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 can’t feel his legs.
In December, with two days left of his first semester in high school, Aaron was riding his bike from a friend’s 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 it’s easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble. My son did everything right,” said Aaron’s father, Sam Willis, who together with his mother Catherin Beacon is staying in his son’s 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.
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Crimes classified as an assault include everything from simple battery to a debilitating injury like Aaron’s that doesn’t 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 Aaron’s world.
“Overtown is an area that’s 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.
Aaron’s 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.
“They’re like, ‘well who was with him?’ and once they knew they said ‘y’all don’t 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 friend’s 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 couldn’t feel his legs, but he didn’t know he’d been hit by a bullet.
That night, the violence his friends knew was out there became more personal.
“I’m scared to go outside,” Walker said. “The streets aren’t safe, ’cause it’s like crazy out there Too much trouble, too many drive-bys.”
It was exactly this kind of violence that Aaron’s parents were trying to escape when they moved from Los Angeles to South Florida 12 years ago. Willis said he was tired of seeing “bodies pile up outside my apartment window,” and didn’t want Aaron or his older brother, Pierre Beaton, growing up in that environment.
Pierre is 10 years older, now a junior studying economics at Florida State University and serving in the Marine Reserve. He said he knew his brother was following in his footsteps by staying out of trouble in a troubled part of town. He was grief-stricken — but not totally surprised — when he found out what happened to his brother.
“Stuff like that usually happens, but you can’t do much about it. You can’t stay in the house, you have to do what you have to do,” Beaton said. “Kids will get involved just walking to school it’s not an uncommon thing.”
In the four years that Michael Velez, Aaron’s English teacher, has been at Booker T, he said one or two students every year are violently killed.
“When kids come to you and say ‘oh someone got shot yesterday or during the weekend,’ and they talk about it in such a casual way, it’s obvious they don’t live in a safe environment.”
Velez said Aaron is a model student who “aspires to grow in every way.” He described him as a “bookworm,” and said “school is like a heaven for him.”
Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho has repeatedly denounced the violence students face in the street, especially when 16-year-old Bryan Herrera was shot and killed riding his bike in Allapattah three days after Aaron was shot.
Still, students say they feel safe in the halls of Booker T., nestled between Interstate 95 and the Dolphin Expressway. Last year, the school went from a D grade on achievement to a C. The football team won the 4A state championship this year.
Yet as secure as the school itself may be, every afternoon students leave, some of them for homes on Miami’s most dangerous streets.
“It’s truly unfortunate and sad that our kids are living in a society that perpetuates violence,” said Booker T. principal William Aristide. He added that too often crime is “condoned” by communities who adhere to an informal social code against snitching and cooperating with police.
Besides school, Aaron’s other safe spot in the community was football. He just finished his fourth season with the Overtown Rattlers, the Pop Warner team that plays at Gibson Park. His coach, Shanton Crummie, said football practice not only gives kids a positive afterschool activity and a reason to keep their grades up, but it also offers the best of them a ticket to college.
“He was very fast, not that physical. We called him a finesse player,” Crummie said about Aaron’s performance on the field. “Now it hurts me to see him like this. He’s progressing, but he has to realize everything’s not going to be the same.”
That natural athletic ability is apparent in the determination Aaron brings to his physical therapy exercises. Since he moved to the Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital from pediatric intensive care, he spends three hours a day in therapy.
His physical therapist, Michael Pinto, said Aaron is “the best kid I’ve ever worked with.” It’s too early to know for sure if his young patient will ever walk again, but Pinto said “if it’s a matter of effort, he’ll make it happen.”
Now almost a month into the injury, he’s still in spinal shock, which means his body isn’t yet responding to certain reflexes, said Dr. Jamil Bashir, a rehabilitation resident. “Best case scenario, he’ll regain full function. Worst case, he remains as he is,” Bashir said. “It’s impossible at this point to say where in that spectrum his recovery will fall.”
His family’s first floor apartment on Northwest First Avenue is already outfitted with a ramp, since his 70-year-old father is also in a wheelchair because of various health problems.
Aaron, working on his daily exercises, pulls himself onto a mat from his wheelchair and moves his limp legs with his hands as if they weren’t his own. His face betrays no emotion besides concentration on the task at hand.
“At first I was mad. I was thinking, why me? Why aren’t my legs moving any more? Why don’t I have any feeling?” he said.
“But then, after a while, I just stopped being mad because you can’t progress by being mad all the time. So I just go about everything being happy.”