Losing Bill: Living Behind Bars Because Of Gun Violence
Bill Moore was 24 when police say he fired the bullets that would kill one 17-year-old and injure another.
He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and would hang out with friends who lived in the apartment building on Park Street that would eventually become a crime scene.
In the United States, 18- to 24-year-olds make up 10% of the U.S. population, but they represent 21% of people sent to prison every year, according to the Vera Institute for Justice.
And of those, Black men in this age group are seven to nine times more likely to end up incarcerated compared to white men.
When Bill was 18, his mother, Tenesha Lee, says he was diagnosed with psychotic paranoid schizophrenia. She said Bill started to cover the mirrors in his room with blankets because he said people would try to talk to him through the mirrors. As he got older, things didn’t get better. She noticed her son was starting to get into trouble with his friends. Eventually, Bill’s friends began to bully him.
“It’s like that just gave them permission to try and make a fool out of him whenever they seemed possible, which was not cool at all,” Tenesha said of Bill’s schizophrenia. “My son [has] always been about his friends, he always cared about them.”
Tenesha said sometimes Bill would have “up days” and “down days.”
“Some days, I used to have to force him to stay in the house because he just wasn’t in no kinda space to be outside,” she said. “Those days when he’d have rough days, when he’d wake up mad and just angry for no reason at the world and I just make him stay in the house that day, I’d be like, ‘Nah, you chill, you need to be in your room, you need to go lay down.’”
‘Sometimes, I Wish That It Was A Dream’
Tenesha moved their family to Bristol, Connecticut, in 2015 but said she couldn’t seem to keep her son away from Hartford. Months before Bill was arrested and charged in December 2018 with killing Karlonzo Taylor and injuring James Harris, Bill was mugged by people he considered his friends.
A few years ago, Tenesha and Bill got tattoos together. Besides the tattoos on his face, Bill got his mother’s name and a cross tattooed on his arm. Eventually, Bill became fed up with the bullying and threats from his so-called friends. He decided he wanted revenge. Though they had mutual friends, Bill didn’t know Karlonzo or James.
“I never in my life expected my son to go to jail for murder, never in a million of years. He wasn’t that type of person. I never imagined that and I didn’t see it at all,” Tenesha said. “It shocked me, I thought it was a dream. I really did. Sometimes, I still wish that it was a dream, sometimes when I go to sleep, I wish I could wake up and everything would be back to normal. And Bill would be here.”
Tenesha describes her son as a “big dude” built like a hearty defensive lineman, at over 6 feet tall and more than 250 pounds.
“Anybody that looks at Bill would be intimidated by him right away even though he’s harmless,” she said. “They don’t see that when they look at him, they see some big monster ’cause he’s so big.”
Bill has been incarcerated since the shooting. Juan Gomez, executive director of MILPA, a nonprofit that works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth and men, says society often demonizes Black boys and men. He sees it differently.
“Not only does the victim still need healing and closure and repair and reconciliation and support and hope, but this brother and his family also need that,” Gomez said. “And we can’t continue to throw away or put away our young people into the system, when we know that they still are developing and exploring their identity.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, approximately 70% of the people currently incarcerated in Connecticut prisons came in between the ages of 18 and 24.
“Mass incarceration is driven by the incarceration of young men of color,” said Alex Frank, director of Vera and MILPA’s Restoring Promise Initiative.
In 2017, Vera worked with the Connecticut Department of Correction to create specialized units within Cheshire Correctional Institution called the T.R.U.E. Program. It pairs 18- to 25-year-olds with older incarcerated men who serve as mentors. It creates an environment and culture in stark contrast to the communities that the young men come from and prison at large.
Gomez himself was formerly incarcerated.
“These young men who end up in the system and in prison have been in the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said. “They have already had -- not even in their existence, oftentimes in their family history -- a whole trajectory, oftentimes of incarceration, of systemic racism, exposure to it, of chronic adversity, poverty.”
Before Bill was arrested, he was having trouble getting hired because he has the same name as his father, who had been incarcerated. Tenesha remembers Bill coming home in tears after being sent home from a job orientation session at Walmart, plagued by his father’s record.
She says Bill would help out as much as possible by paying bills and some rent, taking his siblings to school or using the money he had to get special steak dinners. Tenesha is sick with cancer, lupus and kidney failure, so Bill helped her feel less exhausted by sharing some of the responsibilities.
“Me and Bill was real close. I probably won’t even be here when he get out, and that’s the part that scares me the most,” Tenesha said. “Because I don’t know what he’s gonna do when he comes home, and it’s nobody here for him you know ’cause … the only real person that Bill really, really trust is me.”
Between her illnesses and the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s difficult for Tenesha to visit her son in jail. She says Bill calls her every day.
“He was like, ‘Ma, I ain’t want that to happen to him,’ and he tells me all the time, ‘I’m sorry about what I did, I should’ve just listened to you. I wish I would’ve stayed home, I wish I would’ve listened.’ He says that every day he can’t change it, we can’t change it.”
Bill has been charged with murder, first-degree assault and criminal possession of a firearm. He pleaded not guilty to those charges, but his court date continues to get pushed back because of court closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Tenesha says her son isn’t a beast or a bad guy. Before he took a life and harmed another, she says, he was a victim, too.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.