Pittsburgh family struggles to cope with son's unsolved homicide
CJ Conrad is doing better.
"I would have anxiety with the door about whether it was closed or open," he says. "I could be sitting here, broad daylight, and people walk by? Uh-uh, close it."
CJ turned 18 on May 1, exactly 18 months after someone came to the door of his Mt. Oliver home and sprayed bullets into the living room where he and his 11-year-old brother, David McIntyre, played video games. David died. CJ didn't.
"Now I can sit here, door wide open, at 11 o'clock at night," he says.
His mother, Amanda McKnight, is getting there, she says. But not fast enough for CJ.
"I'm doing better –"
"I'm up to about – "
"-- 10:30 p.m."
"She didn't ask you a question. She asked me a question."
"I try keeping the door open and she yells at me."
CJ turned 18 on May 1, but he's still a teenager.
CJ and David played an MLB video game that night.
"Once in a blue moon he'll play it," McKnight says. "I've noticed it only seems to be around the anniversary, around his birthday, or maybe a Sunday."
It was the day after Halloween. Per tradition, their grandfather — McKnight's father — left them a gift from the "Great Pumpkin." David's was $5. He wanted to spend it on his mom.
"He was adamant on buying me a parfait from McDonald's," she says. "He knows I like them."
She was upstairs hours later when the shooting began. CJ remembers just about everything.
"I sat on the one chair. David spun in a spinny chair. I was closest to the door. David was on my left," he says.
It was the MLB game. They were coming back for a win.
"I was standing up to give him a hug and boom, I get shot."
He's pretty sure he got hit in the back or shoulder first.
"I was going down, and David caught me," he says. "They pulled the trigger again as I was going down. My weight going onto David — we fell to the side, and the guy just kept unloading. He shot my thumb knuckle out."
CJ says he looked up, then looked over at David. He looked at the shooter, then back at David.
"Then I looked forward and closed my eyes and tried going to sleep," he says.
"I kind of knew David was dead."
McKnight has several cats — more than can be quickly counted in her South Side Flats living room. She says they're her therapy. A gray-and-white one, Charcoal, belonged to David. He was a kitten at the time of the shooting.
"He's so very gentle. He won't scratch you unless he wants off of you. He don't scratch, he don't beg, he don't do none of that stuff," she says. "So he reminds me a lot of my David. I always say, 'You're my furry version of David.'"
She holds the cat close.
"It's funny, a lot of times I will say to CJ, 'Oh, look at your brother,'" she says.
Later, she sits on the couch with CJ and the cat.
"Look, your brother's shedding."
McKnight heard the first shot — she thought the boys had switched video games. Her father, who had been in the dining room, called out. The boys had been shot, he yelled.
"Instinctively, I walked into the bathroom," she says. "I don't know why. I grabbed towels."
Later, she says, she used them to help stop the flow of blood from CJ's back.
When she walked downstairs, she says, her father was holding David's head in his lap.
"He pretty much knew David was gone. I pretty much knew when I hit the doorway, but come on," she says. "I didn't want to believe it. I still don't want to believe it."
She veers into her theory that her father went on to die of a broken heart. He died of a heart attack in her bathroom several months after the shooting. A diabetic, he stopped taking care of himself, she says.
"I think he kind of gave up," she says.
She goes back to David. He was shot once in the leg, twice in the back and once in the head.
"Whoever pulled that trigger wanted to make sure..."
"Someone was dying," CJ cuts in.
He's not wrong, McKnight says, and then starts again: "This person was..."
"I was a starfish," CJ says, stretching his arms wide. "I was a (expletive) up starfish at the moment."
"...skilled with a gun. There was no bullet holes in the wall, no stray bullets in the floor," McKnight finished.
"After, like, the second one, I went into my own little world," CJ says.
The rest of McKnight's memories come in fragments.
She doesn't remember flashing lights. She doesn't remember sirens. She remembers hearing the words, "Ma'am, you have to move."
Someone put socks on her. She doesn't know who. Someone put a blanket around her, too.
"I remember running out of my door saying, 'Oh, my God, they shot my babies, they shot my babies,'" she says. "Those gunshots were just one after another after another after another."
No arrests have been made. Police have named no suspects.
CJ lists his injuries. The bullets grazed his liver, nipped his lung, fractured his diaphragm and broke one of his ribs. He died on the way to the hospital — he flat-lined, and the ambulance had to pull over so paramedics could revive him.
He was in the hospital for more than a week. There is still a bullet in his liver and another in his arm.
"I had some hot nurses," he says. "That's all that matters."
"Hey, CJ, hand me my notebook."
"It's in the red cup."
"I asked you nicely."
"In the cup. It's pink."
CJ throws the notebook across the room.
CJ has good days and bad days.
"When it came to the shooting, it depends on who I was talking to and what we were talking about," he says. "Certain people I would joke with about the shooting. Other people, they're going to think you have issues."
"With basketball, you can take out so much anger — you can hold the ball, you can throw the ball, you can practically demolish the ball and you're not going to go to jail," he says. "If you're with someone and your emotion just changes and you hit them,,, you can be leaving in cuffs, and it's just like, I ain't got time for that."
After the shooting, he got mad — mad that people were going easy on him on the court.
"It's like, I don't want that," he says. "I want normal, normal, normal."
At school, they asked questions.
"I got asked a lot of questions. Any questions, I mean, I was open-minded about it," he says. "You ask a question, I'm going to tell you. You ask another question, I'm going to tell you."
He doesn't think about the shooting.
"I walk out my door and pray to God I don't die," he says. "And then I leave and go do something — keep myself distracted. If I have no time to pay attention to it, I have nothing to worry about. By the time I get home, I'm too tired to even think about it — I watch TV and go to bed. Then I get up, I go right back out."
McKnight says that used to be her theory, too.
"Then when I slowed down, it was like an avalanche hit me."
"Do you think about him a lot?"
"You know what I meant."
"Nah, I don't think about it. I just go on with my day," CJ says.
He begins to recite what has become a mantra.
"The less I think... what, what is it? The less I think the better I am, the more I — wait. I had it down pat one day.
"The more I think about it, the worse my behavior can get. The less I think about it, the better off I am. Because like, if I think about it, it might push me to somewhere I don't want to go or do something I don't want to do," he says.
So he doesn't.
"If I think about it, it might push me to a depression, or I might just get really angry and start hitting people and I can go the jail. But if I don't think about it, I don't have to realize it. If I don't think about it the... realization comes in, and it's just — I can go into a wreck."
So he doesn't.
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @meganguzaTrib.