The Derrion Albert beating melee (video still)
The day that Derrion Albert was killed, most kids at Fenger High School already knew something was going down. There was palpable tension in the air. A 15 year-old had already been arrested that morning for firing off a gun.
For a couple of years, a turf battle had been brewing between rival neighborhoods that made up the Fenger student body and it was now coming to a head. Derrion didn’t belong to either of the two main groups, Altgeld Gardens and The Ville. He resided in a smaller area called 12-3 (or Tre), but he was friendly with kids from The Ville.
Jeremiah Sterling lived farther south, in West Pullman, in a neutral block between two areas known as Ragtown and Cooper Park.
“Jeremiah talked to everybody,” says Aaron “Agee” Neal, one of the founders of Terra Squad, a footworking crew to which Jeremiah was devoted. “He thought he could talk to everybody.”
Derrion and Jeremiah weren’t close but they were friendly. They’d attended summer school together as kids. In their sophomore year, they’d been in the same chemistry class.
Cory Mack, Jeremiah’s older brother, who he went to live with in Denver just a few months after Derrion’s death, remembers Jeremiah telling him he was at the scene of the murder and tried to help Derrion. Jeremiah also talked to Agee about it.
“He was trying to tell people to stop,” says Agee. “But I told him lots of people try to stand up to somebody and get killed trying to help.”
Jeremiah isn’t on the cell phone video that captured the riot in which Derrion died. And his Facebook page, started just a few weeks prior to the murder, is silent on the matter.
But his friend Khadijah Lewis saw Jeremiah the day Derrion got killed, and she distinctly remembers that he was headed home. She happened upon the aftermath of the melee on 111th Street just as the Derrion’s ravaged body was being carried into the ambulance.
“I called Jeremiah and told him what had happened,” she says. It’s possible, she considers, that Jeremiah may have been at the scene earlier, but she never saw him there and he never mentioned it.
His mother, LaWanda Thompson-Sterling, says Jeremiah came home and immediately told her about the incident. “But they didn’t even know Derrion was dead yet,” she says. “He had to wait to hear it on the news. That weekend, he just watched that tape over and over.”
Odel Sterling, Jeremiah’s father and LaWanda’s ex-husband, also watched the video of the murder over and over. A minister, he’d been a frequent presence at Fenger, both as a classroom speaker and parent, and he thought he recognized the faces of the boys beating Derrion.
“We know them,” he says he told his son when they talked about the assault. He was sure that, with a Fenger yearbook, he could even pin names to them. “I encouraged him to do the right thing.”
LaWanda says what bothered Jeremiah most was that the boys who beat Derrion were people that Derrion considered friends.
The video would prove hypnotizing in the days following Derrion’s death. “Jeremiah and other close friends would come to my house every morning (to watch it) before school,” says Khadijah, who was living across the street from Fenger then. “We were all upset.”
LaWanda watched her son struggle with his conscience and emotions and tried to be supportive. “Jeremiah would never, ever, tell on his friends,” she says. “He was that loyal.” But Jeremiah wasn’t friends with the boys who killed Derrion.
In the end, she says, Jeremiah confided he’d called the police hotline that had been set up after Derrion’s death. “I hadn’t told him to call,” she says, “and I was worried, really worried, but the police never called back.”
“‘I called,’” she remembers him saying. “Those were his mans that did that to him, and it was wrong.”