A New Haven teen dreamed of dancing and died without reason
At around 8:30 p.m. on the evening of July 16, 2017, 14-year-old Tyrick Keyes walked up the porch steps of his house on Read Street, opened the front door and went inside. He had been out playing basketball for most of the day, but now that it was getting late, he was hungry. His mom, Demethra Telford, liked him to check in. He found her in the kitchen.
“Mommy, what’d you cook?” he asked. The night before, dinner had been a rare treat — baked macaroni and cheese, not the store-bought kind.
That night was hamburger and rice.
“Aww, you know I don’t eat that!” Tyrick said.
“Okay, Tyrick. If you don’t want it, then you aren’t hungry,” said his mom. She waited for a response, but he wasn’t looking at her. She saw the expression on his face and thought, “Something’s wrong.”
Tyrick ran upstairs. Demethra assumed that he was looking for his brother. Whenever something was bothering Tyrick, something he did not want his mom to worry about, he would talk to his brother Silas, who was three years older. She might have followed him, but her left knee was clamping up more and more these days, and moving wasn’t so easy.
Then he was back downstairs. He walked over to stand by the front door, looking out.
“Ty,” Demethra said. He didn’t turn around.
“Ty,” she said again. He never ignored her like this.
At around 8:50 p.m., he walked straight out the door without looking back.
Tyrick was born at Yale New Haven Hospital on Feb. 6, 2003, and he lived his whole life within the city’s 20 square miles. Still, he never lived in the same place for more than two years, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood as his mom tried to find less-dilapidated subsidized housing. Wherever he lived, the routine was more or less the same. He skateboarded, played pickup football and basketball with kids who lived nearby, and played video games when his mom would let him. He made friends easily and did well in school. He also knew he had to watch his back.
“I always tell my kids, ‘When you see someone driving slow with tinted windows, you run, because you don’t know what they’re going to do,’” Demethra told me. We were sitting in the front parlor of her new home in Beaver Hills, an 8-minute drive from her previous home in Newhallville.
Demethra didn’t spare any caution because she knew what could happen in New Haven. In 2017, the city had 61 shootings and 7 homicides. With crime rates lower than bigger cities like Baltimore and Chicago, its high incidence of gun violence is often overshadowed in the national media. Still, as a relatively small and less populated urban center, the Elm City has been counted among the 25 most dangerous cities in America several times in the last few decades, based on data released in the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report.
Not all city inhabitants face the same level of risk. A Yale study published in January found that black residents of New Haven are nearly 6 times more likely to be the victims of gun violence than white residents, and the vast majority of black victims are between the ages of 10 and 25. Gun violence kills an average of 3 children in America every day — over 1,000 per year — nearly 50 percent of whom are black. Every year, children from New Haven are represented in that statistic.
In 2014, 17-year-old Taijhon Washington was shot and killed by an 18-year-old just a quarter mile from Demethra’s home on Read Street. The day after attending Taijohn’s funeral, 16-year-old Torrence Gamble was shot in the head by another teenager who was a member of a local gang. Jacob Craggett, a 15-year-old star football player at Hillhouse High School — which Tyrick eagerly anticipated attending — was murdered in a shooting in August of the same year. In 2015, 16-year-old Jericho Scott was shot in the Fair Haven neighborhood, and more than two years later, the police still have not arrested anyone for his murder.
Tyrick dreamed of getting away from the neighborhoods where he grew up, where friends of friends had been shot and killed. He had given it thought, and he planned to make it out by becoming a professional dancer.
“His thing from when he was a very little boy was ‘Mommy, when I grow up I’m going to be successful. I’m going to help people. I’m going to make it out the ’hood, and I’m getting you out the ’hood with a white picket fence, and I’m going to have all these children,’” Demethra said, smiling at the memory.
Tyrick walked into the New Haven anti-violence arts program Ice the Beef at age 12, determined to learn the moves that would catapult him to dance stardom. He had already been practicing, but, according to his friend Tyshade, his moves weren’t “fluid.”
