Victims of Gang Violence: The smoke clears, but pain endures

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Caught in the crossfire

After the smoke clears, physical and emotional pain endure for crime victims and their families.

It often chooses its victims blindly, bursting boldly into view, shocking, inexplicable and seemingly without warning.

Violence may be lessening in Los Angeles but it still casts a dark cloud over many parts of the county and its surroundings.

A reminder came recently when Aaron Shannon Jr., a 5-year-old dressed in his Spiderman costume, was killed on Halloween, police say, by gang members who shot into his backyard. Such tragedies understandably grab attention from the media and a mournful public. Then, typically, the spotlight fades.

But for those left behind -- maimed victims, husbands, mothers, best friends of the dead -- there is no forgetting. They are the survivors.

They spend years struggling against pain that is sometimes physical and almost always emotional. The struggle bends lives in different ways.

Some dip into long periods of depression, battling to keep their relationships, their jobs and their hope afloat. Some become activists. They join committees, stuff envelopes, speak at high schools and work to change laws. Some lack the means to leave their dangerous neighborhoods and are trapped in view of the crime scene. They say their prayers and cling to the notion that nothing bad will ever happen again.

Rose Smith is a survivor.

On a May evening three years ago, Smith, a pregnant mother of two, was returning from the market when she heard a group of men arguing and then the crackle of gunfire. She was not a target, but nonetheless was struck by bullets in her arm, jaw, shoulder and back.

One of the bullets had shattered vital nerves in her spinal cord. Doctors told Smith she would never walk again. Somehow, though, she did not lose her baby, and months later gave birth to a healthy daughter named Miracle.

Moving forward has not been easy. After grueling months of physical therapy, Smith and husband Tyrin Tisdale cobbled together enough money to relocate to a tiny apartment not far from USC. But Smith, bound to a wheelchair, lost her job as an office administrator and has not been able to find another. Tisdale is paid $9 an hour by the state to be Smith's caretaker, but they remain at the edge of an economic cliff.

Sometimes things seem unbearable. It isn't just that Smith can't walk, or has a hard time picking up a pair of socks. It's not the arguments with Tisdale that seem to come from nowhere. It's the throbbing pain that robs her of peace during the days and sleep at night.

"There are some days when I can't even get off the bed because my legs have spasms so bad," she says. "The nerve pain in my legs is burning -- a tingling sensation to the hundredth power. The kids know. If I haven't got up they come to the room: 'Mommy, you OK, you need something?' "

There is also the anxiousness that comes when she thinks about the shooting and its aftermath.

What if she had left the apartment five minutes earlier?

Then there is the gunman. Police say they have a suspect, but he hasn't been caught. Does he ever bother to think about what he did and the lives he harmed?

"I did everything I could to live my life the right way," she says. "Stayed out of trouble, had my goals, worked hard. So I always end up going back to this one thing:

"Why me?"

Even though the rate of violent crime is declining in Los Angeles County (last year, for example, the LAPD investigated 314 new murders, a number not seen since the 1960s) the roster of survivors keeps growing. If there is anything universal to the group, it is the search for answers.

Like Smith, Jamiel Shaw is plagued by questions.

His son, Jamiel II, a football player at Los Angeles High School, was shot and killed in 2008 as he walked home from a shopping trip. Once unassuming, Shaw now crusades against violence, haranguing Los Angeles officials to change their policies toward undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds -- like the alleged 18th Street gang member awaiting trial in Jamiel's slaying.

"What if this guy had been sent back to his home country a long time ago?" Shaw asks. "What if he had never been allowed to walk our streets? Or if he'd never seen my boy that day? That's all I have, a lot of 'what ifs.' I don't have my son."

Wendoly Andrade has questions too.

Last summer, her 4-year-old son, Josue, was playing in front of the family's apartment on a narrow Long Beach street when a gunfight erupted down the block. One of the bullets struck Josue just above the neck, behind his right ear. Somehow, he survived.

Today, Josue at first appears unharmed by the violence. The tow-headed boy looks sturdy and healthy. But the reality is very different.

Josue suffers from severe memory loss that has affected his ability to learn. He has trouble balancing and sometimes just falls to the ground. He is frequently seized by uncontrollable rage.

"Now I am always worrying about his future, how far behind he might be because of what happened," says Andrade, who can't afford to move out of the neighborhood.

"I do not know what will happen to my son's life. What would his future be like if he had never been shot?"

Tori Rowles has her questions, too.

Last fall, as she walked with her best friend from a high school football game in Long Beach, suspected gang members shot brazenly into a crowd. When the shooting stopped, Melody Ross, 16, lay on the ground in a puddle of blood. "She called my name," Rowles remembers. It was the last she would hear from her friend, who died that night.

A high school senior, Rowles says that without the fun -loving, effervescent Melody at her side, nothing is as she'd imagined. Like so many other survivors, many of her questions will never be answered.

She can't figure out why she lived and her friend did not. "She was a way better person than I am and she made more people happy than I do," Rowles says. "I was closer [to the gunfire]. I just don't understand. Why her?"

Credits: Photography: Barbara Davidson | Videography: Myung J. Chun, Barbara Davidson, Carlo Rinaldi | Photo editors: Mary Cooney, Jeremiah Bogert | Producers: Albert Lee, Barbara Davidson | Executive producers: Alan Hagman, Mary Cooney | Story consultant: Chad A. Stevens | Additional production: Bryan Chan, Marc Martin, Tim French | Post production: Jeff Amlotte | Flash: Sean Connelley | Web design: Stephanie Ferrell | Web producer: Armand Emamdjomeh | Copy editing: Brad Hanson, Jessica Parks, Christine DeLaCruz, Mark McGonigle |