- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
CHICAGO – He suddenly felt as if a hot wire had torn through his chest. It hurt to breathe.
Jonathan Annicks wasn't sure he'd been shot. It was after midnight when he'd dashed outside his family's house to retrieve a phone charger from the car. Now, slumped over in anguish, he frantically punched his brother's number into his phone.
"You might have to take me to the hospital," he gasped, "Come outside, please!"
He slid from the car; his legs ended up splayed across the floorboard, the top half of his body sprawled on the pavement. The driver's side window was shattered, the passenger door flung open. In the harsh glare of a streetlight, a baseball-sized smear of blood glistened on the center console.
Jonathan had seen the gunman for just a few seconds: a hooded stranger wearing shiny earrings who bounded out of a van, stood about six feet away and uttered something like, "What's up, homie? Run it."
Jonathan opened the car door and tried to flee, but too late. The shooter fired seven times at the 18-year-old, then sped away in the van down the lonely Chicago street.
Incredibly, all the shots missed, except one. Like a high-speed missile, a 9 mm bullet plowed into his left shoulder, punctured both lungs, fractured his spine and lodged in the right side of his rib cage under his arm.
As Jonathan lay on his back, neighbors were screaming, and his father, straddling him, shouted, "Who did this to you?!!"
Jonathan reached up, tapping his father's knee to calm him. "Stop! You're giving me a headache," he said. He urged his mother, who'd run out without shoes, to get dressed as an approaching siren grew louder.
Loaded into the ambulance, he closed his eyes to shut out the noise. But when he opened them, he noticed something strange: His legs were straight, but they felt as if they were bent.
He instantly knew something was terribly wrong and thought this was "not going to be a bullet that could be pulled out or a wound that could be stitched up."
He felt super-sleepy. He closed his eyes again.
It was barely spring when Jonathan Annicks was shot, but there already were signs 2016 was going to be a very bad year in Chicago.
In the first three months, more than 140 people were murdered. The number of shootings approached 700 — nearly 90 percent higher than a year earlier. On the day Jonathan was hit, eight other people were shot. By fall, the number of homicide victims approached 600; total shootings exceeded 3,000.
The number of dead and wounded each weekend turned into a staple of Monday morning newscasts, a portrait of bloodshed on the city streets that seemed more like a tally of battlefield casualties.
Police say the overwhelming majority of shootings are tied to gangs. A flood of weapons also contributes to the chaos. On average, Chicago police seize one illegal gun every 61 minutes.
Most Chicago murder and shooting victims are young black men. More than 70 percent of this year's dead were on a special police list of 1,400 people considered likely targets based on their gang histories or criminal records. Gang-related shootings, mostly concentrated in a few neighborhoods, often stem from conflicts over drugs and turf, petty disputes or escalating feuds on social media.
But others have been caught up in this mayhem, too: victims of robbery, mistaken identity, stray bullets or gang crossfire. A 6-year-old girl was shot while sitting on her porch, a 26-year-old mother driving in her car, a 71-year-old man watering his lawn.
The cases that attract the most attention tend to be particularly heinous — a 3-year-old boy paralyzed despite his father's efforts to shield him. Or they're inspirational — a star football player who returned to high school within days of being shot six times.
Jonathan Annicks' story is both. His life has been transformed, but not defined, by a single bullet.
He was shot just about 100 feet from his family's house in Little Village, a neighborhood 20 minutes from downtown. It's the only place Jonathan has ever lived. His mom, Herlinda, was raised in that home. Her mother, 83-year-old Monica Martinez, a native of Mexico, lives there, too.
Little Village has a large Mexican population; its streets are dotted with that nation's red-white-and-green flags, taquerias and panaderias (bakeries). But a menace lurks in the neighborhood, too: gangs.
Gang members never messed with the three Annicks boys — Jonathan, Joshua, 17, and the youngest, 14-year-old Jacob. But their house is on a boulevard that's a dividing line for opposing Latino gangs, police say, and Jonathan may have been mistaken for a rival gang member.
Whatever the motive, the flash of a stranger's gun had devastating consequences.
Before, Jonathan had been a restless senior counting down the days at Walter Payton College Prep, one of Chicago's most prestigious high schools, running an occasional 10K race with his mom, hopping on the el train to explore the city with his girlfriend, Cynthia.
On April 10, he was left with a bullet in his body and the first inkling of how much was about to change.
Jonathan was scared and shaking slightly when Wil Johnson entered the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital.
A veteran Chicago police detective, Johnson was not there for work but to offer comfort. He was Jonathan's godfather.
"Hold my hand," Jonathan implored.
Squeezing tight, Johnson reassured him: "Everything's going to be fine."
Johnson had investigated hundreds of shootings over the years, many of the victims gang members. This was different. This was Jonathan, the kid who'd never been in trouble, the kid who whipped him in floor hockey and joined Johnson's family at beach outings every Labor Day.
