Fifteen-year-old Tyson Bailey will be remembered at his funeral Thursday as friends and family try to get their heads around why a promising athlete and good student was gunned down while visiting a pal who lived across the street.
"When I heard the news, I was in shock, crying, and in denial," says a choked-up Norm Davis, who had been coaching Tyson at Central Tech high school since the talented running back started there two years ago. "This is not right. He wasn't on our radar as someone to get into trouble like that."
Tyson was the city's first gun-murder victim of the year. His death on Jan. 18 preceded the fatal shooting of Brampton's nine-year-old Kesean Williams five days later. Kesean was shot in the head as he sat in his home watching TV. His funeral is Friday in Hamilton.
In both cases, no arrests have been made.
Tyson was gunned down in a 13th-floor stairwell in the apartment located in a squalid section of Regent Park, an area yet to benefit from a massive redevelopment nearby that includes a state-of-the-art aquatic centre, as well as half a dozen new condominiums. The residents of 605 Whiteside Pl. said they were shocked by the murder, but they're hardly strangers to crime. In October, 2010, the building was the scene of a double-murder of two teens. A mural on the brick wall of an adjacent townhouse depicts two young black men, with the inscription "Your life is about choices," and surrounded by the words genocide, jail, drugs, self esteem, focus, determination, goals. And RIP.
It's an eerie drawing that encapsulates the fear and frustration felt by many residents in this part of town. Police reported a stray bullet had pierced the window of a nearby apartment building early Wednesday, but said they had no reason to believe the shootings were related.
Detective Sergeant Justin Vander Heyden says the investigation is ongoing, and armed with 24 hours of security video, the police hoped to determine if Tyson was deliberately targeted. "We know he was on the 13th floor, waiting for his friend. But after that, the story becomes unclear," says Det. Sgt. Vander Heyden. "We know he encountered someone in the stairwell, but we don't know if he surprised them or if they were waiting for him. Surveillance footage shows everyone who entered and exited the building. At the minimum, we know no one fled the scene before police arrived, which means the shooter or shooters have holed up in the building, or they are residents there."
The detective added Wednesday that the investigation is proving difficult. "In the first 36 hours, we probably spoke to half a dozen different people, some of them twice, but that's all. I would love to tell you something that would encourage more participation but we're just not getting it ... none, or very little. There's been a shooting in a neighbouring building, somebody had a round go through their window yesterday, but we're unable to associate that with the murder. So it's back to basic police work – researching who's been investigated in the area."
Tyson's coach Mr. Davis remembers him as the type to walk away from confrontation. "I remember his first year, he got tackled from behind, and got very upset. I talked to him after the practice, telling him to stay focused on the game. The next time we played, he got tackled from behind again, this time worse. I thought, 'Oh no, this is going to escalate.' But he just got up with this little smile, looked over at me, and continued on. It was the glimpse of a young man saying, 'This game is way more important than just me.' We went on to win. Some kids never learn that lesson. I don't think I got through to him. I think he got through to himself."
His principal Sheryl Freeman says, too, that Tyson is sorely missed. "He was gregarious, but not in-your-face or anything. He was just a nice kid, trying to make a difference. We often see kids who are going down the wrong path, but this simply was not the case. People are feeling he was snatched from us. Why him? Why anybody?" she asks, adding that Tyson was soon to receive an award for never having missed a football practice.
Det. Sgt. Vander Heyden said Tyson was not on the police's radar. "Don't get me wrong, he hung out with a lot of kids in the neighbourhood, but he had no criminal record whatsoever."
Police will be attending Thursday's funeral, Det. Sgt. Vander Heyden said.
Tyson's homeroom teacher, Spencer Rupke, describes him as "tough on the outside, but that was just a front for a nice kid who would never hesitate to help friends with homework, or lend them his notes if they missed a class."
At the start of this school year, Mr. Rupke, who also taught Tyson math, admits he wasn't sure if the teen was going to "buy in" to his stringent classroom rules. "I could see he had a tough skin, and there was some initial push-back," says Mr. Rupke. "But ultimately, I gained some respect from him, which was awesome for me because he was a student with influence amongst his peers.
"On his first math test, he got 78 per cent, which was among the top three marks in the class. And you could see the competitiveness in him to keep doing well. He wanted to know who else did well. I appreciated him in the classroom as an ally and an example. You could see his confidence blossoming, not just on the football field but academically as well."
According to Coach Davis, Tyson hung with a small, close-knit circle of friends. As a football player, he says, "You couldn't touch his athleticism or his work ethic." Still, like any teenager, he added, the Grade 10 student sometimes needed the odd nudge.
"His first year playing, he showed signs of being a play-maker, but he didn't really stand out for me. So when he came out to football camp this year, I told him, 'I don't know if we need you. There are Grade 9 kids who are faster than you.' I knew that would get him, and play to his ego. He looked at me like I was full of crap, gave me a little smirk, and said, 'I can be faster.' And he was."
With a report from Timothy Appleby