For the loved ones of gun-violence victims, a moment of tragedy can mean a lifetime of pain and a search for justice.
ONE OF THE bedrooms in Lourdes Reyes’ home in Federal Way belongs to her son George Gabriel Jr.
Its walls are covered with framed photos of Gabriel when he was an adorable kid, posing at high-school dances with girls who found him adorable (in a distinctly more grown-up way) and gazing into the camera while dressed in his blue Marines uniform and white cap.
But Lance Corporal Gabriel has never set foot in this house.
You can help
If you have information about the killings of Kalin Lubben, of Renton, aka Makaiel Blackwell; George Gabriel Jr., of Federal Way; or Desmond Jackson, of Seattle, or if you have tips about other homicides, contact the following police departments. Tips can be anonymous.
• Renton Police Department Det. Pete Montemayor: 425-430-7528
• Federal Way Police Department: 253-835-6799
• Seattle Police Department: 206-233-5000
To anonymously turn in a firearm in Seattle, get information at seattle.gov/police/need-help/surrender-a-firearm.
This room full of lovely memories is, in fact, a loving memorial.
Gabriel was killed by a stray bullet fired during a shooting on May 13, 2014, while he was on leave, visiting his mother at the Federal Way apartment complex where she lived at the time.
Gabriel and his new wife had just driven home from a night out and were waiting for a parking space when they got caught in the crossfire of a dispute, police said.
It was his birthday.
When shots ring out, the pierced air causes ripples that spread well beyond the trauma of the wounded.
They send shock waves through a community’s consciousness that don’t diminish after the headlines fade away and the cameras gravitate toward the next day’s news.
The perverse thing about much of the Seattle-area gun violence that has captured the public’s attention in recent years — including a series of incidents, some fatal, this spring and summer — is that shootings too often go unsolved for months and even years, with witnesses refusing to cooperate and investigations stalling.
Families and friends of the victims are then left with the dual traumas of grief and mystery, making it that much harder to heal the wounds of loss.
Gun violence, no matter where it happens, damages our sense of the natural order of things.
It is not natural, in any community, to say goodbye to a son or daughter or neighbor when they head out into the world, and wonder whether you’ll ever see them again.
Reyes heard the commotion outside that night, but she never imagined that her son was caught up in it.
That revelation came a short time later, when police knocked on her door to deliver the news that her son was gone.
Gabriel was a born engineer. He installed auto alarms and sound systems for people and could take the shell of a Honda or Acura and build it out into a fully functioning car.
Reyes, 50, admits with a smile that she spoiled her son. She let him eat dinner in front of the TV in his bedroom when he was younger. Gabriel never washed his own dishes.
One day, when he was 18, Gabriel told his mother he’d just signed papers to join the Marines.
Reyes remembers saying, stunned, “You’re kidding, right?”
Gabriel said no; he was serious.
“You don’t even know how to wash a plate,” she retorted.
But the decision had been made.
“He was my baby, and you always expect the worst,” Reyes says. “But he was happy … When he left, I was crying, crying, crying, but he called me every single day.”
Reyes was 19 when she came to the United States from Tamaulipas state in Mexico. She worked seven days a week in janitorial services and ran her own cleaning business. She raised Gabriel on the income from the business. When he died, Reyes stopped working, and her husband, Gabriel’s stepdad, stepped in to support them.
She and her son were always close. Gabriel, known as “Junior” to most people in the apartment complex, never missed an opportunity to tell his mother he loved her, sometimes five or 10 times a day, even in front of his high-school buddies.
He might have been a devoted mama’s boy, but Gabriel stunned Reyes once more when he called three weeks before his death to say he’d gotten married to a fellow member of the military in San Diego, where he was based.
But Reyes couldn’t stay upset at her son for long.
She had tried to protect him from danger once before.
When Gabriel was in high school, a young man visited the apartment, she says. He put a gun to Reyes’ head and demanded to know where “George” was. Because of the way he referred to her son, she assumed the stranger knew him from school. Terrified, Reyes pulled Gabriel out of school and sent him to live with relatives in Miami. But only a month later, she had Gabriel sent back to be with her after he complained.
She decided to move the family to a different apartment complex, thinking the new location would be safer. A few years later, that’s where the shooting happened.
Gabriel’s room is lined with chairs. A U.S. flag folded into a triangle, which Reyes received at her son’s military funeral, hangs above the portrait of him in his Marines uniform.
