Death of Jonylah Watkins motivated father to ‘change’ his life

theGRIO REPORT - Speaking for the first time publicly since the death of his 6-month-old daughter Jonylah Watkins, Jonathan Watkins had very little to say to reporters Tuesday...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

CHICAGO – Speaking for the first time publicly since the death of his 6-month-old daughter Jonylah Watkins, Jonathan Watkins had very little to say to reporters Tuesday. But as he softly recollected the events that lead to his daughter’s murder, the 28-year-old described how the incident motivated him to change, and not return to the life of crime he left nearly a decade ago.

“I’m working now. I don’t stand on the corners anymore. I go to church now, and I’m just a whole different person now,” Watkins said.

On March 11, Watkins said he parked his car to change his daughter’s diaper. Just as he pulled her pamper up and attempted to kiss her, he heard gunshots and saw his vehicle window shatter. Watkins said he then crawled under the passenger side of his vehicle to shield his daughter when he noticed they were both shot.

‘Rough for me and my wife’

Jonylah was shot in her left armpit, but the bullet ricocheted through her torso and she was later pronounced dead at nearby Comer Children’s Hospital. Jonathan Watkins, who was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, survived three gunshot wounds and was able to attend his daughter’s funeral a week later.

Watkins said since the incident, “It’s been rough for me and my wife,” who was unable to attend the press conference Tuesday where she and her husband were to both speak for the first time since their daughter’s death.

Chicago police have heavily investigated the incident for nearly three months. Earlier reports said that the shooting could have been the result of gang retaliation—a bullet that was meant for Watkins and mistakenly struck his daughter. But following charges filed Monday against a suspect police had been eyeing, Chicago Police superintendent Garry McCarthy said the incident was based on a burglary, not the father’s gang affiliation. Watkins said he left the gang life when he was about 18 years old.

Shot over a stolen video game system

On Monday, police charged Koman Willis, 33, with first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. Reports said Willis turned himself in with his attorney present at about 4 p.m. Saturday and was charged at 2:45 a.m. Monday. Tuesday afternoon, Willis was ordered held without bond. He is expected back in bond court on June 6, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office.

Chicago police said Willis, who is a known gang member–having been arrested 38 times prior to the shooting–was aiming at Watkins, not 6-month-old Jonylah, and shot him over a stolen video game system.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Watkins and Pastor Corey Brooks, who has served as the family’s spokesman, did not confirm or deny whether or not the incident was concerning a video game system. Watkins said he didn’t know the man who shot his daughter.

“As it relates to Jonathan being in a burglary, I’m sure when the trial comes you all are going to find out what needs to be said about that, but we can assure you that there’s more to it than what’s being said,” Brooks told reporters as he stood next to Watkins and deflected questions that he said related directly to the trial.

‘There are so many Jonathans’

But since the investigation started, several questions as to whether Watkins’ lifestyle contributed to his daughter’s death have arisen. When Watkins was asked how he feels that his alleged actions could have lead to the death of his daughter, Brooks deflected, saying it seeped into case territory.

Brooks described Watkins as a kid who was a product of his environment. He said Jonylah’s case and her father’s past are much deeper than what he said are surface issues.

“Jonathan was a 12-year-old boy without a father, on his own in the streets. There are so many Jonathans that you all don’t even know about. A 9th grade dropout. So you go from being a 12-year-old 9th [sic] grade dropout, to having nobody to support you but a life of crime. That’s where all the violence is being produced,” Brooks said. “So until we solve these core issues, it’s going to always be difficult for young Jonathans in our neighborhood, and it’s going to always be violence and it’s going to always be murders, until we solve the core issues. And video games are not the core issue.”

As for Watkins, he said he’s motivated to stay on a productive life path, because “I know my baby’s up there looking down on me.”

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.