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Friday, August 17, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.
Gun violence shatters circle of young Seattle friends
By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter
Deitrick Johnson met Desmond Jackson on the school bus in fifth grade.
Once, they hid their most-prized Pokémon cards in their socks when they sensed their elementary-school contraband was about to be confiscated. Soon after, Johnson moved to another school and the two lost touch.
Years later, when he started working at the Northgate Target, Johnson introduced himself to co-worker Sherry Soth, a "cool-looking Asian girl" sporting Air Jordans. The teens became fast friends.
When Johnson accompanied Soth to her senior prom at Ingraham High School, they bumped into Jackson. The trio, along with other friends, began hanging out together most weekends.
That ended on Feb. 12 when Jackson, 22, was gunned down outside a Sodo nightclub. Soth, 21, was fatally shot as she was leaving a South Seattle house party July 1.
Their killings are among 22 in the city so far this year, two more than in all of 2011. They are also among Seattle's roughly 60 unsolved homicides since 2000.
Beyond the numbers, Jackson and Soth's homicides serve as a reminder that many young people in Seattle are hardly strangers to death and tragedy.
In a city of transplants, where nearly two-thirds of this year's homicide victims moved here from another state, the deaths of Seattle natives Jackson and Soth have reverberated through concentric circles of their peers.
For 20-somethings like Johnson, who mix and mingle through school, sports, parties and the nightclub scene, Seattle is more small town than big city, where six degrees of separation connect many of those who've grown up here.
"This was their city," Johnson said of Jackson, who was black, and Soth, the daughter of Cambodian immigrants. "I've never experienced a heartbreak like this before. We lost two amazing people."
"It's such a small community. As big as Seattle might seem, it gets crazy real fast how many people know each other," said Dagim Haile-Leul, 24, whose cousin, Yonas Seifu, was critically injured by a random bullet fired through a window at a Lake City party in 2006. "There are inner circles, outer circles, peripheral circles. People seem to know each other one way or another."
Johnson wants to make sure his friends' deaths aren't in vain. He postponed a move to L.A. in July and has focused on sharing Jackson and Soth's stories in hopes of preventing more killings.
He was recently invited to help organizers of two events on Saturday to honor Jackson and Soth and raise awareness about gun violence.
The first is Hoops for Hope, a charity basketball tournament; the other is a fundraiser at Urbane Restaurant & Bar, located inside the Hyatt at Olive 8 hotel.
The restaurant, where Soth worked as a server before her death, will be donating 10 percent of its sales that night to Soth's family.
Haile-Leul, who helped co-found Hoops for Hope after his cousin was shot, also knew Jackson — whom he described as a quiet and humble "peacemaker."
Johnson, who is black, notes that victims of homicide in Seattle this year came from various racial groups — white, black, Asian and Native American. Most were in their 30s, 40s or 50s.
"We're all being affected — it's not just young black kids," Johnson said.
He points to the May shooting death of Justin Ferrari in the Central Area and the five people gunned down by Cafe Racer shooter Ian Stawicki a few days later.
Though Ferrari's alleged shooter is black, Ferrari, Stawicki and the Cafe Racer victims were all white. Still, 40 percent of those killed this year were black men. Blacks make up 7.9 percent of the city's population.
Johnson says there's an unspoken uneasiness when he encounters another young black man he doesn't know.
"There's always tension between us. I think we've been conditioned to feel we have to be tough when all we're asking for is pride and respect," he said.
To defuse that tension, Johnson said he addresses other black men — regardless of their age — as "sir." It's a way to show respect and prove he's not looking to be a tough guy.
"I don't feel safe on a daily basis. I always know there's a possibility I could get hurt or die and it could be somebody who looks just like me" who inflicts those injuries, Johnson said.
Johnson, Soth and two other friends had gone to the South Seattle house party after Soth got off work. Johnson became separated from Soth when multiple shooters opened fire. When the shooting stopped, Johnson discovered her bleeding in the driveway, applying pressure to her own wound as a stranger held her other hand.
