OAKLAND -- The names of the three boys echo loudly and painfully in Hiram Lawrence's mind.
There is 3-year-old Carlos Nava, killed in his stroller. Five-year-old Gabriel Martinez, who died clutching his father's pant leg. And there is his own son, Hiram Jr., almost 2, shot in the head as Lawrence cradled his tiny boy and ran for cover from the bullets that are killing Oakland's children.
Each of the dead shared his father's name. And over the past seven months, the boys' deaths have linked three more families in the deepest, most unforgiving way -- one that they have been too devastated to speak about, until now.
"People just don't understand it until it happens to them," Lawrence said recently, as tears streamed down his big cheeks and his hands trembled. "I see people outside with their kids now and I just tell them to take their kids in their house. Anything's possible."
The killings of Carlos, Hiram and Gabriel -- the first two killed by stray bullets in gang-related violence; the third shot inexplicably on the second to last day of 2011 at his parents' taco truck -- have left a different kind of scar on a city too accustomed to candlelight vigils and carwash fundraisers for funerals.
Students at schools in East Oakland and Alameda are fasting to raise awareness about the danger they face. A pastor in East Oakland is organizing a series of "Save Our Babies" block parties scheduled for the spring. But police, victims groups and community activists are left wondering: Will the killings of Carlos, Hiram and Gabriel change the attitudes about what Oakland will -- or, perhaps, will no longer -- choose to accept?
"What is being done?" asks Tower of Faith church's the Rev. Rosevelt Taylor, who has counseled Lawrence. "I wish to God I had an answer."
No precedent exists for so many children being killed in such a short span: 4 ½ months. Not since July 1997, when a 7-year-old boy was killed in a gang-related shooting, has even a single child younger than 10 died of gun violence in the city.
In the aftermath of each of these killings, police temporarily stepped up patrols, assigned extra officers to solve the cases and offered rewards for tips to catch Hiram's and Gabriel's killers, whose identities are still unknown. Politicians including Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, visited the grieving families and vowed to put a stop to the killings.
But, eventually, the city's highly publicized clashes with Occupy protesters shifted the focus from the tragedies.
It crushes their families that Hiram Jr., who adored his daddy's singing voice, and Gabriel, who missed his schoolmates so much he cried on weekends, now symbolize the violence that plagues Oakland.
It robs Carlos Nava Sr. of the one source of hope that he so eloquently raised at his son's funeral -- the first of three burials of slain children in Oakland.
"It's beyond my son," Nava said at the time, donning a white T-shirt with a photo of a smiling Carlos. "I want to bring everyone together. ... I want to stop the violence."
Yet, seven months later, the violence refuses to stop. After Carlos, 37 more people were slain before the year was over. An additional 20 have been killed this year, most in gun violence. In the heartbreaking calculations that reduce victims to numbers, Carlos was Oakland's 73rd homicide victim of 2011.
His name joined the list Aug. 8, shortly after his mother pushed his stroller out of an All Mart convenience store in the 6400 block of International Boulevard and started the two-block walk home to their apartment in the early afternoon. According to police, two men driving by opened fire on a neighborhood drug dealer. A stray bullet hit Carlos in the neck.
A video posted on YouTube by a passing motorist captured the chaos: Dozens of people screaming, trying to locate the gunmen, the wounded, the dead. The video, which police have removed from the Internet and seized as evidence, ends with the discovery of Carlos lying on the sidewalk, cradled by his parents, bleeding to death.
The police investigator, Sgt. George Phillips, struggled to keep his emotions in check while talking about it recently. In 28 years on the force, Phillips had never been in charge of hunting down a child's killer, until Carlos' case. A quick arrest of two men -- Lawrence Denard, 26, the shooting suspect, and Willie Torrence, 22, the getaway driver suspect -- was hardly consolation.
"It was different," he said. "I have children. Most police do. So when there's a small child involved it's particularly difficult."
Less than two weeks later and five blocks away, a 2-year-old boy was shot in the arm but survived.
As word and outrage over Carlos' killing spread in the fall, Brittany Houston, 22, began telling her longtime partner, Hiram Lawrence, to be more careful with their little boy, Hiram Jr. "Don't take the baby outside," she told him. "People are killing babies out there."
These words, Lawrence recalled later, "went in one ear and out the other."
At home, Houston began preparing for her baby's second birthday, on Dec. 28. She bought a big, motorized car called a Power Wheel. Hiram loved a popular cartoon character, Caillou, so Houston ordered a doll and a backpack online, along with Caillou-themed plates, cups and party streamers. More than 20 children were invited to the party at The Jungle, a popular play center. Houston chose the Mookie's Menu package and spread the invitations and cards on a table. A child's second birthday was a special one, and she wanted to make it unforgettable.
