- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Kevin Albert Jr. danced through the hallways of his mom’s house in a white cap and gown the day he graduated from high school.

The 19-year-old was the first student to cross the stage at Brainerd High School on May 14, and he was so excited he danced across the stage, too.

Albert, a standout linebacker at Brainerd who wore No. 10, landed a full-ride football scholarship to a small college in Arkansas. On that graduation day, he couldn’t stop smiling.

He’d struggled to get that diploma, in and out of trouble, living in rough areas, hanging with a rough crowd. Police knew him as an associate of the Rollin 40 Crips. He’d been shot at. Robbed and forced to strip naked. A week after graduation, he was arrested when he punched a hole in a bathroom wall and his mother called police.

But over the summer, Albert moved to Little Rock, Ark., for a fresh start: new city, new friends. His older brother is a sophomore at the school, also playing football, studying to be a math teacher. The day Tracy Ellis dropped her sons off, she snapped funny photos in the car as they waited in a Subway drive-through.

All was right.

But after just a few weeks in college, Albert said he wanted to come back to Chattanooga. Ellis begged him not to.

“Please don’t make this choice,” she told him. “Get back on the bus, go back to school.”

He returned to Chattanooga anyway. Ellis told him to find somewhere else to stay. He couldn’t stay with her.

“I was trying to show him a little tough love,” she said, sitting in a chair on her front porch, eyes distant. “But I didn’t think it would be like this.”

On Sept. 29, two weeks after he returned, Albert was shot multiple times and died in the middle of Rosemont Drive near the Missionary Ridge Tunnel. He was in a car with other people who shot him and pushed him out, Ellis said.

“He shoulda never come back,” said Gary Cross, a longtime family friend. He shook his head. “Not Lil’ Kevin. Not him.”

In the 15 years Sgt. Josh May has been on the Chattanooga police force, he’s known just two officers who’ve been shot, but the young people he meets on the street often see three friends shot each month.

“They live in a completely different, alternative world than we live in,” he said. “It’s survival mode. They don’t see past Thursday. Most people don’t have a clue what these kids are going through every single day.”

He knew Albert. He was a good student, a good kid, May said. But sometimes, trouble just finds a kid.

May and the police department say Albert was into gang life enough to cross a legal threshold - to be put on the radar as a gang member, and as a known associate of the Rollin 40 Crips. In photos on his Facebook profile, Albert throws gang signs and wears gang memorabilia.

But Albert’s mother and friends deny that Albert was a member of the Rollin 40 Crips. He was around it, they say, he lived in those neighborhoods and those people were his friends, but he was never in it, never really in it.

“He wasn’t no gangbanger,” Cross said. “Don’t do him like that. He hung around people like that, but he wasn’t.”

Most often, kids are recruited into gangs between the ages of 11 and 13, said James Howell, a senior research associate at the National Gang Center. It’s a slow process, and kids literally grow up in the gang. That life, those people, are all they know.

It’s hard to leave, said Quentin Lawrence, vice president for economic development at local nonprofit Hope for the Inner City. He didn’t know Albert, but in general gang membership promises fast money, social status, identity.

“Whether they are fully brought in or it was a matter of being affiliated, either way there is a history there,” he said. “A group of people where they know each other, have lived together, gone to the same school together - so to just break away is almost like losing your identity.”

Gang members form strong bonds with each other, Howell said. And it’s not unusual to see members leave and then come right back. Jumoke Johnson, a well-known Rollin 60 Crips member who went to college in 2012 after a local donor offered to pay his way, is now in federal prison after dropping out and returning to the streets.

“(Gang members) start out with friendship bonds, sometimes, and then they’re bonded more closely by committing crimes together,” Howell said. “They use phrases like, ‘My word, my bond, my blood, for life.’ They’re drawn back in by the strength of those bonds.”

Sometimes, gang members get in so deep that getting out would be deadly. But the transition out of high school is a vulnerable time for any teenager, Lawrence and May said. Kids are still figuring out who they are, still teetering on the brink of adulthood and childhood.

“A lot of these guys, they’re no different than you and me - they get homesick,” May said. “You take a kid from this environment and throw them into a small Baptist college - a lot of these guys don’t play well by the rules. They grow up in an environment where they don’t think the rules apply to them.”

Before he left Arkansas Baptist College, Albert told his mother the experience wasn’t what he’d thought it would be. He was on the football team, but he wasn’t practicing because of a hold-up with his financial aid, he told her. Some guys out there stole his stuff. His girlfriend was in Chattanooga.

He didn’t tell his brother he was leaving. He just left.

“Not everyone is going to get an opportunity to go play football at a college,” May said. “For him to squander that, it’s a shame. He could have been so much more. But something pulled him back here. And I guess no one will ever really know what.”

For years, Ellis chased her sons around the football field.

She’d run home to pick up forgotten practice jerseys, Under Armor, sweatbands. She worked concessions at Brainerd High School games, sold tickets and fried fish.

“She was around all the time,” head coach Brian Gwyn said. “She was a parent who really cared about her kids, and about the program in general.”

Before every game, Albert would tell Gwyn that he loved him, and that he had Coach’s back during the game. The outgoing, well-liked teenager loved hot wings, cooking and had a unique, toothy white smile. His death caused Gwyn to pause and reconsider everything.

“It makes you sit back and question your efforts, your purpose,” he said. “Why are you doing this? I went to school here 20 years ago and, 20 years later, it’s the same conversation and nothing is being done.”

Ellis’ home is quiet now, with both boys gone.

She last spoke to Albert on the phone on Sept. 29, from 8:36 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. They talked about his plans; he promised her he was going to get it together, show her he could make it.

He was killed at 11:32 p.m.

Ellis couldn’t sleep that night. She was hot, she was cold. She got up, she lay down.

Then came the knock on the front door.

“I went over and I saw those khaki pants,” she said. “And I said, ‘I know this ain’t Homicide at my door. I know it ain’t.’”

___

Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com


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