A Senseless Crime
On the Monday night when Kevin’s life changed forever—November 14, 2011—his older brother Joe, who worked in development for Penn’s athletic department and also served as cheerleading coach, had scored him a pair of tickets to the men’s basketball team’s home opener against Temple at the Palestra. Kevin texted one of his best friends, Tom Lione C’04, to see if he wanted to go to the game. At first Lione declined—he was at the end of his pediatrics rotation at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and had to study for an exam—but after about 15 minutes he decided he didn’t want to waste a fun chance to hang out with a close friend and texted Kevin back to tell him he’d go. “It was this weird change of heart that I never normally have,” says Tom. To this day, he says, he can’t help wondering if Kevin’s night might have turned out differently if he’d stuck with his original response.
The two friends stopped at Baby Blues BBQ on Sansom Street for wings and beers, then walked over to the Palestra and settled into their seats behind the basket. Joe checked in on them a couple of times during the game, and when it ended—the Quakers lost in overtime, 73-67—texted Kevin to say he was glad he was there and that he’d see him later. “I just didn’t have any idea it was going to be later that night,” Joe says. He, too, wonders if he could have done something different that would have prevented what was about to happen.
Tom dropped Kevin off at the corner of Third Street and Fairmount Avenue at around 10 p.m. and went home to bed. Kevin headed to his apartment, but then decided to catch the end of the Monday Night Football game at the King’s Oak Restaurant at the Piazza at Schmidt’s, the sprawling open-air plaza in the heart of the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. Later, after visiting a friend’s house, he was walking briskly to his apartment on the 700 block of Bodine Street, following the same route he always took. “Nothing really was going through my head,” he says. “The next thing you know, I’m being accosted.”
Kevin didn’t notice what police would later see from a surveillance camera feed: that for a couple of blocks, a 20-year-old high-school dropout named Christopher Easton was following him. Easton would tell police he decided to rob “the white guy walking down Second Street toward Brown Street” because he was bored and “had nothing to do.” But after a brief exchange of words, the robbery attempt failed when Easton fled without taking anything. Instead, he shot his prey in the neck. Kevin had $16 in his wallet. He was about 30 yards from his apartment.
When the EMTs loaded him into the ambulance a few minutes later, Kevin had two requests: to call his father and to call Union Trust Steakhouse—where he waited tables—to say he’d miss work the next day. When Kevin’s dad was later told this, he couldn’t help but smile. “Here he is, almost bleeding to death, and he’s worried about someone covering his shift,” Joseph says. “But that’s an indication of what he’s like.” Kevin lost consciousness on the way to Hahnemann University Hospital.
The police made a couple of calls that night to the Nearys’ home phone, but Joseph and Kevin’s brother Joe missed them. Joe learned about the shooting when he was awakened by a call to his cellphone from Kevin’s former girlfriend, who had been given the information by Kevin’s roommate. In a haze, he got dressed, packed an overnight bag, and woke up his father. Then they quickly hopped in Joe’s Toyota 4Runner and sped to Philly. Only the buzz of the engine and the sound of Joseph talking into his cell phone to a detective pierced the silence of the empty highway into the city. They knew Kevin was alive but not much more.
“It didn’t really hit us until we got to the hospital and we saw him” just how bad things could be, Joe says. At first, one doctor suggested that Kevin might be able to regain feeling—a “false hope” that would end up frustrating Joe—but by the time their brother Chris arrived the next morning from Washington, where he works for US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the family had seen the X-rays showing how the bullet had ripped through Kevin’s spinal cord. They knew he would never walk again, and they soon found out he couldn’t breathe without assistance, first from a ventilator and later a diaphragmatic pacemaker.
Kevin doesn’t remember much from the four days he spent hooked up to tubes at Hahnemann, except that it was very dark and that a priest came to his bed to administer last rites. He also has a vague recollection of answering questions from police; even though he couldn’t speak, he helped identify the suspect by nodding his head while looking through mug shots. He even managed to spell out the words “Thank you” by using a board with letters on it. According to Joseph, that only stiffened the detectives’ resolve to capture Easton—which they did a few days later.
It didn’t take long for Kevin’s family and friends to take over the dingy ICU waiting room at Hahnemann. By the end of the same day Kevin was shot, all seven of Joseph’s siblings had made it to the hospital. There were so many people there that visitors had to form a line to go into Kevin’s room.
For some, it was difficult to see him heavily sedated and in a neck brace. Tom Lione remembers his wife starting to cry, only to have Kevin mouth the word “baseball” to her, perhaps his own way of trying to make her feel more comfortable. “He knew people were looking at him and they were upset,” Tom says. “He hates that. He hates pity. He hates help. He doesn’t want people to feel bad for him.”
Another Penn classmate, Darian Alexander C’04, who drove from New York as soon as he heard what happened, also had trouble containing his emotions. He put his hand on Kevin’s arm, only to realize his friend couldn’t feel it. He talked to him, but Kevin couldn’t say anything back. Seeing a bouquet of flowers in the waiting room set him off, and he went out to the hallway to find a spot to cry alone. But, of all people, Kevin’s dad followed him—and gave him a hug. They had only met once or twice before.
“He made me feel like I was linked with him in love for Kevin, and that we were going to go through this with unity and strength and try to put on a brave face,” Darian says. “I try to imagine what I would do in that situation. I’m not sure I know many people, if any, that would have been as good and adept in that situation as Kevin’s father was.”
The rock of the family, Joseph Neary didn’t think he had any other choice.