'Superhuman Strength:' When Drugs Shorten The Fuse, An Argument Can Turn Deadly

Aug 10, 2017

It was a clear night in late July 2016 on the 3600 block of Askew Avenue on Kansas City’s East Side.

But inside one home, a fight was brewing. It was just after midnight, the police report would later say, when Lon’Nasha Tate opened the freezer to find that the ice cream she had saved for her kids was half empty.

According to witnesses, she snapped and picked up a shotgun, pointing it at her boyfriend, Chae White, cornered in the bathroom. Then, her boyfriend’s brother, Willie White, pulled his 9mm handgun from its holster.

With one bullet to the shoulder, Lon’Nasha Tate was on the ground, and soon, dead.

Branden Mims, right, leading his Ad Hoc Group Against Crime 'trauma response' team on Askew Avenue, the day after Lon'Nasha Tate was killed.
Credit Courtesy of AdHoc Group Against Crime

“I thought… Wow. Who would ever think that ice cream would lead to someone's death?” says Branden Mims, community resource advocate for Kansas City’s AdHoc Group Against Crime.

He arrived at the scene the next day for a “trauma response,” with no idea what to expect. A year later, what he remembers most, are the tears in the homeowner’s eyes — the uncle of the man whose gunshot killed Tate.

This is the second story in KCUR's ongoing series The Argument, exploring the emotional forces behind many of the homicides in the Kansas City area.

“He was so remorseful that the situation had occurred. He even admitted, he knew it was senseless, that it didn't need to happen,” Mims says.

Senseless, perhaps because on the night of her death, Lon’Nasha Tate — or Sha as she was known — was not in her right mind. According to the autopsy report, she was high on PCP, or phencyclidine.

Drug use often spins simple arguments out of control, law enforcement officials say. But instances, like this one, that led to Sha’s death last year, also point to larger underlying issues — like history of trauma, and an inability to resolve conflict. The same issues that may lead someone to solve their disputes with a gun, often lead someone to self-medicate with drugs.

‘My granddaughter was sick’

“Yes, she had been doing drugs and whatever... My granddaughter was sick,” says Mary Tate.

Mary is Sha’s paternal grandmother, who raised her because her parents were teenagers when she was born. Mary says she put her in private school, and showered her with love.

Lon'Nasha Tate on her first birthday in 1989.
Credit Courtesy of Mary Tate

“‘I love you’ … these are the words she didn’t hear often. She wanted it from her father. Never got it,” Mary says.

And, she says her granddaughter was molested by a family member when she was 6, and she could never get past it.

Even into her late 20s, Mary says, Sha would curl up in her lap crying, “‘Granny Granny Granny. They didn't love me... They let them hurt me. They let them hurt me.’”

As far as Mary can tell, her granddaughter started smoking marijuana when she was 15. When Mary moved from Illinois to Kansas City for work in the mid-2000s, Sha wasn’t far behind — as soon as she turned 18, she came, too. Mary believes it was around then that her granddaughter started experimenting with other drugs.

Lon'Nasha Tate with her twin sons, who were around 4 years old when she died.
Credit Courtesy of Mary Tate

Sha’s life in Kansas City was tumultuous — three children back to back, postpartum stress, several houses and jobs, and relationships. The father of her twins died of an illness before they were even born.

“All these people that have been in her life … were takers, takers with nothing positive to give,” Mary says.

But, she says, Sha was a caretaker, and she always wanted a family. Mary remembers one of the last times they spoke before her granddaughter’s death.

“She said, ‘Granny, I just pray that I live to see my boys grown. And I don't want them treated like I was,’” she says.

Under the influence

Last year, drugs came in at fourth on the Kansas City Police Department’s list of identified homicide motives.

St. Louis, Missouri-based criminologist Richard Rosenfeld believes the role of drugs is more significant than that.

“The only category of homicide that has grown appreciably over the last couple years is the drug-related category,” Rosenfeld says.

More drug arrests, more drug-related homicides, and the opioid and heroin epidemic — these are all indications, Rosenfeld says, that our homicide uptick is a result of expanding drug markets.

Kansas City Police data identify drugs as an official homicide motive if there are clear witness statements, or drugs at the scene of the crime. More often than not, police don’t know if the suspect was under the influence at the time of the crime because they typically don’t get the suspect at the scene of the crime. This makes it trickier to point to drugs as an official motive or cause.

But, if a perpetrator or victim is under the influence, local Drug Enforcement Agency special agent Troy Derby says, that is certainly relevant.

“When people are under the influence of illegal opioids — heroin, fentanyl, PCP, methamphetamine — resulting crimes do happen,” Derby says. “Because once they ingest these drugs, they’re not themselves, they do things that they otherwise wouldn't do.”

Things, like picking up a gun and threatening someone’s life.

Mary Tate believes that Sha’s PCP use escalated last summer — the same summer she moved to that house on Askew, just a month prior to the night she died there, the night she allegedly lost it.

“PCP truly brings out the worst in people,” Derby says. “It will give them superhuman strength.”

Clinical trauma therapist Kortney Carr says the problem isn’t exactly the substance itself, or what it does, but what led a person to turn to drugs in the first place.

'PCP truly brings out the worst in people. It will give them superhuman strength.'

“Exposure to trauma, then the continued trauma,” Carr says. “[Often, it’s] ‘How do I cope with these feelings that come with the abuse and the lack of stability in the home? I don't know how to verbalize this, I don't know how to deal with it … So how do I get away?’ And that get away is to use substances.”

Carr emphasizes that the same developmental stunting we see from early drug use, we also see from early exposure to trauma. And, it’s often unaddressed, unrecognized trauma, that leads an adolescent to turn to drugs in the first place.

Systemic failure

Mary Tate remembers the July morning the Kansas City Police came to her home in Raytown with the news. 

“I said, ‘I already know. I know it's my granddaughter,’” she remembers. “Before this even happened I said it's either going to be jail, prison or a bullet. Nobody listened to me.”

She feels that the systems that were in place to help her granddaughter, failed her — that social workers failed her, and mostly, in the end, that the police failed her, when, 17 days after her death, they dismissed the case as self-defense.

Willie White, the man who shot her, was not charged with a crime.

Mary questions that verdict, pointing to bruises and contusions found on Sha’s body in the autopsy report.

“Personally, I don't know the guy that killed my granddaughter,” Tate says. “I feel for them because they've got family also. And if they've got a conscience and they know the truth in all of this… And the children, at 4½ years old, they saw their mother killed.”

On a hot day in July this summer, the neighborhood along Askew Avenue was quiet. The mail carrier was going door to door, and a man down the way was mowing a lawn.

Inside the house where Sha was shot, Willie White’s uncle sat at his dining room table, playing cards with a friend.

“We’re just trying to move on,” he said.

The whole experience was traumatic for his family. Willie White, along with his brother, Chae, moved out shortly after the incident last July.

“He hasn’t been around,” he said. “And he’s not doing well.”

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. Reach her by email at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.

Follow our work and get behind-the-scenes information on The Argument by following us on Facebook.