"We had been at parties before that had been shot up," said Johnson. Right before the shooting started, "I turned to her and she said, 'Deitrick, I'm scared.' I reached out to grab her but the bullets were just flying everywhere. I couldn't find her and I thought she'd run to the backyard."
A different path
Gun violence has touched Johnson's life before. Born in Seattle, Johnson said his parents briefly moved the family to California to be closer to Johnson's paternal grandfather.
But they returned to Seattle, his mother's hometown, after his grandfather was fatally shot trying to break up a fight when Johnson was 4. He's also lost uncles and cousins to gunfire.
He credits his parents — who both grew up involved with and surrounded by gangs — for carving another path for him and his six younger siblings.
"My parents made it so we wouldn't have to go through that but I've had tragedy in my life. All my life, I've been affected by this," said Johnson, who frequents parties and is involved in the "clubbing scene," but has never been involved with a gang or gotten in trouble with the law. Same with Jackson and Soth; neither had so much as a speeding ticket on their records.
Three other friends — whom Johnson met through Soth — were fatally shot in 2010, while another mutual friend died in an apartment fire along with five young children that year.
"It's just crazy. It's the whole six degrees of separation thing," he said.
In January 2010, roommates Franklin Wood, 18, and Andis Peterson, 20 — who had both attended middle school with Soth — were fatally shot after three masked gunmen forced their way into the men's Northgate town house. Their killers haven't been caught.
That June, Eyerusalem Gebregiorgis, 22, perished along with her nieces and nephews in a fire in Fremont. Her 13-year-old nephew was good friends with Johnson's younger siblings.
Then on Sept. 17 of that year, another friend, 18-year-old Johnathan "Johnny" Chhonn, was asleep when someone knocked on the window of his ground-floor Mount Baker apartment. When Chhonn sat up in bed, several suspects fired into his room, killing him. His killers remain at large.
Police at the time were investigating the possibility that Chhonn's death was connected to a July 2010 shootout in Lake Sammamish State Park, in which two men were killed.
According to Johnson, Chhonn wasn't involved in a gang but had relatives who were. He speculated that Chhonn was targeted after posting comments about the Lake Sammamish shootings on Facebook.
"You have to be accountable"
"All these deaths and murders and I'm somehow connected to these kids, " he said. "Every murder that goes unsolved makes people feel like it's OK, that they can get away with murder. ... You have to be responsible for what you did, you have to be accountable for what you did. I'd love to see them turn themselves in."
After Jackson was killed in February, Johnson said it took two months before he could bring himself to visit his friend's grave. The two were often mistaken for twins and called each other "brother."
Now, when he's feeling down, he goes to the cemetery, sometimes leaving notes expressing love and gratitude for his friend.
Though Johnson and Soth were never romantically involved, they spoke or saw each other just about every day.
"It was unconditional, strictly platonic. I've never had a best friend like this before. It was a big deal," he said of Soth.
Last summer, when he turned 22, Soth threw Johnson a surprise pool party and all their friends, including Jackson, were there.
When Johnson turned 23 last month, he said it was the loneliest birthday he's ever had. He's shed 13 pounds from his already-thin frame and has had trouble sleeping through the night. He said he's matured a lot in the past six months.
"I could go all the way down, but I know what the bottom looks like," said Johnson, who is trying to get counseling but can't afford it. "I could go one of two ways but I've got to thrive, I can't just survive. I have to do this for Sherry."
He's still trying to figure out how to go about convincing the city's young people that going to school and reading books is far cooler than joining a gang or carrying a gun. But he feels it is his responsibility to do something about the violence that continues to leave its mark on his generation of Seattleites.
"I have no choice. I can't run from this," Johnson said. "I have to live up to my word: I promised Sherry's mom that things would change."
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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