On Hartford Streets, A Life Nearly Derailed By Bullets
By MIKE ANTHONY
September 25, 2010
He was left lying in a puddle of his own blood, unable to move the lower half of his body, his face pressed to the pavement of the Hartford streets he always knew could turn young men in one of two directions.
Navigating the pressures and risks of an inner-city upbringing can be, literally and figuratively, a life of dodging gunfire, and Aswad Thomas had done that until Aug. 24, 2009, a night that closed with him fading in and out consciousness, in sheer panic, trying to pull himself across a sidewalk on Albany Avenue, trying to live.
A pistol fired from close range had sent two bullets ripping into his back, through both lungs and his spine. In an instant, Thomas was numb, paralyzed physically from the waist down and paralyzed emotionally, terrified to realize he had become the victim of the type of crime that had, in various ways, affected his life for years. He kept passing out.
He awoke to fear his assailants might still be nearby.
He awoke and reached up for the door of a convenience store.
He awoke to see a trembling clerk.
He awoke as he was loaded into an ambulance.
He awoke while being rushed to St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.
He awoke with tubes puncturing his body.
The life Thomas, then 26, had crafted into something more than a simple existence was now exceedingly fragile, heartbeat-to-heartbeat, breath-to-breath. Just a few months removed from earning a bachelor's degree at Elms College in Chicopee, Mass., where he was a standout point guard for the Division III Blazers basketball team, Thomas' odds of survival were delicate as he underwent emergency procedures into the night.
A couple of days passed before Thomas awoke for good. One of his first thoughts was, "Will I ever play basketball again?"
Among his more important thoughts was, "Will I ever walk again?"
Thomas did, nervously making his way down a hospital hallway after being bedridden for more than a week. Months of rehabilitation and surgeries would follow, but the healing — the physical healing, anyway — started gaining significant momentum before Thomas returned to life in Hartford's North End, a life forever altered.
"Let me tell you what I really believe," Thomas' mother, Geraldine Anderson, said recently. "He lived because he is good. I think if he was a bad kid, he would have died. But he is a good person."
And now Thomas, after all he's seen and experienced, wants to share his story — from his tumultuous childhood, to the crumbling of his family structure, to the most productive year of his life being derailed by two bullets, to his recovery and return to basketball at this summer's Greater Hartford Pro-Am.
He wants his voice to be louder than the crackle of gunfire. He has spoken at City Hall. He has spoken to groups of children. His recovery is a major story line in a documentary about the St. Francis trauma ward.
As reserved as he is by nature, and reclusive as he has become since the incident, the irony is that Thomas is more vocal than ever.
"I don't want to be just a statistic," he said. "I don't want to be just another guy from Hartford who was shot. I never thought I'd be in the position of the person being shot, but this shows it can happen to anybody. Innocent people are being shot."
Raised in Detroit and Hartford, in neighborhoods of crime and desperation, Thomas never succumbed to his surroundings.
He was always soft-spoken, a little shy. The youngest of Anderson's five sons, Thomas came to idolize his older brothers. He grew especially close to Negus, the oldest. Negus was a standout high school player in Detroit and among the best players at the Greater Hartford Pro-Am in the late 1990s.
Thomas trusted Negus, depended on him, tried to emulate his basketball skill and heeded his life advice: Stay away from gangs and drugs, stay in school, play ball. With the boys' father largely out of the picture, Negus was the male parental figure in the household.
"My brother Aswad, or should I say my clone, is my pride and joy," Negus, 33, wrote in a recent e-mail. "Aswad is a wonderful young man. I know firsthand because I'm his big brother and his father. I stayed on him the hardest because I see myself when I see him. I taught him how to be a man, how to play basketball. He took me pushing him hard every day and stayed strong."
Negus typed those words from within the walls of USP Hazelton, a maximum-security federal prison in Preston County, W. Va. He is inmate No. 14591-014, serving a life sentence for murder.
