JE'REAN BLAKE NOBLES was one of the rare black males in Detroit who made it (PDF) through high school. A good kid with average grades, Je'Rean went to Southeastern High, which is situated in an industrial belt of moldering Chrysler assembly plants. Completed in 1917, the school, attended by white students at the time, was considered so far out in the wilds that its athletic teams took the nickname "Jungaleers."
Lyvonne Cargill wears a shirt that honors her son, Je'Rean Blake Nobles. His murder led to the police raid that killed Aiyana.With large swaths of the city rewilding—empty lots are returning to prairie and woodland as the city depopulates—Southeastern was slated to absorb students from nearby Kettering High this year as part of a massive school-consolidation effort. That is, until someone realized that the schools are controlled by rival gangs. So bad is the rivalry that when the schools face off to play football or basketball, spectators from the visiting team are banned.
Southeastern's motto is Age Quod Agis: "Attend to Your Business." And Je'Rean did. By wit and will, he managed to make it through. A member of JROTC, he was on his way to the military recruitment office after senior prom and commencement. But Je'Rean never went to prom, much less the Afghanistan theater, because he couldn't clear the killing fields of Detroit. He became a horrifying statistic—one of 103 kids and teens murdered between January 2009 and July 2010.
Je'Rean's crime? He looked at Chauncey Owens the wrong way, detectives say.
It was 2:40 in the afternoon on May 14 when Je'Rean went to the Motor City liquor store and ice-cream stand to get himself an orange juice to wash down his McDonald's. About 40 kids were milling around in front of the soft-serve window. That's when Owens, 34, pulled up on a moped.
Je'Rean might have thought it was funny to see a grown man driving a moped. He might have smirked. But according to a witness, he said nothing.
"Why you looking at me?" said Owens, getting off the moped. "Do you got a problem or something? What the fuck you looking at?"
A slender, pimply faced kid, Je'Rean was not an intimidating figure. One witness had him pegged for 13 years old.
Je'Rean balled up his tiny fist. "What?" he croaked.
"Oh, stay your ass right here," Owens growled. "I got something for you."
Owens sped two blocks back to Lillibridge and gathered up a posse, according to his statement to the police. The posse allegedly included Aiyana's father, Charles "C.J." Jones.
"It's some lil niggas at the store talking shit—let's go whip they ass," Detective Theopolis Williams later testified that Owens told him during his interrogation.
Owens switched his moped for a Chevy Blazer. Jones and two other men known as "Lil' James" and "Dirt" rode along for Je'Rean's ass-whipping. Lil' James brought along a .357 Magnum—at the behest of Jones, Detective Williams testified, because Jones was afraid someone would try to steal his "diamond Cartier glasses."
Je'Rean knew badness was on its way and called his mother to come pick him up. She arrived too late. Owens got there first and shot Je'Rean clear through the chest with Lil' James' gun. Clutching his juice in one hand and two dollars in the other, Je'Rean staggered across Mack Avenue and collapsed in the street. A minute later, a friend took the two dollars as a keepsake. A few minutes after that, Je'Rean's mother, Lyvonne Cargill, arrived and got behind the wheel of the car that friends had dragged him into.
Je'Rean knew badness was on its way and called his mother to come pick him up. She arrived too late. Owens got there first and shot Je'Rean clear through the chest with Lil' James' gun.
Why would anyone move a gunshot victim, much less toss him in a car? It is a matter of conditioning, Cargill later told me. In Detroit, the official response time of an ambulance to a 911 call is 12 minutes. Paramedics say it is routinely much longer. Sometimes they come in a Crown Victoria with only a defibrillator and a blanket, because there are no other units available. The hospital was six miles away. Je'Rean's mother drove as he gurgled in the backseat. [CLICK HERE FOR CHARLIE LEDUFF'S EXPOSE ON THE DETROIT AMBULANCE SYSTEM.]
"My baby, my baby, my baby. God, don't take my baby."
They made it to the trauma ward, where Je'Rean was pronounced dead. His body was transferred to Dr. Schmidt and the Wayne County morgue.
Unclaimed bodies at the Wayne County MorgueTHE RAID ON THE Lillibridge house that took little Aiyana's life came two weeks and at least a dozen homicides after the last time police stormed into a Detroit home. That house, too, is on the city's East Side, a nondescript brick duplex with a crumbling garage whose driveway funnels into busy Schoenherr Road.
Responding to a breaking-and-entering and shots-fired call at 3:30 a.m., Officer Brian Huff, a 12-year veteran, walked into that dark house. Behind him stood two rookies. His partner took the rear entrance. Huff and his partner were not actually called to the scene; they'd taken it upon themselves to assist the younger cops, according to the police version of events. Another cruiser with two officers responded as well.
Huff entered with his gun still holstered. Behind the door was Jason Gibson, 25, a violent man with a history of gun crimes, assaults on police, and repeated failures to honor probationary sentences.
Gibson is a tall, thick-necked man who, like the character Omar from The Wire, made his living robbing dope houses. Which is what he was doing at this house, authorities contend, when he put three bullets in Officer Huff's face.
What happened after that is a matter of conjecture, as Detroit officials have had problems getting their stories straight. Neighbor Paul Jameson, a former soldier whose wife had called in the break-in to 911, said the rookies ran toward the house and opened fire after Huff was shot.
Someone radioed in, and more police arrived—but the official story of what happened that night has changed repeatedly. First, it was six cops who responded to the 911 call. Then eight, then eleven. Officials said Gibson ran out the front of the house. Then they said he ran out the back of the house, even though there is no back door. Then they said he jumped out a back window. It was Jameson who finally dragged Huff out of the house and gave him CPR in the driveway, across the street from the Boys & Girls Club. In the end, Gibson was charged with Huff's murder and the attempted murders of four more officers. But police officials have refused to discuss how one got shot in the foot.
"We believe some of them were struck by friendly fire," the high-ranking cop told me. "But our ammo's so bad, we can't do ballistics testing. We've got nothing but bullet fragments."
A neighbor who tends the lawn in front of the dope house out of respect to Huff wonders why so many cops came in the first place, given that "the police hardly come around at all, much less that many cops that fast on a home break-in."
But the real mystery behind Officer Huff's murder is why Gibson was out on the street in the first place. In 2007, he attacked a cop and tried to take his gun. For that he was given simple probation. He failed to report. Police caught him again in November 2009 in possession of a handgun stolen from an Ohio cop. Gibson bonded out last January and actually showed up for his trial in circuit court on February 17.
A wary Detroit police officer keeps watch over an unruly crowd after an arrest on the East Side.The judge, Cynthia Gray Hathaway, set his bond at $20,000—only 10 percent of which was due upfront—and adjourned the trial without explanation, according to the docket. Known as "Half-Day" Hathaway, the judge was removed from the bench for six months by the Michigan Supreme Court a decade ago for, among other things, adjourning trials to sneak away on vacation.
Predictably, Gibson did not show for his new court date. The day after Huff was killed, and under fire from the police for her leniency toward Gibson, Judge Hathaway went into the case file and made changes, according to notations made in the court's computerized docket system. She refused to let me see the original paper file, despite the fact that it is a public record, and has said that she can't comment on the case because she might preside in the trial against Gibson.
More than 4,000 people attended Officer Huff's funeral at the Greater Grace Temple on the city's Northwest Side. Police officers came from Canada and across Michigan. They were restless and agitated and pulled at the collars of dress blues that didn't seem to fit. Bagpipes played and the rain fell.
Mayor Dave Bing spoke. "The madness has to stop," he said.
But the madness was only beginning.