The one who walked away

Author: Gwen O'Brien


Jay Caponigro ’91 paces the sidewalk in the dark at the corner of a normally busy South Bend intersection. Back and forth. Back and forth.

It’s a horrible night.

City police shut off the Friday-night traffic along this stretch of Mishawaka Avenue, not far from Caponigro’s home. They’re investigating the shooting of one of their own. It happened in the parking lot on a nearby side street. Details are sketchy at best. The officer was off-duty and not in uniform when he was shot. He’s fighting for his life at a local hospital.

Caponigro’s concern is not that of a resident worried about his property value going down from neighborhood violence. But he is contemplating another investment—the time and effort he and others have put into the community to prevent something like this happening.

Caponigro is director of the Robinson Community Learning Center, started by the University of Notre Dame five years ago. RCLC sits on Eddy Street, a couple blocks south and a world away from campus. Caponigro and others affiliated with the center have been working to reduce violence by offering residents opportunities for a better future through education and job training. They work tirelessly with at-risk youth. He just found out he knows a young man who may be involved in the shooting.

When Caponigro heard the series of gunshots pierce the quiet of this mild April night, he picked up the phone and within minutes had more information than even police had. The person on the other end of the line was a man named Rey Newbill.

Newbill was at RCLC getting a midnight barbeque underway. He’s the lead outreach specialist of CeaseFire, a violence intervention program brought here about a year ago from Chicago and incubated at the center. If anyone could find out what was going on, it was Newbill.

A hard life

Newbill grew up seeing his dad slide a pistol in his shoulder holster before heading out the door. By the time Newbill was a teenager, he was carrying a gun with him wherever he went.

Having a gun at the ready is like an insurance policy when you spend your day in the urban jungle. If someone pulls a gun on you, you got to be quick on the draw. One day in 1988, Newbill was quicker than the drunk, coked-up man who pointed a gun at him. He fired his pistol and killed his father.

Authorities saw it as a case of self-defense. The 19-year-old Newbill was not charged, but he convicted himself. Within a year, he tried crack cocaine to escape what he’d done.

“Just dealing with killing my father got me into the drugs. I didn’t have anyone to talk to.” Newbill’s parents had divorced when he was 12. He lived with his mother and, he says, she was always working. “Mom would buy me things to make up for not being there, but I really needed her there for me. Since she wasn’t, the streets took me in.”

Newbill ran with the South Side Dawgs. He sold crack, weed and, later, heroin. In 1996, he served a short prison sentence for a handgun violation. He racked up numerous warrants for gun-related charges ranging from battery to criminal confinement. Newbill moved from state to state to escape the law, but by age 35 he was tired of running and selling.

“I just grew up,” he says. “The Lord opened my eyes. I knew about the Lord, but I ran from him. I was scared of being a man.”

Newbill returned to South Bend and got himself a lawyer. He says the old charges went away. “I gave my life to Him and He started making things happen.”

His mother introduced him to her pastor, and they talked about what he could do with his life. “I told him I wanted to work with kids and show them there’s a better way.”

The pastor introduced him to Jay Caponigro in October 2004, just as Caponigro was looking to bring CeaseFire to South Bend. In a year’s time, the burly tattooed Newbill gained the trust of countless African-American teenage boys and helped many of them get their GEDs and jobs. He became particularly close to a young man we will call Devon.

Before the shooting

On a March afternoon, Devon hitched a ride to the west side with Newbill. There had been two late-night shootings outside a restaurant, and CeaseFire volunteers were meeting for the Rapid Response. Within days of a shooting, Rapid Response volunteers saturate the affected neighborhood with messages of peace and hope. Community members and leaders go door-to-door with posters reading “Don’t shoot,” and hand out fliers offering young adults opportunities to earn their GED, get job training and ultimately find employment.

Devon, donning black rectangular-rimmed glasses like those worn by Malcolm X, told a reporter how RCLC and Newbill had turned around his life. “I’m off the streets. I don’t even be on the streets,” he said.

