Three times as many people have survived being shot in Pittsburgh in the last decade than have been shot and killed.
Lorin Shields didn’t run when the man pointed a shotgun at him.
He’d seen a movie once where a black kid ran from a guy with a shotgun and the kid got hit and the blast shredded his back. So Mr. Shields didn’t run.
At 18, he faced the shooter, called him by name, and said, “If you’re gonna shoot me, shoot me.”
The man pulled the trigger and the blast tore through Mr. Shields’ arm, shattering bones from the shoulder down.
Away from the yard in Highland Park where he’d been playing basketball and up an embankment. The shooter fired again, the blast struck his side, and he fell, tumbled down into the dirt.
He couldn’t move. The shooter stood above him, shotgun raised.
Don’t, Mr. Shields begged, please don’t.
The man pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t fire.
“He was like, ‘You’re lucky I don’t have no more bullets or I’d kill ya [expletive],’” Mr. Shields says, “And he uh-”
Mr. Shields’ eyes glaze over. He is silent for 11 seconds.
“I’m sorry,” he says, eyes snapping back to focus. “I blacked out. I don’t like thinking about it, for real for real.”
It’s been six years since that day — Aug. 8, 2011 — but the violence sticks with Mr. Shields in many ways: his body is riddled with shotgun pellets, the skin of his right arm is rearranged like a patchwork quilt. As he recounted the story in June, he leaned against a stone wall outside an apartment in the Allegheny Dwellings public housing complex in Fineview, just a few feet from yellow crime scene tape strung across the sidewalk.
About an hour earlier, at 10:32 a.m. on a Friday, a shooter emptied 14 rounds at a crowd of people standing there in the 1700 block of Belleau Drive. One man was wounded.
Mr. Shields, now 24, lives a few doors down, and sometimes feels like it’s just a matter of time before he’s shot again.
During the last decade, three times as many people have survived being shot in Pittsburgh than have been shot and killed. The homicides typically capture the headlines and evening newscasts; nonfatal shootings are given less attention, a steady staccato of violence in the background.
Yet the trauma has a lasting impact on those who are shot, especially when, like Mr. Shields, they are wounded when they are young. Between 2006 and 2016, 382 children and teenagers age 18 and younger were shot in the city, according to Pittsburgh police. All but 15 were black.
The concentrated, generational violence and childhood trauma can inflict long-lasting scars on victims and communities, setting young people back physically and mentally well after they’ve reached adulthood.
“The easiest way to understand this is to reference our knowledge of the military,” said Rev. Paul Abernathy, who runs FOCUS Pittsburgh, a nonprofit providing social services in the Hill District. “If a soldier comes home from war, everyone understands if he flies off the handle or throws a beer bottle. What we have is a whole generation of people, sometimes living in the same house, who have had that depth of experience.”
At age 10, Mr. Shields watched a man shoot and kill his 19-year-old cousin.
Mr. Shields was living in Hazelwood at the time. He was upstairs when he heard a bang on the door, so he started down the steps to see who was there.
Halfway down, the door flew open and a man rushed inside, gun in hand. Mr. Shields’ cousin, Erick ‘Pooder’ Robinson, dropped the bus schedule he was holding and met the man in the doorway.
They tussled, and the man threw Mr. Robinson down against a glass table, which shattered.
“He pushed my cousin down, said, ‘[Expletive] this,’ and he emptied the entire clip into my cousin,” Mr. Shields said.
He ran back upstairs and shouted to his grandmother that his cousin had been shot.
“Watching my cousin die, for real for real, it definitely inflicted me with a lot of hatred and pain at the same time,” Mr. Shields said. “I felt like it was a dream at first. I didn’t really believe it. I thought — my cousin was shot by a deuce deuce [a .22 caliber weapon]. And a deuce deuce is not that big. Honestly, I thought it was a BB gun.”
Mr. Shields recognized the shooter as an 18-year-old Hill District man. The teenager was arrested and brought to trial. In February 2004, as an 11-year-old, Mr. Shields testified to what he saw during the slaying.
Police had little else to tie the teenager to the case, and defense attorneys questioned Mr. Shields’ account. He initially told detectives he didn’t get a good look at the shooter’s face because the man wore a hood. Defense attorneys suggested the boy’s father had encouraged him to point a finger at the 18-year-old.