On the morning of Nov. 28, Hiram woke his father asking for candy. They hadn't had breakfast, but Lawrence laughed and gave his son a piece or two anyway. Houston recorded the moment on her iPad.
Lawrence, a rapper and producer, spent the morning with friends in West Oakland, looking for a place to shoot a music video. About 6 p.m., he stopped at a liquor store as the sun went down and met up with Hiram and the boy's grandmother. The boy reached out for his father, wanting to come along as Lawrence went inside the store to buy something for his mom. When the two left the store moments later, three men rounded a nearby corner, guns raised, firing into a crowd in the parking lot. Before he knew it, Lawrence was running for cover, cradling his baby in his arms with one hand over his face to shield him from the bullets.
"Daddy, Daddy," Lawrence remembers his boy crying.
Lawrence ducked behind a taco truck as bullets flew by. One struck Lawrence in the hand. Then he looked down and saw more blood coming from his boy's head. On the way to a hospital, before he lost consciousness, Hiram said two things: Daddy and Mommy.
Hiram was in a coma for 11 days. When the family took the boy off life support, Lawrence had his son's face engraved in blue ink on his left forearm.
"My son being in my arms, rapid fire going off, it's worse than in a bad dream," he said. "I ain't never felt nothing like this."
Lawrence had lost people to gun violence before: his brother in 2001, his favorite cousin in 2005, his father, who had been in and out of jail his whole life, in 2009. And Lawrence's rap music was peppered with the language of violence and the gangster identity that sells records. But his son's death was in a different category. His wife's warnings came back to him again and again. Suddenly, he was repelled by the violence in his music. "It happened to me," he said. "Sending the wrong message ended up backfiring. All these guys out there are just shooting people, and they don't care."
As he recently sat in a pew at the Tower of Faith church in East Oakland, tears streaming down his cheeks, Lawrence struggled to hold on to memories of his son. He has a hard time looking at bananas, his son's favorite fruit. He remembers how the baby loved to climb around the kitchen, how he liked to listen to his father sing. More than anything, Lawrence wishes he had died instead, so his son "could grow old and gray."
The Lawrence family finds solace in the words of Taylor, an Oakland native who has ministered to them since the beginning of their ordeal. What he sees in the slayings of children in broad daylight in Oakland terrifies him. "When I was coming up on these streets there was some kind of code," he said. "But there's no code anymore. It's really sad and it's spiraling out of control."
After Carlos' killing, Taylor started a series of block parties around the theme of "Save Our Babies." What the recent child killings made him believe, in ways that other Oakland killings never really did, is that his community is dying a slow but sure death. "There's been enough talking," he said. "We dismiss it, another tragedy happens, we review it again. No, we need to put something in place. It's a cesspool."
Taylor, Oakland police and the Lawrence family agree that hope is dwindling for a community when people are indifferent when confronted with children's deaths. When witnesses refuse to come forward, the police case is hindered, as it has been in Hiram's death. Cases stall, witnesses disappear, unsolved murder cases pile up.
Few people have seen this more intensely than Oakland police chaplain Jayson Landeza, a 23-year veteran who has ministered to hundreds of grief-stricken families in Oakland. "A lot of us are burnt out and tired and angry," he said. "That's the frustrating part: We're furious, but we're stumped."
When Dec. 28 did come, the Lawrence family drove to Lone Tree Cemetery outside Hayward instead of their toddler's birthday party. But they brought cupcakes and flowers. They sang "Happy Birthday" to Hiram and released balloons. The children who were supposed to be running around at The Jungle instead sat around a grave and cried. Later, at home, Hiram's mom slowly began to put away the remnants of the birthday her baby never had.
Two days after Hiram's phantom birthday party, Gabriel Martinez Sr. woke up happy. He had plenty to be thankful for. He owned two thriving businesses -- a taco truck on 54th Avenue and International Boulevard and a fish restaurant, Mariscos, across the street. He settled his family in a well-tended home in Alameda because it was safer than Oakland. Five-year-old Gabriel was the light of his life.
The child had been bugging his dad for weeks to go to Chuck E. Cheese's. Finally, they would get the chance on this day.
Martinez marveled at his son as he played in the jungle gym. He was charismatic for a 5 year old. He loved to sing and dance, to perform for anyone who would watch. He smiled incessantly and caused others to smile in turn. His favorite toys were police cars and firetrucks. He loved to tell stories, as children do, but he told them in detail and with gusto, like the one he had been telling for a week about the imaginary bad guy who pulled out a gun and was arrested by police.
After lunch, they went shopping for supplies for the taco truck, and Gabriel scooted down the aisles on a blue cart, helping his dad choose groceries.
About 8 p.m., they pulled up to the Los Amigos taco truck to pick up Gabriel's mom, Sandra, take out some trash, and then return home to Alameda.
