Courtesy of the Foster family
Charles Foster Jr. was shot and killed in a nightclub on Jan. 1, 2013. The first in his family to attend college, he was just a few months shy of graduation.
Charles Foster Jr. was shot and killed in a nightclub on Jan. 1, 2013. The first in his family to attend college, he was just a few months shy of graduation. Courtesy of the Foster family
The Morris Missionary Baptist Church is nestled down a red dirt road, in Morris, Ga., set among pine trees near the Alabama state line. Next to the small white church lies its most recent grave site: that of Charles Foster Jr.
While the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., garnered a frenzy of news coverage, statistically, they are not the norm. Each year, thousands of gun homicides in the U.S. — 11,000 in 2010 alone — attract little or no media attention.
In those killings, the victim is most often a minority male between 15 and 25 years old and shot in an urban area. The sheer number of such deaths can be overwhelming, but focus on just one young life cut short and one remembers that statistics represent individuals, each with their own story.
Charles Foster Jr., 24, was one such young man. He was shot and killed in the early hours of New Year's Day — one of the first gun deaths of 2013.
When Charles walked into a room, "you knew he was going to do something funny to make everybody laugh," says Latoria Foster, Charles' older sister. "I'm very proud of my brother, because of the fact that he was determined to make something of his life."
Vanessa Jackson says her friend Charles had smiling eyes and was very religious. "His God meant everything to him," she says.
"He always stayed out of trouble," says Derrick Foster, Charles' cousin. "[He] tried to avoid trouble with the law. He had his mind focused on that, I know he did."
Charles grew up in the Georgia countryside until moving to Columbus, Ga., population about 190,000. He was the first in his family to go to college and was just months away from graduating from Columbus State University with a major in political science. His family was handed his posthumous degree at his funeral.
Tom Dolan, chairman of the department of political science and public administration at Columbus State, says Charles was soft-spoken and serious about his studies.
"He had to struggle," Dolan says. "And yet, instead of giving up the way a lot of students would, he kept plugging away at it and got a number of A's from me."
"He was so close to me. To me, it was like my backbone — my backbone's gone," says Charles' cousin Tambra Gooch, through tears. "It's like ... I'm stuck in this bad dream and I can't wake up."
"He didn't bother nobody," says Jessie Foster, Charles' mother. "He was just a loving person. [I] miss my boy. Miss him so much."
Mike Haskey/Courtesy of The Ledger Enquirer
Led by the Rev. Willie Phillips (center), protesters march in February against violence in and around Club Majestic.
Led by the Rev. Willie Phillips (center), protesters march in February against violence in and around Club Majestic. Mike Haskey/Courtesy of The Ledger Enquirer
Thumbing through childhood photographs of her only son, Jessie thinks about the message she takes from his death.
"Stop the violence. Gun violence. It's really too many people getting hurt with guns," she says.
'He Always Said, 'People Die In Clubs' "
Charles was killed in the early hours of 2013 at the Majestic Sports Bar on Columbus' Cusseta Road. It's a strip of liquor stores, laundromats and carwashes. The club has a reputation for violence — soldiers from nearby Fort Benning are even prohibited from coming here.
By all accounts, Charles Foster didn't go to nightclubs. But his girlfriend, LaQuoia Arnold, did. And on New Year's Eve, it was her idea to celebrate at the club, also known as Club Majestic. Charles, on the other hand, wanted to go to church.
"I finally got him to go with me," LaQuoia says of that night. "I had to beg him. He always said, 'People die in clubs.' "
The Majestic was full that night for a party promoted as "Pandemonium Kickoff." Charles was there with a small group, including LaQuoia and his cousin Derrick. Both recall they were dancing and having fun, with no sign of trouble.
It was close to 2 a.m. when LaQuoia suggested they should get ready to go. And then, she says, "You heard, 'Pow!'
"I looked at him, he looked at me," she recalls. They started running as more shots were fired. "I hit the floor, I stopped moving. I said, 'I keep on moving, I might just get hit.' "
"I just saw everybody else jump down, so I responded to what I saw," Derrick recalls. Crawling to the door to escape, "I even saw a couple of bullets go by," he says.
When LaQuoia and Derrick realized Charles wasn't with them outside the club, they went back in. They saw Charles lying on the floor. Six others were wounded in the shooting, but Charles was the only victim who would die that night. He had been struck just above his heart.
"He was the first person that I actually looked at because he was in the worst condition," Derrick says. "I said a couple of words like, 'Man it's gonna be all right,' and, 'You can make it.' I just held his hand and just said that to him."
"I just prayed," LaQuoia recalls. "I instantly get on my knees and I started praying."
Charles' sister Latoria learned what had happened when she got a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
Phillips keeps a binder of clippings about local anti-violence marches, stories about the Majestic and obituaries of young people who have been killed by gun violence.
Phillips keeps a binder of clippings about local anti-violence marches, stories about the Majestic and obituaries of young people who have been killed by gun violence. Melissa Block/NPR
"I ran every red light to get up there to the hospital to see about my brother," Latoria says. But when the doctor came in to speak with the family, he told them the hospital had done everything it could for Foster. He was gone.
