When Marcinda Williams awoke to the sound of gunfire peppering the walls of her house one night in September 2010, her first thought was: "Not again."

She waited, assuming the gunshots would stop and the shooter would drive away as usual. That scenario had become a familiar occurrence since a neighbor had started harassing Williams' family after her niece rejected his advances. 

But this time was different. One of the bullets struck Williams in the leg, causing her to collapse onto her bedroom floor. 

The single mother of five was hospitalized overnight and recovered from her injuries relatively quickly, but this was the second shooting in recent months that affected her family — her oldest son had been shot and injured trying to break up a fight earlier that year. So she found a way to move out of their house in Baton Rouge's Brookstown neighborhood, hoping new surroundings would bring them peace.

The violence continued despite her efforts. Just six months passed before another son was hit by gunfire, killed at age 14, the victim of an armed robbery that occurred while he was visiting friends back in Brookstown. Then a third son was convicted of attempted murder after he shot at someone during an argument over a girl.

"Your life could be in constant danger, but you never get used to it," Williams said. "It never seems normal because it doesn't have to be like this. It shouldn't be like this."

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Marcinda Williams holds a picture of her son Chris, who was shot and killed several years ago, Thursday Nov. 8, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. 

Raising children in some Baton Rouge neighborhoods means navigating the devastating effects of frequent gunfire, from murders to maiming to stray bullets. Experts contend American law enforcement agencies and researchers have traditionally overlooked the impacts and significance of nonfatal shootings, focusing attention on homicides and failing to address the full spectrum of gun violence that Williams and her family have experienced firsthand. The same goes for the media. Gunshot injuries rarely make headlines and reporters quickly move on from those stories.

"We don't pay much attention until someone dies," said Natalie Kroovand Hipple, a criminal justice professor at Indiana University who studies nonfatal shootings. "But that's often the result of a millimeter difference in where the bullet lands. … Homicides are relatively rare events in the context of all violent crime."

Data show that nonfatal shootings are significantly more common than homicides nationwide, though they're often solved at lower rates. Their victims often face lasting physical challenges, steep medical bills and psychological trauma.

Most law enforcement agencies don't collect data on gunshot survivors because it isn't required under federal guidelines. But this year, the Baton Rouge Police Department started tracking those numbers to better inform their policing, taking what experts describe as an important first step to better understand the gun violence that plagues much of Baton Rouge.

Change can't come soon enough for Williams.

She still has a small scar on her leg, which hurts after she stands for long periods because of nerve damage and bullet fragments her doctors couldn't remove. The pain reminds her of the violence her family has faced, despite her best efforts to counter the gun culture around them — making sure her children stayed in school and even confiscating firearms to turn them over to police.

"I had to take some control before it got out of hand. Otherwise, Lord forbid, I probably would have had to bury all five of my children," she said. "In some of these neighborhoods, the police just gotta get tougher. … Not to blame law enforcement, but I feel like they could do more."

Nonfatal shootings in EBR 

Nonfatal shootings occur at least twice as often as homicides in East Baton Rouge Parish, according to data from Emergency Medical Services and Baton Rouge police. On average since 2014, at least three people have been wounded in a shooting each week, amounting to just over 850 victims surviving a bullet wound within the last five years.

Those numbers only account for shootings considered assaults — not accidental or self-inflicted — and likely underestimate all such victims, because EMS cannot record instances where no one called 911.

East Baton Rouge first responders have received more than 140 nonfatal shooting calls so far this year. That follows a total of 233 in all of 2017, when homicides across the parish reached a record high of 106. The parish has had 82 homicides this year, as of Saturday.

While shootings and gunshot injuries tend to rise and fall with homicides, New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher said tracking only homicides misses larger trends. But that's nonetheless how most law enforcement agencies collect data, in part because of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system, which requires local departments to report annual homicide totals but lumps nonfatal shootings into other categories, such as aggravated assault and armed robbery.

The UCR system hasn't changed much since it was developed decades ago despite rising gun violence, leaving it wildly outdated, said Jim Bueermann, president of the nonprofit National Police Foundation. But he doubts that changes anytime soon given the current political climate and the power of gun lobbyists — meaning progress falls to the local level.

