New Orleans’ gun violence turned Sterling Everidge into a quadriplegic in September. And because Everidge, 28, was born deaf and spoke only with sign language, the stray bullet also essentially took his voice.
It was Saturday, Sept. 13, and he and his wife, Rebecca, had headed out to a birthday party for his sister. It was a rare date night, the first they’d had since their youngest son, Lennox, was born in April.
The couple has a very young family — five boys, ranging from 7 months to 10 years in age — and so they lived a largely domestic existence.
Everidge would come home from the towing business that he ran with his brother-in-law, and Rebecca would make dinner while he played with the kids or fixed something in the house. Then she’d get ready for the next day while he did the dishes, took out the garbage and gave the boys their baths.
But on that day in September, they stopped at his mother’s and put the children to bed there. Then they headed to the party for his sister that was being thrown by a friend of hers who owns a former corner grocery at Annette and North Villere streets in the 7th Ward.
The next morning, New Orleanians woke up to hear that, at 1:42 a.m., gunmen had shot Officer Jonathan Smith while he worked a detail at Gene’s Po-Boys, in a well-known pink building on the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields avenues.
Five minutes earlier and five blocks away, the same gunmen are believed to have injured Sterling Everidge on North Villere Street. NOPD Detective Johnny Magee talked with witnesses who reported that three men matching the gunmen’s description briefly crashed the party and were overheard asking other guests whose birthday it was.
A white Ford Expedition was captured on video at both locations. Magee noted in his report that as the vehicle headed down North Villere, it didn’t speed forward to Elysian Fields Avenue but instead took a fast right onto St. Anthony Street, part of the area’s trapezoidal street maze. He found that one of the alleged gunmen, Caesar Adams, had once lived a block away in the 1300 block of St. Anthony Street in a building that neighbors say is still owned by family members.
Adams was found dead in the Expedition later that night; police believe he died from injuries caused by gunfire returned by Smith.
‘They got a gun’
The Everidges arrived at the party about 11 p.m. A few hours later, they were ready to retrieve the children and head home, Rebecca Everidge said, recalling that they said their goodbyes as they walked to the door on North Villere. She had one foot out the door, with her husband following closely behind her, when a man ran past her on the sidewalk, hunching over as he ran, saying, “Move, move! They got a gun.”
She stepped back, heard a gunshot and, like others in the party, ducked to the floor. Her husband also went down, but in his case because he was hit, likely by a bullet that flew through one of the store’s open windows, she said.
“He hit the floor too hard; he smacked that ground,” she said. “And he didn’t get up. The blood was leaking from under him. And he couldn’t move.”
As the blood pooled below him, she leaned in front of his face, saw he was alert and began asking him questions in sign language. “Where are you hit? The chest? The arm?”
He mouthed no, no, no, until she asked about his neck. “Yes,” he mouthed. She kept signing to him to keep him from going into shock as they waited for an ambulance and he continued to lose blood.
At the hospital, they heard that the bullet had entered the left side of Sterling Everidge’s neck and exited on the right side. Doctors said that, along its way, the bullet cracked his fifth cervical vertebra and injured his spinal cord.
One national study estimates that nearly 20 percent of civilian spinal-cord injuries are the result of gunshot wounds. That same night, Officer Smith was also struck in the spine and also ended up in a wheelchair.
But the odds of a bullet paralyzing someone who speaks only with his hands must be astronomical, said Sterling Everidge’s mother, Cecilia Everidge. “It is something I have thought about. It’s already hard that we can’t hear him talk. And then this happens.”
Hearing loss is one of the most common birth defects. But only one in 1,000 babies is born profoundly deaf, as Sterling was in 1986.
Young Sterling walked early, before he was a year old, but his mother began to suspect he was deaf because he would walk by their home’s ringing telephone without appearing to notice it. A series of medical tests confirmed that he was completely deaf, and doctors advised that no surgery could remedy the condition.
When he was 3, he and his mother took the bus together three days a week to Bright School in Broadmoor, where the two learned sign language for basic words. The following year, he began attending McDonogh No. 24. At the time, the school taught all elementary-age deaf children from Orleans Parish schools, grouping them in three-year levels.
