As his classmates eased into the back-to-school routine after the holiday break, Aaron Willis was learning a whole new set of skills: how to slide from bed into a wheelchair, how to build up the upper body strength he needs to be independent, and how to dress himself, even though he cant feel his legs.
In December, with two days left of his first semester in high school, Aaron was riding his bike from a friends house in Wynwood at 9 p.m. when five shots were fired out of a white Nissan Maxima. One of them struck his spinal chord, shattered two vertebrae, punctured his lung and lodged in his shoulder. Now the 15-year-old football player may never walk again.
My son is a good boy; he knows its easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble. My son did everything right, said Aarons father, Sam Willis, who together with his mother Catherin Beacon is staying in his sons room in the rehabilitation ward of Jackson Memorial Hospital. For 15 years I raised him right, and still I see him here like this.
For Aaron, growing up in one of the most crime-ridden corners of Miami, even the straight and narrow led through dangerous streets. In December alone, there were three homicides and 194 assaults within a two-mile radius of his house an area that includes Booker T. Washington High School where Aaron is a freshman, Gibson Park where he played football, the corner of Northwest 28th Street and First Avenue where he was shot, the hospital where he is recovering and the Miami Police Department headquarters.
Crimes classified as an assault include everything from simple battery to a debilitating injury like Aarons that doesnt result in a death. In the month Aaron was shot, Miami police reported 492 crimes of this kind in the City of Miami. Almost 40 percent of them were within the two-mile radius of Aarons world.
Overtown is an area thats traditionally high in crime, said Det. Rick Martinez of the Miami Police Department gang unit. He said some of the violence was random, but a lot of it is calculated, connected to drugs and gangs.
Police could not comment on details of the investigation, but a spokesperson said investigators were not ruling out the possibility of finding the shooters.
Martinez said it could have been a case of mistaken identity or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, since Aaron himself was known to keep his distance from troublemakers.
Aarons friends in Overtown talk about going outside as if it were a synonym for getting in trouble. Shawn Palmer, 17, who has been friends with Aaron since fifth grade, said his classmates at Booker T. were surprised when they found out that such a good kid got shot.
Theyre like, well who was with him? and once they knew they said yall dont have problems with anybody. Shawn said. They know we just stay inside all the time.
Shawn and Aaron were with another friend, Floyd Walker, at a friends house in Wynwood, on Dec. 19, when Aaron left to go home. The other two heard the shots and ran out to find Aaron fallen from his bike, half in the street. He couldnt feel his legs, but he didnt know hed been hit by a bullet.
That night, the violence his friends knew was out there became more personal.