Taking Aim

Teenagers and anti-handgun advocates are helping Jaime Barrica keep a promise to his dead son

Jaime Barrica thought he left the turmoil of protest and demonstrations behind in 1979, during the turbulent finale to the Ferdinand Marcos reign in the Philippines. His family sold what they could and left their small town for the stability of faraway Texas.

By last March, the wisdom of that decision seemed obvious. Jaime, a supervisor at an area hospital, and wife Pat, a nurse, had raised three children in a tight-knit community wedged between Pasadena and Houston.

Neatly sculpted lawns in the Sagemont area accent modest homes where parents revere their children's achievements. Signs, carefully cut from plywood, proclaim their kids' involvement in extracurricular activities at Dobie High School -- "Bobby's in the Band," "Cindy is cheerleader."

The Barricas (foreground) and some of the followers in their crusade to ban handguns.
Deron Neblett
The Barricas (foreground) and some of the followers in their crusade to ban handguns.

"It's a Leave It to Beaver neighborhood," marvels one visitor. That was the image back on the morning of March 10. Neighbors of the Barricas remembered seeing several kids outside the home, one of them ringing the doorbell. But that was hardly unusual. Jonathan Barrica, at 17 the youngest of the family, was an honor student and tennis buff who had many friends. His parents had gone to work; he was home for the first day of spring break.

A nagging ring of the doorbell awakened Jonathan at 11:22 a.m. Moments later, his brother Roscoe, 23, was stirred from sleep by a loud noise. He ventured into the hallway and saw Jonathan lying in a pool of blood, with a bullet wound to the head. For the next 31 days, family and friends huddled at Ben Taub General Hospital, where he remained on life support until doctors declared him dead on April 12.

During the funeral, Jaime Barrica stood at Jonathan's grave and made a vow to his son: Somehow, he swore, he was going to stop this from happening to other kids; from ever happening again.

On a clammy summer evening, a smattering of teens and parents gather in a meeting room at St. Luke's Catholic Church in southeast Houston. Jaime Barrica is convening the latest session of the group dedicated to his son, Justice for Jonathan.

The previous week, Barrica's forces gathered at Dobie High School in an after-class rally on Flag Day to kick off an ambitious project. They intend to march to Austin in September to present Governor George W. Bush with 100,000 signatures calling for a ban on handguns in Texas.

Barrica asks the attendees one by one about their weekly progress. Overall, an estimated 120 teens and their families have gained over 2,000 signatures. They collected many of them during Houston's Million Mom March on Mother's Day. Teen supporters wore Justice for Jonathan T-shirts there and helped cover NRA sign bearers before the local media's camera lenses.

On this night, Barrica asks about possible locations to expand the petition drive. A girl says yes, her aunt works at a hospital; maybe she can take the petitions there. Another girl volunteers to check with grocery stores about setting up tables during peak Saturday shopping periods.

Many in the Justice for Jonathan squadron are on sabbatical to celebrate high school graduation, but the regulars are on hand. Teenager Akunna Okere, soon to be a senior, buddied with Jonathan throughout her intermediate and high school years. Jonathan's best friend, Adam Laura, had to work tonight. His family is represented by his 20-year-old sister, Brooke. And the Dobie jock in the exercise apparel is Ronnie Strange. He'll be acting as personal trainer for those needing to get in shape for the nearly 200-mile trek to the state capitol.

As the meeting continues, the conversation and close attention of the crowd confirms that strong bonds have developed between Barrica and the kids. Most of them already knew the father; those ties increased as they maintained their hospital watch for Jonathan in the month after the shooting.

While Jonathan lingered on under life support, more than 60 teens joined in group prayer. That moved an onlooker to make an anonymous donation of $1,000 to the cause. As Jonathan remained in critical condition, the kids organized a car wash to raise more funds. It added $10,000 to the movement.

Jonathan's death unified the family and Jonathan's friends even more.

"The teens in our area live in fear now more than it was before, because they saw a friend get shot inside his own house at 11 in the morning," Barrica says. "They do not know who this person is. And if he can do it this one time, he will do it again to another person."

As her husband goes through agenda items at the meeting, Pat stares sadly out the window to another world. Sounds drift in of teenagers racing down Hall Road, shouting inaudible mantras at passing automobiles. Eventually Pat mentally makes her way back to the meeting, resting her chin on her hands and listening intently.

The movement, she explains, provides a focus for their grief. "When you have an idle mind, you brood, and it doesn't go away," Pat explains. The parents' closeness with the kids was apparent in the predawn hours after Jonathan's funeral.

Jaime got an excited call from his son's friends. After the burial, they told him, they went to a friend's swimming pool to ponder life. A girl took a group Polaroid shot. As the picture slowly appeared, a ghostly haze hovered around this buddy battalion. They were sure it was Jonathan's spirit among them.

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