TAMPA — At age 14, he got his first pistol — a .38-caliber snub-nose revolver. He kept it under his mattress. He had gotten it from a friend who got it from his grandfather.
Sometimes he'd leave it in his school locker. Other times, he'd just carry it around in his backpack all day.
"I wanted to be a bad a-- in the street," said Ray Demoulin, now 34. "I wanted to have that name."
As an adult, his life changed. But two years ago Demoulin, who lives in Tampa, was forced to reckon with his past.
A 14-year-old with a gun accidentally killed Demoulin's 12-year-old daughter, Renisha.
Immediately, he said, one word came to mind:
• • •
Just a few months after his daughter's death, Demoulin established the nonprofit Renisha Foundation.
Some, he said, wondered how he could be so forgiving and determined to start the foundation so soon. But to Demoulin, his mission was clear.
"It was a tool that had killed my daughter," he said, "so what tool could I use to fight back?"
The owner of Who's Next Barbershop on N Nebraska Avenue, Demoulin said he felt no ill will toward the teen responsible for her death. He understood how having a weapon could make you feel fearless, something a scared young black man in the streets needed.
Today, Demoulin does community backpack drives and speaks to youth and men at area churches, encouraging them to stay away from violence. Last weekend, he passed out about 100 boxes full of Thanksgiving fixings to needy families.
"With the passing of his daughter, he found his full potential, and his heart was turned toward the youth," his friend Chai Greene said.
• • •
It was April 2007 just after 1:30 a.m. when the phone rang in Demoulin's home. Renisha, who lived in Mobile, Ala., with her mother, had fallen and hurt her eye. She wasn't breathing, said Sharon Seltzer, the girl's mother.
Within hours, Demoulin and his wife boarded a plane from Tampa to Alabama. They went straight to the hospital, where he heard a newscaster mention his daughter's name.
Renisha hadn't fallen. She'd been shot, the news announcer said.
It was spring break and Renisha was staying up late with her older half brother. The 12-year-old was messaging friends on MySpace when her brother motioned for her to turn around.
He had a gun, but didn't know it was loaded. He shot. A single bullet pierced the back of her skull.
Demoulin arrived at the hospital the day after the shooting. Renisha had already been taken to the medical examiner's office.
• • •
Born to a single mother, Demoulin spent his teenage years in Mobile, chasing the reputation of an older brother whose name was well known in the streets.
By 16, Demoulin had accumulated some cred of his own as an up-and-coming drug dealer. He caught his first case after shooting down the door of an addict who owed him money. He was charged with attempted murder and spent nine months in a juvenile detention facility.
A year later, Renisha was born. Demoulin worked as a fast food restaurant manager with one foot still in the streets.
"Lost" is how he described his life at that time.
He knew that the drug game ended in one of two ways: dead or in jail. But was flipping burgers his only other alternative?
"My mom was a single mom with two kids who worked retail," Demoulin said. "Everybody else only had jobs like cutting grass and working at corner stores. I was never exposed to people with white-collar jobs growing up."
By 22, he was living a hustler's dream with three cars, including a $40,000 white Cadillac Eldorado, and a thick herringbone gold necklace — a drug dealer's badge during those days.
That same year, he faced 15 years in prison on a drug dealing indictment. Somehow, Demoulin beat the case and began visiting Tampa, where his father had a successful hair salon.
"Not to change my life," he admits, "but to find a connect to continue what I was doing."
But eventually he decided to try his hand at barber school. After getting his license, his father allowed him to work at his salon under one condition: He had to attend church twice a month. He started going to Without Walls, where he is now an ordained minister, he says.
In the sanctuary, he discovered, "it was a different world out there for me."
When Renisha was 5, she came to live with her father for a while.
"She was a total blessing," he said. "I enjoyed the hair days and picking out the clothes."
They went to football games and sang to his favorite music — 1990s R&B crooner Al B. Sure, to be exact.
But when Renisha turned 11 she started to need the type of guidance that only a mother could provide. She returned to Mobile.
A year and one month later she was dead.
• • •
Renisha's half brother was not charged in her death. Demoulin speaks to the 17-year-old weekly. He is earning his high school diploma and plans to attend Job Corps.
Life hasn't been easy for him. "People in the community didn't want their kids to be involved with him," Demoulin said. "A lot of schools didn't want him in their system as well."
The foundation has helped Demoulin cope with his grief.
He recently spoke to a men's group at New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church about his daughter's death. He told them that it's normal to worry what God's plan is for your life, adding that he has questioned his own life struggles, including losing his daughter.
Those type of events, Demoulin said, help him move past the pain.
"Every opportunity that we get to share the love of Christ and forgiveness and to teach people how to move beyond the hurt," he said, "brings healing to me."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.