Sharon McMahan and I sat in a small booth in a restaurant in Fells Point not far from the location where her eldest son, Juan McMahan, was killed more than a decade ago. “I’ve got all his papers in here from his preschool report cards to his high school records,” says Sharon as she pulls a large file folder from her bag. She flips through the documents, carefully organized with a mother’s love and attention. The papers are yellow and brittle with age. Among the files are a certificate awarded for placing first in a spades tournament and an acknowledgment embossed with a gold seal noting perfect school attendance, among others. Gingerly reaching into her bag, she extracted a small jewelry box and gently removed a lock of her son’s hair.
In her car, she keeps the imprint he made of his teeth for his beloved fronts. The gold-plated fronts are long gone, stolen from his corpse. Yet, the plastic mold of her eldest child’s teeth gives her a fragile sense of comfort during dark moments. She thinks that the mold could be her only link to her son’s killer, the one way she may find some justice. Whoever has those gold fronts must know who killed Juan.
The leather bag and its contents provide a glimpse into Juan’s life. There is the side of Juan that Sharon knew well. The Juan to whom she taught her best dance moves. The Juan who loved music. The Juan who excelled at card games, chess, and any game requiring math. Then there was Blue. Sharon remembered, “He told me once: ‘Mom, you know Juan. The street knows Blue.’”
When Juan was 12, his beloved uncle and confidant Vincent, Sharon’s brother, died after suffering from a long illness. The death sent Juan into a deep depression. He started to engage in childish, inappropriate, and at times, deviant behavior. Sharon felt that Juan’s actions were a desperate cry for help… help she tried to provide him. She made sure he had resources: therapists, doctors, and guidance counselors. Yet, she was not able to keep her child from falling into the juvenile justice system. At the age of 12, Juan threw a rock at a woman’s car. From that day forward, he was pegged as ‘trouble.’
Sharon’s files outline the unraveling of Juan’s life. One desperately sad report from a psychologist describes a young Juan as a “cooperative, well-developed, well-nourished, well-groomed African American male.” Juan tells the phycologist interviewing him: “I think about my mother, and I don’t want nothing to happen to her.” He also tells the psychologist that he has access to guns and that he sells drugs.
Sharon shakes her head, “A child doesn’t tell an adult those things unless they want someone to stop them. Kids don’t say they are doing things like that unless they want help. Juan was screaming for help and the professionals ignored him.” The doctor did nothing but document Juan’s transgressions. Sharon did all she could to provide Juan with the best help possible. She spent over $800 for a lawyer whom she had been assured would be able to rectify Juan’s legal issues. She met with the lawyer once whereupon the attorney informed Sharon that the $800 only covered the costs of the initial meeting.
Then Sharon heard about the job corps program in Baltimore. Juan desperately wanted to find legal employment and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. However, he was denied because of his criminal record. It seemed like Juan and Sharon were never going to emerge from the destructive cycle.
Then, on the morning of July 14, 2004, life began to look up for both mother and son. Juan learned that he was going to become a father and was determined to get his life on track for his child. He signed up and was enrolled in a program to get his GED. Sharon picked Juan up that morning and took him to a job interview at Friendly’s. She then proceeded on to an appointment where she interviewed for a job as a counselor at a local youth program.
Juan told his mother that she was so gifted working with children that there was no way the program manager wouldn’t hire her. He was right, Sharon got the job. After the interviews, she picked him up and took him to meet a friend for a birthday party. Juan called his mother multiple times after she dropped him off. This wasn’t unusual. The two spoke often and always ended their conversations with “I love you.” Sharon always referred to Juan as her “favorite guy” and Juan returned the sentiment calling his mother his “favorite girl.”
She called him later that afternoon to make arrangements to pick him up. “Yo,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I knew it wasn’t my son talking to me like that. He knew to be respectful and that his friends were supposed to call me Ms. Sharon. So, I said, ‘excuse me?’ and Juan’s friend apologized and handed the phone to Juan.” Juan and Sharon planned on a meeting place and Sharon and her husband drove to pick him up.
Sharon saw the police activity as they approached the destination. Marcus, one of Juan’s friends ran up to Sharon’s car, “Ms. Sharon, they shot Juan in the leg!” Sharon’s first feeling was not one of fear but relief. This gun wound might be the only thing that could scare Juan into staying off the streets. It never occurred to her that her child would be dead, it was simply a leg wound.
Sharon and her husband drove around the police activity and approached the corner of East Fairmount and North Montford Ave. She saw the yellow caution tape but still wasn’t fearful. She saw a body on the ground and recognized it was Juan by the tennis shoes that she’d recently given him. Then she watched the police lift Juan’s body and saw his limbs drop heavily by his side. She ran down the street, screaming, into a home filled with men who spoke only Spanish. She pantomimed phone call, the men offered her their phone and Sharon called her mother, “Ma, they killed my baby.”In addition to losing her son and cousin, three of her nephews were also murdered with a gun. Go #BehindTheStatistics with SharonClick To Tweet
The photo is taken at the location where Juan was killed. His body was riddled with bullets, including several that pierced his brain. Sharon watched the medics as they transferred her son’s bloodied body, leaving a trail of his blood seeping into the gutter. It took Sharon years to forgive herself for driving her son to that corner.
The days after Juan’s death, Sharon wasn’t sure she would survive. “I never saw myself getting this far. I thank God for the strength he gives me. When I get done talking to another mother who lost a child, I enjoy seeing her smile again. God gave me a mantle to pass this on. A lot of mothers don’t make it. A lot of them die of a broken heart.” Sharon’s spirit is far from broken. She exudes strength and vibrancy. Yet, like so many of the mothers I speak with, her eyes betray her sadness.
As we say our goodbyes, I hug Sharon and hand her a cream envelope holding a sympathy card I’ve written. It is not for the death of her son. Sadly, just days before our lunch, Sharon’s cousin was shot and killed and an elderly aunt died of natural causes. In addition to Juan and her cousin, three of Sharon’s nephews have been murdered with a gun. When Sharon tells me this staggering fact, she takes my hand and says, “Remember, all those children killed had mothers they left behind.”
Juan McMahan December 1, 1986- July 14, 2004
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence
Photo by Jen Pauliukonis, President, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence