In a hail of bullets, Newark 'Mema' keeps grandson safe

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on October 12, 2014

(L-R) Jaleel Barber, helps his partner Tania Thornton, to her walker in their Newark apartment. Thornton 48, used her body to shield her 6 year-old grandson, General, when someone started shooting as they were on their way to the corner store. Thornton was hit by a bullet in her left leg.


The sound of gunshots in Tania Thornton’s neighborhood is common.

So common, in fact, that residents recognize them immediately.

“Pow-pow, pow-pow.’’

The time of day, Thornton says, doesn’t seem to matter on the streets around Sunset Avenue in Newark’s West Ward.

On Oct. 1, as she walked to Brookdale Supermarket with her grandson, 6-year-old General Burke, she heard them again.

The young boy had wanted an Italian cheeseburger, his favorite sandwich, on his day off from school.

His eyes get big just talking about how it's stuffed with french fries and ketchup. And mayonnaise, lots of mayo.

“It’s the goodest,’’ he says.

It would have been delicious, had he and his 48-year-old grandmother made it to the corner store on that sunny, pleasant afternoon.

“For a change, it was quiet,’’ Thornton says. “It was serene.’’

They started out walking, holding hands on Sunset Avenue.

Thornton, whom Burke calls “Mema” was teasing her grandson as they turned left onto Abinger Place.

“You’re not 6 years old,’’ she recalls telling him.

“Yes I am, Mema,” he said.

He had turned 6 just the day before, on Sept. 30.

When they crossed over Boylan Street, they were a block away from the store at the corner of Abinger and Brookdale Avenue. Then, Thornton heard that familiar sound.

“Pow-pow, pow-pow.’’

General knew it, too, but he didn't think it was close to them. That is always what he thinks when he hears the sound.

Mema knew better.

“I heard maybe five or six shots,’’ she says. “I’m looking around to see where they’re coming from.’’

Her defenses kicked in. She grabbed her grandson’s hand tighter and walked faster toward Brookdale Avenue, where she pushed him to the ground behind a parked delivery truck.

Her only thought? “I have to protect him,’’she says. “I have to save him.’’

When Thornton looked up, what she saw was like something out of a movie.

But this was real, another in the shootings you’ve read about in Newark this year.

There was a man across the street from Thornton. His face was covered by a mask and he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt pulled tight over his head.

He was running in her direction with two big guns, one in each hand, and he was firing.

“He’s full throttle,’’ Thornton recalls.

Her hands, fixed like the guns she saw, squeeze off imaginary rounds.

“Boom, boom, boom, boom,’’ she says, softly.

The hail of bullets are meant for a man standing in front of the store, the same store that Thornton and her grandson were headed to for that Italian cheeseburger.

Thornton tried to get out of the way, but it was too late. One of the bullets caught her in the side of her left leg, close to her knee. She fell to the ground on top of her grandson and pulled him close, pushing his head down, covering him completely with her body.

“I wasn’t scared,’’ he says. “I felt protected.’’

His Mema was there.

“I said, 'Get down, General,' ” Thornton says. “I had my body on him.’’

The assailant kept firing at his target, who ran onto Brookdale, the same street where Thornton and her grandson were crouched near the delivery truck. But the shooter was across the street on the other side of the truck, chasing the man he was trying to kill. According to police reports, the man being shot at was struck in the foot and the gunman drove off in a BMW.

When they were gone, when Thornton felt it was safe, she sat up and saw blood gushing from a gash in her leg.

She stood up, but fell back down from the pain.

The bullet had split into five fragments, bouncing off her femur. She was taken to University Hospital, where doctors removed four pieces after six hours of surgery, but she says they had to leave the fifth fragment where it is for now.

“I was fortunate because the doctors said the bullet could have shattered my knee, and it missed some major arteries,’’ she says.

Three days after the shooting, Thornton was back home, but it’s been an adjustment.

She doesn’t like the syringes doctors gave her to inject medication into her abdomen once a day for a month. Since she’s not moving that much, the treatment is supposed to keep her blood from clotting dangerously.

Today is the 13th shot.

Each one, plus powerful pain medication, makes Thornton think of the shooter.

She wants him caught and she has something to say to him if police find him:

“I know you had to see me and my grandson. You had no heart or feelings. You had this, 'I don’t give an F attitude.' You really messed me up.’’

Thornton knows her neighborhood has issues, but she never thought – who does? – that she would be caught in the cross fire.

“You read about these things,’’ she says. “You hear about it, but it blows my mind that this boy had two guns, like a scene out of a movie.’’

And though she's home, safe, the whole ordeal is emotionally troublesome for Thornton.

She enjoys being the go-to person in her family, and right now, she can’t fulfill that role.

She’s the mother-hen of the block, too, because she looks after everybody. She’s the one sweeping up out front, telling kids to have a good day at school.

“You’re here to see Mommy Tanya?’’ a teenager says as I walk into the building.

That’s how they say her name around here. She says it that way, too, making it easier for others who may have trouble with the proper pronunciation – "Ta-Knee-Ah."

“She’s up there,’’ the teenager tells me.

Thornton is on the bed, her leg elevated. She says that she feels like a burden, even though she has plenty of help. Her daughters are close by and she has Jaleel Barber, her longtime companion, who was worried sick when he learned Thornton had been shot.

“I was a mess,’’ he says. “I didn’t know what to expect.’’

He helps her from the bed. It’s a slow undertaking. He holds the walker steady as she pulls herself up, grabbing onto him, too. The first attempt doesn’t work. The second does.

Painful, indeed.

But she’d do it all again for her grandson.

“Remember what Mema told you,’’ she says. “I will always love you and take care of you.’’

As for the shooter, he’s still out there – guns loaded.

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