On the stand, Mr. Shields said he did see the shooter.
A jury acquitted the 18-year-old.
“It was a big, horrible time in my life,” Mr. Shields said.
He bounced around the city, moving frequently, and soon began to hang out in the streets with a group of older guys. He stole cars, spent three years in juvenile detention, got out at 16 and started selling weed.
“That’s how I grounded myself,” he said. “They were the most consistent people. As I was moving around I stayed with these people. They ended up dying, though. Every great good friend I had died from violence.”
The day before he was shot, Mr. Shields, who goes by the nickname Renny, visited the doctor with his girlfriend and received a sonogram of his first child.
“I brought it back to my friends, the people I called my friends, and I was showing them pictures of my daughter,” he said. “And one of my real good friends, my right-hand friend, he asked me, ‘Why are you so happy? You’re not the only one in the world having a baby.’ I was only 18, and that made me angry.”
They argued, nearly came to blows but didn’t. His friend, a 27-year-old who went by the nickname Chello, felt that Mr. Shields had disrespected Chello’s kids. Still, parting ways on Aug. 7, Mr. Shields thought they were on good terms.
He went out to play basketball the next day and was shooting hoops when people warned him that Chello was looking for him with a baseball bat.
“He came around the corner with the bat not 15 minutes later,” Mr. Shields said. “And he was like, ‘What’s all this shit you’ve been talking about me?’ And I’m like, ‘What is he talking about?’”
Mr. Shields was with his cousins at the time, and they told Chello to put the bat down, to walk away. He did, but told Mr. Shields that he “had something for him.”
Mr. Shields’ cousins left, thinking it was over. Mr. Shields called his mother.
“As soon as he walked away, I called her and I told her, ‘Chello said he got something for me, he’s gonna shoot me,’ ” he said. “And she said, ‘Chello’s not gonna shoot you, boy.’ And she started calling him.”
Chello returned about three minutes later with the shotgun, Mr. Shields said.
“Literally as he was pulling the trigger, my mom was calling him and getting his voicemail,” he said.
It’s what Rev. Abernathy calls a “culture of trauma” — a culture in which violence is considered the right way to settle disputes and maintain respect. He sees it over and over again.
“I had these two guys once who threatened to kill each other,” he said. “And I knew them both well. Neither I would describe as homicidal. I pulled them aside and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And one guy said to me, ‘Look, you know, this is how we do it.’ In other words, this is the appropriate cultural response.”
“I think that plays a huge role for our children,” he said. “The culture of these groups, they’re all living in this culture and they truly believe this is the way the world is. So as a community we have to think then, very seriously, about how it is that we change culture.”
Tre Embry, 21, knew as soon as he saw the shoes — red, white and black Jordans — that the teenager bleeding on the pavement was his 14-year-old cousin.
The boy was shot twice in the 300 block of East Pink Way in Homestead on Oct. 22 and taken to a hospital in critical condition.
A few days after the shooting, Mr. Embry stood on a porch nearby and shook his head.
“I hope he pulls through,” he said. “He’s too young for this.”
Mr. Embry knows exactly what his cousin is going through — he was himself shot a block away on E. 16th Avenue, hit in the leg on March 10, 2015, when he was 18 years old.
School was out for the day, and Mr. Embry had just walked out of a corner store when he heard gunshots.
“I knew I got hit but I kept telling myself I didn’t get hit,” he said. “My body just collapsed.”
His uncle and stepfather were nearby; they ran to him and told him to stay calm, to keep breathing.
“Good advice,” Mr. Embry said. “It started raining, I was getting cold. I was just wondering when the ambulance was going to come, for real for real.”
He doesn’t feel safe now, walking the neighborhood, always looking over his shoulder. He just got out of jail after serving two months for simple assault, and he’s looking for a job.
He’s worried about his two younger brothers, ages 9 and 10.
“I don’t need them going through this,” he said. “It’s wild, for real for real.”
Mr. Embry’s 14-year-old cousin testified against the 21-year-old Homestead man accused of shooting him during a preliminary hearing before a district judge in November.
The boy’s mother pushed him into the courtroom in a metal wheelchair that seemed to swallow his thin frame. The boy’s right leg was propped up; he rested his head against the wheelchair’s back and spoke barely above a whisper. Terell Blanks, accused of shooting him, sat a few feet away, shackled, cuffed and in a red jail jumpsuit.
The boy said he had been hanging out with Mr. Blanks and a few other guys at a friend’s house on Oct. 22 when he, Mr. Blanks and another friend left to walk to a corner store.
As they walked, the boy said, the two men lagged behind him for a few seconds. The 14-year-old said he turned to say something to them and saw Mr. Blanks with the gun pointed at him, then heard two shots.
“My body just -,” he testified, and paused, “I was still standing up but I froze. And on the second [shot] I fell. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t.”
He was hit in the stomach and lower back, and called 911 as the men ran away. Several times during the hearing, the district judge prompted the boy to speak up — until his mother said it was painful for him to talk any louder. Once, the hearing paused while she adjusted the boy’s wheelchair.
The district judge set Mr. Blanks’ bail at $1 million and held the charges for court.
During the last eight days, a 14-year-old boy was shot to death in Lincoln-Lemington, a 3-year-old girl and 10-year-old girl were shot in the Middle Hill District, and a 16-year-old boy was killed in a double shooting that also wounded a 13-year-old boy in Turtle Creek.
Overall, most of the teenagers shot in Pittsburgh during the last decade were 17 or 18 years old — those two ages make up 60 percent of the 382 people under age 19 who were shot in the city between 2006 and 2016. Only 18 of those shot were under the age of 13.
About 18 percent of the 2,093 people shot in the city during the last 11 years were under age 19.
Source: Pittsburgh Bureau of Police | Research: Chris Huffaker; Graphic: James Hilston/Post-Gazette
Statistically, about a third of juveniles who experience trauma will develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress, said Anthony Mannarino, director of the Allegheny Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents.
“That’s the good news, bad news,” he said. “The good news is these kids are resilient, they bounce back and two thirds don’t develop significant psychiatric problems secondary to these events. But the bad news is that about a third do and the third that do don’t recover unless they get help.”
Children who suffer more than one trauma — any type of trauma, from sexual abuse to bullying — are more likely to develop long-term symptoms, he said. They may become hypervigilant, always on the lookout for danger, which can lead to difficulty concentrating, sleeping, sitting still. They face a higher risk for the development of psychiatric disorders like depression, suicidality or drug and alcohol problems, Mr. Mannarino said.
“Think about these kids,” he said. “They’re really aroused because of what happened. They can’t calm their mind down. They can’t calm their body down. They’re always on the alert for bad things. So what do these kids do? They turn to marijuana, they turn to alcohol to self-medicate.”
Pittsburgh’s Young Shooting Victims, 2006 – 2016
More than 380 children and teenagers under age 19 were shot in Pittsburgh between 2006 and 2016
Research shows that adverse childhood experiences — including verbal, physical or sexual abuse, family member incarceration, mental illness, substance abuse or the absence of a parent — increase the risk for health and well-being problems in adulthood.
In 1999, the seminal Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of 17,000 adults found that the more adverse childhood experiences the adult reported, the higher the risk of alcoholism, heart disease, liver disease, financial stress, depression, sexual violence and a variety of other conditions during adulthood.
The original study surveyed a mostly white, middle-class population with health insurance. It found that 13 percent of the people surveyed reported experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
When 28 residents of the Hill District answered the same survey questions in 2016 as part of a University of Pittsburgh student’s dissertation, 61 percent reported four or more adverse childhood experiences.
“As a child, being hit with this kind of trauma can change your biology in a way that affects you as an adult,” said Kimberly Peterson, who wrote the dissertation. She’s now an assistant visiting professor at the university. “What we’ve learned is the higher number of ACEs, the more these people will suffer as adults.”
She was surprised by the large percentage of people who reported a high number of ACEs in the Hill District. But she thinks some in the community expected the results.
Rev. Abernathy, who was involved in the survey, said explaining the trauma to community members helps residents understand “why things are they way they are.”
