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For father, pain of son's accidental shooting persists 8 years later

If he could speak to Jeffrey Walker, he would tell him there is no right way to suffer. He would tell him to make something good of a mistake that caused so much bad. He would tell him that one day, probably a long time from now, he must forgive himself.

Last week, Walker's nephew, who was 3, accidentally shot and killed himself with a 9mm handgun. The boy had found it, loaded, in his uncle's backpack inside an apartment near Tampa, investigators said.

Walker, 29, since facing a felony culpable negligence charge, has told his family that he wished the bullet had killed him instead.

No two cases in which a child dies by accidental shooting are quite the same, but one man knows something of what Walker is going through.

On a night in Ocala in November 2005, Jim Wallace and his son, Jay, who was 13, played a game of pickup football together. They were waiting for Wallace's daughter to finish cheerleading practice. He and his wife had separated and would soon be divorced, but both remained in Ocala. Father and son were as close as ever.

Wallace played quarterback that evening. Jay played receiver. They won big.

The next morning, Wallace drove his son to his old house, where his wife still lived. They exchanged I love yous, then Jay got out. Just before he walked inside, the boy looked back.

Wallace, at the time, thought it was an affectionate gesture.

It wasn't.

That afternoon, Wallace got a call. He was a sales manager and in a meeting with clients, so he didn't pick up. Soon, though, he checked the voicemail.

"We don't know the details," it said, "but Jay's been shot."

The officer who rushed Wallace to the hospital said he believed Jay had been struck in the shoulder with a small-caliber slug. To Wallace, that was good news. He knew guns. He'd grown up with them. He even owned one.

He imagined his son in a sling. He thought about the rehab. He wondered if Jay would have to be held back a year in school.

When they arrived at the hospital, Wallace rushed in. He spotted what looked like 30 people crowded around a bed. Then he saw what he wished he hadn't.

His son's chest was split open, and the doctor's hand was inside it, squeezing Jay's heart, trying to make it beat again.

"I started to crumble," he said.

The doctor came to him five minutes later. His son was gone.

He soon learned that the reason Jay had turned and looked back that morning was to make sure Wallace was leaving. Jay and two friends, twin brothers, were skipping school. The kids had planned to play Dungeons & Dragons.

But they got bored.

When Wallace was 13, his father had given him a .30-30 Winchester rifle with a dark wooden stock. Wallace kept it because it meant something. One day, he wanted Jay to have it.

He stored it on a high shelf at the top of his wife's walk-in closet. He wrapped it in a pink towel and kept the bullets in a bed-side table.

He taught his kids how to handle the rifle safely. How to load and unload it. How to tell if it held a round.

"In my mind," he said, "I was doing what was right."

Twice that November day, the boys had taken the gun down. As they walked back to replace it the second time, one of the brothers pointed it at Jay's back. He fired, striking him between the shoulder blades. It was the first time a bullet had passed through the barrel in eight years.

The twins, believing they might get in trouble, didn't initially call 911.

The shooter, then 11, was charged with culpable negligence. He took a plea deal and was sentenced to probation.

Wallace still doesn't know why any of it happened. He's never read the investigative reports. He doesn't want to. It wouldn't change anything.

More than anyone else, Wallace blames himself.

He saw his son's story on the news that night and, for the first time, learned that deputies give out trigger locks for free.

"It's that easy," he said, his voice trembling. "I should have been more responsible, and I have to live with that."

Wallace stored his empty rifle in accordance with Florida law, but he doesn't think the law goes far enough. It does little to prevent accidents like the one that took Jay's life. All guns, loaded or unloaded, he said, should be safely secured. He also thinks trigger locks should come with every gun sale.

The Winchester that killed Jay was destroyed. After the funeral, Wallace's father threw all of his own into a lake.

The boy who shot Jay never told Wallace he was sorry, but Wallace has gotten over that. Some of him, at least, has healed.

He went to counseling for six years. He remarried. He got a tattoo of a boy on a skateboard. A saxophone and a basketball, Jay's other passions, are inked in the background.

When he heard Walker's story, part of him thought he should be prosecuted because, Wallace wonders, how else people will learn not to be so foolish.

But then Wallace thought back on the last eight years of his own life. In it, he sees Walker's future.

"There's no deeper punishment," he said, "than what I go through every day."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

For father, pain of son's accidental shooting persists 8 years later 05/12/13 [Last modified: Sunday, May 12, 2013 11:57pm]
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