After a 20-year-old Fair Haven man died of what police call an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, Athena Hayes is searching for answers—and scrambling to find thousands of dollars to lay her brother to rest.
Athena Hayes (pictured above with boyfriend Dan Ferraro) and her family have been reeling from shock since Friday, March 22, when her kid brother, Melvin Hayes, Jr., was found dead at a friend’s house on Ferry Street in Fair Haven.
Melvin Hayes died of a single gunshot wound to the head, a wound that “appears to be self-inflicted,” said Sgt. Al Vazquez, second-in-command of the city detective bureau, on Tuesday. He said the case is still under investigation, but there does not appear to be any foul play.
As they wait for more answers, Athena Hayes and her family are mourning the death of a trusted babysitter, friend, aspiring hip-hop artist, and uncle who loved to crack jokes and turn back-flips.
Melvin Hayes, Jr., went by the nickname “Nicky” among family. He grew up in Fair Haven and attended Urban Youth Middle School, a transitional school for kids who struggle in mainstream settings. He attended Wilbur Cross High School, leaving before getting his degree. He most recently lived on Burwell Street with his parents. He spent his time hanging out with friends, making music and rapping at downtown clubs under the stage name “Gully.”
Athena, who is 15 years older than her brother, said she relied on him as a babysitter and fun-loving uncle to her 4-year-old twins. Even when he was 16 years old, an age when most boys don’t find it very cool to hang out with babies, Nicky and his two childhood friends would volunteer to babysit anytime Hayes needed him to. They would “triple-team” taking care of her twins, changing diapers and feeding them a bottle. They never asked for money, just whatever food was around in her fridge, she said.
He reported some amusing discoveries during his early babysitting adventures.
“Athena, the babies really like mayonnaise,” Athena recalled Nicky telling her one day. He had been eating a sandwich with a twin on his lap, and the baby, who was still bottle-fed at that point, took an interest in licking the side of his sub.
Even at 20 years old, she said, Nicky had limitless energy to entertain her twins. When they would take picnics to Fort Nathan Hale Park, he would run around with them until they got tired. One day at the park, she recalled, he slipped while doing back-flips. He skidded a long distance across wet grass. When he pulled himself together, he quickly broke out in laughter, she said.
“Normal people wouldn’t be laughing at that,” Athena said. “This kid laughed from the time he woke up to the time he went to sleep.”
Her brother “loved life,” Athena said—which made it even harder to grapple with the news of his death.
Athena said she got the call at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, March 22, as she was getting off of work.
“They told me that my brother had got shot in the head,” Athena recalled. She asked where his body was. His body was still at the house. She braced herself for the worst news: If there was any chance of saving him, she knew, he would have been whisked away to the hospital.
Athena rushed to the multi-family home on Ferry Street where police had found his body. The scene was taped off. There were already 30 to 40 people there, Athena said—a hint at just how many friends he had.
Police have released few details of what happened.
Sgt. Vazquez said Tuesday that Melvin Hayes was visiting a friend’s house when the accident happened. Police believe he was in a bedroom with another friend when the gun went off in Hayes’ hand. The friend ran out into the street and called out for help. Another friend was home in the shower at the time of the shooting, Vazquez said.
Hayes “died instantly,” Vazquez said. Police found him with a .38-caliber gun near his body.
The gun was stolen, Vazquez said; police have not yet determined where the gun came from.
Athena said she has never known her brother to carry a gun. His death has been difficult for the family to understand, especially for the little ones who looked up to Nicky so much.
$4,400 To Go
“It’s hard to explain death to a 4-year-old,” Athena said. She said her twin daughter understands that Uncle Nicky is in heaven, along with a pet that passed away. She said her son, however, has professed disbelief: “Yeah, right. He’ll be here tomorrow to play Transformers with me.”
Athena said 10 days after her brother’s death, she has finally “stopped crying 99 percent of the day” and resumed daily life. Now she’s working hard on putting together a funeral. She said when she went to arrange services, she was shocked to learn it would cost $6,500 to bury her baby brother.
“I’ve never buried anyone in my life,” she said. She learned it would cost “$2,000 just to dig a hole.”
Family friends have poured out support, she said. One family friend took a bucket and stood out on Grand Avenue. All together, friends came up with $2,000, she said.
The state victim services office does offer financial support to pay for funerals for some victims of gun violence, said Sgt. Vazquez. However, the state offers that help only in homicides, not in cases of self-inflicted wounds, he said.
Hayes’ family remains $4,400 short on the funeral costs, Athena said. She said she hopes to proceed with the funeral on Friday if she can raise the money.
“I have to get this done for my brother,” she said.
Nicky was “not just another kid who died in New Haven. He was more than that,” she said. He was “his mom’s pride and joy,” his younger sister’s best friend, she said, “and he was my world.”
“It’s hard for me to wake up every day and know that I don’t have him anymore.”
Hayes leaves behind his parents, Melvin Hayes, Sr. and Cindy Powell Hayes, his sisters Athena and Erin, and Darea Cloney, Athena’s close friend who was like a sister to him.
The McClam Funeral home at 95 Dixwell Ave., New Haven, CT 06511 is collecting donations for the funeral.