Fear sometimes can separate you from the right stuff

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By Steve Doyle

You have read the chilling accounts about that teen-aged boy who was shot dead just a block from the library recently.

You probably didn’t know the victim. You may have heard the chatter about why this might have happened. You probably know even less about the alleged shooter or his whereabouts.

But at least one of us can speak clearly about what must be the shock and sadness that those who live around that street must feel each day as they pass the spot by the tree where they saw Joel Mena breathing his final breaths. One of us understands.

And I am that person.

More years ago than I would like to remember,  I, too, saw a gunned-down man lying in a downtown street, and I can see that image as clearly as I can see these words being typed across my monitor.

I was 16 or 17, and this happened on a school night, probably around this time of the year. Three of us were crowded into my neighbor’s pickup truck on our way home from playing an Explorer Scout basketball game at the high school.

He was steering up Washington Street, passing near where City Hall now stands, when I saw something lying in the right-hand lane in front of an old house that long since has been bulldozed into cement. I told my buddy to look out, that something large was in the street. I thought it was a box.

But as we drove nearer, the image was frighteningly clearer: “Be careful! It’s a person in the street.”

We were in front of another vehicle, and both drivers cut quickly into the left lane and stopped.

We jumped from the truck and ran back to where a man was lying prone next to a car.

As we approached, we could see he was wearing pants and a shirt. He was facedown on the cold, damp pavement, and his body was heaving in sharp breaths.

Urine and blood ran from beneath him. Car keys on a ring lay just inches from his fingers.

The people in the second car that had stopped yelled to us that they were going for help at the old fire station a couple of blocks away.

We stood numbly and watched this man’s breathing get heavier and faster. We could tell he was in pain. We didn’t know what to do but wait for the ambulance. This was far beyond our basic first aid training.

Seconds were passing like minutes. More onlookers had gathered around, some of them coming from the old house.

Everyone was asking what had happened.

“His keys are lying right here,” I said. “Maybe he was getting into his car and was hit by a car going past, a hit-and-run maybe.”

It seemed logical, and others picked up on that until a woman behind me asked,  “Does anyone know what happened to this poor man?”

“I know what happened to him,” said a woman we had seen walk from the old house. “My husband shot him.”

We all stared at her as she stood as still as we were, more calm than you could imagine,  loosely holding a revolver that was pointed at the ground.

My friends and I quickly exchanged glances. My neighbor nodded toward his truck, and three terror-stricken teens took off on what now seems an embarrassing flight home.

We left a man lying there, a man we had discovered, and we took with us scenes that would be retold to our friends and families, scenes held in our memories as if projected onto a theater screen.

At school the next day, word of the shooting was discussed widely between classes. Someone had heard the man had died. We heard he was shot during an argument over whose car was faster.

And our classmates were amazed to hear what my friends and I had seen on Washington Street that night.

Other than my companions, I don’t remember any names or dates, but I know that charges were brought in the case. I have no idea what happened to that shooter.

I can only tell you what happened to this witness.

He has for decades now second-guessed what he did that night.

Should he have stayed and told what he saw and what he had heard?

Should he have made sure his contributions to the process of justice weren’t overlooked?

The clarity of time and experience brings a simple and indisputable answer to both: yes.

That would have been the right and courageous thing to do, though fear can be a great motivator, particularly when you’re a skinny teenager and someone nearby has a pistol that recently was fired at a man.

Somewhere in Shelby County, there may be a person who was near 9th and College streets that night Joel Mena died and saw what happened.

Or there may be someone who was out at Rockbridge Road that night in October when Jim Duckett was brutally slain by an unknown assailant.

Someone may have been around and noticed a car or a person or a moment in time that might be part of that case but be too scared to speak of it.

And I understand that.

But I hope if someone did see something, that person will stand up and speak up.

Because some day, when that moment is replayed with the context of history, he will wish he had.


Steve Doyle can be reached at sdoyle@sentinelnews.com or by calling 502-633-2526.