WEST OAKLAND -- The new house was a paradise of safety.
Veronica Santos, her sons and her three small grandchildren had never had a backyard like this before -- so big and green and with more space than they could use. Playing outside in West Oakland had always felt dangerous.
But now, far enough away that the air felt different, they could leave the front door open for hours at a time. But every time the family thought of what they had survived, they also remembered all that they had lost.
Seven months earlier, on March 5, 2010, Veronica's longtime companion, 56-year-old John Jones, was killed on the street outside his house in West Oakland while talking to a neighbor. His death cleaved apart everything
John died two days after their 13th anniversary -- the night before a planned celebration dinner.
"I was supposed to call him at 2:15 and I didn't, I got busy at work," remembers Veronica, beginning to cry. "If I only would have called him. We all take a part of blaming ourselves."
John Jones was the 11th person slain in Oakland last year. While his face, the date and the way he died accompany those of 94 other victims on the annual map memorializing the debilitating violence in this city, to his family, and even the neighborhood where he lived, his death and his life still reverberate, his handiwork still present at the home he rented.
The anniversary of Jones' death passed earlier this month, and the challenges and losses of the last year are becoming increasingly clear. For many, especially in Oakland, this family's saga is uncomfortably familiar, the reactions to it rote and numb -- a family besieged by chronic levels of stress and trauma that peak over and over again.
John Jones was African-American; his life partner Veronica was Latina. African-Americans and Latinos -- roughly two-thirds of Oakland's population -- are more likely to grow up in violent circumstances, and die violent deaths, than any other people in this country.
According to a recent study from the Violence Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., young black men are 14 times as likely to die violent deaths as their white counterparts. Latino men are 10 times as likely to suffer the same fate. The same study found that Alameda is the second deadliest county in California for young men of color on a per-capita basis.
In 2010, Oakland recorded an average of one homicide every three days, mostly in the city's west and east ends. Many victims have lived around violence for so long they can't imagine a world without it.
"I don't think (people) even realize they're exposing themselves to violence," said Darren White, a program director at McCullum Youth Court, an Oakland nonprofit agency. "It has permeated every community and I wonder about (people) that have to walk past that death every day -- they become desensitized to death."
Psychologists and social workers have made strides recently in understanding how trauma works.
"The way neurons get connected is through experience," said John Rich, an expert in trauma and violence at Drexel University's School of Public Health. "If the experience is threat and trauma, the neurons that get connected are related to that. If the experience is books and reading, those networks get connected. And the hormones that get secreted under threat means that being under constant threat makes your brain adapt to that condition."
Often entire communities are swept up by the trauma. "John's death affected us all a lot," said one elderly neighborhood woman who declined to be identified. "I loved him so much."
"He was a good man," said another neighbor, also anonymously. "He didn't deserve what happened to him."
After Jones was killed, Deb Collett, a grief counselor from Catholic Charities, stepped in to help the survivors -- Veronica and her two sons, David and Michael, and David's three small children, Diana, 12, Alex, 7, and Shawn, 3.
"This is a chronically traumatized population," Collett said. "Every one of them has had chronic traumatization way before John died."
Collett is on the front lines of Oakland's violence, which means she's most often in people's homes or in the middle of their emergencies. Every time there's a killing in Oakland, she's the one who visits the victim's family to offer help.
As Collett began to work with John Jones' family, she recognized the repeating patterns of violence and chronic traumatization. One violent incident had followed another, she would discover; each successive one served as a double trigger, reigniting the panic associated with what had already passed, while stirring fears about what was still to come.
John Jones and Veronica Santos moved to a house in the 2900 block of Linden Street in West Oakland just after Halloween in 2007.
The neighborhood was rough. Two years earlier, a girl had reportedly been shot in the house. Police records show 14 separate incidents ranging from weapons violations to narcotics possession to felony assault and battery charges associated with the address in the 13-month period before the couple's arrival.
