Death, be not shrouded
A Valley Hi mother proposes a plan to shine a spotlight on murders of and by Sacramento’s youths
Another one came through the e-mail just this morning. “3 Teens Arrested In Fatal Stabbing.” A link to a local news story. And, alongside it, a note from Rhonda Erwin: “I pray we find solutions toward prevention. … When will we reach out in the spirit of love …”
The notes have been coming more frequently as of late. That’s both because the first six weeks of the year have been violent ones for Sacramento and because Erwin is getting impatient.
“Three shot, 1 dies,” reads the heading on another. And alongside it, Erwin wrote: “Sacramento continues to be a den of youth/young adult caskets.”
Erwin, a South Sacramento mother of three, sends these e-mails from a terminal in a computer lab at Cosumnes River College. She doesn’t have a computer of her own, so she comes here to write her letters—they’re pleas, really—which she e-mails to a list of 250-plus family members, news reporters, community activists, church officials and law-enforcement personnel. She e-mails them to anyone she thinks will, or should, listen.
She has one purpose in doing so: to force people to pay attention to the killings of and by Sacramento’s youths.
“It has always been my intention to save these young people’s lives,” Erwin said.
But figuring out how to do so has been a slow, four-year process of first trying to get others in her neighborhood to listen, then trying to enlist the help of community leaders and now imploring elected officials to pay attention. Next month, she will take her plea to the county board of supervisors, asking that they establish a team to review all youth-violence-related deaths and, thereby, direct money toward preventing them.
On a recent weekday, Erwin sat at a kitchen table in her sister’s south-area home, poring over newspaper clippings, meeting notices, municipal codes and photographs of slain teenagers that she has gathered. She’s lived here, with her sister, since fleeing her Valley Hi home out of fear for the safety of her two sons, ages 13 and 19, who live with her.
Erwin, 43, rattles off, with encyclopedic precision, the names and ages of Sacramentans who have died at the hands of youth violence. She knows the street intersections where they died, the month and year, and how nearby another murder may have occurred. Donald Willis, age 21. David Perkins, 22. Gregory Dockery, 24, found dead in a parking lot on Mack Road, and Jessie Rodgers, 22, killed within a block of there.
Erwin grew up in Sacramento, the daughter of a Department of Justice special agent and a social worker—her mother, who taught her that “if you want it done right, do it yourself,” Erwin said.
Ask Erwin, and she will say, repeatedly, that she is “just a mother.”
“I don’t have a degree. I don’t have a title. I’m just a mother,” she said on a recent weekday morning, flipping through newspaper clippings and photographs she’s collected of young Sacramentans who have been murdered. “Look at who I am. I’m nobody. If a person like me can have a voice, I feel that others like myself will feel empowered to have a voice.”
But there are many “just a mothers” out there who have not stopped working in order to devote themselves more fully to addressing youth violence, do not speak at three community meetings a week and do not lie awake at nights shedding tears for the city’s young and disadvantaged. These are things Erwin says she has done.
“She honestly feels she’s just a mother, but not to just her biological children,” said Erwin’s daughter, Sharonda Erwin, 21. “She’s a mother to all the children. … I believe I now share her with all of Sacramento youth.”
A personal story lies behind Erwin’s crusade. It stems, she says, from the 25 minutes she thought her oldest son was dead.
This was four years ago, when, walking home from Rio Cazadero High School in the Valley Hi neighborhood, Erwin’s then 15-year-old was robbed—a gun to his head—of his leather jacket, his cell phone and the $4 in his pocket. Erwin heard, through a neighbor, that something had happened to her son. So, she called his cell phone. An unfamiliar voice answered and said, “Your son is dead,” Erwin remembered. She called back and asked again to speak with her son. “He is dead,” the voice said, and then it hung up.
For nearly half an hour, Erwin said, she scoured the neighborhood, anticipating that she would find her son’s body.
It turned out her son had escaped and was safe at a neighbor’s house. But the experience—both with the possibility that her son could have died, and with the interaction with police, during which she said her son was treated like a suspect, not a victim—convinced her she had to take action.
“That’s when I decided that these children aren’t deemed victims,” Erwin said. “I said, ‘God, show me what to do.’ I started writing letters.”
She wrote to newspapers, city-council members and even to First Lady Laura Bush. Then, she began attending community meetings, asking church officials and other social-service workers to help. She enrolled at Cosumnes in order to take classes about human services, hoping to learn what she can do to make a bigger difference.
“When I started doing this, I realized the life I save could be my own child,” Erwin said.
About a year ago, she started to send out the e-mails, which, if nothing else, force their readers to at least acknowledge the volume of violence that occurs in Sacramento.
That’s the effect they’ve had on Howard Anderson, a state Department of Justice employee who said the e-mailed bulletins have opened his eyes to the city’s youth-violence problem.
“Until I started reading some of her notices about slain children, young adults and innocent victims, I didn’t even consider the subject as being very relevant or even important,” Anderson said. “She is correct. Law enforcement, prosecution and the courts do a real good job of picking up the bodies, catching the offenders and giving them their deserved punishments. … Now something has to be done on the front end to prevent needless deaths and needless lives lost to imprisonment.”
Erwin thinks she has a plan that will help. She is focused on convincing the county to establish a youth-focused death-review team. Three such groups already exist within county government—committees of social-service workers, prosecutors, law-enforcement officials and representatives of the coroner’s office who review deaths of infants, the elderly and domestic-violence victims in order to determine whether something can be done to prevent such deaths. Each team submits its findings to the board of supervisors, recommending new prevention and education efforts.
Erwin heard about the teams in a community-college class she took, and she latched on to the idea.
She said such a review body focused on youth violence would give her solace—just knowing that someone else was paying attention to the problem.
“I want to know that my 13-year-old won’t experience what my 19-year-old did,” Erwin said. “I would like to know that I can stop. That I can rest.”