Scene where Michael Patton was fatally shot / Photo by Vincent D. Johnson
BY VINCENT D. JOHNSON
For the Chicago Sun-Times
At my son’s fifth birthday party on Sunday, a friend asked me if my block was noisy.
I replied as I always do: “No. It’s a quiet, tree lined, one-way street”.
But Monday night was different.
I found myself barefoot, ankle deep in water, holding the hand of a 17-year-old boy who had been shot during the downpour. I told him to hang in there and that the ambulance was on the way.
I don’t know the exact time, but the thunder and lightning were constant, the rain was coming down in buckets and the wind was blowing hard.
I had been watching the storm through an open second-floor window that faces south onto 50th Place. Shortly after I went to the basement to check my 116-year-old house for flooding, I heard three loud cracks.
When I looked out the window, I saw a teenage boy running through the yard across the street yelling for help. I couldn’t see what happened from the window, but I assumed that a large tree branch had fallen on a car, possibly trapping someone inside.
I ran downstairs, opened the front door and saw what I thought was a man laying face up in the gutter of the partially flooded street.
I ran upstairs to tell my wife to call 911, which she was already doing. Then we both grabbed our raincoats and a flashlight.
Two other teenagers were near the man, who was lying motionless in the gutter when we went outside to help. One boy stood quiet and motionless; the other paced back and forth saying, “They shot my brother.”
Then he picked up some of his brother’s belongings from the street, as if he didn’t know what else to do.
I leaned over the wounded teen and checked his left wrist for a pulse but felt nothing. Then I pressed my fingers against his neck, but before I could find a pulse, his entire body twitched and gasped for air.
I now knew he was still alive, but I didn’t know what to do to help.
It was dark, there was water everywhere and a nearby street lamp and my flashlight were the only lights around. My wife came out with a towel to stop any bleeding, but the rain and the dark pool of water made it impossible to find the wound.
I unzipped his fleece jacket, which revealed bare skin and a bullet wound in his right chest. There was no blood coming out, just white tissue that made the wound look like a belly button.
A few neighbors came outside, and that’s when I noticed a gun on the curb just feet from the boy. I told a neighbor to stand over the gun and make sure nobody picked it up.
I wasn’t sure who did the shooting, but I knew that emotions were high, and I didn’t want to provide an opportunity for a second attack while I was around.
I mostly stayed close by the wounded teen as he lay on his back, arms spread, knees bent like Jesus on an invisible cross. He wasn’t gasping for air much anymore, and my wife, who has a medical background, went into the house to search for a respiratory mask.
I waited outside holding his hand, occasionally looking up to check for an ambulance or the police.
The crowd gathered around was starting to wonder aloud, “Where is the ambulance?”
“Where are the police?”
A few cars drove past, and the occupants rolled down the windows and gasped.
It felt like forever, but I knew it had probably been less than five minutes since we called 911.
I looked back down at the teen and grab his hand again. I don’t remember if I said anything else to him, but I know I patted him on the back of the hand as I looked toward his face.
His big brown eyes remained wide open as if he was afraid to close them as he looked up into the tree branches.
I stood up and looked down the block, hoping for an ambulance. When I saw a police SUV about a block away I waved my flashlight up and down.
The SUV’s spotlight shone down the block through a light rain as they approached. I looked back at the teen and hoped he’d pull through, although I knew just by looking at him that he was no longer alive.
He was motionless with his big eyes staring up into the rain.
As a professional photographer and photojournalist, I am used to being ready to document news at the drop of a hat. I’ve been to a few crime scenes over the years, and even put myself at risk to photograph a fire in the apartment next door.
When I first walked out the door, a part of me thought about going back inside and getting my camera. But I remembered what a great teacher once told me, “You’re a human first and a photojournalist second.”
I wrestled with the idea of taking photos right after police and paramedics arrived, but I it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until the police tape was set and a blanket placed over the teen that the scene began to look like the crime scenes I was used to.
Except this time I had a vantage point from my front door.
I could say I took a few photos because that is what I do, but really I took them because I needed to be able to put a lens between me and the reality at all of our front doors.