'We basically lost everything'

Jordan Lee held up his left hand outside of Scotlandville High School one afternoon this September, revealing a long scar on his forearm from an attack on his family's home. The 17-year-old struggles to straighten his fingers, though the numbness has mostly faded. It's nearly impossible to pick up anything of consequence.

"Everything's still not alright," said the high school senior, shaking his head. But he didn't just mean his hand.

On April 20, a bomb landed in Jordan's bedroom, waking up his family just before 5 a.m., but somehow it didn't explode. Minutes later, more than 25 rounds of bullets came. Some flew through Jordan's younger brother's headboard, missing the teen by inches. Two struck Jordan: one tearing through his left arm, another hitting his back. The crime remains unsolved.

Doctors and Medicaid covered Jordan's surgery, but the family didn't feel safe returning to their home of the past 11 years. They believe the attack came from a misinformed hit on the teen's father for allegedly snitching on someone he said he doesn't even know. 

Victim assistance funds helped them relocate temporarily for three weeks. But additional housing aid didn't pan out and Jordan's parents blew through savings faster than expected. Then the family vehicle broke down and they couldn't afford to fix it. With no transportation, the couple couldn't get to work and Jordan started missing physical therapy. 

Jordan and his brother moved in with relatives close enough to still attend Scotlandville High while their parents live across town with other family. They all remain hopeful they can reunite soon under one roof. Jordan will graduate this spring and recently started considering college. With permanent nerve damage to his hand, he realizes he won't be able to work a hands-on job like he'd been training for during high school.   

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From left, Joshua Lee, mom Fanta Lee and Jordan Lee as Joshua and Fanta wipe tears from their eyes while talking about how lives have been completely upended in the aftermath of an April bomb and shooting attack on their home. 

"We basically lost everything in a matter of minutes," said Jordan's mother Fanta Lee, blinking back tears.

There's no money dedicated to protecting families after targeted attacks. To supplement crime victim support funds, officials often lean on charities and nonprofits, said Kristen Raby, East Baton Rouge District Attorney's director of victim support. Fanta Lee feels the family has fallen through the cracks.

"We feel like they tossed us away, but we've got to still … find a way," she said.

Shifting police focus

The Baton Rouge Police Department started tracking nonfatal shootings this year during a spike in homicides that left officials searching for new solutions. Leaders said they're using those numbers to allocate manpower and inform policing practices.

"We want to know how much damage is being done out there," said Deputy Chief Robert McGarner. "People focus more on homicides in general, but in any given day we have shootings where people are hurt. And you can't dismiss them."

But the department still doesn't track how often nonfatal shootings are solved. Officials said nonfatal shootings fall under their "major assault" cases, and extracting the clearance rate for just shootings would be too time consuming.

Many other departments across the state still don't track nonfatal shootings at all — including the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office and Lafayette Police Department — but the New Orleans Police Department records them entirely. Its data shows that, out of about 200 nonfatal shootings this year, 35 percent have been solved — well below their homicide clearance rate. Research from other cities also indicates that nonfatal shootings are rarely solved: under 4 percent in Boston and around 5 percent in Chicago.

McGarner said he expects a similar discrepancy in BRPD's clearance rates. He said nonfatal shooting cases often present a unique challenge for investigators when victims — more often than not — refuse to cooperate with law enforcement, sometimes choosing instead to take justice into their own hands.

"You would think a living witness would be better than a deceased victim, but no. It's like pulling teeth," McGarner said. "They don't ever know who shot them. So the cycle just keeps repeating itself." 

Lt. Stephan Murphy, commander of the BRPD's Major Assaults Division, said his division's seven detectives handle a variety of cases in addition to nonfatal shootings, including felony batteries, domestic abuse and kidnappings, which together amounts to more than 800 cases yearly — creating massive caseloads for investigators.  

'For better or for worse'

Tarj and Durell Hamilton were pulling into their driveway, returning from a concert in Port Allen when they noticed two men approaching them on Sycamore Street. Tarj watched in the rearview mirror, not knowing that the next moments would change her life forever.

One of the men pulled a gun and demanded money. Durell reacted almost immediately, retrieving his own weapon as gunfire broke out. He was hit in the abdomen but was able to chase the robbers before collapsing.

Tarj dialed 911. She was most concerned about her husband, but soon realized she had also been shot in the back.

Four days later, Durell woke up in the hospital. He recovered relatively quickly considering the extent of his injuries but eventually learned Tarj was worse off: She had been paralyzed from the waist down. 

