KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) | Tough-talking Ryan McDonald grew up in a rough blue-collar neighborhood, teased as “Mr. Clean” since childhood after an ailment left him permanently bald.
But friends and family say the intimidating manner he used to fend off insults hid a generous and funny teenager eager one day to work with troubled children. His life abruptly ended Thursday morning when a classmate fatally shot him in the cafeteria of Central High School here.
“He was a kindhearted kid, you know? I just loved him, you know what I’m saying? He would do anything for you if you asked him,” 18-year-old Ron Rochester, known in the Lonsdale neighborhood as “Ron Ron,” said of his 15-year-old best friend, Ryan.
A police spokesman said Friday investigators believe they know the shooting motive, based on a brief conversation between an officer and the suspect, 15-year-old freshman Jamar Siler. Police arrested Jamar three blocks from school just minutes after the shooting.
Jamar is now held without bond, charged with first-degree murder.
Mr. McDonald was white and Jamar is black. But the shooting “had nothing to do with being gang-related or racially motivated,” police spokesman Darrell DeBusk said.
He suggested more may be revealed at a court hearing next Thursday.
Mr. McDonald’s pastor doesn’t know what sparked the exchange - authorities say the two teens knew each other - but he thinks he knows what happened. He recalled a church youth trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in which Ryan was quick to let the clergyman know, “Pastor, I can take care of myself.”
“I think he probably stood his ground, and that ultimately led to his death,” said the Rev. Dan Mayhle of West View Wesleyan Church.
Joseph Anthony McDonald, the victim’s father, put it another way when Mr. Mayhle spoke with him after the shooting. “He said, ‘I told Ryan that someday that mouth of his is going to get him in trouble, but I never thought a kid would pull a trigger and shoot him.’”
Mr. Rochester said he heard the suspect had been picking on Ryan on the bus to school.
“The dude was slapping him and smacking him on the back of his hands,” he said, though he had never mentioned it to Mr. Rochester.
Both the victim’s parents have criminal records pre-dating his birth: the father’s mostly being for drug offenses and mother Barbara Jean McDonald mostly for prostitution. It was one of the crosses for Ryan to bear. He lived with his grandmother, Genny Miller, who gained custody of him years ago.
He went bald at 3 from alopecia. To cope with teasing from other children, he developed “a little chip on his shoulder, an attitude,” Mr. Mayhle said.
“It was just something he had to do in this area to survive,” his uncle Roger McDonald said. “He had this tough exterior, but if you really knew him he was not like that at all.”
Neighbor Darlene Foust remembers Ryan ever since he first asked her for money to buy ice cream as a child. She recalled him as “always happy.” He taught her 7-year-old grandson Carlos how to swim, play football and stay out of the street.
“He was funny,” Carlos said.