ALBANY Rose Guerrero gets her son Richie to swimming sessions once a week, as she’s done since last fall.
She says it’s something he really likes, even though he says he doesn’t. In the water, he gets to stretch out and stand up.
“It’s really nice to see him standing up,” Rose Guerrero said in an interview last week, “to see how tall he got.”
Richie stands in the water with the support of equipment and therapists. Guerrero hasn’t seen her son, now 20, stand on his own for nearly five years, not since a stray bullet cut him down on a Schenectady street as he visited cousins in the city. He was 15 years old.
The bullet wasn’t intended for him, but Richie and his family must live with the consequences.
Richie is unable to care for himself, unable to fully control many muscles and unable to communicate beyond a few limited signs.
Antwon White, just 19 at the time of the shooting, is in prison for firing the bullet that hit Richie. He was convicted of first-degree assault by a Schenectady County Court jury and an appeals court last month affirmed that finding and the up-to-25-year prison sentence he received. His earliest release date is listed as November 2028.
Rose Guerrero said last week she doesn’t generally think about the man convicted of shooting her son. Only when she was notified by prosecutors of the result of the appeal did she do so, but only briefly.
She is focused on her son and their efforts to help him to recover as much as possible.
Exactly how far he can come back, however, is not known. The doctors don’t even know, Rose said. The bullet hit him in his head. He barely survived but has made steady, albeit slow, improvements with the help of his mother, family and therapists.
Rose quit her job as a teacher to be his caregiver.
Early on, Richie required a feeding tube. He doesn’t need one anymore, and he’s no longer on medication. But he’s unable to communicate beyond rudimentary signs. The family is hoping soon to get a special book with pictures to which he can point to communicate.
No doctor has quantified his cognitive level. Rose just knows the son she sees, someone with a personality who reacts and experiences a range of emotions.
The brain, she notes, can do miraculous things.
His verbal sounds are limited. He can point to his mouth when he is hungry. There’s the two-fingered “peace” sign that he learned. He also learned to sign “I love you,” holding out his index finger, pinky and thumb. As Rose explained Richie’s use of that sign, he responded by signing it to his mother.
A normal teenager
Five years ago he was a normal 15-year-old kid. He would go to the mall when he had extra money. He listened to music. He wanted to look nice when he went to school.
He was also good with his hands. His father, Reyes, is an auto mechanic, and Richie had prospects there. He liked computers, and his mother envisioned him fixing them one day.
In May of 2006, Richie got himself a part-time job in fast food to earn some extra money. He never got his first paycheck.
The night of May 25, 2006, Richie was invited by his cousins in Schenectady to a party. There was no school the next day.
He was supposed to go with his older brother, but Richie left home early without telling his mother where he was going. That was a first for the 15-year-old.
Rose had stayed late at work that night. She got home and Richie was gone.
“I felt like something bad was going to happen, for some reason the energy was just off,” Rose said last week. As she tried to check the few places he could have gone, the call finally found her.
Her son had been shot.
After midnight, Antwon White and another man were driving in Schenectady when they stopped to talk to a friend, according to the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court’s account of the case. A man left a nearby party and asked them where they were from. The man shouted the response, that they were from Albany, in an apparent attempt to cause a confrontation.
White’s passenger got out and started to fight with the man. White got out, showed his unlicensed handgun and fired.
Richie Guerrero was a bystander.
White testified it was a warning shot and that he didn’t believe he was the one who hit Guerrero. He alleged others shot that night.
The jury didn’t believe White, finding him guilty of reckless assault.
Rose Guerrero credited Richie’s cousin and uncle with keeping Richie alive, putting pressure on his wound. She also credited the paramedics, EMTs and surgeons with saving her son. She said she couldn’t imagine where she would be if she had lost Richie.
“I probably would have had a whole different feeling if Richie didn’t make it,” Guerrero said. “But because Richie made it, it didn’t matter how he made it. He just made it. So I’m happy.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to have been a mother who lost her child,” Guerrero added. “That would have been far worse.”
