My friend Brian Wilemon called me a few days ago. There was nothing unusual about receiving a call from my childhood best friend — we’ve been together since we were in cribs — but it’s what he said that really caught my attention: “I was a block away from a shooting again today.”
On Feb. 7, Brian and his family — wife, Jennifer, and sons Ben and Miles — joined my family — my wife, Dayna, our then 1-year-old son, Charlie, my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and niece and nephew — at a house party in Pass Christian for the annual Pass Parade. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law have hosted this event for years.
We had been driving down to attend this event for years, but this was our first time to attend it as official residents of the Coast.
A perfect day
The weather was perfect on this particular Sunday. The only thing that had gone wrong was that we didn’t leave Long Beach early enough and we weren’t allowed to drive down Davis to Phil and Dena’s house on Handy Street. Listen to your mother-in-law, people —when she tells you to leave at 8 a.m., do it. Don’t wait until 8:30 — trust me.
Phil and Dena’s house faces a field which is on the beginning of the parade route. It was a short walk across the field to watch the parade. We had Charlie in a stroller and we had his Red Flyer wagon with us to haul whatever loot we caught, which seemed like a ton.
The parade was fun, we heard the “Cupid Shuffle” about 50 times and lots of people threw things to Charlie and his cousin, Eva Clair. We had a great time.
After the parade, we walked back to Phil and Dena’s and ate and continued the festivities. A couple of my co-workers had joined us at this point — Anita Lee and the great crime reporter Margaret Baker, as well as Anita’s granddaughter. We were having a great time visiting and eating king cake and chicken tenders.
I was hanging out on the side porch with my wife, my mother-in-law, my sweet son and my best friend and his family. I was well aware of how fortunate I was to be with so many people I love at one time. I did not take the moment for granted. I was with about 90 percent of all the people I love the most.
But in an instant, things changed.
Are we going to die?
I left everyone on the porch and went inside to get a fresh Diet Coke. When I returned, I saw people across the field running and screaming. It was a chaotic scene.
“Jeff, I thought I heard some fireworks, but it was a gun — it sounded like a handgun,” Brian said.
And that’s when it all went down. There had been a shooting at the Pass Parade. Was it a sniper? Was it an attack? How many people had been shot? Were we in danger? Did someone want to hurt my family?
We grabbed Charlie, who was casually eating yogurt and was oblivious to the violence unfolding around him, and took him inside. There was a mild panic because my nephew, Phillip, wasn’t at the house as he had walked down to the parade route. He soon called and said he was fine, but he was very close to the scene of the shooting, which was about a block from where we were.
The scene continued to grow more intense in those moments when we did not know what was happening. There was a helicopter circling the area and the sounds of sirens roared in the distance.
Margaret decided to walk down Davis to see what had happened — four people were shot and two were dead. I wasn’t going to leave the house. I wanted my family to be safe and I didn’t know if the shooter was still out there. My first instinct was not to report, but to protect my family. I caught some grief about this from a co-worker, but I would do the same thing should something like that happen again.
I ended up going to the crime a scene after a bit to send in some photos for work. It was a pretty grim scene — two bodies lay dead in the middle of Davis Avenue, covered with sheets.
“I think that was reality of it,” Brian told me in the days after the shooting. “We had to walk by those dead bodies on the way back to our car — I hate that the kids had to see that; it was awful.”
As a reporter, I’ve been on numerous crime scenes many times. But what unfolded the day of the 2016 Pass Parade still haunts me. And the 2017 Pass Parade is rapidly approaching. I think we are all a bit apprehensive about it.
Four men were arrested for the shooting. They left two people dead and a lot of people filled with dread and anxiety.
I’ve made it a point to try and teach Charlie to not be afraid of things — dogs, fireworks, cartoon monsters, etc. I don’t want him to grow up full of fear the way I did, which was the result of growing up in a home with an alcoholic. I want him to be well-adjusted. He’ll be ready to go come Pass Parade time. I’ll just compress my anxiety and move forward. But deep inside, I will be anxious at this year’s parade.