“It wasn’t, like, that bad,” Tyshade said. But Tyshade knew that Tyrick could work on his hip-hop skills at Ice the Beef, so he convinced his friend to come with him to a vacant building in Goffe Street Park one day after school.
Goffe Street Park is in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood, less than a mile from Yale University’s campus. Empty liquor bottles and banana peels are strewn on the grass. Black graffiti is sprayed across the building’s brick exterior. It reads, “I ♥ ♫”and “Kiss butt.”
From 3 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, a synthesizer beat blasts from the building where Tyshade and 30 other kids from New Haven meet for Ice the Beef rehearsal. Ice the Beef kids range in age from fifth grade to sophomores in college, and they differ in specialty too — some are rappers, some are actors and some come because they want to dance, as Tyrick did. The program aims to get kids excited about the performing arts and, at the same time, to keep them off the streets and out of trouble.
I visited the building on a Wednesday afternoon in October. I waited until the president of Ice the Beef, Chaz Carmon, had finished giving an arriving group of teenage boys fist bumps before I introduced myself. Chaz, 40, is a New Haven native and was, he said, “a big drug trafficker back in the day.” That was before he found God, turned his life around and realized his purpose working with at-risk youth.
Chaz took over Ice the Beef from its founder, Darryl Allick, a New Haven native who was also involved in drug trafficking before his brother was killed in a street shooting in 2011. Darryl started the organization that same year. In its early days, Ice the Beef provided services to help grieving families and offered assistance in paying for burials. But when Darryl asked Chaz to come on board, Chaz had a different idea for what the mission should be.
“He said, ‘Do you want to be president?’” Chaz recalled. “And I said, ‘OK, I’ll be president if we go out of bereavement and go into youth services. Why are we catching them after they die? Let’s do something before they die.’”
On this fall afternoon, a soft-spoken boy named Monty stood outside the building and practiced his emcee introduction for one of the group’s upcoming shows. Inside, there was one main room — a wide-open space with yellowish walls and a linoleum floor. Three girls danced in the middle, thrusting and locking in synchronized moves to a blaring hip-hop track. Two boys stood in the corner, engrossed in a freestyle rap battle. Other kids sat on the floor, taking a break from the action and watching the performances in front of them.
“It’s a walk-in program,” Chaz told me. “So you can also just come in off the street and hang out. You don’t have to have great grades. If you say cuss words, we’re not going to be mad at you, whereas at other programs” — he jerks his thumb over his shoulder — “kicked out. We really try hard not to kick you out of this program.”
Almost all of the kids who go to Ice the Beef are in New Haven’s Youth Stat program, a city initiative that provides academic support, counseling and basic needs to New Haven public school students who are at risk of dropping out. Students recruited for the Youth Stat program are often homeless, have family conflict or are under threat from a local gang. Several Ice the Beef kids were expelled from school, some more than once, before they started coming to the group. At Ice the Beef, they learn not only how to rap but also “the 5 Rs”: rules, responsibility, respect, resolve and results. Lastly, participants work on the anger management skills that give the program its name.
“If you have beef with somebody, it’s like you have a problem with somebody,” Chaz said. “It’s not like we get in a fight and then it’s over. Beef is [when you’ve] got a problem for a while. Icing the beef is stopping the beef. So we try to teach them how to calm down. That’s the key. If you shoot somebody, you’re angry. If you get in a fight, you’re angry. If we teach you how to calm down, that’ll solve half the problems.”
Tyrick hardly needed the anger management lessons, though. He was, Chaz said, the “nicest kid,” always smiling and never needing to be told the same thing twice. He came to the program to learn how to dance, and he did that quickly.
“He started coming to me with new moves, and I’m like, ‘Ay, bro, that’s weavy!’” Tyshade said, laughing. “And then he told me a few moves too.”