Devon came to RCLC early last year for tutoring help. A friend turned him on to the place when he told her he was considering dropping out of high school during his freshman year.

“I wasn’t even worried about school no more. I was like forget it. I ain’t going to make it, no way. I was getting almost all Fs. All I was doing good in was choir and gym,” Devon said. “She went up there (RCLC) for tutoring, and she told me about it.”

The tutoring worked. “It brought my grades up. I focus more in class. I’m actually learning instead of playing around,” said Devon, whose grades shot up to Bs and Cs. He’d also discovered a love for composing poetry.

When Devon and Newbill met at the RCLC, the two became fast friends. “Rey is a mentor and a bro; somebody to talk to whenever I need him. He guides me to the right path, making sure I graduate high school and do something after that. I can talk to him about stuff, like growing up without a father at home.”

Devon lives with his grandparents. He never lived with his dad, and his mother died when he was 7 years old. He told the reporter that if it wasn’t for Newbill, he’d probably be “selling drugs or hustling people.” That was three weeks before the shooting.

Officer down!

Newbill can’t remember who called his cell phone first on that tragic April night, Caponigro or 16-year-old Devon.

Devon called from his sister’s apartment, near the parking lot where the officer was gunned down. He was very upset. It seemed Devon was with the gunman around the time the officer was shot.

Devon apparently was in a car with two other teenage boys who were talking about robbing someone. There’s a gun. Devon feels the pull between two worlds—the one Newbill talks about that offers a future which could include college, and the world more familiar to him that could get him a chunk of money in just a few minutes.

He asks the driver to drop him off at his sister’s apartment and gets out of the car.

By Sunday Corporal Scott Severns has died of his injuries.

On Monday Caponigro is in his office at RCLC, beginning what will be a long week at work. Up until now, there had been no homicides in the city yet this year, and some police officers had given CeaseFire credit for that.

“It’s a somber day here and throughout the city,” Caponigro tells a reporter.

Two young men are charged with murdering the officer. It could have been three, if Devon had not gotten out of the car minutes before the shooting took place. It’s still early in the police investigation, but so far Devon’s story is holding true.

“If our young man walked away when the others said they were going to rob somebody, that’s a very strong message that our work is paying off with some real concrete dividends. I’m hoping that’s how it did occur,” says a pensive Caponigro.

Caponigro is heartened by Devon’s apparent resolve, and one other thing. “Rey talked to Devon and was able to ask if he was safe and what was going on with him, and that was critical at a critical moment. Devon needed someone to talk to right away.”

Later that afternoon, Newbill leads about two dozen people in a Rapid Response through the neighborhood where the officer was shot. They distribute posters and fliers and try to reassure neighbors that such violence won’t be tolerated. The march ends with a South Bend pastor leading them in prayer.

When the crowd disperses, Newbill lingers to talk to the pastor and the CeaseFire board president about what they might do to prevent a violent summer. Maybe they could sponsor a gun buy-back program. Maybe they could get Reebok to donate athletic shoes and offer kids shoes for guns.

Newbill turns his attention toward an adjacent apartment building and shouts at an African-American teen perched on the banister of a second floor balcony.

“Didn’t I tell you to stay inside?” Newbill yells.

The teen is Devon, who is still staying with his sister. The homicide unit questioned Devon for hours on Saturday and then let him go. Newbill worries that this kid could be in danger of retaliation by the suspects’ friends.

Devon ducks back into the apartment.

“I’m there for him, and he knows it,” Newbill tells a reporter. “It’s just hard for him to deal with. It could have been him in jail. That’s still a shocker. It was real close.

“I was telling him, when he had a job he had no problems. Now he doesn’t have a job and his life just turned totally around. He left his job at McDonalds because he didn’t like the hours and the pay. He thought he was missing something on the streets. Now he found out that he wasn’t.”