Reyes takes a seat in one of the chairs. “It’s my favorite place,” she says.
“I still have his clothes,” she says. “People always tell me to get rid of them, but I’m not ready.”
The gold pendant hanging from a chain around her neck spells out “George Jr.,” with angel wings around the “Jr.”
“He lives in me,” Reyes says.
She visits Gabriel’s gravesite every weekend.
Every 13th of the month, she hosts a gathering to celebrate his life. On his birthday this year, Reyes arranged for a mariachi band to play in his memory.
Some relatives have urged her to let her son rest, to let go of her grief. But it is grief that has a hold on her.
To lose any child, but especially in such a random and horrific way, brings a distinct kind of pain, she says. “I think I’m never going to get up from this.”
Even worse, three years later, no arrests have been made in her son’s death.
Federal Way Police said at the time that a man who was suspected of involvement in two other shootings around the same time, one a fatal shooting, was a person of interest in Gabriel’s, as well. The man spent a year in prison on murder charges connected to that other fatal shooting, but was released in 2015 for lack of sufficient evidence to carry out a successful prosecution.
“All I want is justice,” Reyes says. “If there was justice, my son could rest in peace.”
“WE’RE FORGOTTEN,” Gazelle Williams says of her family’s five-year struggle to find the killer of her great-nephew, Desmond Jackson.
Jackson and another man were shot after his group of friends got into a dispute with another group during a night of clubbing in Sodo on Feb. 12, 2012.
Jackson died of multiple gunshot wounds at Harborview Medical Center.
He was 22.
Williams, who lives in Marysville, sits at a long dining table at the home of one of her sisters in Seattle’s Central District and calls out the names of other gun-violence victims as if they are family. She has attended a number of other funerals and murder trials in those five years.
On her list is Deszaun Smallwood, a 20-year-old who was one of three people killed by gun violence within blocks and a few days of each other in Seattle’s Central District and Leschi neighborhoods in April 2014.
Jackson and Smallwood, who was shot and died in the street after a fist fight escalated, were cousins, Williams says. After Jackson’s death, she recalls that Smallwood had visited this house and sat at the very table where she now sits, and she remembers warning him about staying safe.
Williams, 64, describes Jackson as a “no-drama kid.”
He grew up in an atmosphere of doting love, raised by his mom, grandmother, great-grandmother and five great-aunts. In the leafy stretch of the Central District where he lived, Jackson was never far from kin. They all lived on the same street except for Williams, who lived close by.
“Each of us called him ‘our boy,’ ” Williams says. “He grew up on this block in every house. In every house, he had a room.
“We all loved him, and each one of us played a different role. I was the ‘fun’ one.”
Williams took Jackson to see “The Phantom of the Opera” when he was about 4, and he fell in love with the musical. He dressed as The Phantom for Halloween.
He hung out with good people, and he cared about others. He was a great older brother to two siblings. Williams found out after Jackson died that he was a registered organ donor.
Even though he’d grown more distant as he grew up and enrolled in Seattle Central College, he still lived on that same block in the CD, around the women who raised him.
A day after he died, about 100 people turned out in the neighborhood for a vigil in his memory.
Jackson’s killing is unsolved, but police say the case is active and they are still seeking evidence and witnesses.
That leaves Williams in a holding pattern of frustration, anger and pain as she wonders why there hasn’t been more progress.
“Nobody cares — it was ‘black-on-black’ crime,” she insists. “He’s treated like nothing of value.”
Tears well up in her eyes as she talks about fighting for five years to keep Jackson’s case in the public eye, and his memory alive. She has sent roses to public officials in honor of Jackson to make sure they don’t forget about him.
She has researched Jackson’s case extensively on her own, and she believes she has good leads on who was involved that night in 2012 based on who was seen at the nightclub.
“Justice” comes up again and again in conversation with Williams. In her case, as in that of Reyes, justice this long delayed is essentially justice denied.
“There’s no hope,” Williams says.
The family has given numerous interviews over the years to discuss the case and plead for thus-far reticent witnesses to come forward. They’ve set up a scholarship fund in Jackson’s name that has raised thousands of dollars for young people to help pay for college and achieve dreams that the scholarship’s namesake wasn’t able to pursue.
