In 1982, a teenager rushed his friend to the hospital after a gun accident. A reporter went back and retraced what happened next.
The paper buried the story.
Two teenagers in the Bronx horsing around with a gun. A 15-year-old shot a 13-year-old. Nobody died. No celebrities or politicians or prominent sports figures were involved. Both teenagers were black.
So, in the mindset that was prevalent in tabloid newsrooms in the early 1980s, in a city grappling with sky-high murder and crime rates, the story was not huge news. "Just bang out a brief," an editor for The Daily News said.
I didn't even go to the scene, working the story by phone instead. The article appeared in The News somewhere around Page 40.
For the next 37 years, I gave it no thought whatsoever. Little did I know, the story was just beginning.
A few months ago, I got an email from a name I didn't recognise; a scan of my 1982 article was attached. I had no recollection of it.
The man writing the email, Jeff Williams, claimed that he was the victim in the shooting. He had tracked me down and wondered if I wanted to know how his life had turned out.
At first, I was wary. In his email, he had identified himself as a real estate agent. Was this just some guy looking for publicity?
I told him I no longer worked for The Daily News and had moved to the West Coast. I offered to look for some other reporter in New York who might want to update his tale.
She was arrested at 14. Then her photo went to a facial recognition database
They were singing at a block party. Then gunmen opened fire
In short, I blew him off.
He emailed again, this time with a copy of a newsletter showing that he also held a corporate position at the headquarters of Colgate-Palmolive in Midtown Manhattan.
A bit more intrigued, I called him for a few details.
The first thing he told me was that the shooting had left him paralysed. Other documents he sent corroborated his condition. Contemplating his disability, and what he had achieved professionally in spite of it, I decided to pursue the story myself.
When I started researching, I hit a wall. The only name in my original article was Jeff Williams, the same man who had contacted me, so there was little to go on. The detectives on the case could not be found. The New York Police Department, the Bronx district attorney's office and the New York City Department of Correction could produce no records. Because of the age of the shooter, the case most likely wound up in Family Court, where youthful offender files were routinely sealed and later destroyed.
But then, in another phone call, Williams readily identified his shooter as Maury Davis. Not only had he known Davis — they were neighbourhood friends when the accident happened — they were, surprisingly, still very close.
When they were growing up in the Bronx, Maury often hired Jeff and his older brother, Reggie, to help him sell bats, balls, gloves, T-shirts, yearbooks and other souvenirs at Yankee Stadium. Maury could earn several hundred dollars a day, and Jeff and his brother would get a cut.
On June 25, 1982, Jeff, then 13, and Reggie, 14, went to Maury's house to check out his new bike. His mother, Claudette, was out, but had left her refrigerator stocked, something she was known for.
After the boys ate, Maury went into a back room. He reappeared with a .22-caliber revolver that had belonged to an uncle in the military. He was eager to show it off. He began to point the gun and spin the chamber.
Reggie warned him to stop fooling with it. Jeff scoffed and said the gun was not real. Playfully boasting, Maury insisted it was. He was determined to prove it. Ignoring Reggie's warnings and assuming there were no bullets in the gun, he pulled the trigger.
When Jeff tried to stand up, he collapsed. He struggled to breathe. He felt dizzy. And he was bleeding.
Shocked, Maury lifted Jeff in his arms. He and Reggie hailed a taxi. On the way to the hospital, Maury and Reggie concocted a story. They would say that Jeff was hit by a stray bullet from the crossfire between feuding drug dealers.
But when Maury and Reggie began to contradict each other at the emergency room, their alibi fell apart. Detectives told Jeff's mother, Shelia Horn, the boys were lying. Horn pressed Reggie until he finally told the truth.
"Maury didn't mean to do it," Reggie said. "It was an accident."
While the doctors fought to keep Jeff alive, detectives took Maury to the 44th Precinct station house.
The detectives were prepared to charge Maury with felonies that could lead to a significant prison term. They also wanted to arrest his mother, since she had been keeping the gun illegally in her house.
But Jeff's mother, Horn, declined to press charges.
