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THE HOMICIDE REPORT | Jill Leovy chronicles Los Angeles
County victims

Shootings scar their bodies and their lives

June 18, 2007|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

For every person shot and killed in Los Angeles, roughly four or five others are wounded by gunfire but survive, many of them maimed for life. They are among the most invisible victims of street violence. Like the dead, these individuals come mainly from one high-risk demographic band: male, black, young, living in a tough neighborhood and, often, criminally involved.

Decades after their shootings, the victims are still here, their wheelchairs, crutches and canes dotting the streets of South L.A. They get by as best they can, coexisting with the new victims of the same old problem.

Three of their stories follow. Two recount the same multiple-victim shooting from different perspectives; a third addresses the lasting effects of a shooting decades later.


Bernard McGee, 37, and his cousin, Sidney McFarland, 31, were wounded in a May 9 shooting in Florence that killed 34-year-old Carl Dixon. The gunmen in the case are still at large.

McGee's story

Can't look at his own wounds

It was still light when Bernard McGee greeted Carl Dixon that late afternoon in front of a house in the 1600 block of East 81st Street. McGee was sitting on the porch. With him were his partner, their 3-month-old son, Ejuan, and McGee's cousin, Sidney McFarland.

McGee and Dixon barely had time to exchange greetings before there was an explosion of gunfire. "Boom, pac, pac, pac, boom, boom, boom!" McGee said, recalling the sound. A group of people were shooting from behind a wall.

McGee looked at Dixon. He saw the red fabric of Dixon's shirt whip, as if a strong breeze were yanking it. Dixon was being shot in the torso.

Then McGee felt two sharp jabs in his legs, one in each thigh. He felt no pain. But he had a clear sensation of two tiny objects plunging into his flesh. He knew he had been hit. Instinct, or adrenalin, put him in motion. "I had no choice," he said. "My legs got up and went."

As McGee got to the door of the house, he felt his own shirt whip and jerk, the fabric gently brushing his spine. It was a bullet. McGee had been shot in the back. He hit the floor, lying on the carpet just inside the door. His partner jumped over him to get in.

After a lifetime on 81st Street, McGee could distinguish different types of gunfire. He knew there were at least two guns -- a pistol and an assault rifle. The floor beneath him vibrated with the blasts. Large, brassy rifle shells bounced before his eyes. McGee looked down into the carpet. They would all soon be dead, he recalled thinking.

Finally the gunfire stopped. People were shouting, screaming, running back and forth. McGee couldn't feel anything. He couldn't move.

The paramedics put a neck brace on him. In the ambulance, they looked over his wounds. There were long rips through each leg and a bullet wound in the small of his back. "Looks like they shot you with an AK-47," one paramedic told him. "Your muscles are all torn up." They told him he'd been lucky.

McGee rode all the way to St. Francis Medical Center thinking he probably was paralyzed. The street rolled past under the wheels. It seemed to take a long, long time.

Sometime after he woke up from surgery, a doctor asked him to move his toes. He obeyed, and they moved. He wasn't paralyzed. The bullet in the back had not penetrated far enough.

But the ones that struck his legs had ripped deeply into the flesh, carving long furrows. His nerves were damaged. At home, two days later, he managed to drag himself up on crutches.

Living in Florence, McGee already knew what it meant to be stalked by murder. For men like him, the statistical chances of becoming a homicide victim -- a distant possibility for most Americans -- is a palpable, daily reality. McGee has long been used to "always looking over my shoulder. Every five steps, looking over my shoulder," he said.

But now he was afraid to go outside. He tried not to think about what had happened. He pushed out thoughts of seeing Dixon dying. He tried not to dwell on how close his partner and son had come to death.

When his neighbor, Latisha Thomas, came over to pour alcohol over his legs into a tin pan and change his dressings, McGee found he that he couldn't watch. One glance down at his own stitched legs and he broke out in a cold sweat and nearly fainted.

Next time Thomas came over, McGee tried a different strategy. After working off the bandage tape with trembling hands, he looked away and let Thomas remove the gauze.

As she worked, he stared rigidly out the window.


McFarland's story

Four-time victim

The first shot sounded very close. Sidney McFarland happened to have his eyes on his friend, Carl Dixon.

He saw Dixon's chest jump, as though he'd been shocked. Then came another loud shot. Dixon's body jolted a second time, jerking upward, then falling forward toward McFarland.

McFarland saw people running toward the house. Next to him was a 3-month-old baby in a baby seat -- his cousin's infant son.

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