'The Count Is Starting All Over Again'
In the subsequent weeks, the police arrested and charged two young men with murder and aggravated assault. It's not yet clear which gun, or guns, were used.
LaRae Moore, a senior assistant district attorney in Columbus, is prosecuting the Charles Foster murder. She first heard about the shooting when she turned on the television on New Year's Day.
"You know, as a prosecutor, I think, 'OK, the count is starting all over again,' " she says. "On Jan. 1, to hear that there's been another murder, then you think, 'Oh my goodness. We're not getting off to a good start.' "
Just about every homicide Moore has handled, with the exception of child deaths, has involved a firearm, she says.
"I don't know what will stop the gun violence. Because most of the cases that I see, the perpetrators are not using guns that they lawfully bought or lawfully own," she says. "It's a gun that's been stolen. For example, if there's a burglary and in the course of that burglary the homeowner's firearms are stolen, nine times out of 10 that stolen firearm is going to be the same weapon that has either shot somebody or killed someone. We see it all the time."
Expanding background checks or other proposals the federal government is weighing, Moore says, are unlikely to fix the problem. "From what I see, if they want to get 'em, they're gonna get 'em. They're stolen, they're traded for drugs. They don't go to gun shows and buy 'em."
'It's An Awful State The Country's In'
In the basement of the Columbus Public Safety Building, Buddy Bryan, the Muscogee County coroner, took office on Dec. 31, 2012. His first case as coroner was a homicide: that of Charles Foster.
By the first week of February, Bryan had handled many more. A young woman's suicide with a .357 Magnum. A homicide at a known drug dealer's home. A 20-year-old, shot twice. Then, a murder-suicide.
"A 38-year-old U.S. Army captain shot his fiancee in the back of head," Bryan says. "He had a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic, and then he put the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger."
The tally of gun deaths in Columbus this year now stands at 12. In 2012, it reached 36. Bryan holds out no hope for a turnaround.
"As long as there's guns, there's gonna be shootings. As long as there's shootings, there's gonna be deaths," he says. "It's an awful state the country's in as far as I'm concerned."
Bryan owns two handguns, he says, for self-protection. "I'm out at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning in some of the worst neighborhoods," he says. "Hope I never to have to use it, but I will defend myself if someone tries to kill me."
He may own two guns, but Bryan thinks there's little reason, outside of military service, for people to own rifles like the AR-15.
"How ridiculous is that? What do you need one of those for? Are you going up to Afghanistan? You gonna go to Iraq, Iran, whatever, then maybe you might need one," the coroner says. "But you don't need one here in Columbus, Ga. Or Atlanta or Chicago. Look at the number of deaths in Chicago at this point. Unbelievable."
And if the government mandates that he must give up his guns, he would, he says. "Absolutely. If it would help, sure," Bryan says. "I want to be a part of the fix, not part of the problem."
'Tired Of Seeing Young People Being Destroyed'
Foster's murder spurred a march in February in front of Club Majestic. The mayor of Columbus, Teresa Tomlinson, called the club a "criminal haven" and pledged to keep it closed, while people from the neighborhood demanded the windowless brick structure be torn down.
The Rev. Willie Phillips, who lives just a few blocks from the Majestic, has been trying to shut down the club for years. "So many young people have been shot and killed" there, he says. "[The place] has brought so much pain to parents."
The Majestic Sports Bar in Columbus, Ga. Local residents say the club has been the site of violence for years.
The Majestic Sports Bar in Columbus, Ga. Local residents say the club has been the site of violence for years. Melissa Block/NPR
Sitting in his small brick home, Phillips leafs through a 4-inch binder filled with newspaper clippings of the countless anti-violence marches he has led. It includes obituaries for young people shot and killed over the years and news clippings about shootings at the club.
Phillips' long and vocal campaign against Club Majestic has made him a target of threats. He keeps his curtains drawn, and standing in the corner of his living room, propped against the wall, is a 20-gauge Smith & Wesson shotgun — his "protection," he says.
Phillips says he wouldn't have had a weapon 12 years ago. In those days, he enjoyed sitting out on his porch. But he doesn't sit outside anymore, he says. He's too afraid.
"I can't sleep now," Phillips says. "I look out the window ... every time I hear a car."
Even so, Phillips says he won't give up. He feels partly responsible for Foster's death. "I feel like his blood is on my hands. Because I didn't continue to fight to close the club. I got afraid and backed off."
As his binder continues to grow, Phillips says he sometimes gets discouraged.
"Sometime I just want to sell my house and move to the country and just be alone, you know. You get tired of seeing young people being destroyed for nothing," he says.
"If it take the last breath in my body, there would not be another young person killed in that place," Phillips says. "But I keep pushing. No matter what they throw at me, I keep pushing. I keep going."
Phillips added a new page to his binder in January. It shows the round, smiling face of Charles Foster Jr. He was one of the first gun deaths in 2013 in this country. There will be some 30,000 more before the year is over.