Years after a gunshot wound to the head, a Ferguson protester seeks answers
There is one thing Mya Aaten-White remembers clearly: laying down on a hardwood floor as blood seeped out of her forehead.
Three days into the protests that erupted in Ferguson after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, someone shot Aaten-White in the head as she walked to her vehicle after a demonstration. She survived, but still has no answers.
“I’m not guaranteed safety on any given day,” Aaten-White said. “I don’t know who shot me, so they could try again.”
Aaten-White, a tall, 27-year-old artist with an expressive demeanor, is one of several people injured in Ferguson after Brown’s death in August of 2014. In contrast to the protesters who have filed class-action suits against police departments alleging rough treatment, Aaten-White was ambushed by an unknown shooter in an adjacent neighborhood.
Two-and-a-half years later, the Ferguson Police Department is still investigating the case, but has made no arrests.
Waiting for help on a hardwood floor
There are few streetlights on Highmont Drive. As Aaten-White walked down the quiet, residential street on a damp February morning, she remembered just how dark it was when the bullets started to fly.
In 2014, Aaten-White had recently graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She returned home to north St. Louis County, and worked as a legal assistant. When she first heard news of an officer-involved shooting near the Canfield Green Apartments, she panicked, wondering if the victim was someone she knew.
“I know a lot of kids like Michael Brown, who are stereotyped and targeted, because of what they look like, because of their size, because of their perceived demeanor, ” Aaten-White said. "People don’t really have any understanding of who they are.”
On Aug. 12, Aaten-White helped organize a group of student protesters from Tennessee, and said she waited to make sure they all had rides home. On her way back to her vehicle, just before midnight, she heard gunshots.
“I think it had to be the fourth or fifth bullet that actually hit me,” Aaten-White said. “I felt like my brain, my whole head had been cracked open.”
The bullet buried itself in the center of her forehead, but she remained conscious. A witness carried her to a nearby house, and woke up Tyesha Bennett and her three young children.
“Me and my kids got down on the floor, and surrounded her and started praying,” Bennett said. “She had a lot of blood.”
Aaten-White said she did her best not to panic, cracking jokes to stay awake.
“It’s crazy the things that you think about,” Aaten-White recalled. “Like, is my room clean? Because my mom has to go in there to find my stuff, I don’t want her to be upset because it’s junky. And man, I should have gotten my dog those dog snacks … nobody is going to know she likes those dog snacks.”
Bennett’s fiancé called an ambulance, and the family gave St. Louis County Police as much information as they could. Afterward, Bennett said, there was little follow-up from investigators.
“They looked at the house and took our report of who was there, what happened, and that was it. We didn’t see no more or hear no more from them,” she said.
After surgeries to remove the bullet and repair her skull, Aaten-White returned home. But she says the Ferguson police, who took the case, were slow to contact her. The two-page police report, released to the Riverfront Times, was based on second-hand information from a St. Louis County officer.
“That lack of follow-up, it really disturbed me. It just seemed like they brushed it under the rug,” Aaten-White said.
A trail goes cold
The Ferguson Police Department was overwhelmed in August of 2014. According to the city of Ferguson, the detective originally assigned to Aaten-White’s case has since left the department. Officials did not make the new person in charge available for comment, and declined to provide any further information, citing an open investigation.
That isn’t unusual, but it’s not a good sign that the case will be solved, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“If the suspect isn’t apprehended within, quite literally hours of the event, certainly a day or so, then after that it becomes increasingly unlikely that an arrest will be made,” Rosenfeld said. “Homicide cases, they can last a long time. Details of the investigation may not be made public for some time."
The Ferguson Police Department cleared 11 percent of the violent crimes it investigated in 2014, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting. These statistics can be unreliable, due to spotty data. By comparison, St. Louis County, which has considerably more officers, made an arrest for two-thirds of violent crimes that same year.
Two attorneys told Aaten-White they had been appointed by her alma mater, Howard University. They flew to St. Louis to help, but they weren’t licensed to practice in the state of Missouri.
“They were present for the media show, and when it came down to, actually, the work, and getting things done and figuring out the whys and the hows, then they were very much unavailable,” Aaten-White said.
The attorneys declined comment for this story, because Aaten-White is no longer their client. She said she couldn’t afford to hire one of her own.
“That girl who got shot”
The bullet left Aaten-White with a crescent-shaped scar on her forehead, and regular, splitting headaches. After a flurry of media coverage in 2014, she still gets recognized occasionally — once, by a clerk, as she tried to pay her property taxes.
“Instead of asking, 'Oh, are you Mya? ... They say, ‘Oh, you’re that girl who got shot.’ You’re that girl who got shot,” Aaten-White said. “I know they didn’t mean any harm by it, but hearing it, over and over …”
She shook her head.
Sometimes, Aaten-White said, she gets discouraged by the lack of support around her. She recently started a new job for an insurance company, and focuses her spare time on her creative projects. She publishes poetry under a pen name, Spook.
“My time is so sacred to me now. I just see time way different,” she said.
But as time passes, Aaten-White’s chances of learning who shot her are dwindling. Missouri’s statute of limitations for most felonies, including attempted murder, is three years.
The clock is running.
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.