shirt stained with tiny specks of blood.
"He was just slumped over," Michelle says. "He was just moaning and moaning."
In a frantic effort to keep him conscious, she turned up music and began speeding toward Allegheny General Hospital.
Two hours later, he was dead.
Ebony, 14 and pregnant with her first child, made it to Allegheny General Hospital before he flatlined. At Elbert David's trial, Ebony told the court that "she had to watch him die, the look he had in his eyes will forever haunt her," according to a court filing.
James, three years Ebony's senior, was her protector and close friend.
"To this day, there's this emptiness I can't fill, no matter what," she says. "James was my heart."
The pain, she says, was unmanageable. Unable to cope, she sliced her wrists with a razor, "just trying to get the pain out of my heart onto my hand."
She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Lueana heard the news about her son in a phone call from a stranger.
She told the court that she suffered panic attacks and hyperventilation. She was forced to move from the West Mifflin apartment where the absence of James, her "loud child," was all too conspicuous.
"He was lost ..."
Don, by this time, had fallen into the same behavior. Before his brother's death, when he was barely 14, he was adjudicated delinquent of felony assault. He, too, was sent to the Academy for court-mandated treatment and then to VisionQuest for bootcamp in 2007, likely because he absconded or didn't comply with the court's demands, Mr. Carlino says.
He was arrested in late 2007 for selling heroin and was sent to a center that specialized in drug and alcohol treatment until mid-2008. Sometime in 2008, he was again arrested for felony assault, this time with a weapon. He was still spared the adult criminal justice system and like his brother, ended up at New Castle. He served two stints there, in 2009 and again in 2010.
Ebony says her youngest brother never learned how to cope with the loss of this brother. Don was James' shadow.
"He was lost, hurt," she says, "didn't know how to deal with his hurt."
She believes that he was searching for that brotherly kinship, and found it in the wrong people.
Michelle, too, noticed a shift in Don.
"Don, I really did see him, like, giving up on life right after James died," she says. "I never used to hardly seem him smile. He was always angry all the time."
"I think he just felt like he didn't have anything else to live for."
Lueana keeps a copy of a journal he made after James' death in one of his many stints in placement. In it, he articulated a raw hurt and anger that he rarely uttered to his own family.
"My big brothers alway keep me out of being lock up and help me when I had my homework and help me to keep my room looking nice when my mom get home ... like I said I miss HARRY and James," he wrote. "I got to be the Big Brother now."
He pasted a photo of himself in a red T-shirt and sunglasses next to James' grave and wrote underneath: "James was a loving brother to me. When I lost him, I hate all people."
Next to another photo, taken of him beneath a billboard advertising a reward to find his brothers' killers, "I like to be write with my brothers. They make this hard for me."
A few months before he died, Lueana got a call from her son in the middle of the night. He had been shot at but had narrowly escaped. She found him hiding in some bushes in McKeesport.
Michelle saw her youngest brother spinning out of control. She wondered if he cared if he lived or died. Near the end of this life, rumors started swirling that people were after Don. The teenager, who spent his days on the streets of Duquesne, called her and asked her for money for a gun.
In the meantime, police, through confidential informants, learned that Don was robbing dangerous people, including drug dealers, Sgt. Scherer says. He was suspected as the gunman in other shootings, the detective says, but police never gathered enough evidence to charge him.
"He was a known drug dealer," he says. "He was infamous over in Duquesne."
In the days before his death, Don found Ebony napping in her car in front of her mothers' house. When he climbed into the front passenger seat, he was on the phone with someone.
"He was talking about all these dudes that was tryin' to kill him and how he tired of it and how he wants to leave away from it," she says.
Michelle urged him to stay home, but he would have none of it. Lueana, who had surrendered any hope of keeping him off the streets, began driving him to Duquesne from their home in McKeesport. She said he would walk if she didn't drive him and feared he could get shot en route.
It happened at 8:50 p.m. on a Monday, April 16, 2012. Don was in an alley adjacent to Ferndale Avenue, where his brother had been fatally shot 11 years earlier. Medics found him face down, a gun beneath him. He was loaded into an ambulance and taken to UPMC McKeesport, tracing the same path Harry had taken.
Ebony found herself in the family room at the hospital again. She was led into Don's hospital room, where he lay lifeless, tubes snaking from his body. Ebony remembers becoming hysterical.