“[There is] this reality of historical, complex, multi-generational trauma,” Rev. Abernathy said. “When there is gun violence in our community, it’s not in the context of just one event, it’s in the context of this sea of trauma we have been swimming in for generations.”
After a gunman pumped six bullets into 16-year-old C.J. Mikula-Conrad, the teenager lay on the floor next to his 11-year-old brother, noticed blood coming from his brother’s mouth and turned away.
He heard his grandfather say, ‘He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.’
Saw his own thumb hanging by a fishing-line thin string of tissue, watched his grandfather cradling his brother’s head.
He felt blood spurting from his back.
And all he wanted to do was sleep.
“I was almost asleep,” he said. “And then the paramedics came in and started cutting off my clothes, and they’re like, ‘You have to turn. Turn with us.’ And I’m like, ‘What?!’ I felt no pain until I turned. They put me on a board. It was stiff and cold and it hurt.”
His brother, David McIntyre, died that day, Nov. 1, 2015. The case is unsolved.
C.J. spent 10 days in the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries. Now 18, he’s still got a bullet in his liver and one in his forearm.
Sometimes in quiet moments, when he’s watching TV or listening to music, his mind drifts to the shooting. Sometimes, he feels full of rage.
“I’m listening to music, and it’s not even an angry song but I just want to go outside and start fighting someone for no reason,” he said.
He never used to feel that way before the shooting. A lot was different then: he was on the wrestling team, worked part-time as a dishwasher, was a popular student at Pittsburgh Carrick High School.
C.J. went back to 10th grade after the shooting, leaving early three days a week so he could go to physical therapy. He knew kids would have questions, and he didn’t mind talking about the shooting. But he found school wasn’t the same, especially during his junior year.
“I just felt really weird,” he said. “I felt like [other students] were staring. I’m not going to sit in class, checking around me 24/7. I’m not going to sit in class and be paranoid. So I just stopped going.”
He started skipping, spending his time on the basketball court, staying for hours on end at friends’ houses. He made it look like he was going to school — he’d grab his backpack, dress the part, head out in the mornings. Sometimes he even went to homeroom before he bailed.
But his attendance plummeted, and eventually he stopped going to school altogether. He went to therapy regularly for several months, learned about coping skills, about the triangle of feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
“Your feelings go to your thoughts and your thoughts trigger behaviors and that’s how the triangle works,” he said in June. “Basically basketball is how I solve everything. If I get angry I can take it out on the basketball. I can even stab it if I want. I can go buy a new basketball. A cheap one is like five bucks. It’s better than being home and getting irritated for no reason.”
Recently his therapist moved to a different job, and he stopped going. C.J. resumed regular attendance at school, and he left Pittsburgh in November, moving in with his father out of state.
It’s not uncommon for teenagers to struggle in school after surviving a shooting, said Stephanie Walsh, executive in residence at Pittsburgh’s Center for Victims. When someone’s sense of safety is stripped away by violence and the person is thrust into the hypervigilance and stress that can follow trauma, it’s harder to handle daily life, she said.
“When we’re under stress, our brains categorize instantly: You’re either helping or hindering,” she said. “So when a professional approaches a kid who may have fallen asleep or may not be paying attention, the kid may come across as verbally aggressive. If you don’t have a trauma lens, you see an out-of-compliance kid.”
“If you have a trauma lens, you can start to have a conversation about what just happened,” she continued. “You can say, ‘You were good, you were sitting there quietly, and then what happened?’ Rather than, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?’”
Teenagers who have been shot often have one of two reactions, said Cynthia Snyder, clinical director at the Center for Victims.
“They get this sense of invincibility, like, ‘I’ve been shot, I survived, nothing is taking me down,’” she said. “Or on the flip side, teens get very scared and skittish and just want to stay home and not go to school. It’s polarized, and the polarization itself is the problem.”
It’s also common to see teenagers numb themselves to the trauma and try to avoid dealing with it, Mr. Mannarino said.
“The experience is so difficult and painful that kids avoid talking about it,” he said. “Kids have this back and forth between intrusive thoughts, they can’t get it out of their minds, but at the same time they don’t want to talk about it, it’s too painful, it’s too hard.”