JoLeigh Monteverde taught him during his primary level, between ages 6 and 9. “Sterling stands out quite well in my mind,” she recalled. “He was a happy-go-lucky child, very creative and expressive.”
While some students became upset if others couldn’t understand them, Sterling was unflappable and persistent, she said. “He would stand on his head to get someone to understand him if he needed to.”
Young Everidge was not mute. He could make sounds — hoots, clicks and wails — to get others’ attention. But he never was able to speak intelligibly and so always relied upon sign language to communicate.
Each morning, McDonogh 24 students strapped the school’s clunky auditory-training boxes to their chests. The boxes had wires coming out of them connected to custom-molded earpieces and volume controls that allowed students with any residual hearing to listen to teachers’ amplified lessons. Everidge relied upon the box as a signal: When the speaker vibrated, he knew the teacher was speaking and he should look to the front to watch her sign as she spoke. His family, too, learned to use all his senses: They’d stomp on the floor from the next room to get his attention or wave a piece of paper under the door if he was in his room with the door closed.
‘He was very special’
When Sterling Everidge moved to the intermediate level at McDonogh 24, teacher Penny Mason taught him and was equally charmed. “Sterling was always up, always happy, always alert and bright. He was very special to me,” she said. “If he saw an adult struggling to carry something or a door that needed to be open, he would always jump up and help.”
His mother was grateful for what her son learned from Mason. Every Mother’s Day, she phones Mason to express her thanks.
When Sterling was young, it also became clear that he was skilled with his hands. He used to wash cars for men in the neighborhood, and they would teach him how to fix parts of the car or how to change a tire, his mother said.
When he turned 13, Everidge, like most McDonogh 24 students, began commuting to the Louisiana School for the Deaf in Baton Rouge, which teaches students up to age 21. For eight years, he took the bus there on Sunday nights and came home on Fridays.
During one week in March 2005, he came home early to attend a funeral Mass for his childhood friend, Jonathan “Chucky” Egana, who had lived in the block behind them when they were children.
There, he ran into the deceased’s younger sister, Rebecca Blandin, then a teenager. “It was love at first sight,” said Rebecca, who soon learned sign language so that the two could communicate and stay in touch. During the week, when he was in Baton Rouge, they would text and use their cellphones for video conversations. Soon after he moved back home, the two were married, in 2008.
Rebecca is the fourth of five kids and Sterling is the third of four children. They said they wanted their children to experience the sort of bustling households that they remembered growing up. They thought they’d stop at four, but in 2014 they welcomed their fifth son, Lennox, into the world.
Rebecca stayed home in Gentilly with the children and Sterling worked long days with her brother, towing dead autos to junkyards and taking fixable ones to mechanics. Along the way, he sometimes stopped to help stalled motorists just because he liked to help, she said.
After the shooting, to pay bills, they sold the pickup truck that Sterling used to tow cars, Rebecca said.
She is serving as Sterling’s caregiver: bathing, moving and feeding him and keeping his limbs stretched to prevent his muscles from atrophying. Though others may not understand him, they are still able to communicate: She signs to him and he mouths words to her.
And when Rebecca is making dinner or helping one child with homework, her husband supervises the other boys from his wheelchair, clicking or whooping to redirect them if they misbehave.
“He still corrects them, even though he doesn’t move,” Sterling’s mother said. “The children know what he’s telling them.”
His mother believes he will walk again. Her son was raised in Corpus Christi Catholic Church, and priests have been visiting to give him the Eucharist and anoint him with healing oil. “He can’t talk, but the good Lord hears his prayers,” she said.
His wife, too, believes he’ll eventually leave his wheelchair. Though doctors have told them that walking is an impossible goal, her husband recently began twitching some fingers — the index finger and pinky on his left hand; the thumb on his right — and they are waiting for the next doctor’s visit to see how the doctors will interpret the new movement.
Still, the family has some very immediate concerns: They need to move to a handicapped-accessible apartment, with a roll-in shower and a ramp leading to the front door. And they need to figure out how to survive financially.
But for Rebecca Everidge, the spirit of the holidays this year had nothing to do with what was under the tree. “I still have my husband, and our kids still have their father,” she said. “I am so thankful that my husband is alive.”