Keon Preston has conducted over a dozen memorials for homicide victims in Baton Rouge.
But recently, two of those memorials were for his own family, which has been devastated by gun violence: five members have been shot, two of them fatally, in the last five or so years.
“I have helped so many families through their times, so now it looks to me like it’s my time,” Preston said.
Preston, 21, a chaplain with the Stop the Violence nonprofit group, is trying to use the tragedies in his family and across Baton Rouge to build something positive and speak out against violence.
Among other events, he planned the memorial for 4-year-old Jassiah Clark, who authorities say drowned in a muddy hole just feet from his home last month.
But on Monday night, about two dozen members of Preston’s family gathered in the Carlins Food Mart parking lot on Plank Road to remember their most recent loss: Preston’s little brother, 19-year-old Calvin Smith. Police found him unresponsive and shot several times about 1 a.m. Sunday. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
“We are hurting,” Preston said to the group, many of whom held balloons to release into the sky in Smith’s memory. “It’s a shock to all of us.”
The death of Smith follows the loss of Preston’s cousin Calvin Chrisentary in October. The 21-year-old was shot in the back during a robbery on Madison Avenue near North Foster Drive. Baton Rouge police arrested a suspect hours later.
Before those losses, other family members were injured by gunfire. In November 2013, Preston’s uncle, Eric Ricks, 30, was injured by a gunshot wound to the right leg while walking on Gus Young Avenue and 48th Street.
He said he knows who shot him, but he told police he shot himself. His leg was partially amputated, and he wears a prosthetic leg.
“When you’re out there living in the street, anything goes,” Ricks told The Advocate. “And you can’t really change violence. Violence is everywhere.”
And in 2010, Preston’s sister Regricka Preston, now 22, was shot in the right knee while she was with a group of friends on Gus Young Avenue and 46th Street. A teenage boy had opened fire on the group, Regricka Preston said. She was shot once in the knee, and two others were grazed by bullets. She underwent surgery to reconstruct her kneecap. The attack happened just two blocks away from where Ricks was later shot in the right leg.
“I’m blessed now,” Regricka Preston said. “God had a plan for me.”
And before that, Keon Preston’s older brother Reginald Jones, 23, was shot and paralyzed about five years ago when Jones was with friends in a car in Scotlandville and multiple assailants opened fire on the car, Preston said.
“I feel like this is a damn dream,” Preston added, looking back at the tragedies. “This is crazy. I just want someone to come … just pinch me and tell me this is a dream.”
In addition to those shootings, Preston’s close childhood friend and high school classmate Darius Augustus was shot and killed on the Mississippi River levee in October 2010, after shots rang out in a large group .
“We have to get these killers off the streets,” Preston said. “It makes no sense for people to continue killing for no reason and makes them think they have the authority to take somebody’s life.”
Preston, who works two jobs — an assistant funeral home director and a mental health technician — says he hopes someday to become a homicide detective.
On Monday, several of Preston’s 10 brothers and sisters, as well as some of his 50 or so cousins, gathered to honor the memory of Smith, a teenager who was fond of music and boxing and “was the laughter of the room,” Preston said.
“Every time you saw him, he was smiling,” his mother, Teresa Stewart, said.
The family, meanwhile, isn’t sure how they are going to pay for their most recent funeral.
Preston said the shootings are a message to all parents to cherish every moment with their children. He could not believe he had to wake his mother up at 5 in the morning to tell her her son was dead. “You don’t know when you’re going to get a knock at the door to identify a body,” he said.
Police are still investigating the shooting and ask that anyone with details call Baton Rouge police’s Violent Crime Division at (225) 389-4869 or Crimestoppers at (225) 344-7867.
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter, @_dbethencourt.