A week or so after the family moved in, thugs robbed a teenage boy in broad daylight, then shot him in the leg. "We'd always hear gunshots," Michael remembers. "Just bullets flying back and forth. It was constant."
The house had a reputation for drugs and violence. Police stopped by, looking for people who no longer lived there.
John decided he would spruce up the place. He bought sod and a Rototiller. He planted fast-growing grass. He bought bricks and made a walkway and a pit for the barbecue. "We made it look less ghetto," David said. "Like a home instead of just a house."
Neighbors took notice, the family said. "Hey," they'd yell out. "Hey, y'all makin' this place look nice."
But the threat of violence was never far away. Often it came from unexpected places. One day, David and some friends were hanging out across the street when his landlord's husband approached. David said the man pulled out a gun, placed it to the head of one of the friends and pulled the trigger. There were no bullets. A fistfight ensued.
"Anybody could get shot at this point," David remembers. "I'm screaming. They fall, a couple of us jump on both of them, someone got the gun, and I said, 'What the hell is wrong with you?' "
The landlord's husband was not available for comment. But a neighbor who asked not to be identified confirmed David's account in detail.
Afterward, life resumed a somewhat normal pace. The kids grew and went to school. Three-year-old Shawn was nestled firmly at the family's core. John called him Mr. Wiggles. David told them not to fret about the violence. "Is someone getting shot?" they would ask.
Bam, bam, bam
A few months later, the streets intruded into their home again.
On Super Bowl Sunday, as the family sat huddled around the living room watching the postgame highlights on TV, a spasm of gunfire crashed into the living room. A tracer line of bullets raked the stairwell wall, shredded curtains and blasted a family picture frame off the wall. Someone was firing an automatic rifle up the stairs twoard the top floor of the duplex. The family dove to the floor. David tried to comfort his screaming children. The firing drowned out their voices.
"They were really going after someone," David said. "Drive-by, walk-by, we don't know."
That night, Veronica and John retreated to their bedroom. The rest of the family slept on the floor, huddled together against the cold and shuddering chaos surrounding them.
Just 28 days later, about 2:30 p.m. March 5, John Jones was leaning on his neighbor's steps, as he often did, talking quietly with friends. David was a few houses down, working on a friend's car. Michael was inside tinkering with a computer.
The first shots came too fast for David to count -- bam, bam, bam. David peered down the street and saw a stooped figure. Michael saw a man shooting repeatedly at someone on the ground. He ran outside. John Jones was stumbling backward, gripping his leg. "Everybody be cool," John said."I'll be all right."
And then he dropped to the ground. David and Michael together put John into their car. Less than a half-hour later, John Jones was pronounced dead at Highland Hospital. Standing outside his own house in the middle of the day turned out to be the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nothing the family did could change that. "My car just wasn't fast enough for me that day," David said.
Coping with tragedy
"There's a regular person just like me standing over another regular person just like me, but this guy wants to play God," David said later, at his new home, remembering the sequence of violence that had led him here. "Knowing that just anybody can do that -- a millisecond of insanity can take it in that direction. Crazy that there's people out there like that, and we live in that environment, and don't even know it."
"Yes," Collett nodded her head vigorously. "That's it -- and don't even know it."
David relives the scenario with a vividness that is reminiscent of soldiers recounting battle scenes. "I used to go grab somebody something to eat, and that time I didn't do it, and what I should have done, it would have changed everything, I should have brought home food, and this thing probably wouldn't have happened," he said, and then breaks down and sobs.
His mother jumps up from the couch and rushes to comfort him. "You tried, mi hijo, you did everything you could do," she tells him.
After John was killed, Veronica wouldn't open up to Collett. Collett understood this, and didn't push it. Instead, they watched the news. Often Veronica just slept, exhausted. Collett counseled the family. David had withdrawn into moody silence. Michael was angry, but less volatile. One day, Collett was doing art therapy with 7-year-old Alex. She asked him to draw a silhouette and fill it in with words. Alex went quiet.
