From Gun To Grave: Robert Nelson, killed in 2011 in Berkshire
By By Karen Houppert
Jan 13, 2016 | 3:00 AM
"I still yell at him," says Trina Peterson, 47, as she puts her car into gear and eases out of her parallel parking space in front of her Colgate neighborhood house. She is driving me a few blocks away to the corner of Dalton Avenue and Lange Street where her 22-year-old son was shot four years back, after leaving the house at 1:30 a.m. to go to the 7-Eleven. He was cremated, so no grave, but there is a streetlight where he fell; family and friends have festooned it with mementos. She drives through a mall parking lot, past a fire station, and onto a street less than a half-mile from her house—all the while she talks a monologue, smokes a Marlboro, and drinks coffee from a Dunkin Donuts to-go cup. "This shit is cold, I don't know why I'm still drinking," she says. Drinks. Inhales. Cracks the window a bit more. Exhales. And then picks up where she left off: "I still yell at him. I still can't believe he sold that damn pool to my friend when I was giving it to her."
She explains: The weekend her son Robert was shot, he and a friend did a chore for her. She asked them to move an above-ground pool to her friend's house; the friend would use it more than Trina's family did. Her son Robert made arrangements for the transfer but told Trina's friend they were selling the pool—and collected the money for himself.
Trina shakes her head—angry, bemused, sad all at once. She is not even going to pretend her son Robert was an angel. How could she? Later, she will explain that he has a record. "He wasn't a good boy," she says. "He got into trouble." Indeed, her son had a very long rap sheet, running the gamut from minor charges such as driving with a learner's permit when he didn't have an adult in the car to serious charges like robbery and assault—for which he did prison time. (She has a corresponding legal trail in civil court with bail companies, creditors, and a foreclosure attempt on her house.) She says she was sometimes the one who actually called the police on her son, that he frequently disappeared as an adolescent, that she walked these streets late at night or in the early hours of the morning calling his name, trying to track him down. "It doesn't matter that he was trouble, he doesn't deserve to be killed," she says. "He was so good-hearted when he was straight." And he was still a young man, still growing into himself, changing, she says. "I had him on the right track."
Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't. Neither character assessment mitigates the tragedy, her sorrow, her fatherless grandson's sorrow, the extended family's sorrow, one bit—though it's been years.
"He's been dead three years but four Thanksgivings, four Christmases," she says. "That's what makes it so hard for our families. Everybody in the family starts on me right about that time, 'What you doing for Thanksgiving?'" They all want to make sure she is not left on her own, mourning, during the holidays. But she is always in mourning.
On the day I first meet her in November, she wears a T-shirt with her son Robert's photo on the front and the words, "Mommy misses you." Her house is a shrine to him: photos of him on the living room walls, an embossed mirror with his date of birth and death, an urn with his ashes on a wall shelf. When we begin talking, she pulls out his yellowed and tattered obituary from the Dundalk Eagle, his rainbow kindergarten diploma, his autopsy report—still in its sealed enveloped because she could never bear to open it. She shows me a tiny, bullet-shaped silver necklace charm that is actually an urn with a sprinkling of his ashes inside; it will go to his son when the boy turns 16.
Later, she will show me the lamppost on the corner of the street where he was shot. Adorned with faded silk flowers, pink duct tape, a deflated balloon, a red, white, and blue star from the Fourth of July, a rabbit trinket from Easter that is molting its plastic pelt. She will point out a hand-drawn blue eye that someone has clipped to the pole and reminisce, picking at the tattered bits of mementos with black fingernails, tidying up, telling me that his friends came by on her son's birthday this year to pick up his baseball cap, take it out with them for a night of drinking, a memoriam. She will pause; she needs to get the hat back, should give the boys a call.
Trina says she knew all of Robbie's friends. They were like family. "They'd all walk in the door, 'Hi, Miss Trina.' And three or four would go right into the fridge, like 'Hey, mom, what you cooking for us tonight?'"
And after Robbie was shot, all his friends—and her friends, and their relatives—pulled together to help her with the prohibitive funeral costs. "Everyone wanted $5,000 down," she says. "We didn't have it." Trina, a single mom with two kids, had worked since she was 17. "All my life," she says, ticking off the jobs on her fingers—security guard, McDonald's, waitress, house-cleaner. She owns her home but she had no life insurance and no rainy-day funds. That's when her older son's friends and Robbie's buddies stepped in. She calls them "the foot soldiers." Carrying plastic pretzel jars and large plastic-foam cups, a dozen of them went to the local convenience store, the mall, and up and down streets in the neighborhood asking for donations to cover funeral costs. Trina can't remember the exact amount they raised but thinks it was around $3,000. With the exception of a $500 check from a relative, it was all in small bills and change.
"Between me and my two sisters, Shirley and Annette, we called the whole phone book [looking for an affordable funeral]. Nobody would touch us." Funerals in Maryland average $8,528 and cremations run $5,948, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The medical examiner's office was telling Trina that she had to give them instructions for the body, that they could only keep it so long, she says. She was frantic, wondering what would happen if she couldn't afford to send the body to a funeral home. Would the ME just cremate him, she wondered. (In fact, the process is a bit more complicated and humane—see accompanying article "Gunshot to Grave" on p. 14—but Trina didn't know that.) "We didn't even know if they were going to mail him to us or bring him to us in a cardboard box," she says. She shakes her head, wondering if she would be sitting in her living room, hear the doorbell, and there he would be, "UPS delivering a box."
"My sister said, 'I have an idea.'" Trina was crying, couldn't think. Her sister took over, she says. "She said, 'I'm going to call where mom and dad were, Zannino.'" Trina thought Highlandtown's Zannino Funeral Home was a good idea—and she knew the owner's daughter slightly because they'd played pool together. They called back within 20 minutes. "She said, 'I don't care what you have in your pockets, bring it up here and we will bury him.'" Shortly after that, the funeral director called back. "She's like, 'We have him.' 'Have who?' I said. 'Your son, Robert, is here.' It was so quick. It was amazing. That was the best minute of the whole thing, when she called me. I could breathe and stop crying."
A few months after Robbie was shot, police arrested a young man named Jeremiah Edwards and charged him in the murder. But a jury found him not guilty. It's been almost four years since he died but things still feel unresolved for Trina.
There is always guilt on a parent's part about what they should have done or shouldn't have done in the raising of their kids but in Trina's case—like many parents who lose a kid to street violence—it swells to epic, Greek-tragedy proportions. It hits with all the retributive qualities that come with worrying that they've brought all this on themselves somehow—an element of quid pro quo punishment.
When things have gone terribly, tragically awry like this—Bad kid? Good kid? Does it matter?—nothing mitigates the mourning process. Parents still sift through the past for clues. "He was a 'terrible twos,' terrible," Trina recalls. "Then good. Then terrible teens. [He] was becoming a teenager into manhood. I always think, what if? What if? Could I have? Could all of us have . . ." Her voice trails off. She leans back in the easy chair and thinks for a few moments. "Could we have done something different? It's gone . . . You can't . . . You cannot know the feeling unless you have lost a child." She thinks about her son, her troubles, then points to a shelf above her head. "He's right here in this beautiful urn." She gives a wry smile. "Least I know where he's at now."