This was the story Williams told me over the phone. The shooting was not an anomaly in the Bronx of the era. In 1982, the year he was shot, there were 1,668 homicides in the city, and 1,018 of those were caused by guns. Last year, by comparison, there were 295 murders citywide.
Jeff almost became a statistic. According to medical records, the bullet passed centimetres behind his heart and lodged in his spine. Both lungs collapsed, his chest filled with fluids, his blood pressure plummeted and he lost consciousness. Bacterial infection immediately set in.
In the emergency room, Jeff couldn't stop sobbing. He had been an avid basketball player and a devoted fan of Batman, running around the house with a towel tied around his neck and diving off beds. Now he couldn't even feel his legs.
Then the boy in the next bed asked, "Can you see your legs?"
The question confused Jeff. So the boy repeated, "Can you see your legs?"
Jeff nodded yes.
The other boy yanked back his sheet. His own legs had been amputated after he was electrocuted in the subway.
Because the bullet passed so close to Jeff's heart, the surgeons had to wait for three months to remove it from his spine. Meanwhile there were new complications, including another serious infection, requiring more surgery. The doctors told Jeff, now paralysed from the waist down, that he would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
But his challenges were only just beginning.
The Americans with Disabilities Act would not become law until 1990, so Jeff had to contend with buildings without ramps, subway stations without elevators and city buses without lifts. Fortunately, he had friends who would lift him (he weighed only 54kg) and his wheelchair (another 18kg) up and down the steps.
His mother refused to coddle him. Complaining was not allowed. "No need in crying," Horn would say. "You need to get in that wheelchair and treat it like a Rolls-Royce. It will get you where you need to go."
She never offered to do something he could do for himself. "Put your clothes on, put your socks on, put your shoes on," she would tell him. "You going to wait for me to take you up and down the stairs every day?"
Horn's tough love seemed to work. Jeff graduated from middle school, high school and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, all with honours. He got a job at Colgate-Palmolive in the mail room while he was still at John Jay, and he impressed supervisors with his work ethic, particularly his willingness to come to the office on Park Avenue during snowstorms.
After he started at Colgate, he earned a paralegal degree in corporate law from Adelphi University. Promoted to the legal department, he is now a budget analyst there. In addition, he opened a real estate company, selling apartments in the Bronx for US$600,000 and more.
At the same time, Williams was taking on tougher and tougher physical challenges, especially those he was told he could not do. He water-skied, flew hang gliders, raced jet boats and drove dune buggies. His next goal is to learn parasailing. He gets around on a three-wheel Slingshot motorcycle customised with automatic hand controls. It looks like something Batman, his childhood hero, would drive.
"I never looked at what I couldn't do," Williams said recently, "only how I could do whatever I wanted to do."
Maury's trajectory was very different following the accident.
He was initially fortunate: Neither he nor his mother was prosecuted or jailed for Jeff's shooting. In a recent telephone interview, Jeff's mother explained why she chose not to press charges. "The boys were in the house together," said Horn, who is now 68 and living in Ahoskie, North Carolina. "It could have been my son who shot the other boy. You have to look at all things from all sides. They were just kids."
This seemed to be a rare piece of good fortune.
In June 1985, three years after he accidentally shot his friend, Maury was arrested on an assault charge, accused of throttling a would-be car thief. That charge was later dismissed. But in 1986, he was arrested again, this time on murder charges.
The story that emerged from court documents tells one of self-defence. Davis was being harassed by some neighbourhood men who had stolen from him and had shot one of his friends in the arm. Davis decided to buy a gun. When three of the men drove up in a car and began shooting at him, he fired three shots in return, killing one of his assailants.
Davis pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon, was sentenced to time served, released from jail and placed on probation for five years. (He received an early discharge from probation.)
Despite his troubles with the law, Davis managed to graduate from high school with a diploma in electrical installation. He took a job as a mason and an electrician at Columbia University, where he worked for 27 years.
When he was 33, Davis had a daughter, Kaiya, who is now 20 and attends college in New Jersey; he is estranged from his daughter and her mother.