Tyshade and Tyrick both watched the famous Les Twins on YouTube — “the best dancers in the world,” if you ask Tyshade — and eventually choreographed and performed a few shows to their music at YMCAs around New Haven. When they weren’t dancing together, the boys would play basketball and football in Goffe Street Park. They had never gone to the same school before, but they were both about to enroll at Hillhouse High School.
“He was so excited,” Tyshade remembered. “He was like, ‘Bro, we’re going to be going to Hillhouse! We’re going to be walking to class together!’”
When he learned that Tyrick had been shot, Chaz canceled the arts program. He couldn’t hold himself together. Still, every kid showed up the next afternoon.
“We cried into each other’s shoulders. The therapist was in here,” Chaz said, shaking his head. “You hear this from leaders in the community, you hear this from the school, you hear this from everybody, but it doesn’t really hit home till it hits home. And then it’s like, ‘Crap, that really f—ing happened.’”
Newhallville, the New Haven neighborhood where Tyrick’s family was living in the summer of 2017, has over twice the citywide average of violent crime. Demethra never wanted to live there, but her dependence on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8, left her with few options besides the Newhallville house on Read Street. Her previous house needed repairs, and the landlord wouldn’t take care of them. Forced to choose between a house that was falling apart and a neighborhood she disliked, Demethra saw no alternative.
“They told me I would lose my Section 8 if I didn’t take it. I didn’t want to move to Read Street at all, but they left me no choice,” she said. “I went to them and I begged them, ‘Please Section 8, let me out.’ I said to them, ‘What is it going to take, me or my children to get killed?’”
Despite several phone calls, messages and a weekday visit to the New Haven Housing Authority, the occupancy specialist who handled Demethra’s case could not be reached for comment.
The house on Read Street where Demethra moved in 2016 is narrow and white. It sits on a row of similar three-story, tired-looking Victorian homes. Many homes in Newhallville, like this one, are set off from the street with barbed wire fences. Some have small porches where residents may sit and look out at the street at all hours of a summer day. Most have bars on their windows. Teenagers race their bikes down the middle of the road, and women pushing strollers squabble outside the corner store. As of 2016, the neighborhood was 86 percent black and 21 percent unemployed.
Just a week before Tyrick was shot, Demethra heard gunshots fired so nearby that she had to duck inside. She called the landlord and told him she needed to move and that she didn’t care that her lease was not up. “He told me to wear a bulletproof vest,” she recalled.
When Tyrick left his house on his bike around 8:50 p.m. the night of July 16, Demethra knew she couldn’t catch him. Instead, she turned to her 4-year-old granddaughter Skyler.
“Go catch Uncle Ty!” she said.
“He’s gone!” Skyler said.
From Read Street, it’s only a minute by bike to the corner of Bassett and Newhall streets. Demethra had barely gotten upstairs to look for her knee medication before Jasmine, a friend in the neighborhood, came running to the house to tell her that her son had been shot on that corner. Then she did what any mother would do, knee injury or not — she ran.
When she got to the scene, there were close to 15 people around. One of them, a woman named Missy, had called 911 when she heard gunshots and saw a boy fall. Tyrick was struggling to get up, but Missy tried to urge him to stay down. When Demethra arrived, she saw nobody else. Her attention was only on her child lying next to a barbed wire fence, his blood staining the sidewalk. The police showed up next, and they blocked off the area around Tyrick with tape.
“I was yelling to the police officer because they wouldn’t let me by my son, and I said, ‘Where is the f—ing ambulance? My son’s laying here!’” Demethra said.
At 9:36 p.m., an ambulance arrived on the scene and loaded Tyrick into the back on a stretcher. Demethra was not allowed to ride in the ambulance. Her husband, Tyrick’s stepfather, drove her to the hospital, beating the ambulance there.
On a Tuesday morning in October, Demethra and I sat on folding chairs in her front parlor, talking. We were surrounded by framed pictures of Tyrick on shelves, on the coffee table, on every wall. In the corner hung a long pop-art tapestry with his face painted in the center. Next to it, a pair of brand new Air Jordan sneakers sat on display in a glass case.