The family has been working to improve Richie’s outcome, trying to ensure he has the equipment he needs. Getting that equipment has involved waiting and wading through program paperwork. They’ve learned to be patient as well as tolerant.
It's not personal
“I realize that it’s never anything personal,” Rose said. “A lot of people have to wait, it’s not just Richie.”
Now they have a wheelchair with a seat that can tilt back. His mother said that has been a help when she has to tend to him by herself.
They’ve also dealt with the limitations of Medicaid, with certain numbers of therapy visits allotted. And they’ve had to work out a system of getting Richie up and down from their second-floor apartment.
Living with Rose and Richie is Rose’s other son, Manny, his wife Anna and their two children, Violet, 5, and Manny, 3. Richie’s brother and sister-in-law help in bringing him up and down and in other ways.
The family has chosen to stay in the apartment, at least until Richie’s siblings graduate from college. Manny is attending The College of Saint Rose and sister Rosa is at SUNY Stony Brook.
Rose Guerrero commended the Center for the Disabled with helping them with therapy sessions and in other ways. Their efforts have been instrumental in his progress, she said.
Problems have come up elsewhere, though. The lift van service they use to get Richie to appointments sometimes doesn’t get the pickup request and Richie has missed appointments. It’s happened enough that the family hopes to get their own lift van. The van rides are covered by Medicaid.
But a lift van is expensive. His sister Rosa set up a website for donations. The website, Wheels For Richie, is at http://wheelsforrichie.myevent.com.
Included on the site are a series of photos, including one of Richie taken in March 2006, two months before he was shot. In the photo, the 15-year-old boy, hands clasped together at his waist, is standing, looking at the camera.
Rose said she makes it a point not to second guess that night in May 2006.
But she knows that others close to Richie do, internalizing it and trying to figure out what they could have done differently. Her oldest son Manny, she said, recalled he was supposed to take Richie to the party that night. But he remembers deliberately walking slowly home so they wouldn’t have to go to the party.
What would have happened if he had walked faster?
Rose wonders: What would have happened had she not stayed at work late that night?
His cousins wonder: What if they didn’t take him to that party?
No second guessing
But there can be no second guessing, Rose said.
“You shouldn’t take it on like that. This was going to happen regardless. You take your circumstances in life and you deal with it. You cope with it,” she said.
The other what-if is this: What if Antwon White hadn’t gotten a gun that morning?
If she had the time and energy, Rose said she would take part in gun control events. Teenagers with guns, she said, don’t think.
“They just take the guns and they’re strong and they’re tough with it in their hands,” Guerrero said. “But then it seems like they make this kind of superhero transformation and they become a little kid after it’s done: ‘I didn’t mean to do it.’ And they’re kind of soft, or sad, childlike almost. That’s who they really are.”
Guerrero said she feels bad that White’s life is the way it is in prison.
“But, wow, it could have been so different if he would have just thought differently,” she said. “If we could just put a different script in these kids’ heads.”
For now, the family is looking forward, Rose said, the same as it has always done.
Rose compared her son’s situation to multiple sclerosis, with steady improvement. He has the swimming therapy and exercises she does with him. She was tutored in the exercises by Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital upon his release.
Richie, she said, has a positive attitude and is happy, though he can cry and he can get mad.
“If anything, his emotions are closer to the surface,” she said.
He watches television, and his niece and nephew play with him when they get home from school. His father has a good relationship with him.
But, although he has his immediate family around him, he rarely gets visitors. He would love to have visitors.
Rose said they can also never ignore the fact that he was shot in the head, a huge injury. But they have a lot of optimism.
“He survived it,” she said. “I hear so many other cases of people who didn’t make it and I feel so blessed that Richie made it.”
She recalled a man they met on Richie’s first trip to swimming therapy. The man was a quadriplegic. He told them to keep coming back. The program had done wonders for him. He hadn’t walked in 15 years and he just started walking in the pool.
Rose is waiting for that. “I feel like when Richie gets to the point where he’s going to get to, he’ll raise his hand and I’ll raise my hand, like ‘We did it!’ ”