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She embalmed her own nephew and learned to shoot. A Chicago funeral home copes with gun violence

Nydra Sutton pointed the 9 mm pistol at the shooting-range silhouette near the back wall. She squeezed the trigger.

Each sharp crack brought a hard kick. A spark. Smoke.

A bullet casing bounced near her foot, she recalled. She lowered the weapon. Then, shaking and sobbing, she rushed away.

It had been Chicago’s record-setting violence — and the threat it implied for her and, perhaps, her 5-year-old son — that had prompted Sutton last year to seek a concealed carry permit.

“If I was going to be a victim, it was going to be a battle,” she said.

But in that moment, during the shooting exam, Sutton’s mind swung to her work as chief embalmer at Leak & Sons Funeral Home, one of the oldest on the South Side, where slayings have grown notoriously vicious.

For those who know Leak & Sons’ curtained parlors and mustard-colored halls, the city’s murder tally is not only a number.

There’s the young trauma physician, whose own brother was fatally shot and who laments the many funerals he has attended there. And the octogenarian funeral director, who as often as three times every week greets parents who have lost sons and daughters to gun violence. And the grieving mother, preparing to bury a teenager next to his sister, murdered years earlier in an infamous crime.

Together, their experiences expose the grim narrative of a community facing a seemingly unending scourge, no matter how they try to approach or attack it.

For her part, Sutton, 46, toils through long workdays, trying to patch wounds that she said, on the whole, have gotten worse. “It seems intentional, so families will not be able to see their loved one with an open casket.”

She applies a special putty, wax and makeup on young faces and bodies mutilated by bullets. It was that careful task that flashed in her mind as she discharged the slugs from the 9 mm, just as her tears began to surge.

“I thought of the people on my table that I have to put back together,” Sutton said, “because of this gun and the power behind it.”

Violence ticks down as blood still flows

Every number tells a story, of course. But the numbers themselves are stunning.

2016 was Chicago’s deadliest year in nearly two decades, with 773 murders and 4,351 shooting victims, police said. Those figures dropped the next year, though murders still totaled 656.

Then, Chicago officials in June lauded a milestone 15 consecutive months of declining shooting and murder tallies. They credited hiring more officers, strengthening community policing and investing in technology, such as gunshot-detection systems and predictive crime software that helps deploy cops.

Chicago police in late August boasted of 2018 statistics tracking at a less-deadly pace than last year, with overall crime down 10% for the year. And they extolled the seizure of nearly 6,300 illegal guns this year — a rate of more than one every hour.

But there have been unsettling spasms of violence.

At least 58 people were shot during the third weekend of August — an average of about one per hour. Six people died, including two teenagers found riddled with bullets in a field. It all happened after 600 extra officers were deployed in response to violence two weeks earlier that had left 66 people shot and 12 dead.

Those who work to wrest lives from death’s grip see a revolving door of carnage.

Since the University of Chicago Medicine’s Level 1 adult trauma center opened in May, some young people have been treated there more than once for gunshot wounds, said Dr. Selwyn Rogers Jr., the South Side facility’s founding director.

“For that to happen in just three months is pretty shocking,” he said.

Dr. Abdullah Pratt, who practices at the University of Chicago Medical Center emergency room, not far from where he grew up on the South Side, said most victims have no choice but to return to their crime-ridden communities.

“You’re in the same neighborhood. People know where you are. They know your routine,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s really not that hard to find people.”

An embalmer tends to one of her own

Gun violence has grown so commonplace that particularly bloody weekends can feed gallows humor, said Spencer Leak Jr., 48, who runs his family’s funeral home in the city of Country Club Hills, south of Chicago.

“I’ll see my friends on the street, and they’ll say, ‘I know you’re going to be busy this week after what happened last weekend,'” he said. “My friends talk about, ‘Oh, you can take us out to eat this week.'”

But Leak doesn’t like the notion that he’s “making money off unfortunate deaths,” he said. “I don’t think it’s funny.”

Sutton lives in a middle-class south suburb. She has stopped watching the news. But she grew up on the South Side.

“I feel for people who actually live in this community,” the embalmer said. “They can’t escape. Their babies are dying.”

And, of course, she heads there every day to work.

Earlier this year, her worlds collided.

An emergency call came in to the funeral home in late January. Sutton’s 22-year-old nephew, Devin Hill, had been fatally shot on the city’s West Side.

“They left him in a vacant lot, and I guess the people who did it … called a family member up to tell him that, ‘You better go get such and such,'” she recalled. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we blazed him up.'”

Sutton received his body at Leak & Sons, she recalled.

“I started thinking about him when he was, like, 8 years old, and how he used to always tell me, ‘I’m going to be taller than you. I’m going to be taller than you,'” she said. “Those were the visuals I had before I saw him.”

Laid out on a stainless-steel table, Hill’s body measured 5 feet, 10 inches — 1 inch taller than his aunt. She checked her emotions, she said, and embalmed him.

“It was one of the worst days of my life,” Sutton said.

A grieving doctor treats savage wounds

As 15- and 16-year-olds have found it easier to get semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, casualties have gotten worse, Pratt, the emergency room doctor, believes.

“You see things that I would have thought should only be held over in Afghanistan or Syria,” he said. “They can get access to the same guns they’re using on ‘Call of Duty’ video games.”

More damaging, he said, is the mounting sense — born of poverty and unemployment — that life lacks meaning.