A dozen people were gathered nearby. Gabriel hugged his mother, who had been working all day, and asked if she was tired. "Yes, mi hijo," she answered, and told him they would soon go home.
When Gabriel followed his father to take out the trash, two sounds forever became seared into Sandra's memory. First, she heard shots, followed by small yelps. She screamed and rushed outside. Martinez's back was turned. He felt his son tugging at his legs.
"Don't be scared, mi hijo," he whispered, reaching down, thinking his son was just frightened by the gunshot, never imagining he had been hit.
"Daddy ..." came Gabriel's voice.
As Sandra emerged from the taco truck, she saw blood covering Gabriel's clothes. At first, she thought it was a simple fall in the street, but then she saw the truth and screamed.
"I saw he was in his father's arms and he wasn't moving," Sandra said. "The image that won't leave me is that then his head dropped and his eyes were closed. And I don't know what happened next because I went crazy."
Weeping, Martinez said, "He died in my hands."
When Oakland police Officer Eric Milina arrived that night, Gabriel's body had been removed. But a pair of little Spiderman shoes were still in the street.
'Once it happened to me'
At the Mass at St. Elizabeth church in Oakland a few days later, a mariachi band opened the ceremony singing "Amor Eterno," a Mexican classic. Sandra and Martinez sat in the front row, their heads bowed, as the Rev. Landeza read aloud from Exodus and spoke about the "huge pain in our hearts." When Oakland police Officer Eriberto Perez Angeles went to the Martinez home, Sandra besieged him with questions. "What am I going to do with his toys?" she said, bawling. "What am I going to tell my daughter?"
Perez Angeles had no answer.
Lawrence was at home that day in another part of the East Bay. "I understood, once it happened to me," he said. "My son was in my arms, just like the little boy (at the taco truck) and his dad was right there. He didn't want to let his son go. I didn't want to let my son go either."
Houston, Hiram's mother, told her aunt Annette that she wondered if "all the children being killed was making it so common that it wasn't a big deal."
Three-year-old Carlos' father, Carlos Nava Sr., a busboy, has declined to talk publicly since his son's killing in August. But in a recent phone conversation, he said the people he wants to talk to the most are Hiram's and Gabriel's parents. He has reached out to them repeatedly. He called Gabriel's mother, Sandra, on the phone and tried to offer comfort by telling her he talks to his son every day.
He has told mutual acquaintances he wants to pool their collective grief. He is scared of retaliation, he said, and is even more scared that his son's killer could go unpunished. Only the other parents can know his pain, he insisted. "They can understand."
'Nothing makes sense'
On the one-month anniversary of Gabriel's death, his parents and grandfather visited his grave.
The headstone had not been placed. The crowds were gone. Cemetery workers stopped digging another grave nearby to let the family grieve. Sandra cried and touched the grass. It was the first time she had returned since the funeral.
"The world does not make sense any longer," she said in Spanish, back home that afternoon. "Nothing makes sense."
She used to love to walk to school with the other neighborhood mothers to fetch her son. Now, she sits at the window, watches them pass by, and weeps with rage. Her nieces used to love to pamper their little nephew, planning his girlfriends, his wardrobe, his activities.
Now both are seeing a psychologist for intensive therapy. So is Sandra.
The doctor visits her at home because she can't trust herself to drive on her own. She refuses to set foot anywhere in Oakland.
In 20 years in business, Martinez estimated he has been robbed more than 100 times at the taco truck. In one case, he shot back and later testified in court. In the absence of plausible explanations, he wondered whether his son's killing was retaliation for something in the past. He can't prove it, and police won't comment on the theory. He said he remembers a voice, in the seconds immediately after the shooting, saying something like, "This wasn't meant for you."
But many in Oakland are now realizing it doesn't matter for whom the bullets are meant. Everyone ends up feeling it, and something has to start to change that, said Phillips, the Oakland police sergeant who investigated Carlos' killing.
"It is depressing and I don't know how we're going to fix it," he said. "We've tried different models but on small segments of the community, which are often not successful. It always seems like it's something negative that brings us together."
Looking for her brother
For the families left behind, the promise of life has vanished.
Lawrence wants to start making music again, but he doesn't know how to begin. Nava has moved away, frightened that his son's killers might come after him next, even though his is the only case that has resulted in arrests. Martinez has returned to his taco truck in the city, but he does not know how long he will stay. Perhaps he will return to Mexico, he said.
At home, Gabriel's younger sister, who is 2, is looking for him. She picks up the phone and asks for him: "Gaben? Gaben?" She goes to the door and opens it, looking around for her older brother. She stands at the door, waiting.
"Ten minutes," Sandra said. "They were only at the taco stand for 10 minutes, time enough to take out the garbage and pick me up. And then we were going home as a family."
She bows her head and cries.