Teenagers who have strong family support systems, positive relationships and well-developed coping skills can more easily overcome the trauma, Ms. Snyder said.
The way a community responds to a young shooting victim is also critical, she said.
In some neighborhoods, the violence is so common that it’s become normal, said Valerie Dixon, a victim’s advocate at the Center for Victims. She once walked Broad Street in East Liberty and asked residents if they’d been impacted by gun violence. About every third house said yes, she said.
“It’s generational trauma that we’re dealing with,” she said. “They think this is the norm, and new generations come in and think this is normal. It’s normal to hear gunshots every day, it’s normal that so-and-so’s cousin died.”
Ms. Dixon, whose 22-year-old son was murdered in 2001 by a 19-year-old man, remembers going to an anti-violence community meeting in the Hill District with roughly 150 other people about 10 years ago.
“And a 14-year-old stood up and we asked him, ‘What is your dream, what is your hope?’ ” Ms. Dixon said. “And he said, ‘I just want to be 18. All we want is to make it to 18.’ ”
Ms. Snyder believes any approach to quell violence must include an early intervention with families when children are very young.
“It has to start by having conversations with caregivers about what kids’ emotional needs are, what healthy attachment looks like, how to maximize growth and development so that kids and their brains get wired to control impulses and moderate feelings of anger and all that stuff that as teenagers goes into being shot or shooting,” she said. “We have to pay attention after it happens, but the long-term solution, the cure, is paying attention when they’re very young.”
Three days in a coma, 17 surgeries and 40 lost pounds followed Mr. Shields’ shooting.
Hundreds of shotgun pellets burned hot in his side, still fresh. A tattoo of a cross on his right arm with the words “Only God can judge Renny,” was sliced up and rearranged, skin grafted to cover his wounds. He thought of suicide.
“There is no therapy out here, nothing to help people like me, trying to function back in society,” he said. “You just have to see what you see. It’s like a dark tunnel or a maze. You can’t see what you’re touching, you just have to push forward.”
Watching his grandmother helped him get through. His whole life, she’d had one arm; the other had been shot off.
“My mom used to tell me to stop complaining,” he said. “’You don’t got nothing compared to your grandma.’ Her whole arm was gone. It was motivation. How dare I?”
The 27-year-old man who Mr. Shields said shot him was arrested a few days after the shooting and charged with attempted homicide. The case went to trial. Mr. Shields took the stand. He showed jurors his scars. The man was acquitted.
One juror, who asked not to be named, said in November that he believed Mr. Shields but that a lack of evidence and vague testimony made it impossible to be sure the man on trial was guilty.
“What it boiled down to when we were deliberating was I couldn’t have gone to bed at night knowing I convicted a person that I wasn’t 100 percent sure I should have convicted,” he said.
Mr. Shields has no faith in the justice system, and no patience for police officers.
“To find out that the person who tried to kill me was going back to his normal life, whereas no matter how hard I try, truthfully I’ll never be 100 percent again…They made me stand up there and look at his face,” he said. “The DA told me we had it.”
Still, he said he no longer holds any ill will toward the man who shot him.
As he recovered after the shooting, Mr. Shields went back to high school, but dropped out quickly.
“Other people were taking advantage of me,” he said. “They knew I couldn’t do nothing. I went back to school and enemies that I’d had previously, you could tell, they were waiting for their moment, waiting. So I let school go.”
He worked odd jobs in construction, factories, maintenance and most recently for a junk-hauling business. He married in March, and his wife gave birth to a boy in July.
Being shot at 18 was “God’s wake-up call,” Mr. Shields said.
“It gave me a lot of motivation,” he said. “I owned getting shot. I don’t make an excuse for it. And to tell you the truth, me getting shot put more ambition in my mind. It made me not want to finish last, just because I got shot.”
The family is still living in Allegheny Dwellings, but Mr. Shields says they’re planning to move, and soon. Nine days after the June 9 shooting wounded a man next door, gunfire erupted again, hitting a man in the hip and a woman in the hand.
One bullet whizzed through Mr. Shields’ front awning, feet away from his pregnant wife.
Shelly Bradbury: 412-263-1999, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @ShellyBradbury on Twitter.