"We both took a vow for better or for worse," he said. "I was just happy to have my wife."

The 2007 shooting occurred not long after the couple returned from celebrating their second wedding anniversary in Las Vegas. Tarj had become a certified real estate agent months earlier and they were settling into their life together, raising four children between them.

Durell went back to work as a plant operator, but Tarj spent a month in bed after her release from the hospital, unable to face her new reality — until her family pushed her to get up and "take advantage of being alive."


Shooting victim Tarj Hamilton shows how she has had to adapt to do common chores in her home, Thursday, November 15, 2018, in Zachary, La.

After that, she quickly adapted to her wheelchair and later had her car outfitted with hand controls. She went back to work and has since started her own real estate agency. The couple bought a new house of their own in Zachary, which they made handicap-accessible.

Baton Rouge police never made any arrests in the case. But Tarj is still paying off over $100,000 in medical bills that weren't covered by insurance or crime victim assistance funds. She's been told she'll never walk again but still holds out hope her spine could regenerate. 

"I've learned to let go and keep living," she said. "But you just never know. … I believe in the higher power."

Lasting toll on survivors

When people are shot in East Baton Rouge Parish, they're almost always rushed to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, the only area hospital with a trauma surgeon on staff around the clock.  

Tomas Jacome, the director of the hospital's trauma center, said their main focus is on internal damage from the gunshot's path. Actually removing the bullet is a secondary concern, he said, and can sometimes cause more harm. 

Gunshot wounds are a leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the country, according to a 2015 studyData collected between 2006 and 2014 show that the cost of initial hospitalization for gunshot victims in the United States averaged more than $730 million per year. And another study found that the estimated cost for inpatient treatment was $23,000 per firearm injury in 2010 — and nearly half that cost falls to taxpayers. 


Dr. Tomas Jacome, M.D., Trauma Center Director for Baton Rouge's Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, talks in one of the trauma rooms there about what happens when a gunshot wound victim is brought in, Friday, Sept.7, 2018.

In addition to physical impacts, the mental health issues resulting from gun violence are just as important, said Jill Hayes, a forensic psychologist and adjunct professor at the LSU Health Sciences Center. An estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of shooting victims come out of the hospital with significant signs of post traumatic stress disorder, which are often exaggerated for people living in high crime areas who could have experienced repeated trauma.

"We have this kind of civil warfare going on in our cities," she said. "But we don't have the support infrastructure to deal with it."

Tonja Myles, a peer support specialist with Capital Area Human Services who provides counseling to local inmates, said she starts by explaining to clients what trauma is and how it causes feelings of anger, anxiety and sometimes depression.

"When people hear gunshots every day, they can become desensitized to it," Myles said. "Part of my job is telling them this is not normal. It's not OK. … We have to deal with this culture of violence and get people the help that they need." 

'Starting over from baby steps'

Ditesha Dalton had just left work to file a police report alleging domestic abuse when her ex-boyfriend pulled up beside her at a stoplight on the morning of Sept. 10.

Just hours earlier, Dalton had quietly moved out of the house she shared with Claude Elliott, the man she had, until recently, planned to marry. She decided to leave, but still never believed he would try to kill her — until he pulled out a gun and started shooting into her car.

She wrenched her steering wheel in panic and drove back toward the warehouse on Choctaw Drive where she worked as a building mechanic for local schools. But he followed her, still firing.

The chase continued into the warehouse parking lot, where Dalton finally jumped from her vehicle to run toward the building. But she wasn't fast enough — a bullet struck her foot as she launched herself through the side door and jumped over the counter, crouching under a desk while the receptionist called 911.

Claude surrendered to authorities and was arrested on the scene. He's being held in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and faces attempted second-degree murder charges. 

Months after the shooting, Dalton said the impacts are almost insurmountable.

Her foot has healed significantly and she's expected to recover fully, but she hasn't been able to work. Her car was damaged during the shooting and she needs money for repairs.

She's been living with her sister, but hopes to move out of state soon, worried Elliott will be released from jail.

Dalton said the financial hardship is temporarily daunting but not her biggest concern.

"The psychological impact — that's the worst," she said. "I can't imagine a bigger betrayal … that someone I loved and trusted would try to kill me. My life changed in the blink of an eye, and now I'm just starting over from baby steps."

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.