How a bullet tore through lives in unexpected ways

CINCINNATI (AP) — A man and a woman advance down the street chanting, “Stop the shooting.”

They are an unlikely pair of anti-violence activists. Twenty-five years ago, their relationship began with a single gunshot.

That is, he shot her. He was, he thought, defending his son. She was, well, she can’t remember the particulars, but it had nothing to do with the older man.

Their story is not a fable of right and wrong, no clear moral awaits at the end. It is a story about how people live. How they live with what they’ve done, and what’s been done to them.

It began in 1991.

Margaret Long was turning 19. She remembers drinking a lot to celebrate. The rest of the details of that night come second-hand.

Sometime that night she decided it was time to get home. She stopped at her sister’s house on her way home to the old Lincoln Court Apartments in West End. She was living on her own for the first time. Her mother had expressed concern about the neighborhood.

“(My sister) told me I had picked up a knife because I didn’t want to walk through the dark park by myself, and it was a real, real dark park. She said she watched me as far as she could watch me through the park,” Long said.

Then she ran into Mark Jones. They had become a couple after meeting at a McDonald’s where Long worked. But the relationship didn’t last long, and they had broken up before that meeting in the park.

“We started arguing. I don’t know what we were arguing about,” Long said. “He said I was chasing him with the knife. I probably was.”

Mark Jones said a couple of his friends were about to step in to help.

“I said, ‘No, no, no, I got this. Don’t do anything,’ because she was swinging the knife where she almost stabbed herself.”

Carrying a gun, Jones took it out and put it on the ground so it wouldn’t be grabbed or accidentally go off. He also took off his jacket and wrapped at around his arm to give Long something to swing at.

“I was someone gassing her out, backing up and she was trying to chase me,” he said. “Next thing you know, someone had told my daddy that some girl was out there trying to stab me.”

Arthur Phelps was looking for his son that night. “I came down to Lincoln Court to see if I could buy some drugs from him,” he said.

He explained that he came around a corner to see his son and the ex-girlfriend fighting. He also saw something on the ground.

“I immediately went around and picked his gun up,” Phelps said. Claiming he was worried about his son’s safety, he got involved.

“I ran in front of her and I said, ‘Stop, Stop!’ and she wouldn’t stop. She was coming toward me with the butcher knife,” he said. “I stopped and I pointed the gun at her and I shot her.”

“When she hit the ground, I grabbed her,” said Jones, “I was screaming at him ‘Why you do that, why you do that?’ So he took off running. I’m on the ground with her, holding her neck. She’s bleeding. I was there until the paramedics came. That was it.”

The son asked his father why he would interfere.

“She looked like she was trying to hurt you,” said Phelps.

“For the first 24 hours, they didn’t think I was going to make it,” Long said.

The bullet went into her neck and exited out the middle of her shoulder blade. It pierced her spine.

She spent two weeks at University Hospital, and about 10 weeks in Drake Hospital.

“I did a lot of therapy, but you’re really just trying to go home to learn how to live life in a wheelchair,” Long said.

“This ain’t no easy life. Look at my weight. I drop weight. I have a feeding tube,” she said. “I broke both of my legs. I broke one twice.”

Nobody had it easy.

Shortly after the shooting, Arthur Phelps’ son bought a new gun.

“I was going to blow my daddy away,” Jones said.

Phelps was arrested after the Long shooting. He said he turned himself and the gun in to police. A grand jury ignored any charges filed against him. While there’s no record of why, Phelps said it was clear he was defending himself and his son.

“Nothing going down, and I said, ‘Ok, I’ll take care of (him),’ ” Jones said. “I bought a nasty Smith and Wesson with an eight-inch barrel with high-velocity rounds, just for him, and I went looking for him.”

Jones’ uncle was the one who talked him out of it.

“My uncle told me, he said, ‘After everything he done, nephew, that’s still your daddy. I don’t condone what he did, but I can’t let you kill my brother. Do me a favor and don’t hurt my brother,’ ” Jones said. “And I respected my uncle and I didn’t.”

Twenty-five years later, that night still haunts Jones. He still cares deeply for Long and does what he can to help her, but, he admits, he can’t spend much time around her.

“When I do see her, I have to get myself mentally prepared. She’s not ugly in no form or fashion, nothing of that nature, it’s just the guilt, it’s the guilt, it’s the guilt,” Jones said. “This isn’t any old body from off the street, this used to be my girl. Loved her to death, still do.”

Jones wasn’t the only one who thought his father had to be dealt with.

Even before Long was out of the hospital, there was already talk swirling through her family about what needed to happen to Arthur Phelps.

