Her in-laws are well known in their block of Treme. Neighbors usually speak when they pass.
But as Caston walked out the door of their house one day last week, something didn’t feel right. On the other side of the street, a young man in a hoodie was walking silently down the block. “It brought me back,” said Caston, 29, who quickly turned around and said, “Don’t bring the kids outside.”
An uncle caught up with the young man at the corner store a half-block away. “When you walk around here, please don’t wear that hoodie up. We had a shooting here,” he advised.
Even today, more than five months later, family members shake their heads when they think about the needless gunfire that shattered the leg bones of Caston’s daughter, Emari, then 2 years old.
Despite months of operations and therapy, Emari still drags her leg as she walks. Her final prognosis is unclear.
Emari was hit by one of two bullets fired by a gunman standing on the other side of Gov. Nicholls Street, a block from the French Quarter. This typically quiet block of Gov. Nicholls is bracketed by St. Augustine Catholic Church at one end and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival offices at the other, the intersection with North Rampart Street.
To Caston and her young family, the block feels like home. Though they live in eastern New Orleans, she grew up a few blocks away in Treme; her partner, Alan Stokes, also grew up here. So they stop by often. Her mother-in-law also keeps the children while Caston is at work.
Over the years, the family’s double shotgun has become a social focal point of the neighborhood. On nice nights, someone is always outside, with the adults sitting on folding chairs and stoops while the children ride tricycles or play games on the front sidewalk by the flower garden.
On that night in April, a week before Jazz Fest, the weather was beautiful and breezy. About 8 p.m., Caston, who was nearly eight months pregnant at the time, walked into her in-laws’ house while her two daughters played on the sidewalk next door, a few feet away from neighbor Erica Dudas.
Stokes had been there with them, but Dudas said she’d keep an eye on the kids while he ran a half-block to the store to get a cold drink.
On surveillance video of the incident, Emari is seen holding a jump rope while she and her sister Alyia, 10, sit on the stoop next to Dudas, leaning in to look at an image on her cellphone. Then Emari, dressed in a sundress with neat bows in her hair, steps a few feet away and begins skipping rope.
At 8:19 p.m. on the video, a person in black can be seen stopping briefly and raising an arm on the other side of the street.
‘Blood was everywhere’
For the next 14 seconds, the world moves at high speed: Emari falls down. Within four seconds, Dudas scoops her up and runs inside. One second later, Caston, her belly round like a basketball, flies out of the house next door, running so fast that she almost trips, with a look of terror on her face. Stokes sprints into view from the other direction.
They now believe that a person standing nearby — a relative of a girl who dated a guy in the family — was the shooter’s target.
Officer Garry Flot, a New Orleans Police Department spokesman, said he had no further information on the incident and that no arrests have been made.
Caston said that for a while, she was focused on trying to find the gunman, but then she ended up putting all of her energy into Emari’s leg, which was badly damaged. “The bullet shattered her fibula and tibia. It blew straight through her leg,” said Caston, who — with Stokes — drove her child to the hospital.
Dudas had applied pressure to the wound, and they continued to apply it during the short drive, but the leg was bleeding badly and the calf dangled, as if it was not connected internally to the rest of the leg.
As the couple ran into the Interim LSU Public Hospital, “blood was everywhere, all over our clothes,” Caston said. She worried that Emari would bleed to death. “I was shaking, saying, ‘God, please don’t take away my baby.’ ”
From LSU, Emari was transferred to Children’s Hospital, where doctors stabilized the wound and performed a skin graft, taking skin from the toddler’s hip. Caston slept five days on a hospital cot, despite her pregnancy. “I wasn’t caring about myself,” she said.
Both she and Stokes took as much time off from work as they could. She works as a server at the W Hotel while Stokes works on his own, doing landscaping.
During that time, her mind often traveled back to the incident: “I thought, ‘Why?’ My baby is lying here for a stupid person who saw my children and still fired his gun in their direction.”
To Caston, the city’s ongoing gun violence now feels personal. Recently, when a toddler was hit by gunfire on Laharpe Street, Caston brought him some coloring books and toys and told the mother to call her if she needed some encouragement. She’s seen how the effects of gunfire go far beyond the person who’s hit.
For her family, the effects from those two bullets in April probably will be lifelong, Caston said.
Three months ago, Caston gave birth to a third daughter, Al-Lynn. Recently, she suggested to Stokes that the two of them take a parents’ night out. “But Alan never wants to leave these girls, ever,” she said. “He feels like he has to protect us.”
Their neighbor, Dudas, also is still shaken from the incident. She recently started a YouCaring crowdfunding campaign for the family to help them recover. “I’m not going to rest until something productive comes out of this,” she said.
Emari’s older sister Alyia, now a fifth-grader, also was traumatized, as she was standing not far from her little sister during the shooting. Fortunately, she attends a FirstLine School that provided one-on-one counseling for her and took the incident into consideration when assigning homework and giving tests. That response helped.
“Alyia is better now,” her mother said, although — like everyone else in the family — the girl still looks over her shoulder at times. And so, even though money is tight, they got her a cellphone so she can call them anytime she feels unsettled. “None of us know who we can trust anymore,” Caston said.
Emari faces both physical and mental challenges. At this point, the bones are not healing, though doctors are unsure why. “They’ve really never dealt with two bones like this before,” Caston said.
Emari’s leg nerves are intact, but they’re stretched in such a way that it’s unclear whether they will work properly if the bones do heal.
After the skin graft, her doctors waited six weeks, consulting with all sorts of doctors elsewhere.
After the wait, the fibula seemed to be healing but not the tibia, so surgeons cleared out 2 inches of shattered bone, removed bone from her hip and grafted it onto the tibia. A plate with screws holds the bone in place.
For a while, she wore a cast that covered her leg from hip to foot, though that was recently changed to a smaller pink version for her lower leg only.
Caston said that if the bone graft is a success, the doctors will know it by the next appointment. Then the physical therapy will begin, to deal with the muscles and stretched nerves, to make sure Emari can lift up her foot.
At first, the family avoided taking the girl out of the house because it was hard to keep her leg stable and protect her hip while it healed. They also wanted to draw no attention to what had happened. Strangers often would stare at the beautiful little girl with the massive cast. “What happened?” they would ask.
“She fell,” Caston would say, not wanting to explain.
Back to normal?
When they take the children to City Park or to the zoo, Emari has to sit and watch the other children as they climb and run endlessly, as kids her age usually do. She couldn’t go in the kiddie pool this summer because her cast must be kept dry. She spent most of the Fourth of July inside because the firecrackers scared her.
She can’t attend preschool because she has rods and pins in her leg, and school administrators worry that another child could fall on her, causing injury.
She was in the process of being potty-trained when she was injured, but that had to stop. Even though she just turned 3, she has had to stay in pull-up diapers, to accommodate her surgeries and her casts.
Still, Emari isn’t easily deterred.
Before the hospital got her a wheelchair, she had figured out a way to climb on her tricycle to get around. She has realized that Children’s Hospital is near Audubon Zoo, so she now asks to go to the zoo every time she visits the hospital.
And even if her parents don’t want to discuss her injuries with others, Emari is open about what happened to her, Caston said. If she sees someone else with an injury, she will ask, “Did you get a shot like me?”
Yet, in some ways, Caston feels like life is getting back to normal. She’s now taking all the extra shifts she can to catch up financially.
“I feel like I can breathe a little more,” she said, describing how Emari clowns around and dotes on her little sister.
“She is full of joy,” Caston said. “I’m so happy that she’s here and that I’m the mother of three girls.”