Remembering those we lost to gun violence, through the people closest to them

More than 800 people were killed this year in Chicago, most due to gun violence. Families share the stories of how their loved ones lived.

Collage of four families
Tanya Burch and Keith Harris, top left, Marc Thompson and Sonya Anderson, top right, Leo Castillo and Sylvia Montigo, bottom left, and Roshaniece Donaldson and Jonas Jacox, bottom right, all lost family or close friends to gun violence in Chicago. Photos: Manuel Martinez, Chip Mitchell. Collage: Mary Hall / WBEZ
Tanya Burch and Keith Harris, top left, Marc Thompson and Sonya Anderson, top right, Leo Castillo and Sylvia Montigo, bottom left, and Roshaniece Donaldson and Jonas Jacox, bottom right, all lost family or close friends to gun violence in Chicago. Photos: Manuel Martinez, Chip Mitchell. Collage: Mary Hall / WBEZ
Collage of four families
Tanya Burch and Keith Harris, top left, Marc Thompson and Sonya Anderson, top right, Leo Castillo and Sylvia Montigo, bottom left, and Roshaniece Donaldson and Jonas Jacox, bottom right, all lost family or close friends to gun violence in Chicago. Photos: Manuel Martinez, Chip Mitchell. Collage: Mary Hall / WBEZ

Remembering those we lost to gun violence, through the people closest to them

More than 800 people were killed this year in Chicago, most due to gun violence. Families share the stories of how their loved ones lived.

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It wasn’t until after his son Miles Thompson was shot and killed that Marc Thompson learned why the 18-year-old had taken on so many jobs after high school. During a gap year before starting college, Miles worked as a delivery driver, youth football coach and carwash manager.

Marc Thompson chalked up all the hustling to his son’s “entrepreneurial streak.”

But after Miles’ death on July 7, Miles’ younger brother told his parents that Miles had heard about a possible treatment that could cure, or at least help, his father’s multiple sclerosis. It was expensive. Miles hoped to raise $100,000 for the treatment.

Grief fills the pauses between Thompson’s words as he reflects on his son’s love: “That really, really struck me.”

This year, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Cook County, a level of violence not seen in nearly three decades. The historic homicide level has been mostly driven by Chicago shootings.

As the city grapples with all we’ve lost, WBEZ spoke with the families of murder victims and asked them to share stories of how their loved ones lived, rather than how they died. Those loved ones, like the vast majority of those murdered in the Chicago area, were all men of color, gunned down before reaching middle age.

Renee Castillo

When Sylvia Montigo thinks of her two youngest boys – Leo and Renee Castillo – she pictures them together.

“The gruesome twosome,” she calls them. As kids they would get in trouble, egg cars in their Little Village neighborhood and run off, and host front yard wrestling matches featuring a championship belt made out of duct tape, aluminum foil and cardboard.

As adults they were constantly at each other, bickering and fighting. But they’d always come back together.

“Renee without Leo, forget it. … Leo was the same way,” she said.

But now, Renee is gone, murdered about a half mile from home, shot mutliple times and left dead in the early morning hours of Nov. 6. He was 31.

Leo Castillo and his mother Sylvia Montigo hold a cross with Renee's photo
Leo Castillo and his mother Sylvia Montigo pose at her home in Lawndale on Dec. 2, 2021. They recently lost Renee Castillo to gun violence. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“I’m still confused on what happened, but I guess they just targeted him because they wanted like a f***ing little notch in their f***ing belt,” Leo Castillo said.

Castillo said his brother was never in a gang and never involved in anything violent.

“Or maybe my brother had some beef that I don’t know about, but still he didn’t deserve this,” he said.

Health issues kept Renee from holding down a job. He had inoperable skin cancer on his spine that gave him severe back pain, so he couldn’t sit or stand for long stretches. He managed the pain with large amounts of marijuana and became a neighborhood fixture. Renee loved going for long walks, something he got from his mom, and could frequently be seen ambling around Little Village, often late at night because he suffered from insomnia.

During the day Renee and Leo would hang out at the Little Village Skate Plaza at Piotrowski Park. Leo was the skater; Renee knew how to do only one trick, an ollie, taught to him by his brother.

“It took him like two months to learn how to do it. But when he finally landed it, I was f***ing ecstatic,” Leo Castillo said. “And I was like, ‘All right, now I’m going to teach you how to do a kickflip or a heel flip.’ He was like, ‘Nah, I’m done with an ollie.’ ”

Renee
Renee Castillo Courtesy of the family

Renee mostly used the skateboard Leo gave him for transportation. But he spent his days at the skate park because he had built a community there.

In the summer, he would stay until 9 or 10 p.m. so he could help the vendors selling elotes.

“He would always help them load up the truck, because you know, it’s the older people doing it,” Leo Castillo said. “He would always help people out at the skate park, because he got along with everybody.”

One day, Renee was hanging out at the park watching a younger kid try in vain to land a trick, over and over. During one attempt, the kid came down hard on his board and broke it. Renee gave the youngster his own board, the one Leo had gifted to him, and told the kid to keep his head up and keep trying.

“He was a big old sweet teddy bear, he was,” Montigo said. “He’d get you anything if you needed it.”

With his killing, Chicago lost a brother, a son and a friend, Montigo said.

“You lost an innocent young man. You lost an innocent soul, a kind-hearted person,” Leo said. “And you also lost somebody that always gave to their community.”

Javier Burch

One day, when her son Javier Burch was still little, Tanya Burch was cleaning the kitchen when she thought she heard preaching in the other room. She knew there was no one else in the house but her and her young son, known as Jay, so she went into his room to check it out.

“So I walked to his room, go in, and he’s got all his little [action figures] lined up on the bed,” Burch said.

Jay was preaching a sermon to all of his toys.

“He just kept preaching and ‘Amen’-ing and I heard clapping, and then he sang a few hymns.”

The boy was using a towel to wipe the sweat off his forehead like the preacher at their church, and, what’s more, he was not satisfied with the toys’ level of attention.

“He was walking and just wiping his forehead and telling them to ‘Be quiet. Stop all that running around’ in his church,” Burch remembers.

Jay, who was murdered on Sept. 16 in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, was a “huggy,” loving kid, always trying to crack jokes.

Tanya Burch and Keith Harris
Tanya Burch’s son Jay was murdered in September in Englewood. Keith Harris, right, was his peewee football coach. Chip Mitchell

Keith Harris, who was Jay’s peewee football coach and a father figure to him, remembers Jay’s penchant for impersonations. Often, as a 9- or 10-year-old he would mimic the gait of the large, bow-legged park supervisor where they practiced.

A few times, Harris remembers catching Jay impersonating him.

“I would make him do some extra push ups or … run some laps,” Harris said.

Jay played linebacker, and his fearless playing style as a kid earned him the nickname “Little Mike Singletary” among the coaches, after the Bears’ bruising, hall of fame defender. He had promise as an athlete and otherwise, but he struggled to fulfill it.

Javier Burch
Javier Burch Courtesy of Tanya Burch

In peewee football, the coaches tried to impart the wisdom that life isn’t always fair, but “you just got to keep on playing. You got to keep on going.”

Jay had trouble with that lesson.

“Honestly, I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that the world was like it is,” Harris said. “He would always question, ‘Why? Why is it like that? Why does it have to be like that? Why is it if I do this, I get in trouble? Somebody [else] will do something, they don’t get in trouble.’ And what kind of realistic explanation can you give a kid?”

Jay dropped out of high school after his freshman year. He had multiple clashes with the law. He went to prison and was haunted by death all around him.

Harris remembers Jay coming to visit and breaking down crying over the loss of his friends and family – young men murdered.

Now, Harris and Burch have this new grief to deal with. Jay was 29 when he was killed. He had his struggles, but he was a loving, friendly, sensitive person.

“A lot of people just don’t understand the pain. … Like, when I lost my mother, I thought the world had ended. I lost siblings, it was just like, my heart was just smashed down,” Burch said. “But then when you lose your kids, it feels like you die with them.”

Lyndon Donaldson

Roshaniece Donaldson saw her husband’s life change when he started working to prevent shootings in their Roseland neighborhood.

Lyndon Donaldson had been a gang member and drug dealer. He was trying to turn things around to provide a better life for Roshaniece and their five children. Everything clicked into place when he got hooked up with the violence prevention organization Chicago CRED.

“Once he got involved with the violence reduction, he really took off. He really was dedicated to making a better difference in his community. Like, that is what he was about, you know, he wanted to make a difference,” Roshaniece said. “And he was making a difference, because without him a lot of people wouldn’t be where they are today.”

Roshaniece Donaldson and Jonas Jacox
Roshaniece Donaldson’s husband Lyndon was working to prevent violence, along with his brother Jonas Jacox, right. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

Roshaniece is certain Lyndon “saved a lot of lives” by intervening in violent disputes and pushing young people out of the gang life.

His brother, Jonas Jacox, also does anti-violence work and said Lyndon was a powerful agent of change on Chicago’s far South Side.

Last month, just a few hours after Thanksgiving, Lyndon was shot and killed in south suburban Dolton.

“Every time I talked to him over the last three years, it was always about what we need to do for Roseland, ‘How can we change Roseland?’ You know, ‘Why this ain’t right? Why this ain’t right? How can we get it right?’ ” Jacox recalled about conversations with his brother. “He might have died from gun violence, but his legacy was to reduce gun violence.”

Miles Thompson

Sonya Anderson can’t stop picturing her family tree, and someone taking a chainsaw to one of its branches.

The branch is her stepson Miles Thompson, murdered outside of his dad’s home in Austin this July.

The felled branch represents all of the hope and promise in Miles’s young life, all of the people the generous, humble 18-year-old would have touched and helped. It represents the children he might have had, and the lives they would have impacted.

Murder, the type of gun violence happening everyday in Chicago, is “destruction in its purest form,” Anderson said. The shooter didn’t just destroy Miles’ life, but destroyed the “infinite universe of possibilities that life held.”

Marc Thompson, Jonah, and Sonya Anderson
Marc Thompson, left, Jonah, center, and Sonya Anderson, right, pose for a portrait in Anderson’s home on Dec. 20, 2021. Miles Tompson, Marc Thompson’s son and Anderson’s stepson, was shot and killed this year. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

During his gap year – before Miles went off to college on a football scholarship – on top of all of his part-time jobs, Miles dreamed up a scheme to start a trucking company. He wanted to own a truck or fleet of trucks he could lease out. In his bedroom were notebooks filled with revenue and cost projections.

Miles told his brother Jonah, nine years his junior, that once Jonah finished college he could join as a partner in the Thompson Boys trucking venture.

“That’s who Miles is. Miles is the kid who would plan out a trucking business with his 9-year-old brother and say, ‘You know, once you graduate college, you come join me, and we’re going to do this for our family,’ ” Anderson said. “Miles was the kid who would take on 35,000 different jobs and not say anything to us, the grown ups in his life, because he’s trying to raise $100,000 so his dad could get a treatment. Like, in a nutshell, that’s who he is.”

And that’s who was taken.

“He was a light,” Anderson said before stopping herself. “He is a light. I don’t even like to talk about him in the past tense. He is a light.”

Patrick Smith and Chip Mitchell report on criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow them at @pksmid and @ChipMitchell1.