Things were turning around for Erick Younger. He was working at the McDonald's off Laburnum Avenue, near the racetrack, and had a new girlfriend. Only 19, he was even looking into getting his own place, says his mother, Marsie Shelton, and trying to get his G.E.D. He started showing up at church again. "He was just trying to do the right thing," Shelton says. "He made his mistakes, he made some bad choices. He was just a loving, um, everybody just loved his smile."
At the church down the street, Erick had endeared himself to the pastor, the Rev. Owen C. Cardwell, and had spent time recently talking to other kids at the church. After his robbery conviction a couple of years ago -- in the process of allegedly robbing a taxicab driver, Erick caught a bullet in the thigh Cardwell saw Erick change, too.
On April 26, a Saturday morning, Cardwell is in the chapel at New Canaan International Church in eastern Henrico County, launching a literacy campaign on behalf of Erick. A handful of members show up, and the discussion centers on breaking the vicious cycle that afflicts so many black men the "jail trail," Cardwell says. Marsie knows this too well. Not only did Erick do his time, but his older brother, Anthony, is currently serving a jail term for holding up a 7-Eleven with a BB gun.
Erick's troubles started in elementary school, in the fourth grade, when he was labeled as a problem. "Erick was one of those kids who was diagnosed with ADHD, a slow learner, learning-disabled, and he had a lot of frustrations with school," Cardwell tells the members. He eventually got so frustrated he dropped out, in the ninth grade. "He got out in the community and started doing some pretty dumb things," the pastor says, "but a lot of that was because he made choices based on the choices he thought he had."
His biggest weakness: "girly girls," Marsie says. He'd always been a "mama's boy," and she remembers after a rough pregnancy, Erick clung to her and never let go. They were still extremely close, and Erick told her everything, too much at times, especially when it came to his relationships. Marsie remembers warning him to be careful, to not get caught up with the wrong women.
"I told him, 'Boy, you're playing Russian roulette with your life,'" she says, adding that it didn't sink in. And things just weren't right with his latest girlfriend. Something just seemed off, Marsie says.
A year earlier, she had to make a tough decision, told him if he couldn't follow the rules of her house, he'd have to leave. He had been sneaking out, getting mixed up with the wrong kids. He was 18. He left.
They remained close, however. On April 1, he called home for the last time, around 9:30 p.m. "I talked to him and said I loved him," Marsie says. "He said, 'Mama, I'm coming by the house later on.'" He never made it.
The next day Marsie got a call that Erick might be in trouble. There was trouble at his girlfriend's apartment in Mosby Court, and police were calling it a burglary. There was a violent struggle and lots of blood. They found his body a three weeks later, in a field off Route 522 in Louisa County.
Marsie chokes on her words. "He didn't deserve this, no matter what," she says.
Pastor Cardwell, sitting in a chair in front of the church pews, seems slightly beaten when the talk turns to Erick. Should have been at the funeral on Tuesday, April 22. It was standing room only. There were people spilling into the parking lot.
"His body was found tossed out in a field," he says. "And all we could do is put up a picture of him for the funeral. Nobody should have to go out that way. We kind of made a pledge at the funeral that we were not going to let Erick's life go unrecognized. And part of that is to honor him and try to stem this school-to-prison pipeline."
The picture from the funeral now sits in Marsie's house off Young Street, taking up much of the living room. An urn filled with Erick's remains sits on a table in front of the photograph, in which Erick holds his 2-year-old daughter, Aniah.
And that's what really hurts Marsie. Erick's father left when he was just 2, and now the cycle begins again.
"It's the same thing with her," she says.