Upon retiring from Columbia in 2014, Davis moved to Selma, Alabama, where he bought several acres of land, on which he now raises two horses.
"I learned a lot of life lessons," Davis said recently. " I've had a good life."
Here is what I wrote 37 years ago: "A 13-year-old boy who was shot accidentally by a 15-year-old friend playing with a gun in the Bronx remained in critical condition yesterday, authorities reported."
In the cold, matter-of-factness of my original reporting, it never occurred to me that the victim might achieve all that he had achieved or that the shooter would go on to have a productive life of his own — and the tragic accident would bring the two even closer together as friends.
But that is exactly what happened.
After the accident, Maury visited Jeff nearly every day in the hospital and continued to do so once Jeff returned home. He came so often that Jeff begged him to take a break. Jeff told Maury that he had forgiven him; that he wanted him to go ahead and live his life, both men recalled. But Maury remained loyal, offering him rides and help with the stairs.
It went both ways. When Maury was arrested in 1986 on murder charges, Jeff regularly visited the jail at Rikers Island and always showed up for his friend's court appearances, joining other supporters to pack the courtroom and sign a petition for Maury's release.
Jeff wrote Maury a letter saying, "If I could walk, or you could have your freedom, I'd rather you have your freedom." Davis still has the letter.
Over the years, they would take vacations together, driving to Virginia and North Carolina. They often went to Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey, where, over Davis' protests, Williams would ascend again and again to the top of a 130-foot free-fall ride.
In the early 1990s, the two friends would park outside the Apollo Theatre in Harlem on Wednesdays for its popular amateur night, hoping to meet girls. They took turns playing wingman, and whenever one asked why he was in a wheelchair, Williams would say he had been hit by a bus.
Outside the Apollo was where Davis introduced Williams to the woman who would give birth to his only child, Jeff Jr., now 20. And then many years after that, Davis introduced Williams to Lena Brown, who is now Williams' wife.
Williams admitted that one of the reasons he approached me to update his story is that he hoped to see his life depicted in a book or a movie. He said that he would like to be portrayed by Omari Hardwick, an actor now appearing in the television series Power. He said he wanted to show how determination can help others overcome adversity.
Drawing upon his own story, Williams now mentors minority students hoping to go to college, combat veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress, ex-offenders trying to make a new start and other paraplegics struggling with their disabilities.
One of his mentees, Ed Funches, who also was paralysed after being shot during a dispute with a friend, credited Williams with saving him from a life of crime.
"If it wasn't for Jeff," Funches, 49, said, "I don't know where I would be."
Meanwhile, Davis saw this story as a way to help his friend. He drove his truck 18 hours from Selma to New York City to be interviewed.
While Davis was in town, I took him and Williams to dinner at Giovanni's on the Grand Concourse, their favourite Italian restaurant in the Bronx. At one point, Brown, Williams' wife, stopped by briefly to say hello. Later, Davis recalled how he had attended their wedding in June 2017 in the Dominican Republic. As the friend who had introduced them, he naturally had been among the 40 invited guests.
The wedding was held at the Punta Cana Hotel. The after party went on for four days and four nights.
Williams' sister, Shanika Williams, made all the arrangements, choosing the invitations, the hotel, the photographer, the linens and table adornments, the lights and the two-tiered wedding cake.
Back when she was just 4 years old, Davis recalled, Shanika would come to Jeff's hospital bedside with her toy doctor's kit and a Band-Aid to try to make him all better. Now 41, Williams was serving as his maid of honour.
After the reception, dancing lasted into the wee hours. Davis kept nudging Williams to get more involved in the action. So the groom donned sunglasses and started to swing around in his wheelchair while holding his bride's hand, pumping himself up and down like a jack-in-the-box and twirling his arms above his head like the rotary blades on a helicopter.
Though the choices they made and the turns their lives took have been very different, Williams and Davis remain devoted to each other.
As Williams put it, "Jeff needs Maury as much as Maury needs Jeff."
Written by: Neal Hirschfeld
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES