MILWAUKEE – Darius Simmons was described as a fun-loving sixth-grader who loved to crack jokes and play basketball. The 13-year-old’s life come to a shocking end on May 31, outside of his Milwaukee home, when his family’s 75-year-old neighbor shot him after accusing the boy of robbing his house.
“He had his hands up when he got shot,” Betty McCuiston, Simmons’ aunt told The Republic. “(His mother) checked for a pulse and said she couldn’t get one.”
Darius was a sixth-grader at Gaenslen School in Milwaukee, and grief counselors were at the school the following day to help his classmates and others come to grips with Darius’ death. Darius is the 10th Milwaukee Public School student to die this school year and the 8th by violent means, according to Milwaukee Public Schools spokeswoman Roseann St. Aubin.
Milwaukee police charged John Henry Spooner with one count of first-degree intentional homicide and use of a dangerous weapon. A $300,000 cash bond was set, and he currently remains in police custody.
Spooner, who lived next door to Darius’ family, had been a repeated target of break-ins in recent years, and had mounted surveillance cameras on his house on the city’s South Side. He was upset after a break-in just two days earlier, and $3,000 worth of guns and other items were stolen.
Earlier that morning, Spooner had eaten breakfast with Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan. He told Donovan that he suspected Simmons in the recent theft and he was angry that police were had told him that there was nothing that they could do.
Spooner, whose wife passed away in 2004 and is suffering from lung cancer, told Donovan as they were leaving that “there are other ways to deal with situations,” which may have served as a precursor to the shooting.
“At the time I didn’t make much of it,” Donovan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “You know, it was part of a half-hour conversation. But in retrospect you begin to wonder.”
The incident started around 10 a.m. when Spooner suddenly confronted Simmons as he was moving the family’s garbage can from the curb. Spooner demanded that the boy return his things, and Simmons replied that he didn’t have them.
When Simmons’ mother, Patricia Larry, came out on to the porch and told Spooner to go back inside, he pulled out a gun and shot Darius — who was unarmed — once in the chest. Simmons ran around the corner, collapsed, and died about 10 feet from a small play area marked “Children’s Park.”
“What drove this man to take the law into his own hands?,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a local community activist. “How much have we as a community failed, to let this happen?”
Neighbor Toni Johnson told the Associated Press she was watching TV when she heard the shooting outside of her door.
“I looked out the door and saw the mother kneeling over her boy at the curb, screaming, ‘my son!’ and the old guy was standing right over there by the stop sign with his dog, just waiting,” Johnson said.
As he ran, Spooner fired twice more at Darius, but both shots missed. Police found two more rounds in the gun, which had apparently jammed. As Darius lay dead on the sidewalk, Spooner calmly waited with his dog for police to arrive, and told officers “Yeah, I shot him.”
McCuiston said Darius was completely innocent of the theft, noting that he’d been in school at the time Spooner was robbed days earlier. Leon Larry, Darius’ uncle, said he felt that Spooner shot his nephew during a moment of anger, and not because he actually thought the boy was the thief.
Larry, however, was not in a mood to excuse or forgive what Spooner had done. “He took the easy way out. He’s 75 years old, you know what I’m saying?” Larry said. “They give him life in prison, (and) he’ll die in 6 months.
“Darius was only 13. We’ll never know how long he was going to live. Some cases, you know, justice is not enough. And this is one.”
Darius’ mother has had to deal with the memory of watching her child be murdered in front of her. During a press conference last Saturday, she said nothing, just crying quietly while holding pictures of her fallen son.
“She’s not going to forget that she saw her son gunned down in front of her,” McCuiston said. “She’s not going to forget that as long as she lives.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith