In late August last year, Shanta Barnett got a call from her 15-year-old daughter Brannae Browne.
“Momma, did you hear about what happened?”
Natasha Hays, the mom of one of Brannae’s friends, had been killed in a drive-by shooting, she told her mom.
Barnett warned her daughter to be careful.
“She was like, ‘Momma, we didn't do nothing so why we gotta be worried about it?’” Barnett remembers. “Something in my heart told her just to watch out, to be safe.”
Days later, on a Friday after school, Barnett dropped her daughter off at a cousin’s house in Northeast Kansas City, Kansas. About an hour later, Brannae was sitting on the porch when shots rang out from the street. With a bullet to the back, Brannae was soon dead.
The alleged shooter was the 15-year-old son of the woman killed three days earlier.
“I knew the boy was hurt,” Barnett says. “A few days later for him to turn around and take her life … it was nonsense.”
Michael Adams Jr. was charged with criminal use and possession of a weapon, and first-degree murder in Brannae’s killing. He is in jail awaiting trial.
The murder has been categorized as retaliation.
Police are familiar with this type of violence. Kansas City criminologist Ken Novak says retaliation drives a lot of violent crime, especially gun violence, in our area and other cities.
“Often, it’s much easier to retrospectively examine violence and see how things were connected,” Novak says.
It’s getting ahead of it and preventing future violence that is the challenge — it’s nearly impossible to know when a counterattack will happen.
Even though her daughter’s alleged killer was taken into custody quickly, Barnett doesn’t exactly sleep easy. She still doesn’t know why. Why her daughter?
A ‘death spiral’
Retaliation isn’t necessarily revenge against a targeted individual. That’s why, Novak says, that first “why” often ceases to matter.
“Retaliatory violence is fueled or motivated by a feeling that the individual needs to make a situation right,” he says.
Calling the police would generally be considered a way to make a situation "right,” but, he says, where there is a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, there’s a higher likelihood that an individual or group will take matters into their own hands.
“This problem starts to build upon itself,” Novak says.
Police can’t conduct adequate investigations if people don’t trust them, and people don’t trust them because of past inadequate investigations.
“It becomes this death spiral, this spiral of mistrust,” he says. “It’s difficult to combat that.”
It’s a cycle of violence that spins out of control as arguments and shootings pile up, getting further and further away from the initial violence that started it all.
And it's a pattern that’s proven true in the KCK neighborhood where Brannae was killed.
It’s not over
On Aug. 6 this year, Le'Andrew Vaughn was getting ready for his senior year at F.L. Schlagle High School. He had been working as a host at a restaurant at the Legends, and he was saving up his money for a new pair of shoes.
He told his mom he wanted to go buy them the night before his first day of school.
“‘I got the money. I'm going to the store to buy the shoes, I'll be back,’” his mother Crystal Hays remembers their conversation. “‘OK. See you later, have fun.'”
But he never came home. He and his cousin, Adarius Barber, 16, were shot to death in their car while driving on the 6100 block of Haskell Avenue.
“I beat myself up every day thinking, what if I told him, No. You can't go,” Hays says. “That’s crazy. You can’t even send your kids to the store.”
Le’Andrew’s mom is the older sister of Natasha Hays — the woman who was killed at the start of this string of murders.
“It’s been one child after another child,” Hays says. “Not only are we losing these kids, but these kids are the ones who are allegedly doing the killing.”
And it didn’t stop.
Ten days later, Shanta Barnett, Brannae’s mother, says she found bullet holes on her house on the 2000 block of N. Tremont Street. When she went out to show someone, her son Brandon Browne, 15, followed her out.
Suddenly, shots flew from a car idling at a nearby stop sign, Barnett says. Her son was hit.
“He was shot just like his sister,” Barnett says. “And I seen Brandon take his last breath. That was my only child. The only child that I had left.”
Whose child is next?
One young mother. And four children under the age of 17.
Natasha Hays was a caregiver at Life Care Center and a young mother of three. Le’Andrew Vaughn was preparing to go to Wichita State. His dog still waits by the door for him to come home. Le'Andrew's cousin Adarius Barber was considered one of the best on his high school football team. Brannae Browne was on the Gateway Highsteppers, and was determined to take her little brother Brandon to homecoming. The pair were “two peas in a pod.”
This string of violence has taken five lives in less than a year, and no one seems to have any answers.
Police and prosecutors in Kansas City, Kansas, can’t comment on these cases because the investigations are ongoing.
“What I will tell you is that it is extremely clear that one has affected the other, and that if we do not get ahead of this thing more lives will be lost,” says Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree.
He says the police are working tirelessly to get as much information as they can to prevent further violence, but they need the community’s help.
Dupree says he understands the lack of trust in the criminal justice system, especially among minorities.
“It is not one that has been kind to them,” he says.
That being said, he says the “no-snitching” mentality has to go.
“Not knowing the baseline for the retaliation ... puts law enforcement in a place that is extremely difficult because they don't know when to expect it, except for when a body drops. Then we know something is coming,” Dupree says.
As for how many tips the Kansas City Kansas Police Department has received regarding these cases, dating back to Aug. 30, 2016? Zero.
“Somebody knows what’s going on,” Shanta Barnett says. “Somebody is supporting these kids.”
She can’t help but think some parents know their children are a part of this. She says they should think twice about what protecting their kids really looks like.
“You think I wouldn't rather go see my kids behind a jail cell if I could? If that was my choice between them being in a graveyard and a jail cell, I would choose a jail cell,” she says.
But, she doesn’t have that choice.
“Whose child is going to be next? Because I lost both my kids to senseless violence, I guess I'm the only one that's noticing our kids out here shooting and killing each other,” Barnett says.
Kansas City, Kansas Police consider these homicides "gang-related."
Two groups have cropped up since August 2016. “Tasha Gang” for Natasha Hays, and “BBUx2” for Brannae and Brandon Browne — they are open about their affiliation on social media. But these affiliations mean different things to different people.
The families of these victims — they don’t get it.
“It’s way out of hand,” Shanta Barnett says.
Crystal Hays agrees. She says she can imagine the appeal of a "gang" for these teenagers — the need for a sense of family, especially with their friends being taken so violently. But this, she says, isn’t right.
"If you're so committed to getting justice for these people, tell what you know," Hays says.
In the meantime, everyone seems to agree — this violence is far from over.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify information about community response to the murders. Also, a photo has been removed.