Demethra’s 17-year-old son Silas stood by the front door, backpack over his shoulders, watching the street intently as he waited for the bus. He made no movement when his mother paused our conversation to weep and collect herself. When the bus pulled up to the front of the house, Demethra stopped talking and went to the door to watch her son walk through their small yard and climb in. Then she picked up her phone to call the school and tell the office that Silas had left, to make sure they were expecting him to arrive.
“I worry a lot. Tyrick knew I worry a lot,” she said. “He’d always walk children home, and I’d be like, … ‘Who’s gonna walk you home, Ty?’ He’d be like, ‘Mommy, I’m okay. Nothing’s going to happen to me.’ I said ‘Baby, you got to be careful.’ But he’d still do it.”
It didn’t matter who it was or what help they needed — Tyrick lived to make himself useful. He raked his neighbors’ yards without pay. He carried moving boxes for Chaz, the president of Ice the Beef. When he walked by the Little Red Hen community garden near his home in the West River neighborhood, 7-year-old Tyrick insisted on helping with the planting even though there was no free garden bed for him to till. Instead, Stacy Spell, a former police detective who had established the garden as a community-building initiative, gave Tyrick a five-gallon bucket. Over the course of several weeks, thanks to Tyrick’s diligent watering, a tomato plant and a pepper plant sprouted from that bucket. Even when Tyrick’s family moved out of the West River neighborhood, he still came back to the garden on Saturdays to eat strawberries and help with weeding.
“He was just one of those kids that was not only for the outside people but for his family,” Demethra said. Then she laughed and admitted that, when he wasn’t helping or doing chores, his silly side got the best of him.
“He was a goofball,” she said. “He gets it from me.”
On days when he was feeling like a rascal, Tyrick walked into his mom’s room without knocking. “I told you to knock on my door little boy!” she’d call out, trying to be stern. But she couldn’t help laughing at him as he shimmied and made funny faces in the reflection of her TV. When Silas joined, the boys would chase their mom through the house. “You know my leg’s messed up!” she protested. When they quickly caught her, she couldn’t get away from the tickle attack. “No, you’re just getting old!” they teased.
Dinner was also a time for jokes. Extended family would come over for special occasions, and, when Tyrick knew there would be more people at the table, he asked his mom to hide the hot sauce on a high shelf. That way, if only he and she knew where it was, he could make sure he got it first.
But at most meals, hot sauce was the furthest thing from his mind. Tyrick would occasionally bring his friends home and ask his mom if they could get something to eat because they were hungry, even when the family barely had enough for themselves.
One time he came home with another question. He asked his mom and stepfather how much jail time he would get for stealing a moped — something a few kids had tried to convince him to do.
“They tell me that I won’t get much time. I’ll just go to juvenile,” he said to his mom. When she pressed him to tell her who was putting him up to stealing, all he said was, “I’m not a snitch.”
“Are you planning on doing it?” Demethra asked.
“No, Mommy, I’m never gonna do that because you’re not going to get me out!” he said.
It was true that Demethra had assured her sons she would not bail them out if they were sent to prison, because they had to learn. She is proud to say that, although she has two older sons who have spent time behind bars, she raised her children the way she was raised: “the good way.”
“I was really hard on my kids,” she said. “I had a soft point too, but I was really hard. I was like this: ‘If you sell drugs, if you put your hands on a weapon, if you do anything bad, you’re out of my house. I will call the police, and you won’t come back here at all. And if you take anything, I’m still going to call the police.’ And my kids knew I was very serious.”
No matter how many times Demethra asked Tyrick who was trying to make him steal the moped, he refused to tell her because he thought she would call the police. She sat him down at the kitchen table and looked at him.
“Baby, you’ll get time,” she said. “Don’t believe what other people are telling you. You’ll get time.”
Unlike many of his peers, Tyrick never got in trouble with the law. The only time he came close was late last spring, a couple of months before he was shot.