Newbill feels angst over how close Devon came to ruining his life. “It’s hard to stay on track of him at all times,” he says. “I couldn’t save the other two, but at least I saved one.”

Saving one child at a time is the strategy behind RCLC, and Devon quickly becomes the example of what can happen if the right message gets to the child at the right time.

By midweek Take Ten, another violence prevention strategy sponsored by the Robinson center, heralds Devon as a teenager who made a good choice.


It’s Wednesday morning, and about 10 Take Ten volunteers arrive at Clay High School in South Bend for a weekly meeting with 120 peer mentors in four homerooms. The volunteers include some Notre Dame undergraduate and graduate students, RCLC associate director Andy Kostielney ’89 and Take Ten director Kim Overdyck ’02.

The program has been in this high school for only a couple months, and they know the task before them is the most challenging they’ve yet faced here. One of Clay’s students, Jeff Finley, a junior, is charged with murdering the police officer. He is the alleged trigger man.

Overdyck sees it as an opportunity to teach about “knowing when to walk away and that there are consequences to our actions and that we’re not the only ones that pay for the consequences.”

The purpose of Take Ten is to teach young people the skills they need to handle conflict without violence. The curriculum includes lessons about understanding conflict and violence, anger control, problem-solving skills, effective communication and knowing when to walk away. The program is currently in 15 South Bend schools, the city’s four Boys and Girls Clubs and two community centers. The volunteers teach the peer mentors (“ambassadors” in lower grades) the lesson, and they pass along the message to the other students. In the high schools, peer mentors are juniors and seniors who teach freshmen the Take Ten skills, among other duties.

Kostielney wastes little time in his homeroom. When the high school students don’t bring up the weekend shooting, he does.

“The police officer’s life is changed forever. The lives of the two boys who are charged are changed forever—one bad choice in the heat of the moment, and three lives are changed forever,” Kostielney said. “But one young man with those boys chose to walk away. He chose not to be there. He chose well.”

He tells them about CeaseFire and Devon. “Is CeaseFire why he walked away? We don’t know, but he did walk away,” Kostielney says.

He reminds them of the influence they could be having on the freshmen they mentor.

“But I’m an impatient person,” one male student complains to Kostielney. “I don’t see a response when I’m mentoring. It’s hard. I don’t think they’re listening.”

Social worker Debra Jennings interjects, “You may not think you’re making a difference now. But what you’re doing may make a difference in one of those kids’ lives in five or 10 years, and you may never know about it.”

Sana Farid, a Notre Dame graduate student, says: “You hear stories about people who say that the five or 10 minutes you spent with me once kept me from doing something stupid like shooting someone or committing suicide.”

The bell rings.

“Remember to tell them that someone walked away,” Kostielney says as the students file out of the classroom.

A city aches

The week ends with a solemn funeral for an officer killed in the line of duty. The 36-year-old Severns was off-duty at the time of his shooting, but police say he acted as an officer when he pushed his female companion out of harm’s way during the attempted robbery. The response from the community is overwhelming. Throngs of people line the streets between the church and the cemetery; many clutch a small American flag in one hand and a tissue in the other. Police officers from all over the country attend.

The city aches. Caponigro aches, but the pain would have been even worse if not for Devon’s good decision.

“These decisions are split-second decisions, and what we’re doing with Take Ten and CeaseFire is to help people develop the habit of making the right decision,” Caponigro says. “It’s only because somebody’s been working with Devon to change his habits that he walked away. That’s how we change cultures, and that’s how we’re going to keep going. We know we’re not going to get all of them, and that’s really hard because someone else pays a dear sacrifice.”

Even following the murder of one of their own, police still value the relationship with CeaseFire. South Bend Police spokesperson Captain John Williams told a reporter at Severns’ visitation, “We didn’t expect the violence and shooting to come to a screeching halt. We wanted to make a dent. Look, up until this we hadn’t had a homicide in the city. I’d still like to give credit to CeaseFire.”

Gwen O’Brien is a reporter with the South Bend Tribune.