Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Teens with guns teetering between two worlds

Two teens, one who had been shot, another who bought a gun to settle a score, tell their stories.

About 1,300 people were shot last year in Philly, of which almost 43 percent were between 18 and 24.
About 1,300 people were shot last year in Philly, of which almost 43 percent were between 18 and 24.Read more

LEONARD AND ALLEN are Philadelphia gun boys.

Leonard bought a .32 Beretta for $500 on the street so he could settle the score with a teenager who threatened to kill him.

Allen was shot six times on a packed playground while home on a weekend pass from a Delaware County reform school for juvenile delinquents. He lost a lung and flatlined twice.

Leonard and Allen hear two sets of voices: their moms, street workers, probation officers and teachers who want to save them from death or prison; and their friends, without jobs or hope, who coax them to get "in the game."

The Daily News has changed the names of these two teenagers to protect them from harm, as they teeter precariously between two worlds.

"I worry constantly. Just constantly," Leonard's mom says of her only son, her voice shaking.

"I want him to be a productive citizen. I want him to be alive, but we're in this [North Philadelphia] neighborhood that's very, very violent. My worst fear is that he will be killed."

Ernie Ross, a street worker with the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, knows what's at stake.

"They don't think they'll live past 25," he says. "Survival is all they know."

In 2012, 1,279 people were shot in Philadelphia. Almost 43 percent of them were between age 18 and 24; more than 86 percent of them were black, nearly all males.

Some 900 young people, age 14 to 24, like Leonard and Allen are assigned to the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership because they are considered most likely to kill or be killed.

Almost all were convicted on gun offenses. "When a young man has a gun case, he's known on the street as a gun boy," Ross says.

Street workers like Ross visit the teens several times a week as mentors and role models. They help find them jobs and budget their money. They give them basics like sandwiches and toothpaste.

"There's no such thing as a bad kid," Ross says. "They're kids who need guidance."

Standing on Cecil B. Moore Avenue recently, a teen who is supposed to go to a job interview shouts to Ross, "I ain't got no shoes!"

"Don't worry, man. You'll have a pair this afternoon," Ross replies.

Ross, a 50-year-old North Philly native, talks to Leonard and Allen like a wise uncle from the 'hood. The teens affectionately call him "old head."

"They have the opportunity to turn their lives around," Ross says. "My job is to pull them out of the hole."

'I have real anxiety'

Leonard, now 19, lives on Diamond Street in North Philly's Raymond Rosen projects. He says it would take him no more than 20 minutes to buy a gun.

"I'd just ask around."

He guesses that there are about 20 guns within two blocks of his home.

Leonard is tall and muscular with a fuzzy mustache. On this particular day, he wears camouflage pants, a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt, blue-and-orange Nikes and headphones slung around his neck.

He rubs his clammy palms together, and beads of sweat dot his forehead.

His mom's constant worry and the lure of the streets eat at him.

"I have real anxiety," he says. "It's bad. Real bad."

His mom can't help but ask him a lot of questions. "I talk to him a lot to the point I get on his nerves," she says.

"I've literally chased my son down the street - and I'm 5 foot tall - to bring him in the house," she says.

Ross, one of eight kids, who for years has been a Boy Scout leader, calls her an "alpha female," a mom who cares, gives her son chores and a curfew; a mom who is fighting to keep her son safe. Not like some moms he's seen who shrug, as if their sons are already gone.

Leonard has a warm, broad, toothy smile and is polite and courteous, particularly for a teenager. His mom, who works in accounting but was laid off two years ago, raised him and his older sister alone. He rarely saw his father.

"Once in a blue moon," Leonard says. "I had to go there, to Frankford, to see him. I'd catch a bus, the No. 3 bus."

His dad is now locked up over a drug case. "He do what he do," Leonard shrugs.

About three years ago, Leonard was robbed at gunpoint in West Oak Lane.

"He came up from behind and pointed a gun at my head," he recalls. "He said, 'Don't move, dummy.' I was mad that day. I didn't care if I got shot then."

The kid robbed him and bolted, taking money that Leonard had earned helping his uncle with a roofing job.

After that, when Leonard was a 10th-grader, he wanted a gun. "I felt like I always needed it for protection," he says.

He borrowed a 9mm from someone he knew on the street. He and a friend took the loaded gun on a SEPTA bus to Northeast Philly, walked into the woods and practiced shooting at a cardboard box and a tree trunk.

Soon, trouble began over a $5 unpaid bet.

Leonard and his friends were in the cafeteria around lunchtime at Strawberry Mansion High School. One of Leonard's friends won a $5 bet against another student when he was able to toss garbage into the trash can. The student didn't pay up.

A fight broke out, and Leonard, among others, threw punches. The teen who refused to pay started to threaten Leonard and his friend.

Leonard says he couldn't let it go. "The stuff started to get personal. He was like, 'I'm gonna get you. . . . I'm gonna kill you.' I believed he would."

So Leonard says he went to a guy in the 'hood who was about 10 years older and had "connections."

"Do you know someone who got a gun?" Leonard says he asked.

"Yup. I got one," the man replied.

Leonard went to the man's house about a mile away.

"He had five guns in a downstairs closet underneath the stairs," Leonard says. "He brought them out one by one."

There was a .40 Smith & Wesson, a .38 Special, a .32 Beretta, a 9mm Glock and a shotgun.

"I picked the .32 Beretta," Leonard says. "It was not too heavy. Not too obvious."

He says he gave the man $500, money he'd made from his roofing job.

Leonard showed up on the block of the teen who owed his friend $5. When he didn't see him, he left.

A week later, he returned with the gun in the waistband of his pants. Another friend, who wasn't involved in the fight, was there, too, also armed.

This time, their human target was there.

"What the f--- you comin' on my block for?" the kid asked.

