Shooting victim faces an uncertain future

Future uncertain for shooting victim

Survivor: William Thomas III, left partially paralyzed by a shooting at Randallstown High School, finds himself reassessing his goals.

November 25, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

William "Tippa" Thomas III, He didn't know who shot him. He didn't know how many bullets were fired that day. And he didn't know why anyone would open fire on a crowd of students at his high school on a sunny Friday afternoon in the midst of graduation preparations and prom season.

So for six days, William "Tippa" Thomas III, who was left partially paralyzed by the May 7 shootings at Randallstown High School, wheeled himself into courtroom No. 2 in Baltimore County Circuit Court and listened.

There, he found answers to some of his questions.

But as Thomas puts the first of two scheduled trials in the Randallstown case behind him, he is looking to a future that includes more than just rehabilitation sessions, trial testimony and sentencing hearings.

"I had plans. I had lots of plans and goals for myself," Thomas, 18, said quietly, less than an hour after jurors convicted a Randallstown classmate of assault in the school shootings that left Thomas in a wheelchair and three other students injured. "All of a sudden, they're a lot harder to accomplish."

On Tuesday, after nearly nine hours of deliberations over two days, the Baltimore County jury that had been hearing the case returned with verdicts. The panel acquitted Matthew Timothy McCullough, 18, on four counts of attempted second-degree murder -- the most serious charges against him -- and four handgun charges, but convicted him of four counts of first-degree assault.

Accused of firing a 9 mm semiautomatic Glock pistol into a crowd of students leaving a charity basketball game, McCullough could be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison on each assault charge when he is sentenced in January.

In a trial filled with students' testimony about the chaos that ensued when the fistfight involving McCullough and his three friends ended in gunfire, one moment -- unrelated to the guilt or innocence of the teenager on trial -- stood out.

On the second day of trial, just after Randallstown football coach Albert Howard stepped down from the witness stand, the courtroom doors opened. There stood Peggie Henderson with her son, William Thomas.

Having lost weight since the shootings that left him paralyzed from the stomach down, the once-muscled wide receiver wore a suit that dwarfed his slim frame. A single diamond stud sparkled in his left earlobe. His expression was somber, his hands were folded in his lap.

Prosecutor Stephen Bailey zeroed in on the scene in his closing argument to jurors.

"The saddest thing of all was watching [Henderson] push her son to the witness stand in a wheelchair to talk about the day he was shot and put in that wheelchair," Bailey said.

Because all the witnesses in the case were sequestered and forbidden from hearing others' testimony, Thomas sought permission from the judge to remain in the courtroom after his turn on the witness stand.

"I wanted to see it through, to get a clearer picture of what happened that day and why it happened," he said.

Thomas heard testimony that it was Tyrone Devon "Fat Boy" Brown, who pleaded guilty in September to the shootings and was sentenced to 50 years in prison, who fired the bullets that pierced the back of his neck, his back and a lung. He heard police testify that 12 shell casings were found on the parking lot and that the second shooter -- McCullough -- had fired the weapon until it was empty.

As for what led to the shootings, he said he gained some insight from testimony about a simmering dispute between McCullough and a football player.

Witnesses testified that although McCullough had been told by school administrators to stay home that day, he returned to Randallstown twice, looking for the football player who had shown him disrespect earlier in the week. When McCullough and his companions couldn't find the football player, they started fighting the boy's friends, witnesses testified. As the fight became a brawl that McCullough's side was losing, the heavyset man pulled a gun.

Thomas just happened to be in the path of the gunfire.

Another suspect in the shootings, Antonio Richard Jackson, 21, who is accused of bringing to Randallstown the gun used in the shootings, was scheduled to be tried alongside McCullough. But prosecutors postponed his trial after being unable to locate a person they described as an "essential witness."

The witness, Ronald Patrick Johnson Jr., 20, initially was charged in the shootings, but authorities dropped the charges. He was subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution.

Johnson told police that he was walking down Reisterstown Road when McCullough pulled up, asked Johnson to get in the car and told him that he and Brown were on their way to the school to confront someone over stolen money, according to A. Dwight Pettit, Johnson's attorney.

The additional trial means another trip to the courthouse for Thomas. "It's hard, of course, to think about," he said. "But we've got one more to go."

Nicknamed "Tipper" as a child because he used to run on his toes, Thomas now faces a future in which he's uncertain he will ever run again.

He was supposed to attend Morgan State University this year on an engineering scholarship but withdrew after having difficulty maneuvering around campus in his wheelchair. He intends to re-enroll in January after completing an intensive rehabilitation program and hopes to explore, through his studies, ways to improve the quality of life for quadriplegics and paraplegics.

"It's a whole different world," he said of life without the use of his legs. "It's not easy at all, especially when you're trying to be independent. I'd like to try to come up with different ways to make this world better for the people who have to live in it."

That world, he added quietly, now includes him.

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