SWAG, a sisterhood with a painful bond, hopes to combat violence in Lexington

jmadden@herald-leader.comMarch 7, 2014 

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    Sisters and Supporters Working Against Gun violence can be reached through Facebook, by phone at (859) 382-0053 or by mail at P.O. Box 23245 Lexington, Ky. 40523.

Pain has no boundary, but it can serve as a link for those who have suffered the same wound.

Eight women whose loved ones were murdered in Lexington, and others who have been affected by gun violence, have joined to form Sisters and Supporters Working Against Gun violence (SWAG).

"A lot of us grew up together in the same neighborhood not realizing that it was each other's children who were being killed," Quantella Higgins told the Herald-Leader this week.

Most of the killings occurred in 2012 and 2013, but the time span is across the board and pain lingers.

Higgins is raising a son she had with her boyfriend, Ronnie Lee Smith, who was murdered in 1994 on the east side of Lexington.

Established in September, the organization is a nonprofit that has formed a sisterhood as well as a commitment to speak out in the community, Higgins said.

"We feel it's very important that the community comes together as a unit, because it doesn't just affect our families, but the entire community," said Higgins. "Taxpayers may not realize that it costs them a lot of money when police go out and investigate and try to figure how these deaths go about. It costs a lot of money to run these types of investigations."

Higgins said the murders blossom from fights or arguments that quickly turn violent, resulting in senseless deaths.

Police say that's what happened Sept. 22 when Johntel Crocker was killed in the parking lot of Divas Gentlemen's Club on Russell Cave Road.

Nicknamed "Pudd" by his mother, Johntel, 22, graduated from Fort Knox Bluegrass Challenge Academy, a military school that helps at-risk youth become stewards of the community. He was a middle child, with four siblings.

His mother, Andrea Crocker, says Johntel typically sent her a text message when he went out.

"He would text me 'momma I'm okay' everyday," she recalled. "He knew he had to text me once he got home."

She still waits for his texts, she said. Johntel's loss left his family empty.

Earlier that year, Johntel's best friend, Steven Reynolds, was killed. Steven, 22, was killed Apr. 15, 2013, after a series of fights broke out at Eastland Bowling Alley during Soul Bowl, an event for college-age people.

"It was God's plan, I guess," said Latosha Reynolds, Steven's mother.

Latosha said her strength to keep going comes from within her faith, her children, a passion to not let her grandson grow up in the cycle of violence and the sisterhood she has with the others in SWAG.

"The fight that we have in us for our kids keeps us going," she said. "We're hurting. We're grieving, but being together we have developed a sisterhood ... Circumstances brought us together."

Tonya Lindsey, president of the organization, said the group hopes to collaborate with local and state law enforcement and the legislature to bring change to the community and work toward changing Kentucky gun laws.

This week, Lexington police released city crimes statistics for 2013. There were 19 murders in Lexington last year, up from 14 in 2012. So far, there have been three murders in 2014; police are still investigating two cases. Even though the recent numbers aren't the city's highest — there were 27 in the early 2000s — these numbers are all too real and serve as a constant reminder for victims' families.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said the police department is not formally working with SWAG, but officials have talked to them.

For her part, Roberts said preventing gun violence among young people is an education issue, and is one of the earliest ways to prevent violence.

"We do some of that, but it's really up to parents and community members to have those conversations with their children," she said. "From a crime standpoint, we work to remove guns from those who are unregistered and use weapons in conjunction with illegal activity each day."

Tammy Adams, the mother of Jaleel Raglin, told the Herald-Leader "we still celebrate at a cemetery," just minutes after her son's murderer was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Raglin, 16, was visiting his girlfriend at the Matador North apartment complex on Winburn Drive on Sept. 25, 2012, when Malik Shabazz Johnson shot him in the head.

"I was up all night, but I was crying because I can't remember my son's voice right now, and that is bothering me," she said. "You should never be able to forget his voice."

Eight-by-10 photographs and some smaller images of the men placed in the center of a table served as a memorial during a press conference Tuesday introducing SWAG. Throughout the news conference there were waves of emotions. Some women shared in laughter. Others cried and hugged. At times, they did all three, finding therapy in talking about their sons.

The struggle within Tonya Lindsey prompted her to start the organization and a scholarship program at Tates Creek High School in honor of her son Ezavion Lindsey, who was a junior.

Ezavion, 16, was fatally shot by his half-brother July 28 at a house on Cashel Court.

He was a huge University of Kentucky basketball fan and dreamed of becoming a basketball star, Tonya said. Ezavion played on the high school basketball team and attended Southland Christian Church. He also had a part-time job at Krispy Kreme Donuts.

Tonya taught all three of her children to live life to the fullest.

"I'm going to get out here and do things positive in my son's name and in honor of my son, so he can outlive me," Tonya said.

All of the women know the pain when it comes to searching for peace and justice and trying to heal.

Tonya Lindsey and Chaka Travers sat in court with Tammy Adams during the trial of her son's killer.

Chaka Travers' son and nephew died in gun violence. Tyler Travers' death was determined a suicide after he was shot behind his right ear. Chaka's nephew, Rocardo "Tezzy" Cole, was gunned down in 2010 at Camelot West after an argument with two men.

Tyler, 18, had graduated from Henry Clay high school and was debating whether to go to college or the Air Force two weeks before the shooting incident. Chaka said Rocardo, 29, was an "amazing" man and a single father.

The men charged in Rocardo's murder are awaiting trial, but Chaka said she believes justice will prevail.

In a quest to move forward, the women of SWAG ask for continued support and prayers from the community. They are in the process of planning events and collaborating with Moms Demand Action, the Division of Youth Services and Motivation All Day Everyday (M.A.D.E) to prevent gun violence.

Closure is a loose term, but they find solace in knowing that they can help.

"I'm hoping with this organization that people will realize that you have to be proactive," said Tonya Lindsey. "Stop being retro ... I'm hoping that it's such an impact that someone else doesn't join us next month."

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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