In December 2003, a federal jury convicted Negus Thomas in a drug-related, drive-by shooting in Hartford. Thomas and another man, Jerkeno Wallace, are said to have killed Gil Torres of East Hartford in May 2001. Defense attorneys argued that life imprisonment was not warranted because Torres and associates had first robbed Thomas and Wallace at gunpoint. Thomas and Wallace followed a fleeing car driven by Torres and fired five shots on Farmington Avenue. The incident occurred just after 3 p.m. in front of dozens of witnesses.
After the trial, U.S. attorney Kevin J. O'Connor said, "Hartford is not the Wild West. Hartford is not a place where violent individuals can engage in a shootout in broad daylight."
"I got caught up in the streets and was involved in the wrong things," Negus wrote. "Prison is just somewhere that I look to rebuild my heart and soul."
Streets Can Be Ugly
Anderson, 50, is a youthful-looking woman whose scattered way of storytelling suggests life has taken a toll. In the early 1990s, she moved her family from the North End to Highland Park, Mich., technically outside Detroit but at the epicenter of the city's notorious economic and criminal crises.
It did not turn out well. One of the first friends Aswad Thomas grew close to was killed in a drive-by shooting, the random victim of a stray bullet.
"I thought I was going to take them to something better," Anderson said. "At that point, Hartford was so corrupted, and it was bad. I was scared to raise my children here, and then one place is worse than the next and you have to move again."
Anderson and her sons returned to Hartford and lived on Edgewood Street. The Upper Albany area, riddled with drug-related crime, was home again, and another handful of North End guys were set to re-establish their lives in one of two ways: Through difficult times the right way, or through even more difficult times the wrong way.
Aswad played it right. Still, he had a close enough view to understand the effects of his environment. Good people, he came to realize, became troubled people capable of making horrible choices, facing horrible consequences and causing irreparable damage to themselves, those they love and those they encounter.
Negus, a career drug dealer, according to court documents, committed his crime just months after Aswad led Weaver High School to the Class LL basketball semifinals in the CIAC state tournament as a senior, weeks before graduation.
Aswad, nicknamed "Oz," because of the pronunciation of his name and because a friend once said he played basketball like a wizard, was traumatized. His plan to attend Wayne State University, a Division II college in Detroit, was put on hold as Negus awaited trial. After a few years spent working in the Hartford area, he moved to Detroit and attended Wayne County Community College, with an eye toward transferring to Wayne State.
That never materialized, and by the time Thomas returned to Hartford, in 2007, another older brother, Neville Thomas, was behind bars. Found in possession of a gun in a parked car, and with a previous felony drug conviction, he was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Neville, 30, is inmate No.16138-014 at Ray Brook, a medium-security federal prison in upstate New York. He is eligible for release in February.
So before him, older brothers dealt the same hand had played and lost — their freedom, their families. Thomas' two other older brothers remain in the area — Tafawa, who works at a food-processing company in Hartford, and Matthew, who works at a Starbucks in Glastonbury. Thomas also has a half-sister, Shanell, and a half-brother, Jevon, from his father, Neville.
Excelling At Elms
Shortly after returning to Hartford, Aswad caught the eye of Ed Silva, coach at Elms.
"He comes from a meager, meager background," Silva said. "We've talked about his family. He has spoken about his brothers, as well as others in his life who have made bad decisions and paid the price. Ozzy knows he's not any better than his brothers. He just knows he didn't make some of the wrong decisions. His brothers were really put in his life, in my opinion, by God to steer Ozzy away from things."
At Elms, Thomas' basketball career, and really his entire life, took off. He led the Blazers to a 26-2 record as a senior point guard in 2008-09, when he averaged 8.7 points, 7.2 assists and a Division III-best 4.6 steals. Silva referred to Thomas as his lemons-to-lemonade guy, "someone who could always take a broken play and turn it into something special."
