Community mourns, seeks solutions

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Johnkelian Mathis, pictured here in a photograph shared on social media, was a football player at Austin-East Magnet High School. He was shot and killed early Sunday morning in Lonsdale Homes.

Police on Monday were pursuing several potential leads into the weekend shooting death of a 17-year-old boy who was attending an outdoor gathering of several hundred people in North Knoxville. 

Authorities believe that several people witnessed the killing of Johnkelian Mathis, an Austin-East Magnet High School student, in a parking lot at the Lonsdale Homes public housing project. They hope that some of those witnesses will step forward and provide Knoxville Police Department investigators with the information needed to bring the teen’s killer to justice.

“Investigators have determined that a crowd numbering in the hundreds was gathered when the shooting occurred and a significant number of those individuals likely directly witnessed the shooting,” said KPD Chief Eve Thomas on Monday.

“Thus far, we have received five tips through Crime Stoppers and investigators are looking into the information that has been received. But we still need more and are again urging those who were present to come forward and submit a tip anonymously. It is imperative as we seek justice for this senseless act of violence,” she said.    

Two other members of the crowd were struck by gunfire but are expected to recover from their injuries.

The shooting erupted about 1 a.m. Sunday in Lot D of Lonsdale Homes, according to KPD spokesperson Scott Erland.

“The investigation shows that there was large gathering of people in the area of Minnesota Avenue and Pascal Drive when a fight broke out and shots were fired,” Erland said. “The gathering quickly dispersed prior to officer arrival. Responding officers located three gunshot victims, including a 17-year-old male who died after being transported to the University of Tennessee Medical Center.”   

The two people who suffered non-fatal gunshot wounds were identified as Tricia Fisher, 29, and Anthony Taylor, 25. Their conditions weren’t available Monday, but authorities have characterized their injuries as non-life threatening.

Erland said that no suspects had been identified or charged as of Monday evening and stressed the ongoing nature of the investigation.

“As part of those efforts, investigators and additional KPD personnel conducted a neighborhood canvas on Monday morning to seek additional evidence and witnesses. Investigators have knowledge that there were likely numerous witnesses to the shooting based on the number of individuals present at the time of the incident,” he said. 

The crowd had gathered at the intersection following the daylong 35th Annual Lonsdale Homecoming celebration.

Like most cities in the United States, Knoxville has been struggling with record levels of violent crime over the past two years. Knoxville has recently averaged about one homicide a week, which is nearly two-and-one-half times more than the 22 slayings per year that’s been the average over the past decade.

This year is on track to be the bloodiest since Knoxville began keeping crime statistics, but it’s been especially brutal for the approximately 642 students enrolled at Austin-East.

Including Mathis, six of this year’s homicide victims have been Black teenagers who were enrolled at the school.

The first Austin-East student to die was Justin Taylor, 15, who was accidentally shot and killed by a friend on  Jan. 27.  Next came Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, who was shot Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus. Two other teens have been accused of his murder and are awaiting trial. 

Six teens enrolled at Austin-East Magnet High School have been shot and killed this year. This photo was taken at the scene of the February shooting death of a 15-year-old girl in East Knoxville. Source: KPD

Janaria Muhammad, 15, was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. On March 11, Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died at a local hospital, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville. 

On April 12, Anthony Thompson Jr., 17, was killed during an armed confrontation with four KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East. The officers involved in the shooting were cleared of wrongdoing by the TBI and District Attorney General Charme Allen, but Thompson’s death nevertheless sparked weeks of angry protests by activists who wished to see the cops prosecuted.

Mathis, a running back for the Austin-East Roadrunners, was called “John John” by those who knew him. His family hasn’t issued any public statements or spoken to the media.

“As a school family and community we are saddened by this loss, and will be supportive and sensitive to the family’s request for privacy during this difficult time,” said Austin-East Principal Tammi Campbell in an email sent to students and parents.  

“We will stand AE strong, and prayerfully united together as we support our students, staff and the family as we all deal with this loss …. Although, we will open school with heavy hearts, we remain HOPEFUL that brighter and better days are ahead for our students and school family. We are AE FAMILY and at AE we are achieving excellence, Every Student! Every Day!”

City Council member Amelia Parker, who has been an outspoken critic of KPD, said she wants to see more resources given to street-level anti-violence programs rather than law enforcement.

“I worry the city is putting too much reliance on Crimestoppers rather than the violence intervention programs that could have prevented a tragic death such as this one,” Parker said

“Programs like Pop Tenn, that offer communities the ability to engage in self-policing, mutual aid, and community defense, are desperately needed for expansion. If we had hundreds of community members trained in non-violent intervention and urban emergency first response or street medics, we would have a greater likelihood as a community to be able to prevent such a tragic loss of life as this one,” she said. 

The nonprofit Crime Stoppers organization, which was officially launched in Knoxville on May 5,  is designed to encourage the public to report criminals by offering cash rewards as well as guaranteeing complete anonymity. 

Led by Mayor Indya Kincannon, the City has earmarked over $1 million for anti-violence programs and hired Cities United, a nonprofit organization based in Louisville, Ky. that focuses on leveraging local resources to bring peace to inner city streets. Included in that appropriation was a one-time City contribution of $13,000 in “seed money” to get the Crime Stoppers program off the ground quickly.

In June, City Council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing Kincannon to enter into a $150,000 agreement with the Change Center to support youth enrichment services this summer and support Empower Knox and other City initiatives. The Change Center, often touted as one of the most effective anti-violence programs in the City, had been shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020 but reopened this summer.

Council members also unanimously agreed to contribute up to $50,000 to the United Way of Greater Knoxville’s Direct Neighborhood Fund to support violence interruption activities led by local non-profit organizations. 

“I am saddened, angered and frustrated following another night of senseless gun violence in our City,” Kincannon said in a statement issued Sunday. “I offer my sincere condolences to the family of the teenager killed overnight. I urge anyone with information about the shooting to come forward and contact authorities.”

Seema Singh, who represents the Third District on City Council, said that “sensible gun laws, reducing access to firearms to people that are at risk of harming themselves or others, and understanding gun violence as a preventable public health problem” are steps that must be taken if the violence is to be brought under control.

“Until and unless we as a country, as a state, as a city, with communities and individuals acknowledge and use our resources to act on …. we will continue to attend our children’s funerals,” Singh said.

The recent, unprecedented rise in Knoxville’s homicide rate began when the number of killings shot up from 22 in 2019 to 37 in 2020, a 72 percent increase.

Since Jan. 1, there have been at least 30 slayings in the city, plus at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office. That’s a 43 percent increase from this time in 2021, when 21 people had been killed as of August 9.

Knoxville is far from alone. Violent crimes have been on the rise across the nation since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and authorities have blamed the spike in violent crime partially on the widespread societal disruption the coronavirus has caused. The pandemic has also been accompanied by a surge in alcohol and drug abuse, which seems to have fueled a rise in both the number of fatal overdoses and the kind of gang warfare that accompanies drug trafficking. 

Police are asking anyone with information about Sunday’s shooting to contact East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477, online at www.easttnvalleycrimestoppers.org or via the free mobile app, P3 Tips. 

Tipsters will remain anonymous and may be eligible to receive a cash reward.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on August 10, 2021