"I didn't say nothing. I just looked at him and smirked," Leonard says.

Leonard says he was about to pull out his gun, but his friend beat him to it - and fired. The teen was struck twice in the arm and once in the buttocks.

"I ran," Leonard says. "I threw the gun in the sewer."

Leonard's mom told a Daily News reporter that she doesn't believe that Leonard bought a gun. "He's trying to impress everyone," she says.

She says she called the mom of Leonard's accomplice. "His mom told me, 'I'm already grieving for him, and he's not dead yet,' " she says.

Leonard was charged with conspiracy, possession of a firearm by a minor and related charges.

"The $5,000 my mom used to bail me out, that was money for us to move real nice," Leonard says, hanging his head low.

A judge sent him for a year to Glen Mills Schools in Delaware County, a reform school for law-breaking kids, where he earned his high-school diploma.

"They helped me with manners, respect," he says.

He says he regrets what he did. "It shouldn't have went that far," he says. "Anyone can see that. It's how you take it. It was principle. He wouldn't give my friend $5, even though he'd lost a $5 bet. . . . I ain't violent. I just got caught up in it."

At the time of the shooting, he thought life would have been easier if the teen had died.

"I thought if I'd killed him, everything would have been cool. There would be no witness. I wouldn't have been caught," he says.

"Now I'm happy he didn't die. . . . Right now I'm not thinking of killing anyone. I don't think like that. I don't want to hurt anyone.

"And I don't want to get locked up."

'They said I died twice'

Allen got lucky the first time someone shot him.

He was 15, playing basketball with some friends at 10th and Oxford streets, when a stray bullet struck him in the left arm, breaking a bone and leaving him in a cast for a few months.

"It was all right," he says, nodding. "It only took a couple months to heal."

The second time was different.

It was last August, and Allen, then 18, was at a neighborhood barbecue in North Philly.

He was home free on a weekend pass from Glen Mills Schools, where he had been serving time for gun possession.

Without warning, a gunman started firing into the crowd.

The first bullet slammed into Allen's chest.

"When I got hit, I felt that, like, it numbed my body up, there wasn't no more feeling," he said.

The bullets kept coming, one after another - five more in all - jerking Allen around like a rag doll.

He lost consciousness. Medics rushed his blood-soaked body to Temple University Hospital, where doctors worked frantically to save his life.

"They said I died twice," he says, his gaze fixed on the hardwood floors in his parents' Lehigh Avenue rowhouse, "but there's nothing I can remember."

When Allen woke up the day after he was shot, he was faced with devastating news: He had lost a lung and would spend so much time in a hospital bed recovering from his injuries that he'd have to relearn how to walk.

"I can't walk far no more," he says, lifting his T-shirt to reveal a jagged scar that stretches across his midsection like railroad tracks.

"I still got an aneurysm in my chest. I got an inhaler and a [nebulizer]."

Allen talks matter-of-factly about the damage inflicted on his body.

He's not trying to be a tough guy - he's a shy, quiet kid, and takes a few moments to consider every question.

"Some things, there's just words that can't be said," he says.

He shrugs when asked if he has any ideas about the identity of his would-be killer, or whether he had been targeted.

"Nobody saw nothing," he says.

So how did Allen get to this point in life - a high-school kid who has the wounded, damaged body of a war veteran?

Allen grew up around 15th and Master streets in North Philly. It could be a tough neighborhood, and Allen says he regularly ended up in fistfights.

"It wasn't like I was bad," he says. "I always got good grades. My parents stayed on top of me."

He notes that he was lucky, coming from a loving home with two parents and three older siblings.

But in high school, something changed. Allen started making bad choices. He got booted out of two schools for selling drugs and fighting. Eventually, he got his hands on a gun.

"That's when I really started doing dumb stuff," he says. "My mom, she was shocked, but my dad was like, 'He a boy.' "

Allen demurs when asked where he got his gun or why he needed it.

Allen is finishing his punishment in the gun-possession case on house arrest. He can leave his parents' home only to go to doctor's appointments or to attend classes at an alternative school in Hunting Park, where he hopes to soon earn his high-school diploma.

He doesn't talk with his parents about his harrowing near-death experience, or what could happen to him once his house arrest comes to an end.

"I know I can't get shot no more," he says before a ragged cough cuts the thought short.

'I don't believe in that'

Allen falls silent when asked what he wants to do with his life.

A few moments pass. "I might go to school for real estate or something," he finally says.

Relatives who live outside Philly have offered to take him in, to get him away from the city's violent streets.

"It'd be better, and it would be hard, like starting a whole new life," Allen says.

"But my friends, they'd think I was a sellout."

Ross got Leonard enrolled in Project Restore, a program that helps juvenile offenders get jobs. He earns $7.50 an hour to attend the program.

Leonard had a setback when he was asked to pick up litter. His friends poked fun at him. "I wouldn't clean no streets!" they said with disdain.

He missed a few days of classes. Ross and Leonard's probation officer were worried.

Leonard spent about a week with a relative. Ross says he believes time away helped Leonard get focused. He's returned home to his mom and the program.

When a reporter asks Leonard what he wanted to do with his life, he replies, "I don't believe in that. I just want money. I just want to be rich so I can take care of a lot of people. . . . One problem around here is confidence. I don't have confidence. Money makes you confident."

Violence is the fabric of his street life. "It's like you're around stuff so long, you start to adapt to it," he says.

He was friends with two teenagers and one 20-year-old man who were all killed nearby. He attended two of their funerals five months apart. He's known 10 people who have been shot.

He appears unafraid - or untroubled, at least - by the idea of dying young.

"I let death do its part," Leonard says. "That's how it is. I let it do it."

Today on For the rest of our "Under the Gun" series, including interactive maps and graphics, go to