One of the bodies was found not far from the house where Damario Solomon-Simmons grew up in north Tulsa, Okla. His elderly mother still lives there. He shudders when he thinks that it could have been her or another relative in the close-knit neighborhood that was the scene of a deadly shooting spree last week.
"I grew up where they found one of the bodies," Solomon-Simmons, an attorney who lives in Tulsa and also a black-studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, told The Root. "It's my neighborhood and my wife's neighborhood. It could have been my mother in the front yard or my in-law who walks around the neighborhood for exercise. My grandmother lives over there, too. To think that it could have been one of them is a scary thought. It's a shock to the conscience. The phone call could have been much different."
But the call he received from friends and relatives was about the three victims killed and two others injured during a shooting rampage in a predominantly black neighborhood on Friday, April 6. Two white men riding in a pickup truck shot and killed William Allen, 31; Bobby Clark, 54; and Dannaer Fields, 49. David Hall, 46, and Deon Tucker, 44, were injured in the shooting.
Police say the two men — Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 33 — drove around the north side of Tulsa randomly picking victims after reportedly asking them for directions, reports indicate.
They were arrested early Sunday just north of Tulsa and charged with three counts of murder and two counts of shooting with intent to kill. On Tuesday the Associated Press reported that the two men confessed. Each of them is being held on a $9.16 million bond.
Adding another layer of pain and confusion to the story, the wife of one of the victims told the Tulsa World on Wednesday that her husband knew England, who was known around the neighborhood. Jeanette Allen said that her husband, William, and England were acquaintances, often speaking at the apartment complex where England's father, Carl, was fatally shot in 2010.
While police have been careful not to describe the shooting as racially motivated, they have said that one motive may have been revenge for the death of England's father at the hands of an African-American man, according to the Washington Post. England reportedly wrote a Facebook post on April 5 noting that it was the second anniversary of Carl's death. He used a racial slur and lamented that "it's hard not to go off."
Civil rights and community leaders say that those comments, along with the fact that all of the shooting victims were black, make this a hate crime. Oklahoma's hate crime law applies in cases in which a defendant targets a victim specifically because of that person's race, religion, ancestry, natural origin or disability. As a result of weak penalties, however, it is usually used only in cases involving low-level misdemeanors when prosecutors want a longer sentence, the Washington Post reports.
"That horrific race-related shooting [in Tulsa] was responded to with a coordination of law enforcement; community officials, including elected officials; and the NAACP," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau and the organization's senior vice president for advocacy and policy. "The only question is whether it will be considered a hate crime. They are some of the most difficult crimes to solve, but it's something to be considered."
The shooting spree is a stark reminder of the Tulsa riots of 1921. "On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main," according to the Tulsa Historical Society website, which continues with this account:
The white elevator operator, Sarah Page, claimed that Rowland grabbed her arm, causing her to flee in panic. Accounts of the incident circulated among the city's white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered blacks began retreating to the Greenwood Avenue business district. In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and estimated reports of deaths began at 36.
Beyond that, Tulsa still has a complex racial history. Reuters reports that while black residents see the shootings as part of an overall pattern of racism that includes the city's resistance to affirmative action policies, racial profiling by the police and the suppression of a full accounting of the 1921 race riot, whites see it as an isolated incident.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Ala., reports that Tulsa is home to seven "hate groups," including two Ku Klux Klan groups, a black-separatist church, a black-separatist network, a neo-Confederate ministry, a white-nationalist organization and a neo-Nazi group.
Notwithstanding the grim racial overtones of the case, some members of the African-American community said that they were surprised that Jake England could be accused of such a heinous hate crime.
One of them is 54-year-old Demalda Newsome, who runs a nonprofit community farm in north Tulsa. Newsome recalls a serene and well-mannered child who was always eager to help when she met him and his father in 2008 after an ice storm that felled dozens of trees on her five-acre property. She hired Carl England, who ran a tree-cutting business, and his crew for three days to clear fallen hackberry, mulberry and sycamore trees. Jake tagged along for the experience. She says that he comes from a family of mixed heritage.
"Carl did a good job," Newsome told The Root. "He charged $500, but the job was worth much more than that. I tried to give him $100 more, but he wouldn't take it. Other people were charging outlandish amounts for the work because insurance companies were paying for the jobs, but not Carl. He was more concerned about taking care of his family after battling cancer twice.
"He told me that a doctor recently told him that it had returned after he fought it all," she continued. "He was worried. 'I have to take care of my children,' he told me. 'They really don't have anybody else.' Neither Carl or Jake seemed to be anything like the news reports that are coming out today. I just don't understand it."
She lost touch with Carl England after that, she said. But then she heard of his tragic death by word of mouth and through news reports. She often wondered what had become of his son, Jake, whom he had cared for so tenderly.
But since Sunday, all she's been asking is why, as she grieves for the lives that were senselessly taken and others who were wounded. "This is just baffling," she said. "I think there was an influence there. Jake just wasn't that kind of kid. It's senseless."
Lynette Holloway is the midwest bureau chief for The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.