Second SIU student shot in 2016 feels ‘blessed’ to be alive
SIU student Al Charles thought the night was over as he was leaving a party in Carbondale over the summer.
Then he heard four pops and felt a sting.
In the early morning of July 16, Charles became the 13th victim of gun violence in Carbondale in 2016. While his back was turned, he was shot in the leg in the 500 block of South Graham Avenue following an argument between his cousin and a young woman at a birthday party.
“You don’t go through something like this without changing,” Charles, a senior from Chicago studying marketing and television production, said Sunday during an interview at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. “I don’t care who you are.”
Police and doctors would later tell Charles that the bullet penetrated his right leg before exiting through the upper portion of his inner thigh. It shattered after it struck, leaving metal fragments in its wake, and it missed a major artery by less than half an inch, Charles said.
Doctors were able to save his life and his leg after he was rushed to the hospital by a friend who happened upon Charles shortly after the incident. Nearly two months later, the 25-year-old has undergone six surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation as he tries to get back to normal.
He was released from the hospital Monday, waiving goodbye to nurses as he was wheeled out to a friend’s truck.
‘I hope I don’t die like this’
Charles said part of the appeal to Carbondale and SIU was the chance to be somewhere other than Chicago. He moved to the region to pursue his dual degrees. He thought he would be safe.
“If I wanted to, I could have stayed in Chicago and got shot,” he said.
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Charles said, gave him an early lesson in avoiding dangerous situations. He strays from unfamiliar people and late night get-togethers at unsanctioned venues.
So when he got to the party that night, he was already feeling uneasy because of the large crowd. He was about to leave when he saw his cousin arguing with a young woman, and he walked over to see what was happening.
“She kept getting in his face, so I just pulled him away and broke them up,” he said.
He and his cousin left together minutes afterward. Charles said he thought the trouble was over.
Then the gunshots. And the blood. He ran.
The events that followed are difficult for Charles to recall clearly. He said when he realized he had been hit, he ran for cover at a nearby apartment building and leaned against a brick wall. As he started to lose consciousness, someone drove up and asked if he was OK.
“I said, ‘No, bro! I got shot. Take me to the hospital,’” Charles said.
He remembered jumping in the car. He remembered his blood soaking on the seats. He remembered hands smacking his face as they sped down the street. He remembered everything starting to fade before he slumped to the floor.
“I just remember thinking, ‘I hope I don’t die like this,’” he said.
Gun violence on the rise in 2016
Charles is the second SIU student to be shot within a calendar year. The first was Spencer DePue, who was shot Jan. 30 during Polar Bear weekend by a 17-year-old boy during a robbery, police said. DePue suffered a non-life-threatening injury and was treated at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. The teenager who shot him was arrested in June.
Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell addressed the perception of Carbondale as a violent city during a Sept. 6 press conference about the university’s enrollment. He said the problems the city is facing correspond to national trends and the campus is just as safe as comparable universities of its size.
Police have yet to identify or arrest those responsible for the July 16 shooting that rendered Charles with his debilitating gunshot wound. Charles said there were probably 100 people outside the house when multiple shots were fired.
To his knowledge, Charles said no witnesses have come forward with information.
“Somebody saw it,” he said. “Everybody didn’t simultaneously close their eyes as this person was shooting at people in an open crowd.”
The shooting corresponds to a statistical uptick in gun violence in Carbondale within the last decade. Carbondale averaged about six shootings per year during the last 10 years, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2016 so far, there have been 16 people shot in Carbondale, according to police data. Five of those shootings took place in July, making it the most active month for area gun violence so far this year.
Of this year’s shootings, seven are classified as open investigations, three resulted in arrest, two were closed for lack of victim cooperation and warrants were issued for the remaining four, according to police records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Two were fatal.
On March 27, local musician Tim Beaty, 41, was killed after a house party next door to his home in the 400 block of East Walnut ended in gunfire. Police have said Beaty was fatally struck by a stray bullet and another victim suffered a non-life-threatening injury.
Three men charged for their alleged involvement with the shooting are awaiting trail in Jackson County Court.
City and police officials have responded to the rise in violence in part through increased policing of large house parties. Police Chief Jeff Grubbs unveiled a proposed city ordinance during a city council meeting in August that would penalize landlords for allowing out-of-control gatherings to persist at properties they own.
The ordinance was drafted by police administrators as a response to a community forum that followed Beaty’s death.
The second gun-related homicide victim, David Stockstill, Jr., 28, was hospitalized on Feb. 1 with a gunshot wound police believed was not-life-threatening, according to information released by the department at the time. Stockstill then died of his injuries in April at a St. Louis-area hospital, according to an updated news release.
Police have made no arrests and no suspects have been identified in Stockstill’s killing, according to police records.
Three more people have been shot in the two months since Charles’ shooting, including one involving a Carbondale police officer who was shot during a pursuit in late July.
Three men were arrested in Kansas for allegedly attempting to carry out murder contracts on three people in Carbondale. Those men face charges in Kansas. No charges had been filed in Jackson County Court related to Officer Trey Harris’ shooting as of Tuesday.
In August, police learned of two non-fatal shooting incidents within about 12 hours of each other, one of which occurred near the Strip where scores of SIU students were gathered. Police released few details about those shootings and did not indicate if they were related.
‘I was slapping the hell out of him’
About the time Charles was arriving at the party, DeAngelo Tompkins, a junior from Chicago studying business, was at a crossroads. Tompkins’ girlfriend was insisting he drive her home. Another friend in the car wanted a ride to the Reserve at Saluki Pointe.
The Reserves was closer, but Tompkins decided to drive his girlfriend home first.
“That one decision could have determined the outcome of that night,” he said.
Tompkins pulled up to his girlfriend’s apartment building on East College Street and parked the car. They sat there a few minutes before they heard several loud pops, Tompkins said.
Then Tompkins saw someone familiar limping around the corner. Charles called out for help and Tompkins said he knew he had to act.
“My only purpose at that time was to get to the hospital to save him,” he said.
Once Charles was in the car, Tompkins said he raced through red traffic lights all the way to the hospital. He noticed Charles was losing a lot of blood. When they arrived at the emergency room driveway, he blared on the car horn to alert someone for help.
“Nobody came out, so I had to literally drag him out of the back seat all the way into the hospital,” he said.
There was uncertainty at the time if Charles would live or die, Tompkins said. But seeing the strength Charles has shown since the incident has been incredible, he said, and he is thankful he was there to help.
“He does not let this situation affect him, and I’m glad he doesn’t,” Tompkins said. “It cost him a whole month of his life and he came back like nothing happened.”
The initial prognosis was bad.
Charles said doctors initially weighed the possibility of amputating much of his right leg because of complications that arose after a massive amount of blood loss. But, after weeks of treatment, things are looking up.
“I just started working myself out through a lot of determination,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna let the doctor say so.”
When it came time to start school in fall, Charles was advised to take a semester off. Instead, he was on campus the first day of classes, making his way around on a pair of crutches. He plans to graduate in December, and aspires to someday own his own production company.
Charles lifted his leg off the hospital bed as he lay on the mattress and shifted his right foot laterally, back and forth. The ability to bend it vertically is gone, he said, since surgeons were forced to remove most of a muscle that allows such movement.
But he is working on his physical therapy every day, and has high hopes to walk again soon, he said. Still, when asked, Charles said he does not feel lucky.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as luck,” he said. “I’m blessed.”