And then, as if her brain had slammed the door shut to the outside world, she blacked out. She remembers nothing of those hours, and the rest -- the funeral and the goodbyes -- all seems like a dream.
Ending a cycle
When Ebony's second son was born three years ago, she named him Harry in honor of her brother who had died eight years prior, an uncle the little boy would never know. Michelle's only son, born seven months after James died, now bears his name.
Michelle says the worry for her hasn't started yet because James is too young. But today, Ebony parents with the anxiety that she'll bury her sons the same way her own mother did. Her oldest son, 7-year-old Andrew Butler, sometimes asks, "When I get old, am I gonna die like Don?"
"Is there something I should do or not do? Or maybe I should just move away," she says at a RELIEF meeting in December. "Should I tell them not to do this? Should I tell them not do that? Should I tell them to step with their right foot first?"
It's an anxiety that many mothers deal with in these communities, that their sons will fall victim to the same fate that has taken the lives away of so many other young men. Women at the RELIEF group talk about this fear and wonder if there's anything they can do to stop it.
But Ebony believes this time will be different. In mid-2012, she wed Robert Middleton, "the most perfect husband I ever knew."
Although the boys have different biological fathers, Robert has served as a father figure to them. And most importantly, he's a role model: he cooks, cleans and works full time.
"He'll teach my sons, 'This is what a real man does,' " she says.
Still, she says she's "paranoid." Her boys aren't allowed to play outside with other kids unless they're under her watchful eye. Robert complains she "babies" them.
She, too, has weighed leaving town altogether to start somewhere else anew, somewhere without the entanglements and the temptations of the street. Somewhere safe.
On a Sunday evening, a handful of women and two men sit in chairs arranged in a circle in Lueana's dining room. Food has been set out and is being picked at. Lueana sits at a table, directing the loosely organized meeting, which meanders from topic to topic.
"The grief is like a roller coaster," she says, then segues into a pitch about a chat room for the website, where grieving mothers could gather to talk.
Ebony often attends the meetings and the vigils, but it's not clear if they provide her with comfort.
At one meeting Ebony, who is often stoically quiet during these gatherings, opens up.
"A person like me, I tend to stuff my feelings, put it all up on the shelf because if I bring it up, it'll mess up my whole week," she says. "So I just try to be as happy as I can be."
She worries the feelings of grief and sadness were building inside of her, "like a pop bottle when you shake it up."
Michelle, too, is more private with her feelings. She stripped her walls bare of pictures of Harry, the brother she was closest in age to, because she found they upset her too much. She doesn't celebrate his birthday like she used to.
"I feel like if you keep reliving that situation you're never going to heal," she says. But for Lueana, all the rituals and the activities have become a way to take control. Much of her life revolves around the death of her three sons -- RELIEF group, book signings, a dinner with LaMarr Woodley to raise money for an anti-violence initiative -- so grief is no longer a distraction. It's who she is.
But there are still times when she has no control. For families of homicide victims, the grieving process is rarely linear in part because of the judicial system: the hunt for the killer, the various stages of the trial and the appeals, can all churn up old feelings.
On Thursday, Elbert David, the man convicted in James' death, headed back to the Allegheny County Courthouse for an appeal hearing. Lueana was there in the courtroom, sitting just a row ahead of the man's family.
When he turned around to smile at his family, she felt anger, but she felt empathy, too. She remembered her own sons sitting in those very seats during juvenile hearings, craning toward her to cast a grin her way.
"When I see him smile, I think of James' smile," she said, recounting her experience to Betsy Gamrat, an advocate from the Center for Victims, while standing in the courthouse hallway. "He looked at his family, I almost found myself having some compassion."
And even when there are no obvious triggers, there are still bad days when her emotions win.
Two weeks ago, that's what happened. She drove past a front porch and saw some of the young men Don used to hang with -- "frienemies" -- and the anger rose up inside her.
So she drove to the spot where Don was wounded, a narrow alley of cracked asphalt bordered by thick weeds, and parked. She thought about a story a teenage boy had told her. The boy said he ran up to where Don had fallen, wounded, and that Don raised his hand and said "I'm Dutch." Dutch was his street name.
She replayed that scene in her head. And then, alone in her car in the midafternoon, she wept.
First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM