AP NEWS

Father’s death inspires Flint native to tackle gun violence

January 21, 2019

BURTON, Mich. (AP) — Joseph Pettigrew knew something wasn’t right once he looked at his phone.

The 24-year-old Flint native finished a run at Bicentennial Park in Grand Blanc Township on May 1, 2018 and went home for a shower before heading to a panel for Democratic gubernatorial candidates at Baker College.

“I remember it was the first hot day (of the year). It was like 80 degrees,” he recalled to MLive.com . “People were just so excited that we finally got hot weather.”

While seated in the crowd, Pettigrew began to receive phone calls from his mother, Aretha. He counted at least 10 missed calls.

She was worried about his father, Sidney Pettigrew Jr., who’d not contacted any family members after leaving home that day.

“Anytime he goes somewhere he’d check up on us. He just lets us know whatever he’s doing,” said Joseph Pettigrew. “He’s the type of guy that has a regular schedule. He’d go to work. He’d go to the gym. He’d take a nap.”

Pettigrew Jr. worked out three to four times a week at The Rock Fitness Center in Flint.

After checking local hospitals and other facilities and coming up empty, Joseph Pettigrew spotted a post about a shooting in the area of the fitness center which triggered a lockdown at a nearby school.

Ashia Pettigrew, Joseph’s older sister, headed to the area.

“I say about 10, 15 minutes pass by,” said Joseph Pettigrew. “She calls us back and says, ‘Yes, it was him. The detective is on his way to come speak with us.’”

Sidney Pettigrew Jr. was pronounced dead at Hurley Medical Center. He was 51 years old.

Shooting leaves one person dead in Flint

That’s the moment Joseph’s life changed.

“I didn’t know how to react to it. I didn’t know what to say,” he said. “My mom was flipping out. I was literally at a loss for words. I would say that specific day was the worst day of my life whatsoever.”

In the days and months since the shooting, some parts of life have regained their routine. Pettigrew is still wrapping up his bachelor’s degree at Eastern Michigan University, for instance.

But the impact of that day’s events linger -- the frustration over the length of the investigation with no charges as of yet — all of which have spurred his efforts to try and alleviate some of the gun violence taking place in Flint.

It wasn’t Joseph Pettigrew’s first exposure to gun violence. His friend Sasha Bell was shot and killed during a double homicide April 20, 2016 at the Ridgecrest Village apartment complex in Flint. Toron Fisher, 20, and Malek Thornton, 21, were both charged with first-degree murder and felony firearm in the slayings.

Thornton pleaded guilty in October 2017 to one count of second-degree murder and one count of felony firearm. He’s scheduled to be sentenced soon but will serve a minimum of 22 years in prison as part of a plea deal in which he agreed to testify against Fisher, whose trial began recently, according to Genesee Circuit Court records.

But it was the death of his father that made him want to make a difference.

“I would say me, just to be honest, before my dad died I cared about gun violence but it wasn’t like a thing I had to deal with,” said Joseph Pettigrew. “I’d say, ’That’s messed up, I feel for their family.” But it didn’t go beyond that point.”

Police identify 2 women killed in shooting where unharmed 1-year-old found in home

He has started sharing his story through the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and is now organizing Flint Youth Against Gun Violence. The group will target millennials with a focus on education about gun legislation, awareness and the wide-reaching impact of violent acts.

“After the incident, there’s a still a family out there that has to deal with those struggles,” said Joseph Pettigrew. “The family dynamics change who’s going to take care of the bills, depression, anxiety. There’s so many other issues that go just beyond that incident.”

He argued the issues also include a normalization of violence and built-in excuses of limited resources. The city has experienced 44 homicides in 2017 and 49 homicides in 2016 and 2017.

The 2017 Uniform Crime Report data released in September 2018 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed Flint was the sixth most violent city in America with a population of at least 50,000, with a 23 percent increase from 2016 in the number of reported violent crimes — homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults.

Flint violent crime rate up 23 percent, new FBI stats show

“We know Flint is a crime-stricken community,” said Joseph Pettigrew. “What can we do about it?”

Part of the process would include having mentors and positive role models for young people in the community. Joseph Pettigrew said he would also like to find out how guns used in violent crimes wind up in the city and potentially go after manufacturers.

“We’re not going to prevent every homicide, but that rate can go down. It’s just about if you actually want to deal with it,” he said. “The community has to get together and want to do something about it too. We can’t depend on government, (or) the police department to do everything.”

Joseph Pettigrew is also working with others, including community activists Ryan LoRee and Abel Delgado, on getting the city to proclaim a day in remembrance of Flint residents whose lives have been lost due to violence. He will also work with others such as WOW Outreach and the North Flint Revitalization Initiative to provide mentors for young residents.

He would also like to somehow take advantage of the $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance that is funding the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program and North Flint Revitalization Initiative to reduce violence in neighborhoods.

$1 million grant awarded to help fight crime in Flint neighborhoods

He does foresee a challenge in getting people to discuss gun control reform in the current political climate, however.

“When you talk about guns or anything like that, the first thing people talk about is (if the government is) going to take my guns away and I’m not going to be able to protect myself,” said Joseph Pettigrew. “It’s not about taking guns; it’s about saving lives.”

He’s using the work ethic instilled in him by his father and wants to move forward with the task at hand.

“Be the best man you can be really. Don’t focus on the negative. Just keep striving for excellence, no matter how it gets,” Joseph Pettigrew said, recalling the lessons he learned from his father. “Always do the best you can do and always pray, keep faith in God. I feel that really helps me. now that I look at it.”

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press:MLive.com, http://www.mlive.com