Three separate murders of young men have “devastated” Nora Lacks this year. And it’s only April.
Death first came knocking on her Daggett Street door in the Hill neighborhood on Jan. 20 in the form of two New Haven detectives. They escorted her down the street to Yale-New Haven Hospital to identify the body of her grandson Durrell Patrick Law. Durrell, who was 20 years old, had been living with Nora Lacks since his mother (her daughter) died the year before. Now someone had shot Durrell to death across town on Eastern Street.
Death next came knocking on March 24, when someone shot 17-year-old Taijhon Washington to death in the head on Butler Street in Newhallville. Taijhon had become part of Nora Lacks’ family since the murder of Durrell. Taijhon’s sister was the mother of Durrell’s baby; the baby had started calling Taijhon “da-da.”
Nora Lacks heard a gun blast the third time death came knocking, last Thursday, April 3, around 9:30 p.m., the day after she attended Taijhon’s funeral. She dialed 911, then went outside to find Torrence Gamble Jr., 16, shot in the head.
She didn’t know Torrence Gamble. She knew what his loved ones were about to endure.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to see somebody’s child laying there gasping for breath?” Lacks, a 68-year-old retired Yale-New Haven personal care assistant said in a conversation Friday in her cozy, subdued living room, lined with generations of family photos.
“I know the pain of losing a loved one. I was hoping he would live.”
Torrence Gamble didn’t live. Crowds spent a week grieving and recalling him at a makeshift shrine around the “Do Not Obstruct Driveway” sign outside Lacks’ front door. Friday morning 121 memorial candles, 14 emptied liquor bottles, a basketball key chain and a painting of two revolvers perched above a bullet-pierced heart marked “Love Hurts” offered a silent reminder of the deadly gun violence that continues to claim young men’s lives in New Haven.
Few have felt the impact of that carnage this year as personally as has Nora Lacks. Her story demonstrates how quickly and thoroughly the collateral damage from ongoing gun violence in New Haven can change the lives of not just victims and shooters, but of grandmothers and neighbors as well.
Her story demonstrates how deeply that violence can penetrate a city that’s a more tightly-woven web than maps or statistics might suggest.
“The city’s so small,” reflected Troy McNulty, a pastor who regularly shows up at New Haven crime scenes and works with victims’ families. He calls Nora Lacks “Auntie”; he’s married to her niece. “We all know each other, when you look at how we’re all intertwined.”
Sunset Years “Rearranged”
Nora Lacks thought life would slow down, calm down, when she retired from Yale-New Haven in 2011. For a year it did.
Lacks had worked 28 years at Yale-New Haven, and loved it, she said. Now she was too tired to work full-time. She had moved to New Haven from Darlington, South Carolina, in 1963 in search of work, a trail blazed by tens of thousands of African-Americans in the mid-20th century. She found it at a series of humming local factories that have since become industrial ghosts—Gant Shirt Factory, then Dorsey Rubber, B.F. Goodrich, Interstate Container, C. Coles—before landing the position at the hospital. She married her husband, who still works as a self-employed maintenance man, in 1984. They moved a year later into their home on Daggett and have lived there since. The street, which had its problems at first, had quieted down in recent years, she said.
Lacks’ quiet retirement plans were shattered on March 20, 2013, when her daughter, Ladavia Law, died unexpectedly in her sleep of natural causes.
Lacks had already been involved in the lives of her daughter’s two children, Durrell and Durrell’s younger sister, taking care of them when Ladavia was at school or work. Now she “had to rearrange my whole life.” The two teens moved in with grandma and grandpa on Daggett Street. They all struggled to cope together with the loss of Ladavia. Lacks said she brought Durrell to her church, Faith Revival Temple in West Haven. She said he had recognized some “bad choices” that he had made and now stood up to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ.
Ladavia was on Lacks’ mind when the two female detectives showed up at her door on Jan. 20. It was Ladavia’s birthday, the first since her death.
The knock came at 4 p.m. Lacks was preparing to leave home to go to a part-time elderly home-care job.
“Are you Ladavia Law?” one of the detectives asked.
No, Lacks responded.
The detective asked if she was related to Durrell Law. Upon learning the answer, she told Lacks, “We need you to come with us.”
They didn’t say why. They brought her to the hospital where Lacks had spent decades working. The truth was hard to ignore once they walked through the emergency room. Lacks knew they were headed to the “family room.”
“I nearly fainted on the floor,” she recalled. “They picked me up and said, ‘We need you to identify your grandson.’” Which she then did.
The detectives were kind and sensitive that day, Lacks said. The cops continued to offer her support. They told her it appeared that Durrell had been shot in a dispute over a cell phone or sneakers. Lacks was devastated, as was her granddaughter.
“Is That A Shot?”
Lacks is a religious woman. She believes in the power of prayer. She believes that God is the source of her strength to keep going. She kept going, did her part to keep the family together.
In the subsequent weeks, she came to know Taijhon Washington. He lived with his sister, the mother of Durrell’s baby. He began to take on the role of a father, Lacks said. She liked Taijhon, she said. She would see him at his home. He also came a few times to Lacks’ house on Daggett Street.
Then he, too, was gunned down.
Lacks found herself at her third family funeral in a year. She sat in a pew at Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church as Pastor Theodore Brooks invited young men present to stand up to commit to changing their lives so that New Haven’s cycle of violence can end. One of the young men who stood up—the first, according to Troy McNulty—was 16-year-old Torrence Gamble.
The boy Lacks would meet the following night as his own life came to an end.
“I was sitting at the computer,” she recalled. “I heard the loudest bang. I said to my husband, ‘Is that a shot?’”
She wondered if she should go outside to check. Or whether it made sense to stay inside in case more bullets were flying.
Then a neighbor rapped at her window. “Call 911!” she yelled.
Lacks took the house phone outside with her.
“Please come quickly,” Lacks told the 911 dispatcher. “There’s a child in the street. He needs help.”
Lacks found Gamble “laying out, head hanging over the curb. Blood was flowing out of his nose and everywhere.” He couldn’t speak.
Waiting for the police, she and her neighbor tried to help Gamble. The neighbor held Gamble’s head up.
“Please don’t let another family go through this,” Lacks remembered thinking. “It’s the hardest thing.”
Nora Lacks did not attend Torrence Gamble’s funeral. Three funerals in a little over a year were enough.
The funeral, in some ways, came to her, with Gamble’s friends congregating for a week at the makeshift shrine on the sidewalk.
The first night after the murder, it was raining, Lacks recalled. She went outside and started speaking with the young men.
“Please don’t lose your life on these streets,” she told them.
One of the young men hugged her. “I put my arms around him and prayed with him.”
In the wake of the recent teen murders, New Haven has embarked on a new quest to reach the 100-200 young people most at risk of getting shot. Meanwhile, Lacks is determined to press ahead, to help her granddaughter cope with the upheaval in the family’s life.
“I’ve got to come through it,” she said. “I’ve got to put the past behind me and keep moving.
“There’s no other way to live. I’ve got a long ways to go.”