Film to probe Newark schoolyard murders' toll on family

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — For what seemed a small eternity, Shalga Hightower epitomized the picture of parental grief in the aftermath of Newark's 2007 schoolyard killings, when a group of men and boys, including one who turned 15 that day, lined up her college-bound daughter and two friends and shot them each in the back of the head.

As national media held Newark up as a symbol of the gun violence plaguing American cities, Hightower became an unwavering presence at the dozens of court proceedings that followed. Her courtroom vigil stretched nearly six years, long after the initial crush of attention subsided.

The overpowering sorrow that engulfed her has eased over time, but Hightower's determination to honor her daughter's memory has not. Recently, she embarked on a documentary film project that highlights the struggle of families victimized by gun violence, through the prism of her own experience.

That experience included losing a job because of absences to attend court hearings, an emotional breakdown and temporary homelessness when she was unable to pay rent. She and her two children were forced to split up for a time and live with friends or co-workers, and even spent time in a shelter.

"We went into survival mode," she said. "We did what we had to do. There was no help out there, or I was getting, 'Well, we helped you one time already.' It's things like that that people don't realize.

"When the marches and rallies are over, what does that family do? They're out there on their own."

The documentary is being produced by Charmil Davis, a longtime TV journalist based in Washington, D.C., but raised in central New Jersey. Her own brush with gun violence — she once was robbed at gunpoint — helped pique her interest when she saw some of Hightower's Facebook posts.

"I knew I wanted to talk to her, so we did the interview and I felt this connection," Davis said. "And we just formed this movement where we were like, 'we're going to fight against gun violence.' And it just kept going from there."

Hightower's daughter, Iofemi, was 20, working two jobs and headed to Delaware State University as the summer of 2007 wound down. The night of Aug. 4 shattered those dreams and jolted Newark, a city where the murder rate had spiked 50 percent in the previous several years.

The savagery of the murders was stunning. Six men and boys accosted and robbed the four friends as they sat listening to music on the Mount Vernon School playground. Three of them were marched down a flight of stairs, lined up against a wall and, according to prosecutors, forced to kneel down before they were shot.

Before her death, Hightower was slashed repeatedly with a machete. The fourth victim survived after being sexually assaulted, shot and stabbed.

Hightower and her friends had been good kids. Terrance "T.J." Aeriel, Dashon Harvey and the survivor — whom The Associated Press isn't identifying because of the sexual assault — had played in their high school marching bands in Newark and already attended Delaware State.

If they couldn't escape the violence of the streets, a city and nation asked, who could?

Shalga Hightower and the other victims' parents made a pact to attend as many court hearings as possible until the cases were resolved. For Hightower, that meant watching from the gallery as autopsy pictures of her daughter were displayed that showed her head wounds from the machete. Eventually, all six defendants, some of whom had ties to the MS-13 street gang, either pleaded guilty or were convicted, with some sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.

The killings spurred anti-crime efforts in Newark that were credited with driving down the murder rate over the next few years.

Production on the documentary could be completed by mid-summer, Davis said, and she hopes to use her connections to get interest from cable networks.

For Hightower, it is a continuation of the vow she made on that terrible weekend in 2007.

"When it happened, I made the promise to her that I would not let her death be in vain," she said. "She wasn't going to be just another young black lady that was murdered in the city of Newark. She was going to be known.

"She was a good kid. She was going to be a Delaware State University student. I didn't want to let that go."