It had been just a few weeks since K.J. Johnson got his driver’s license. He picked up friends, including his childhood pal Tommie Frazier, and headed to play basketball on Wednesday, a sunny afternoon in West Philly.
The ride ended in tragedy. Johnson, 16, and Frazier, 18, were fatally shot just after noon while seated in a car on the 200 block of North 56th Street in West Philadelphia, after unidentified gunmen fired into the vehicle. Another 16-year-old was wounded by the bullets fired in broad daylight near a day care and a bus stop.
As of Friday, no one had been arrested and homicide investigators were still searching for video and witnesses. Police said they found 17 shell casings at the scene.
Left behind are families and school communities in grief. Johnson, whose full name was Kaylin Jahad, was heading into his junior year at Boys’ Latin Charter School in West Philadelphia, while Frazier had enrolled at Simon Gratz High School in November.
Jamir Shaw, a former dean at Harrity Elementary, a K-8 school, said Johnson and Frazier both attended and were friends as children. He said they were passionate about sports and came from “great families,” noting that Johnson was an only child and “best friends” with his mother. Today, Shaw owns a West Philadelphia-based event equipment rental business, where Johnson was recently employed part-time and where Frazier had worked in the past.
“You don’t live in that neighborhood and not know them,” he said. “They had big personalities. You felt their energy. You knew when they were in the room.”
Shaw said they ran in the same basketball circles as Quamir Mitchell, a West Philadelphia High School senior who just two months ago was fatally shot near a Southwest Philadelphia playground. He said the city is losing young people to gun violence at a “rapid rate” and he worries for the safety of his other former students.
“They should be at my funeral one day talking about the impact I had on their life, not the other way around,” he said of Johnson and Frazier. “It’s so sad to see their stories end this way, because I was so excited to see where they’d go.”
In addition to being a standout basketball player, Johnson played football at Boys’ Latin. Pat Montgomery, the head football coach, described him as “endearing.” He said he spoke to members of his team Thursday and gave them space to grieve, while telling them “this can’t be the norm.”
“K.J. was somebody’s son. He was a lot of young men on that team’s friend. A lot of young men in school’s friend. Somebody that teachers loved,” Montgomery said. “That’s why I say, ‘This can’t be normal, this can’t be accepted.’ You have a victim, but you also have a family behind them that are left to pick up the pieces.”
The 16-year-old who survived the shooting also attended Boys’ Latin, and Johnson was the sixth student from the school to have been killed in five years. In March, student Kahree Simmons, 16, was fatally shot while playing basketball at Christy Recreation Center on the 700 block of South 55th Street.
William Hayes, chief executive officer of Boys’ Latin, said in a statement Thursday the school opened in 2007 to create opportunities for young men of color, and called on the city “to make the same commitment to the young people it serves.”
“We mourn the loss of life and the loss of the ability to feel safe and secure in our city,” he said. “Far too many Boys’ Latin students have been robbed of this basic right. Their families, friends, teachers, and neighbors have as well.”
Of 1,300 people shot this year in Philadelphia, more than 120 were age 17 or younger, according to police statistics. At least 314 people have been killed this year, and July has seen more shooting victims than almost every other month in the last decade — and more than a week remains.
The crisis has prompted elected officials from City Council to Congress to push Mayor Jim Kenney to declare a state of emergency. Kenney has resisted the calls, saying it could “cause more fear in our communities.”
Shaw said the city is “failing our youth,” saying that while schools are trying to empower young people, “good kids’ lives are being cut short.”
“The only way these lives can’t be taken in vain,” he said, “is if we really change and something comes out of this on a positive note. And I just push the city to try to figure that out.”