For Toneca Riley, every day started and ended with a kiss.
In the morning, her 15-year-old son, Jaywan, would wake her up, check on her and kiss her forehead. It was the last thing he did when he told her goodnight.
“The hardest thing that I’m facing is that he’s not here,” Riley said. “He was loving, very protective, outgoing, never in fear, happy — he was an amazing son. I just love him and miss him.”
The fatal shooting of Jaywan Riley, a freshman at George Wythe High School, was one of eight killings over an eight-day period in the city beginning Easter Sunday. The spate of violence has brought to 24 the number of killings in Richmond this year, three more than there had been at this time last year.
The teenager’s slaying on April 8 in South Side also highlights a disturbing trend that has grabbed the attention of residents, community leaders, city officials and others: Increasingly, the victims of homicides in Richmond are under age 18, and law enforcement officials say they are seeing younger and younger perpetrators as well.
Since Easter, two of Richmond’s eight slaying victims were age 17 or younger, and at least three others were age 20 or younger. So far this year, four people under 18 have been slain, including a 10-year-old in March. In 2020, the city saw nine victims under age 18 — the largest number of any year since 2017.
“This is what we feared,” said Charles Willis, who organizes prayer vigils for the families of homicide victims in the Richmond area. “Not only are younger people being murdered, but it’s younger people doing the murders.”
Willis, the executive director of United Communities Against Crime, believes the recent surge in killings of teenagers and very young adults stems in part from the disadvantages of virtual learning. Kids are missing out on normal socialization that comes with interacting with classmates and teachers in person, he said, and replacing it with negative messages on social media platforms and in other media.
“People come out into the community and act out what they have seen — whether it’s through social media, unpleasant conversations over the airways,” he said. “A child left to his own brings destruction. You can’t leave a child to his own.”
“We have to engage our youths in conflict resolution and violence prevention on a consistent basis,” Willis added.
During a prayer vigil on Wednesday for 18-year-old Vinshaun Johnson, who was shot and left to die in Richmond’s North Side on April 7, Willis lamented how busy the recent killings have kept him.
“Since Easter Resurrection Sunday, I’ve been to 12 families, I’ve had to visit eight of them that have dealt with homicides in one day,” Willis told a crowd of more than 150 mourners, many of them young people, at Forest Hill Park.
“Somebody please put me out of the prayer vigil business,” Willis pleaded. “I don’t want to do another prayer vigil.”
Colette McEachin, Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney, said she recently spoke with a program director at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center who relayed the concerns of young inmates at the facility.
“They were horrified at what was happening in their communities,” said McEachin, adding that these are young people, up to age 20, who are incarcerated for shootings or other violent offenses.
“It used to be us,” some of the older boys told the program director at Bon Air, McEachin said. “Now, it’s our little brothers.”
Similar to Willis, McEachin said school no longer serves as much of a distraction, or deterrence, as it was when students were attending in-person.
When students acted out or stopped attending classes regularly, educators and sometimes law enforcement could intercede as trouble loomed, but the new virtual landscape makes that intervention harder, McEachin said. Couple that with the prevalence of guns and the normalization of gun violence, and a lack of conflict resolution techniques, and the result is often deadly, she said.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Learned Barry, who heads most of the city’s homicide prosecutions, said petty arguments have turned into death investigations because the parties involved couldn’t, or didn’t know how to, resolve the issue without resorting to a gun.
“It’s a momentary beef, and they both have guns because they all have guns,” Barry said.
He said arguments account for about a quarter of homicide motives. Robberies are the largest motive in most killings, Barry added.
The Richmond Police Department has reported only 16 homicides so far this year, with another eight slayings listed as death investigations. In many of those death investigations, Barry said there was a gun pulled by both sides, so it takes police and prosecutors a while to sort out if the killing was self-defense or justified. Police are not required to count justified homicides or death investigations among the homicide count they report.
All but four of the 24 slayings so far this year have been committed with a gun — and in two cases, the cause of death is still pending.
“My heart just sinks every time that I get a report from the chief of police, particularly when it involves our young adults, those in their teenage years,” Mayor Levar Stoney said Tuesday during his weekly Zoom briefing. “It robs them and their families of their dreams, it robs families of their loved ones, and it robs our community of residents who have a lot of life to live. Richmond has struggled for decades with the epidemic of gun violence.”
Stoney said he is working with Virginia Commonwealth University to roll out a gun violence prevention program. But advocates from RISC — Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities — have criticized Stoney for taking too long to address the problem.
RISC represents a group of 22 congregations from Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties that have been advocating for gun violence prevention and housing assistance programs since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s not Richmond, Virginia,” McEachin said. “It’s what made the United States the United States is gun violence. There is no quick fix.”
When everyone you know has a gun, she said, that implies it’s OK to use one. It’s up to the community to stand up and say it’s not OK, she said.
McEachin and Barry also pointed out that these shootings and killings are happening all over the city, not just in areas known for high rates of crime.
The eight killings since Easter have spanned neighborhoods from Carver, North Side and Church Hill to south of the James River in Bellemeade and Swansboro; one was in Gilpin Court, one of the six public housing neighborhoods.
“Every day, someone is shot,” McEachin said.
“And at least once a week, someone dies,” Barry added.
“That can’t become normalized,” McEachin said.
In 2019 and 2020, 290 people total each year were shot in the city, according to data from Richmond police. So far this year, 75 people have been shot — a 36% increase over this time last year.
On Friday, Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith announced a slew of arrests: Four people were charged in three separate homicides, and nine people were charged in eight different shooting incidents.
“Holding the person responsible for those incidents is part of it,” Smith said at a news conference on Friday. “The biggest reward that we get, especially for the detectives, is to be able to tell the families this is what happened to your loved one. Hopefully, that helps them move a little further toward healing.”
Smith said he has “some ideas in the pipe” about how the department can better connect with young people, who are increasingly falling victim to gun violence in the city. He didn’t elaborate on the initiatives during Friday’s news conference, saying he’d reveal them soon.
“We need to find ways to connect with our youth,” Smith said. “Over a year, our youth have been stuck in the house. They’ve been away from their extended families, their friends, their schoolmates, their teachers, their role models, their mentors, their coaches. They’re just restless.”
At Wednesday’s vigil for Vinshaun Johnson at Forest Hill Park, his loved ones remembered a young man who liked new shoes and nice clothes, enjoyed spending money on nieces and nephews, and who definitely liked to have fun.
He was remembered as a family protector who also liked to tell jokes and “loved to pick with people.”
“He would just make me laugh when I was trying to teach,” recalled Sha’Cora Allen, who taught Johnson when he attended George Wythe High School. “He broke me into my first year of teaching.”
Quantrice Fields, one of Johnson’s sisters, said she is going to miss her brother asking her to cook spaghetti for him and always cleaning her house.
“He was a neat freak,” said Fields, drawing laughter from a quiet crowd. “Ever since he was little, he just cleaned, cleaned, cleaned.”
She said she’ll miss him playing Fortnite, an online video game, late into the night. She’d have to tell him to turn the TV down and be quiet.
“It’s been rough. The first night we left the game on, just waiting for him to come home,” Fields said. “I didn’t even sleep. I just knew he was coming. But he didn’t. And that’s when reality set in that he wasn’t coming back.”
“We’re just going to miss him yelling and being so loud,” she said. “It’s just too quiet.”
Fields said her brother had finally been getting his life on track.
“We all know where he came from, how he grew up and all of that, but he was really getting his life together,” she said. “He would have been the first boy to graduate high school. He was going to be so proud.”
“Our family’s really broken,” Fields said. “We’re just trying to be strong for each other.”
Johnson was shot about 4:30 a.m. on April 7 on Montvale Avenue just north of East Brookland Park Boulevard. He was pronounced dead on the scene. The police said a second victim, whom they described as “a juvenile male in his late teens,” also was shot but was expected to survive.
At Wednesday’s vigil, Tiffany Harris took the microphone, in tears, and told Johnson’s family that her son is devastated by the death but couldn’t attend the vigil because he was wounded in another shooting in March and can’t walk.
After the vigil, Harris said her 18-year-old son, Dumonta Harris, a close friend of Johnson’s, was recovering from a midday shooting on Roanoke Street on March 12 that broke his femur and required three blood transfusions. Harris said that it was the second time her son had been shot in less than a year, and that she had been with him on both occasions and had narrowly escaped injury.
“Some boys came up behind us and shot like 30 times,” she said of the March 12 incident. “The violence in Richmond is off the chain.”
Editor’s note: A program director at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center shared with Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin some of the concerns young inmates at the facility have about recent shootings of young people in Richmond. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that McEachin had spoken directly to the inmates.