OAKLAND -- The generosity of a man and his family known on the streets of East Oakland for feeding the homeless and downtrodden was rewarded in one of the worst ways imaginable early Wednesday morning -- with a bullet to his head.
Known in the neighborhood as "Brother John," the 29-year-old man and his 35-year-old wife for more than a year cooked hot meals at their home and, with their young children in tow -- first in a pickup and recently in a van equipped with a hot plate -- drove a regular route to make sure the less fortunate had a decent meal.
Early Wednesday, someone in a vehicle opened fire on their van moments after they served a fish dinner to one of their regulars.
Brother John, who is the stepfather of the children, was shot in the head and remained on life support late Wednesday. His wife was grazed on the shoulder. One child, a 3-year-old girl, was hit in the arm. As the bullets ripped through the van, she and her 7-year-old sister were left screaming hysterically.
Their names were not released.
An upset Oakland police Sgt. Mike Gantt said Wednesday the man "was just out there doing a good deed and something like this happens. It's devastating. It could have been even more tragic, especially if those children were hit."
The shooting happened about 12:30 a.m. in the 1000 block of 47th Avenue, a spot police said was part of the family's regular route that started on 62nd Avenue and International Boulevard and went to High Street. This particular stretch of 47th Avenue is home to light industrial businesses. BART tracks can be seen nearby.
They had just given the fish, french fries and soda pop meal to a 61-year-old man they had befriended more than a year ago when he was homeless and living in a field in the area. That man, William, had recently taken a job as a caretaker for a business in the area but was still on the family's meal route. Bay Area News Group is withholding his full name out of concern for his safety.
As the family was in the van talking to William, a vehicle drove by and someone inside began shooting at the van. The van moved forward a bit, crashing into the rear of a large trailer as the gunman's vehicle fled.
Gantt said police don't have a motive.
The man, his wife and his children were taken to a hospital, where he was in grave condition Wednesday. His wife was expected to be released.
Eight hours later at the shooting scene, a shaken William, who only knew the victim as Brother John, said the other vehicle stopped, then backed up and someone inside began shooting.
"There was not one word," said William, who dove for cover and was not hurt. "All those shots, I had to duck. (The victim) didn't have time to duck. The kids and the wife were screaming and hollering."
Neither man knew the other's full name, but they had established a camaraderie and William said he gained a lot of respect for Brother John.
"He didn't have to come here and do this. There ain't too many people who would. He might lose his life helping people in the street," he said.
William, a former construction worker who besides his caretaker job makes money as a recycler, said he met the victim more than a year ago when he was homeless. He said he showed the man where other homeless people lived.
At one point, William said the man, whom he would talk with at length about life, became frustrated, thinking his efforts were unappreciated. "I said, 'Even if just one person is appreciative, that's good; don't stop.' He didn't, but look what happened to him now. It doesn't make sense. Why would you just shoot someone like that?
"I just hope and pray they catch who did this."
The wife told police she and Brother John are associated with the Rise Above Foundation, an advocacy group for victims of domestic violence. No one with the organization could be reached. The only address listed for the group is a post office box near Lake Merritt.
Police and Crime Stoppers of Oakland are offering as much as $25,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest of the gunman. Anyone with information can call police at 510-238-3821 or Crime Stoppers at 510-777-8572 or 510-777-3211 or email police at firstname.lastname@example.org.