Shirkey Warthen died trying to defuse a fight in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. He was just 22.
Wednesday night, friends and family gathered in his memory, still trying a year after his death to reconcile his good intentions with their wish that he hadn't gotten involved that night.
Warthen got into trouble when he was young. He went into juvenile detention at age 12, for robbery and assault. He hated it. In an interview in February 2012, less than two months before he died, he said that detention was the beginning of his turnaround.
"I started realizing, 'Well I got all this time on my hands. I got to make the best of it.' I taught myself sign language," he said. "I was learning Spanish."
"I was reading dictionaries to increase my vocabulary," he recalled. "I was doing a lot."
Warthen said he wished he'd gotten more help with finishing school and finding a job after his release from prison. He got involved with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia to advocate for changes.
By his early 20s, Warthen was a presence in his neighborhood, bent on deterring other kids from ending up in jail. He said he talked with younger guys on neighborhood corners.
"As my brothers start getting into trouble [...] I see the kids in the neighborhood getting older, and I see how the cops just run down on them then I see the change has got to come," he said.
"If I don't do it, then I always look at it like, 'Who will?' So, you know, that empowers me."
A tragic outcome
Speaking after Warthen's death, his mother, Michelle Puriefoy, said the momentum he started was growing. He became engaged to the mother of his young daughter. After years of unemployment and temp work, he had found a good job in a factory.
"I mean the world wasn't always peaches and cream, but he got it together," she said.
"That was my pretty boy ... he was like a ladies' man. And to see him coming home each and every day wearing that hard hat was really impressive. I was like, 'I don't believe it. You're really working.' He was like 'Yeah, Mom. I'm getting myself together.'"
He still wanted to help others do the same. Purifoy remembers every detail of his last night when that impulse precipitated a tragedy. They had spoken in the kitchen. She had gone upstairs to bed.
"He came back in the house one time looking for my baby son and my baby girl, Jasmine -- he had nicknames for everybody. He called her 'Tall-y tall.' He called her like 'Tall-y tall, I love you girl!.' And I heard him and that was it," she said.
Later that evening, Warthen tried to squash a fight growing between a family friend and an older man. That man shot him multiple times almost as soon as he walked in to talk with him.
His family waited for word at the hospital where Warthen had been taken. They found out he had died when Warthen's brother called from the police station.
"A part of me, even with my children that I still have here, says mind your business," mused Purifoy. "But at the same time that could be me and someone else or that could be you. So, I'm lost right now. I really am."
Inspiring others to carry on
"When I got the phone call," Jeremy Hudson recalled, "I was at the supermarket with my best friend and I was right next to the entrance by like the fresh vegetables or whatever."
A few days before the first anniversary of the death of his friend and colleague from the Juvenile Law Center, Hudson says he thinks often about how his friend died.
That night, "I couldn't focus. And it just started raining and I felt so much worse."
Hudson says Warthen's death was frightening and wrong, but nonetheless reinforced his own desire to help prevent violence. Your voice is powerful, he says.
"I would still say if it needs to be done, it needs to be done," he said.
"I look at it like I'm strong. Like I'm not bulletproof," Hudson continued. "I'm not Superman, but I would rather take my chance to protect someone than to let somebody else be hurt or family go without."
Crystal Pulle, another colleague at the law center, said Warthen left them with a very specific charge. First and foremost, he wanted to protect his family. She described seeing his then 4-year-old daughter at his funeral, still not understanding what had happened.
"She was just standing there, like no worries in the world, and I felt like I inherited all her worries or the worries I felt like she should have had -- like, you know daddy's not going to be at all my graduations or school or my wedding or just be there that father," Pulle said. "And I know how that feels like not having a father in my life, so that touched me."
Pulle wants to do everything she can to support this little girl -- to help her to stay out of trouble so that, even without her father's guidance, she never sees the inside of the criminal justice system the way Pulle and her friend did.
"I don't believe that Shirkey would have stood for that," she declared.
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