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Originally published February 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 6, 2009 at 4:40 PM

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In the flash of a bullet, a young man goes blind

Donnie Cheatham, a once-promising high-school basketball star, survived a bullet to the temple but lost his right eye and the vision in his left when he was shot outside Garfield Community Center last December. With little to go on, police hesitate to call the shooting gang-related.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About this series:

The Seattle Times is taking a closer look at the culture of youth violence — the perpetrators, the victims and the people trying to stop the cycle. We invite readers to share their experiences, suggest stories and ask questions.

How to help

A fund has been established to help Donnie Cheatham's family raise enough money to have him fitted with a prosthetic eye, get vocational training and therapeutic counseling, and to purchase a computer program that would allow him to hear what he once could read on screen. Donations may be made at any Washington Mutual branch. The account name is the "Donnie Cheatham Benevolent Fund," and the account number is 492-494-889-1.

Listen to an interview with Donnie Cheatham

Donnie Cheatham sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, squints into the darkness and hopes wildly that he'll be able to see.

But he can't.

The loss and despair that he pushes down during the day — when family and friends are there to distract him — can then flood up and keep him awake for the rest of the night.

The former Franklin High School basketball standout tries to stay positive. He tries not to feel sorry for himself, tries not to ask, "Why me?"

But the 21-year-old who was blinded after a Dec. 16 shooting in the Central Area is used to freedom and self-sufficiency. Now he's facing dependence on others for the rest of his life.

He spends much of his time wrapped in a blanket and curled up on the sofa at his grandmother's Central Area home, where he was raised.

"I try to stay happy, but it's hard," said Cheatham, hanging his head and rubbing the fingertip-sized scars on either side of his face where a bullet passed through his head.

Cheatham was among a slew of men and boys — most of them black or of mixed race, and most with alleged gang ties — who were wounded or killed in gun violence in Seattle in 2008. In the majority of the cases, including Cheatham's, no arrests have been made, although authorities say it's likely the assailants were as young as their victims.

Police hesitate to call Cheatham's shooting a gang shooting because of the ambiguities that often blur the line between gang activity and other confrontations. But many law-enforcement officials and gang experts say that he was likely a victim of an increasingly violent rivalry between gang members in the Central Area and those in the South End.

The investigations have been hampered, police say, by a pervasive code of silence adhered to by both victims and suspects.

When asked whether he thinks the shooting was gang-related, Cheatham hangs his head, turns away and shrugs his shoulders.

"I don't know," he mumbles.

"It has nothing to do with that," he says. "It could have been anybody. It was just me walking by at that time."

Cheatham's older brother, who wants to be identified as "J," says the claims that Cheatham's shooting may have some gang connection are "just ignorance."

It's easier for people to just "blame the other side than try to understand," said the 29-year-old.

Cheatham said he was walking alone across Garfield Playfield on Dec. 16 around 7 p.m. on his way to watch a friend play hoops.

Basketball has always been important to Cheatham, who learned to dribble a ball almost before he could walk, said his great-aunt Joan Williams.

As a senior at Franklin High School, he helped lead the Quakers to a state title, and he had hoped to take his skills to the college level.

But Cheatham never got to see his friend play that night.

Instead, he recalls, "some kids" walked by and opened fire.

"I was just walking. I was by myself. I heard gunshots and I ran."

At one point he turned his head to look back and was struck by a single bullet.

He remembers thinking, "I gotta get help" and running into the Garfield Community Center.

"I didn't collapse," said Cheatham. "I was up. I was talking to people. I could still see out of my left eye when they put me in the ambulance."

When he awoke, he was in the hospital. He felt lucky to be alive, he said.

He knew there was a patch over his right eye, but he didn't know that the bullet that entered his left cheekbone at a slight upward angle had destroyed his right eye and damaged the tissue and nerves at the back of his left eye.

The right eye was removed by surgeons.

Doctors have told Cheatham and his family that he might regain some sight in his remaining eye as his wounds heal and the swelling goes down. But that hasn't happened so far.

"They are hoping that it will heal and he will able to see," said his maternal grandmother, Betty Gooding. "But there was so much trauma to the eye, they just don't know."

Cheatham and his brother were raised by Gooding, a devout Catholic who worked for years at Seattle Municipal Court. She took her grandchildren to church and enrolled them in private Christian schools.

Their fathers were not around, and their mother struggled to cope, J said.

"Our mom did the best she could and we love her, but basically Grandma had to be the mom, the dad, the confidante, the best friend, the person we knew we could turn to," said J. "Because of the situation with our parents, there were questions that might not ever be answered and wounds that might not never be healed."

Still, J said, their family was "blessed with a lot of love."

Even as a young child, Cheatham had a lot of natural athletic ability, his family says. "He was barely toddling and he was dribbling that ball, outside, inside, anywhere he could," said Williams, his great-aunt.

He also was a smooth tap-dancer, an accomplished golfer and so "intelligent scholastically" he was bused to a local high school to take classes with high-school sophomores while he was still in eighth grade, according to another great-aunt, Carol Connor.

He attended O'Dea High School before transferring to Franklin High, where he joined the varsity basketball team as a junior and helped lead the Quakers to the Class 4A state championship in his senior year.

Winning that title and playing on a team of Washington state all-stars against an Oregon team in 2006 remain among the highlights of his life.

"I earned that myself," he said.

Cheatham won a partial scholarship the following year to Green River Community College, where coach Tim Malroy said the team was thrilled to have a player of his ability.

"Donnie on the court was very tenacious," said Malroy. "He could often take on guys bigger and taller and go right through them. He was very strong-willed, he was very energetic — he'd go until he'd drop from being tired."

But the financial aid offered by the school was limited, Cheatham said, and he had to commute daily to Auburn.

"I had to wake up hecka early to drive out there," he said. "I kept telling the coach I need a dorm, but the dorms were full or something. And then my car broke down and it was just too hard to get there, so I stopped going."

His grandmother and other family members urged Cheatham to go back to school. Before the shooting he had planned to enroll in January at Seattle Central Community College.

In the year and a half since he left Green River, Cheatham spent a lot of time hanging out with his friends. He had brushes with the law but no criminal convictions.

Like many of his friends, he claimed allegiance on his MySpace page to a gang with ties to the Central Area.

But it's hard to know exactly what that means.

Cheatham said it doesn't mean anything; his friends are his friends, and gangs have nothing to do with what happened to him.

He hangs his head and covers his eyes for a long moment when asked if he knows who shot him.

"I didn't know them," he finally says. "I didn't provoke them. There was no altercation and no words exchanged."

A source with ties to a melded Central Area group called the Hunnerds said that Cheatham may have been shot in retaliation for the Nov. 23 slaying of Nate Thomas, a member of the South End's 74 Hoover Criminals. Thomas reportedly had been killed by the East Union Street Hustlers and the Deuce 8s — subgroups of the Hunnerds — as payback for the shooting of Lil' Quincy Coleman.

A picture of Coleman, a well-loved 15-year-old who was shot behind Garfield High School on Oct. 31, is on display in Cheatham's house.

As in Cheatham's case, there have been no arrests made in connection with the slayings of Thomas or Coleman.

Cheatham's family is trying to raise enough money to have him fitted with a prosthetic eye and get vocational training and therapeutic counseling. They'd also like to purchase a computer program that would allow him to hear what he once could read on screen.

A fund has been set up at Washington Mutual for donations.

While family members say they are praying that time will restore some of the sight in his left eye, they are trying to prepare him for the possibility that he may never see again.

His mother, Lia Gooding Hunter, wants him to become an inspirational speaker so he can talk about what happened to him and the huge cost he paid, so that other families don't have to go through the same thing.

His brother has committed himself to being the kind of father that he didn't have.

"What happened to Donnie is hard to swallow. There's no other way to say it, and I'm pretty sure that if certain things had been different, there would probably have been a different outcome," said J.

"We definitely had a chip on our shoulder, but the way I look at it now, all I can do is try to be here for Donnie and try to be a good father to my son."

Things could have been worse, J tells his brother. "And they still have the opportunity to get a whole lot better."

Cheatham isn't making plans for the future. He's still trying to understand what happened and come to terms with his loss.

It's been only a little more than a month since he was shot, and most of his dreams haven't changed.

"I want to go to school, go to a university and walk-on ... and make the basketball team ... and to prove everybody wrong."

"I want to be able to see again."

Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Young and Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or seattletimes.com">cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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