Fearing gun violence in Philly, this mother sent her football star son across the country to keep him safe
Omar Speights's mother talks about decision to send the Oregon State recruit to a high school in Oregon to flee potential violence in Philadelphia
Patricia Reichner's concern for the safety of her youngest child began before he was even born.
It grew when that son, Omar Speights, became a nationally recruited high school football player as a sophomore at Imhotep.
"People don't just have guns, they have machine guns," she said in a phone interview. "And as a parent of a high-profile athlete, it wasn't just that I feared for his safety because people knew who he was, but I also feared because he could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He could have just been trying to get on the bus, or walk across the street to get to practice."
Speights, who would have been a senior linebacker and defensive end at Northeast High School this season, flew on Aug. 24 to Oregon, where Reichner sent him to find a new school, she said, to keep him safe from the threat of violence in Philadelphia.
The murder of Kristian Marche, Speight's friend and former teammate, was not the future she wanted for her son.
On Aug. 23, Speights, 17, informed his coaches and teammates in person of the decision to move to Oregon.
A District 12 committee had already cleared him to play for Northeast earlier this month. He had transferred to the school last semester and would have been eligible to play in the postseason, unencumbered by new PIAA transfer rules.
In June Speights committed to Oregon State. His older brother — Jeromy Reichner, a 21-year-old product of West Catholic — is a redshirt junior defensive end for the Beavers.
Late on Aug. 25, I spoke with Reichner on the phone. She said there wasn't a specific threat that made her fear for her son's life.
What follows comes from a working 50-year-old single mother of three whose voice was sometimes weary, often animated, and full of frustration.
‘Not easy at all’
"I could be better, let me just say that," she said. "It's been an extremely emotional roller-coaster ride. That's the best way I can put it. This is the first time I've been able to talk without busting out crying."
She paused. A sigh followed. Hours earlier, she sent the son who wasn't supposed to survive his first year of life away from Philadelphia and across the country.
"It's not easy at all," she said. "I have so many feelings. On top of [that], I'm angry. Why, as a parent, do I have to move my son to a whole other state for him to be safe?
"It's just too much. Why does Kristian's mother have to bury him instead of sending him to Penn State? At what point is enough going to be enough? It's just too much.
This is not just my son; it's my baby. He's the youngest. It's a decision that no parent wants to make. But at the same time, I would rather make that decision than make funeral arrangements."
Send me an angel
Reichner and I spoke again Monday afternoon. Reichner said the date hit her hard — it would have been Speights' first day of school at Northeast had he stayed in Philly. She remains in Philadelphia, while her son is in Oregon.
On her way to work, the sight of a yellow school bus triggered tears.
When she was about four or five months pregnant with Speights, tears also flowed as she waited for a SEPTA bus. Doctors had found abnormalities in an ultrasound, and after visits to specialists, Reichner was told there was a 70 percent chance her son would be born with serious birth defects. There was a chance he wouldn't live past a year old.
"Had I listened to doctors when I was pregnant, Omar wouldn't have been born," she said.
Later, she added: "They didn't want me to carry him to term."
She broke down at the bus stop in tears.
"I said, 'God, please, save my son,' " she said, followed by a long pause. When her voice returned, it quivered.
"It's just crazy," she continued through tears. "I'm just realizing these are the same prayers I've been having lately for him."
Recent Philadelphia violence
My colleague Helen Ubiñas masterfully chronicles not just that violence exists in the city, but that it leaves families and friends of victims traumatized.
She also wrote: "Imagine this: A world where mothers and fathers didn't bury their children. Where families didn't celebrate their loved one's birthdays at cemeteries. Where kids didn't learn their RIPs before their ABCs."
After Marche was shot in the back of the head Aug. 13 and died the next day — the same day he was to leave for Penn State on a track scholarship — Reichner doubted her son could stay safe.
There wasn't a specific threat. Just a general sense of dread, unease.
Her mind goes back to the family of Marche, who was Speights' teammate and friend on Imhotep's football team. Police arrested two teenagers — a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old — in the shooting.
The following week, a 14-year-old boy was shot in North Philadelphia and later died.
"Fourteen years old?" Reichner asked. "Why is that normal in the city of Philadelphia? It's not."
Later, she added: "Nobody should have to bury their child, and nobody should have to move their child to another state to keep them safe."
Reichner isn't sure what school Speights will attend in Oregon, but she said emphatically that Oregon State did not help her and had nothing to do with the move.
Speights is staying with family in Oregon until he can find a school, Reichner said. She is unsure of his status for high school football this season because she doesn't know the state's rules on transfers.
She is aware, however, of a few comments on social media that cast aspersions on her son's character.
The majority of responses, she said, were supportive. She added that none of her kids "ran in the streets." She described herself as a mother who always made it her business to know where her son was, which was usually either at practice, school, or work at a clothing store in the city.
"You know what really bothers me too, is that everybody wants to stereotype the children in Philadelphia," she said. "As soon as a child gets shot or as soon as someone such as myself says, 'I'm going to get him out before something happens,' then he's got to be a bad kid; he's got to be in a gang, he's got to be this [or that].
"No, because explain to me what Kristian Marche did wrong? What did he do wrong? What did Omar do wrong, that I felt like I could not keep him in this city any longer? Because it was getting too close to home now."
Northeast coach Phil Gormley said Speights was a quiet, lead-by-example type and was liked by teachers last semester.
Thursday night, after Speights talked to teammates and coaches, a quadruple shooting occurred in Oxford Circle — about a mile from Northeast. About 8:50 p.m. at Oakland and Van Kirk Streets, at least 16 shots were fired from two semiautomatic guns about 10 feet apart, said Chief Inspector Scott Small.
Two victims were 17 years old.
"That stood out to me," Reichner said. "My son is 17. I was like, 'No, he has to go.' "
Reichner asked Speights what he thought.
"He said, 'Mom, if I have the opportunity to get out of Philadelphia, then that's what I want to do,' " she said.
She added: "That's a horrible thing. You really have to digest that. Not just in your brain, but in your soul, in your heart. People really need to digest that. A kid, that a kid, feels like their best interest is to have to move from their home. That's horrible."
Someone else’s angel
While she was pregnant with Speights, Reichner begged God: "Send me an angel."
A few months later, Reichner, who was then a supervisor in the photo department at a Philadelphia CVS, developed unrecognizable photos of a cloudy sky for a customer.
"She must have seen [the look] on my face," Reichner said. "The woman said, 'You don't see it, do you?' "
Reichner, who says she has very strong faith in God, looked closer. The woman and her daughter believed the sky resembled an angel, wings and everything, descending from the clouds.
Reichner began to weep. So did the customer once Reichner, through sobs, explained what she was going through. The customer gave Reichner a wallet-size copy of the photo.
Speights was later born healthy, save for painful digestive problems that lasted his first two months.
When I asked Reichner if she still had the photo, she sighed and said no.
She had kept it above a jewelry box in her bedroom until it was lost. Distraught, she searched everywhere, but it was never found.
"Maybe it was time for the angel to go on to the next person," she said. "I felt like I had it for the time that I needed it and then it was meant for someone else to get it."