Tyrick and Silas were leaving Goffe Street Park after Ice the Beef, around 5 p.m. Demethra was expecting the boys home shortly after, but they never arrived. Instead, she got a call from the police department saying that her sons had been arrested.
Demethra hung up the phone and walked with her nephew Elijah to the police car on Goodyear Street to pick up Silas and Tyrick, furious. She demanded to know why her sons had been stopped, and she said the police told her they had put the boys in the car because there had been a shooting in the area and Tyrick and Silas fit the description of the suspects.
“That don’t give you the right to stop them and chase them down and put out a dog on them,” Demethra said to me, fuming. “No it don’t.”
The New Haven Police Department does not release arrest records for minors and declined to comment.
When Demethra came to pick up her sons, she recalled, the officers apologized and told her they were good kids.
But after that day, Tyrick was scared. He didn’t trust the police — a lack of faith that had been ingrained in him as a young black boy growing up in New Haven. He heard it from his friends, from the older kids, even from adults in the community: “No snitching.” Sometimes, as in the cases of Taijohn Washington and Jericho Scott, whom the police said were targeted after reporting information on crimes, it costs you your life.
Stacy Spell, the retired detective who knew Tyrick through the Little Red Hen garden, sees distrust in community policing as a growing problem. Stacy — or “Big Stace,” as he prefers — is a neighborhood man, through and through. He ambles down the streets of New Haven’s West River neighborhood, his dreadlock ponytail swinging with every step, bellowing out a greeting to everyone he passes.
This, to Stacy, is the essence of community policing — officers engaging with citizens on- and off-duty.
“If you stand on a corner long enough, somebody’s going to come over and talk to you,” he said. “It don’t have to be about anything crucial. It’s in talking to them that you create those relationships.”
As a veteran of the system, it pains Stacy to see young officers miss opportunities to get to know their assigned neighborhood and make themselves easily approachable. If no one feels comfortable talking to the police, people who commit crimes get a free pass. It’s the absence of those officer–citizen relationships that creates distrust, and distrust, Stacy believes, is to blame for the fact that no person has been arrested for Tyrick’s murder.
“Make no mistake, someone saw something,” Stacy said, shaking a finger. “It hurts me that no one has come forward. It bothers me that you’re a father, you’re a mother, you’re an aunt, you’re somebody’s sister, and you saw this happen, and you’re not saying anything.”
After Tyrick arrived at Yale New Haven hospital on the night of July 16, Demethra spent the next four days by her son’s bedside, watching him suffer. She said the doctors told her that his heart had stopped twice at the scene of the crime, but he was still fighting.
On the fourth day, the fight was over. Demethra realized she had to pull the plug. But before she did, she made him a promise: She would not rest until she got justice for him.
Nearly seven months later, the New Haven Police Department’s detective unit is still pursuing an active investigation into Tyrick’s murder. The police say it appears that Tyrick was targeted. Witness reports say that the shooter was in a white vehicle, and some say the person was wearing a black face mask. No one has called in any suspects.
Demethra still gets in her car every day and drives across New Haven County to hang up flyers for the $50,000 reward that the governor has offered for information on her son’s murderer. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, she made him a plate of food and propped up his picture on the chair where he should have been sitting. She calls the police department every few days, and sometimes they pick up, but they don’t tell her much. Every night she sits among the belongings and photos of her son in the front parlor, wishes him goodnight and prays to God that the detectives get a written statement or a phone call from someone who knows what happened that night.
“Someone was there. Someone saw it,” she said. “They got to look at it as, what if it were their child?”
On her bookshelf, next to a framed picture of Tyrick at his eighth-grade graduation, is a photo of a patch of sidewalk next to a barbed wire fence.
“There’s his blood,” she said, pointing to a few brown splotches on the cement. “If they ever catch his killer, I want to bring these things up and show them what they did to my son.”
She gazed up at the photo of Tyrick in his graduation cap, smiling with his diploma in hand.
“I’m not going to let my son be another cold case, one they just put up on the shelf.”