That applies off the court, too. Thomas could not always afford books. He kept up in the classroom by borrowing, perusing the Internet and seeking extra help.
Before becoming the first male in his family to graduate from college, he was awarded the Dr. Joachim Froehlich Award of Excellence, which is Elms' most prestigious honor given to a student athlete. It celebrates excellence in the classroom, on campus, in the community and athletics. He also named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches' "Honor Court" for having a GPA over 3.2.
After college, Thomas played well in the 2009 Greater Hartford Pro-Am, signed with an agent and had set up a few tryouts for European professional teams.
Then one night he got thirsty and took an ill-fated ride to the store.
"Anything To Save My Life"
It was about 10:30 p.m. Thomas parked along the sidewalk at the corner of Albany Avenue and Edgewood Street. He bought a jug of juice at a convenience store and tossed it in the backseat as he sat in the car. He reached out to close his car door when he saw two guys coming toward him, one with a gun. He lunged toward them. A tussle ensued. He heard gunshots and felt the warmth of his own blood. He fainted.
After repeated requests for information, Hartford police confirmed only that one arrest has been made, and said there would be no comment because the investigation is ongoing, telling The Courant to rely on Thomas' account of what transpired.
"I didn't know if they were coming to shoot me or coming to rob me, and my first instinct was to fight back," Thomas said. "So as soon as I saw the guys coming toward me with a gun, I tried to reach toward them, just tried to do anything to fight back, anything to save myself. The next thing you know, I hear gunshots. I didn't know if I was going to die. I was just so scared."
The bullets traveled through Thomas' back at strange — miraculous, even — angles. One entered near his left shoulder and nearly exited through his right. Another entered near the back of his neck and nearly exited through his buttocks.
Thomas was clinging to life when Dr. William Marshall, head of trauma at St. Francis, began to treat him. Marshall inserted a breathing tube, as well as chest tubes to drain blood. Then everyone waited, hoping the internal bleeding would cease. Marshall said Thomas' life was hanging in the balance for three days.
A CAT scan revealed the path of each bullet. One was particularly troublesome.
"Left to right, through the body of his spine, somehow missing his spinal cord and barely his aorta," Marshall said. "Just unbelievable. We're talking about a millimeter's difference and he would be dead or paralyzed. Talk about threading the needle."
In May, Thomas underwent a procedure to remove the bullets from his back. Given the option to take them home — as some kind of keepsake, like wisdom teeth — he told Marshall he never wanted to see them.
But how did they get there in the first place? A random act of violence? A case of mistaken identity? Retaliation for something perpetrated by his brothers? The city streets run wild with theories but little concrete or reliable information, as the urban code of silence is often unbreakable.
To anyone who knows Thomas, he looked quite normal this summer at the Greater Hartford Pro-Am, playing for the Hot 93.7 All-Stars. He returned to the court about 11 months after being shot and played with occasional soreness.
"Mentally, I'll never be the same," said Thomas, who works night shifts at OFS Fitel, a fiber optics company in Avon. "I don't leave home much. I can't go anywhere without thinking I'm going to get shot."
Thomas wants justice, wants both of his assailants behind bars. But he also sees things through a more complicated lens. He doesn't hate the young men who attacked him. He's seen so many good people go so wrong, like his brothers.
"When I was in the hospital, I felt bad about what had happened to me, but a part of me felt bad for the guys that did it," Thomas said. "They didn't know the type of person I was. So there is the issue of them even being in that situation, that mind-set where they have to rob people to eat or survive."
Thomas plans to earn a master's degree, either continuing pursuit of a business career or, given all he's reflected on, becoming a mentor to youthful offenders in Hartford.
"My mind has been like a roller coaster," Thomas said. "It was the best year of my life and then everything went down the drain. But I look at every day I'm alive as a positive, and to be able to play basketball again is a blessing. This has motivated me more to do even better than I was before. I won't let anything stop me from doing what I want to do in life."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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