Still, Williams’ mourning has a mind of its own, and without a resolution to the investigation — without some cathartic moment where she gets to look her great-nephew’s killer in the eyes and see “justice” done at last — the agony won’t leave her alone.
“How do you ever get to grieve,” Williams says, “when you can’t get past your anger?”
Williams visits Jackson’s grave each week.
She talks to Jackson, whom she says is there in spirit.
“I tell him I love him, that I still don’t have justice and that I’m sorry,” Williams says. “We couldn’t protect him, and now we can’t even get justice for him.”
HOWARD BLACKWELL stands at the grave of his 21-year-old son, Kalin Carter Lubben, also known as Makaiel Blackwell, and strains to talk about him in the past tense.
He has brought flowers to lay on the flat gravestone, along with a cloth and cleanser to wipe down its surface.
The bouquet almost covers a short inscription at the bottom of the stone. It reads, “Stay humble.”
Lubben died on April 10 from a gunshot wound to the head. He lay in a stairwell at an apartment complex in Renton for more than five hours before someone discovered him and called police.
Lubben, who, like his dad, lived in Renton, was a fighter.
He was born in Spokane to a mother who was addicted to heroin, and the first months of his life were medically touch-and-go, Blackwell says. On Lubben’s third birthday, his mother abandoned him at a drug-treatment center, he says.
For most of his childhood, Lubben was raised in Spokane by his adoptive mother, who asked not to be quoted in this story.
Lubben was a great student early on but started getting into fights as a teen, Blackwell says. While living with his dad in the Seattle area, he eventually stopped attending high-school classes and didn’t get his diploma.
Blackwell, 57, says he’s spent time in prison and knows firsthand how rough that world can be.
He cautioned his son about associating with and attracting attention from the wrong people on this side of the Cascades.
Lubben stood only about 5 feet 4, but had a million-dollar smile, perfectly groomed dreadlocks and a good sense of humor.
He was working and, judging by his Facebook profiles, many people loved him.
Lubben had overcome so much, just to make it to 21.
Father and son last saw each other a few weeks before his death. They drove around and talked about life and some trouble Lubben had gotten himself into. Lubben also confided that he intended to get his GED, to earn the diploma he’d missed out on.
Blackwell was happy to hear that, and he gave his son some final advice: “Just stay off the street.”
On April 11, Blackwell received a call informing him that his son was dead.
He says that at the funeral, Lubben’s GED instructor gave him a certificate of completion in the program. Blackwell had no idea that his son was already close to earning that diploma.
Renton Police Detective Pete Montemayor says he’s actively investigating the Lubben case but can’t discuss details that might jeopardize it.
So far, however, there have been no arrests.
There was a lot of chatter about who fired the gun that killed Lubben, Blackwell says. People spoke to him about their suspicions even at Lubben’s funeral.
Blackwell talks to his son whenever he visits his gravesite.
“I tell him I miss him; I update him on the investigation,” Blackwell says. “And I tell him I’ll see him again.”
Montemayor knows that Lubben’s family and people in the community expect him to come through for them, especially given all the rumors about the shooter.
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“When someone calls saying, ‘Why hasn’t someone been arrested? You know who did it,’ I’m kind of caught in the middle,” Montemayor says of cases like this.
Detectives prefer to have strong-enough evidence for a prosecutor to convince a jury that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
A big problem with this type of violence is that witnesses and sometimes relatives often don’t fully cooperate with police, making it hard to build cases, Montemayor says.
Montemayor can’t explain it — why so many young people resort to firing shots to resolve conflicts; get back at someone; or, as is often the case, defend their honor and look tough.
But he’s also worried that victims’ loved ones are placing too much weight on the outcome of arrests, convictions and sentencing hearings, though all are important to maintaining a sense of justice and peace of mind.
“I have seen people get on their knees in court and beg for the maximum sentence to be handed down,” Montemayor says. “But you go home, and that person you lost is still not there.”
He urges people to focus on the greater meaning of their loved ones’ time in the world, however brief — maybe even consider forgiving those who pulled the trigger.
“You can’t let that anger eat you up,” he says. “It will destroy you.”
Both Williams and Blackwell say they wish no undue harm to the killers of their loved ones, only for them to pay for their crimes.
Lubben, Jackson and Gabriel were all adults by the legal definition, but they were just becoming men.
Their lives ended in the beginning.
But the grief of those who loved them — that lives on.