"What are you doing?" asked Collett.
"I do it alone," Alex replied.
"That meant he was crying all alone," Collett explained, "And I asked him, 'Next time you feel s ad, will you talk to someone?' "
Alex answered that he didn't want to add to anyone's hurt.
"This family is close, and those are the families where everyone retreats to their own corner, alone, because they don't want to hurt or burden anyone else," Collett says.
The summer of 2010 began, infused with terrible, painful memories for Veronica. John had been passionate about barbecues. He'd talk to neighbors, pass food to strangers over the fence. Now, Veronica could hardly bear to look in the direction of the old barbecue pit.
Shawn was beginning to show signs of trauma. He had night terrors and nightmares.
If he saw a gun on TV, or blood, he would tense up. "Grandma," he'd say, "that man right there, he has red stuff like Grandpa." A little scratch of blood from playing could send him into a panic.
A safe house
On Aug. 23, David and several children were out in their West Oakland front yard. A bright green Dodge Neon cruised by. The car returned, going the other direction. When it passed a third time, a man leaned out of the car, pointed a pistol, and began shooting. No one has been able to say exactly what happened that day, though police do believe gangs sometimes initiate new members by requiring them to do random shootings.
David grabbed the kids and dove to the ground.
"If I didn't move to get the kids, I probably would have been shot," he said. "I saw from A to B, from me to inside that barrel," he said.
"I'm tired of having my kids go through this," David told his mother that night. "I'm tired of getting shot at, getting scared. They're too young to go through this."
By early September, they had moved most of their belongings to a safer house Collett had found. On Sept. 13, Michael and Shawn had driven to the old house to load one last haul. As Michael was loading bricks into the truck bed, the landlord's husband appeared again. According to Michael, the husband got aggressive and began insulting him.
Michael was angry and responded in kind. The next thing he knew, he says, the husband had drawn a pistol and placed it against his neck.
"And he said, 'Go ahead, go ahead, what you gonna say now? I'll pop yo' (expletive),'" Michael remembers.
Veronica said the husband called her later that day and denied having a gun.
A few yards away, Shawn was sitting in the front seat of the pickup, silently watching, once again a witness to an assault.
The husband eventually backed down, put his gun away and left, Michael said. Collett came as fast as she could. Michael called the police.
Shawn turned to Collettafor help.
"Will you talk to me like you talked to Alex?" he asked. "I need you to talk to me like you talked to Alex because I'm going to cry," he said.
When he finally spoke about Uncle Michael and the gun, he associated it again with the death of his grandfather.
What the landlord's husband didn't know was that Shawn was in the front seat watching. And Shawn knew what guns were all about. His granddad had been killed by one. He had figured that out.
Later on, in a quiet moment, Shawn told Collett and Veronica, "I'm not a gun boy."
Good days, bad days
Even Collet cannot believe what happened next. On the Sunday before Christmas, when the family was getting ready to say one final goodbye to the year that had robbed them of their patriarch, Veronica's youngest son from a previous marriage, Daniel, died in a car crash.
"Just when they were laughing and sometimes meaning it," Collett said, choking back tears, and then letting the sentence fail.
"I was with him on Saturday and he was gone on Sunday," David said, "Now each of us is just a page in God's book."
The reckoning of what has happened, and what may still happen, is an ongoing process. All of them -- victims, counselor, children -- seem to realize this together.
That's on a good day. On bad days, the trauma takes meaner, uglier shapes. David is moody, prone to fits of anger he never had before. Michael seems less emotionally volatile, but more prone to simply accept that bad things happen to his family. Shawn still fears "the red stuff" and runs quickly to his parents whenever it surfaces. Outside, the streets are quiet. There is no more pow, pow, pow of gunfire. They can unlock their doors, leave the garage open, tend to their yard in peace.
Back in West Oakland, a bushy green tree has sprouted on the spot where John was shot.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/scott_c_johnson.