“There were a lot of people out wanting to kill him, but they kept asking me and I kept saying ‘no,’ ” Long said. “I’m not going to let my family get locked up for life, or let one my family members lose their lives with gunfire going back and forth. So I kept begging my family not to kill him.

“I wasn’t fixing to lose my family like they almost lost me.”

While Phelps survived, his relationship with his son didn’t.

“There’s nothing he can do, nothing he can say, nothing he can do for my kids or my family,” Jones said. “The Margaret Long incident, it was the final nail, it’s not even a nail, it’s a piece of 20-gauge steel welded in place on top of all the other nails. My animosity with my daddy lies deeper than what he did to Ms. Long.”

Jones said it took years for him to even be in the same room with Phelps, due to the rage that used to boil over whenever they crossed paths. Their relationship has never been the same.

But life is strange, sometimes keeping lives entwined despite unspeakable differences.

Margaret Long works hard daily in Cincinnati’s anti-violence movement. She’s traveled to Washington D.C. twice to speak about gun violence. She also has spent time speaking with the parents of Sandy Hook, Columbine and Virginia Tech victims.

She does this work in part because she saw Arthur Phelps on TV.

It was 2006. The year before the city had seen nearly 100 homicides. Resources were being dedicated to the task.

The Cincinnati Human Relations Commission’s initiative to reduce violence (CIRV) had a large staff and was getting a lot of press. Long caught a story about the efforts on local television.

“It was Arthur, the old chief of police, (Tom) Streicher, Mark Mallory, the old mayor, and another person on the panel. They were talking about gun violence,” Long said. “I was going off calling everyone. ‘Turn on the TV, turn on the TV. You’re never going to believe who’s on TV.’

“Everything started rushing to me. I got emotional,” she said. “Do they know what he did?”

Then she started working to track him down. She called the TV station. She called the police. She called city hall. She eventually got to the desk of Stan Ross, Phelps’ boss at CHRC.

Ross listened to her story. He spoke with Phelps privately, then offered to reunite the two.

“I got to meet him. I got to show him what he did to me,” Long said. “He needs to know what I’ve been going through.”

They met at a CIRV event.

With his head lowered, Phelps apologized. And Long forgave him.

Ross then offered the unlikely pair a platform, and they began sharing their story at schools. Long would tell her story, letting the students believe it was just another cautionary tale about drinking and partying, then Phelps would come out and deliver the other side of the story.

The message against violence and pushing forgiveness was well-received but often questioned. Long remembered a young girl asking her directly why her family didn’t kill Phelps.

“I feel like it saved a lot of kids,” she said.

Funding dried up for CIRV soon after. Staffing was cut, but Phelps and Long remained friends and remained involved in anti-violence groups and events. At those events, he’s usually out front leading the charge with a bullhorn.

His goals are simple. He wants the community to know that it’s safe to bring information to police. He wants to try to stop retribution killings by speaking directly with the friends and families of the victims, and he wants to connect those who want to leave the street with jobs and education.

“Everybody know I don’t tell on people. I just tell what I see,” he said. “My job is to keep you all from killing each other. That’s what I do. Stop the violence.”

He now works for Cincinnati Works’ Phoenix Program. The nonprofit has resources to help people find real work, and Phelps has the people who need those resources the most.

Phelps is not a man with many answers. He doesn’t pretend to know what political and cultural reforms might be necessary to stop gun violence, but he knows he’s been led to do the work that he’s doing.

Phelps had a record and a crack habit when he fired the shot that night in 1991.

“I knew I was either going to end up in the penitentiary or I’m going to be dead. That’s what made me get clean,” he said. “I was tired of being in the street anyway.”

He had spent much of his life on the streets selling drugs, hustling and committing petty crimes. That’s when he wasn’t in jail on a drug offense.

But the shooting changed him, and the emotions from that day still come up every time he sees Long.

He’s bounced around the city. For a time, he was nearly homeless. He once owned a home in Northside but is now living in subsidized housing. He has struggled to work and support his underage children.

He says he’s messed up a lot of people’s lives over the years, but now, pushing 70, he doesn’t speak like a guilty man.

“I had to pay for that. Don’t think I didn’t have to pay for it,” he said. “Every time I see her I feel so empty on the inside. That’s a hard pill to swallow for me, especially for someone who didn’t deserve that. I can’t turn the hands back, but if I could I would.

“We’ve got to stop killing each other.”

Not an uncommon message from someone who regrets a shooting. But strange to hear with his victim alongside him, accepting his embrace.

“I don’t hate him, I hate what he did,” Long said.

“And we came together.”


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,