“The whole notion of, ‘I’m just going for my target and, once the damage is done, it’s done,’ that’s out the window,” he said. “It’s more of a gory feeling, like, ‘We’re going to spray this person. If there’s collateral damage, I don’t care.'”

At times, it seems there is no escape.

“Everybody has suffered this kind of loss,” Pratt said. “Everybody has lost a family member, a best friend.”

That includes Pratt, whose brother, Rashad, was shot and killed in 2012 as he sat in his SUV near their mother’s home. His daughter was 7 at the time.

“His life was taking off,” Pratt said. “He was becoming an entrepreneur.”

Since then, Pratt regularly talks with residents about using tourniquets on penetrating trauma wounds from gunfire and stabbings. He shares with grieving families the story of his own loss and mentors young people.

Still, he frequently has to tell parents at the hospital that their child has succumbed to bullet wounds. And more often than he’d like, he attends funerals for gun violence victims, sometimes at Leak & Sons.

A mortician watches teens plan for death

Family-owned for 85 years, the funeral home shares a stretch of a once-thriving business corridor in the Chatham neighborhood with a florist, a shop that prints funeral programs and a store that specializes in airbrushed RIP T-shirts with the name and visage of the departed.

“I have a closet with a few T-shirts,” Pratt said. “But many of the young people I know have closets full of those T-shirts, whole sections of them, to commemorate people that have been killed.”

They’re often worn during wakes and funerals, where Pratt said he’s seen young men look around at friends and ask, “Who’s next?”

“They think about all the small details of death,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Look, what color casket did he have? When I die, bury me in my favorite ‘this.’ Bury me with my favorite shoes.”

More than in the past, many young men seem obsessed with those details, said Spencer Leak Sr., 81, the funeral home proprietor who started working with his father at age 12.

“They’re sitting there imagining what their service will be like because they do not expect to live past the age of 25,” he said. “They see their friends being gunned down everywhere. They say, ‘Man, we won’t last.'”

“This is not a person who is grieving,” Leak said. “This is a person who is watching because they are transforming themselves into this situation, knowing that any day they can be in that casket.”

A mother arranges another child’s funeral

In his spacious office, Leak sits with mothers who have lost children to gun violence. He sometimes turns around framed photos of his own smiling grandchildren before they arrive.

“I know what they’re going through when they see my grandchildren and their child is in the morgue back here,” said Leak, whose father founded the funeral home in 1933, when few places in Chicago were willing to bury black people.

The meetings often begin with a prayer.

But on one recent day, Sabrina Harris, 47, got straight to the business of making funeral arrangements for her 19-year-old son, Bryan.

“I know all the ropes,” she said. “I know everything you’re going to say. Just let me get it together and do what I have to do for my son.”

On his right arm, Bryan had a tattoo of his sister, Ryan, along with her name, their mother said.

Ryan Harris had been 11 years old in July 1998 when she was struck in the head, suffocated and sexually molested; the case made national headlines.

“I was pregnant with Bryan when Ryan was killed,” Harris recalled. “That’s where his name actually came from. He was the biggest kid I’ve ever had — 9 pounds, 4 ounces. He was the biggest teddy bear.”

Gun violence then seemed to pursue her family. At a South Side park named in Ryan’s honor, shots rang out when relatives gathered on a spring day in 2013 to mourn a loved one who’d died young of cancer.

“The park was the only place that could hold that many people,” Harris said. “Some people climbed on the train tracks nearby and started shooting.”

Harris’ 30-year-old cousin, Shaneda Lawrence, was shot in the head and killed.

“I’ve been through this so many times,” she said. “Whenever I get a call about anything, I drop what I’m doing and just go.”

That’s what Harris did the night Bryan was shot and killed. The call came around 2 a.m. Someone had seen a Facebook post saying he was wounded at a convenience store. Harris first called local hospitals. She drove to the store, then another hospital.

After she described her son’s tattoo, a chaplain came to meet her.

“I knew it,” said Harris, who has counseled mothers of missing children and victims of gun violence since her daughter’s murder. “They killed my baby.”

Bryan was shot August 14 at a convenience store in Harvey, a south suburb of Chicago, city spokesman Sean Howard said. Taijean Hall, 17, also was killed. Three young men had pulled up in a black Jeep and opened fire, Howard said.

At Bryan’s funeral a week later, another sister, Briona, said she “never thought we’d lose another sibling. But here we go again.”

‘Bodies just ripped apart’

Murders were down 20% in the first eight months of 2018, police say, but Sutton still arrives home exhausted from the funeral parlor, where she watches mothers weep and pieces together the torn bodies of their children.

Some nights, outside Leak & Sons, bursts of gunfire erupt with terrifying regularity, she said.

“Every day I am thinking, ‘Where am I going to move to?'” Sutton said.

“Where can I take my son … where he won’t get shot by an overzealous police officer because of the color of his skin? Where he won’t get shot because he walked into a neighborhood that no one knew who he was? Where he won’t get shot because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time?” she said. “This all runs through my mind. He’s only 5 years old.”

Her workday is a stark reminder of the violence that plagues parts of Chicago’s South and West sides.

“We’re getting bodies just ripped apart, riddled with bullets,” Sutton said, noting the grim change since she entered the profession 20 years ago. “When I first open the bag up and I’m looking at this body, yeah, I think the motive is, ‘You know what? We don’t even want your family to see you when they say good-bye.'”

That brutality is why Sutton sought the concealed carry permit last year. She qualified. But she still doesn’t own a handgun.

“I know I may need it,” she said. “But every day, when I go to work, there is someone there shot up.”