deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY On the corner of 57th and Arch, there’s a stuffed Tweety bird lashed to a tree. Large, black letters, “RIP BB,” are written in marker across the the bird’s oversized yellow forehead. Across the street is a dumpy Chinese takeout joint with a crew of corner boys posted up in front of it. It’s a warm, sunny late winter day and there’s a lot of foot traffic on the block. When the camera comes out and we start to shoot the curbside memorial the corner boys point at us, waving to each other and then conversing seriously while staring in our direction. Within moments the corner is barren; the foot traffic dries up as the boys duck into the Chinese takeout or disappear down Arch Street.

Inside the door to the Lucky Variety corner bodega, just feet from where the murder happened, stands a Latin man who watches us, blankly, while we snap photos and take notes. I open the door and step inside, asking him if he knows BB. He shakes his head, indicating that he doesn’t speak English and points to a tiny young woman standing by the counter. The woman tells me that BB used to hang out in the store all the time. She reaches over a shelf sparsely stocked with junk food bags and peels tape from the window that holds a portrait in place, facing Arch Street. She hands me the glossy sheet that has a picture of a handsome young man with the inscription, “Gregory Christopher Johnson, Sunrise December 1st, 1998, Sunset January 10th 2008.”

The woman didn’t know BB personally so I ask her instead about the neighborhood. Are there a lot of shootingsskeleton_running.gif around here? It’s a rhetorical question; she laughs before giving the obvious affirmative answer. “This really bad around here,” she says in heavily-accented English. “Only work here on weekends, though, so . . . ”

She trails off and I ask, but aren’t the weekends the worst? She nods nervously.

The door swings open, and a young woman with a cascade of blond braids asks what we’re doing. I explain to her that we’re documenting street memorials, trying to bring another side of the city’s homicide story to light. She says she’s BB’s cousin, Myra. She saw us taking pictures and wants to talk with us.

What was BB like, I ask? What did he like to do for fun? What were his favorite foods? Myra says that BB loved basketball, football and played tennis for the Glen Mills School, where he got vocational training in carpentry. When I ask about his favorite foods Myra laughs and says, “man, he ate everything.”

“Everything,” I repeat, also laughing, “put down ‘everything’ as his favorite food? He must have been a big eater.”

BB was a big eater; as if to prove it Myra pulls out her cell phone, calls BB’s sister and puts the question to her. Within moments they’re laughing, remembering BB’s big appetite, talking about how much he loved soul food and General Tso’s chicken. Myra’s face is lit up as if BB had just walked through the door; through the phone I can hear BB’s sister’s voice laughing at warm memories.

Everyone knows you don’t get sent to Glen Mills for being a saint; it’s a school for court adjudicated juvenile delinquents. It also has a reputation for a monstrous and terrifying football squad. A search of court records shows that BB was arrested for robbery, assault and firearms charges in 2004. The case was referred to family court and BB went to Glen Mills.

tweetybirdgunman.jpgThe Glen Mills School’s website says that, “in the right environment (our students) behave as fine young men, and they can achieve in all areas, academically, vocationally and socially, to a very high degree.” The school goes on to stress that, “Our students are not ‘bad boys.’ They may have done bad things, but are not intrinsically bad.”

In 2007 BB was picked up again for robbery and assault. Those charges were eventually dismissed for lack of prosecution.

The Homicide Division’s Chief Inspector stressed to the Daily News on the morning after the shooting that, “This homicide was a cowardly murder, the decedent was unarmed.” A grainy black and white photo of the suspect taken by Lucky Variety’s security camera accompanied the article. It’s a haunting image capturing a killer moments before he takes a life.

But this was no malevolent ghost, risen up from the concrete to steal a life before dissipating like so much smoke. This was a man that someone in the crowd of onlookers outside Lucky Variety must have known. BB and the man exchanged heated words for a full three minutes inside the tiny corner store that was barely big enough for both of them while neighbors came in and out, maybe even bumping shoulders with the murderer. But no one saw anything. No one knows who the murderer is. The police were left to plead for anonymous tips in the newspapers.

At last reporting police hadn’t received information about the suspect, nor did they have a murder weapon. It’s been two months and Myra and the rest of BB’s people are still waiting for justice.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.

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