Jonathan had been hit just once, so Johnson figured he'd get some routine treatment, then be released. But when the detective asked the doctor what was next, he was stunned by her reply.
"He's paralyzed," she said.
Johnson broke down in tears.
The doctor relayed the news to Jonathan's parents: The bullet, which had missed their son's heart by an inch, had severely bruised his spinal cord. He had no movement below mid-chest.
Mike and Herlinda Annicks sobbed. "Paralyzed" sounded so final.
"You can't wrap your mind around 'never,'" his mother says. "He's 18. That's a long time."
But when she was allowed to see Jonathan, there were no tears, no panic, just a mother's comfort. "Whatever the outcome is, you're still here," she said. "You are who you are. We'll be fine. We'll deal with it."
There also was no talk of paralysis. But later, Jonathan broached the subject with Joshua, noting he hadn't been able to move his legs. Joshua said they'd have to wait for the doctor.
"If I'm paralyzed, just tell them to kill me now," Jonathan told his brother.
The shock and anger faded quickly. So did the "why me?" feeling. It was pointless to dwell on it. "I started realizing this wasn't the end of my life," he says. "It wasn't worth it to stay sad because I would just be making my life harder."
Soon after, Dr. Ray Lee, his spinal cord doctor at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, used a dry erase board in Jonathan's room to diagram the spinal column and show him where the bullet had struck. His chances of walking again were minimal.
But from his hospital bed he did some online research, scouting out places in Colorado, Switzerland, anywhere where work was being done that might get him on his feet one day.
He always liked being on the move.
Jonathan was a track and cross-country runner at Payton, a bike rider who cruised for hours along the lakefront, a sharp-elbowed competitor known to rack up penalties in floor hockey.
Being so fit helped him rebuild his strength as he learned new ways to get out of bed, shower and dress.
On Day 1 at Schwab, a nurse demonstrated how to use a catheter. He'd seen them on infomercials but figured they were just for old people. Now at 18, they were essential. "Every four hours I have to do this?" he asked. Indeed. This was not a choice. Nor were the diapers.
He quickly mastered the "transfer" — moving from a bed or seat to his wheelchair. He'd lift his body, keep his head down, swivel his butt, then shift his upper body weight.
There also was the psychological adjustment. "What ifs" gnawed at him. What if he hadn't run out to get that charger? What if they'd come home 20 minutes earlier?
There was guilt, too. "People had to shape their lives in order to accommodate me," he says, "but after I realized they were there because they loved me ... I didn't have anything to worry about."
His father, a maintenance engineer, switched his work hours to 2:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.; his mother, a bank trust administrator, was at the hospital all but a few hours those first weeks.
Jonathan began going outside, and learned to navigate the el. But on a tour of his future college, Chicago's DePaul University, he was so self-conscious that he wore a heavy hoodie to cover a temporary chest brace and long pants to hide his legs, despite the summer warmth. After a while, he said to himself, "Screw it. If people want to look, let them look." He switched into lighter clothes.
He approached his recovery like an unavoidable school assignment. "I couldn't stress about why I had been shot," he says. " . ... There was no point in sulking over something I couldn't change."
He had already learned terrible things can happen for no reason.
At the start of his junior year, his then-girlfriend, Brenna, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He watched her decline through surgery and chemotherapy. He urged her not to give up hope. He cried when he learned her tumor was back.
He was with Brenna when she died in July 2015.
There was so much sadness around her illness, Jonathan wanted to take another approach to his recovery. "I figured if I was happy," he says, "it would make everyone else more easygoing. ... I needed that good energy."
The plan didn't always work.
Some hospital visitors broke down, seeing his wheelchair, not Jonathan, the upbeat kid with the thick, unruly hair and easy grin who likes iced coffee, the Chicago Blackhawks and video games. "Please don't cry," he'd plead. He wanted to convince them of what was obvious to him: "I'm still the same person. I just can't use my legs."
His father, Mike, credits his son's strength for getting the family through the ordeal. "He was positive through the whole thing," he says, "like everything's going to be OK."
As the weeks passed, attention shifted to Jonathan's return home. How would he get in and out of the house, with its six outdoor steps? Someone would have to carry him. The halls were narrow, the tub and toilet unsuitable for a wheelchair.
It weighed on Herlinda, his tireless mother who scrambled to juggle her job with new responsibilities: taking Jonathan to the doctor or physical therapy, cutting through insurance red tape, helping him each morning — and still admonishing him when she thought he was being lazy or selfish.
Joshua did his part as well. He helped Jonathan in the shower, carried him up and down the stairs and chauffeured him to therapy.
And Jonathan's girlfriend, Cynthia Valentin, was at his side, too. "If I was here to stay, then there were things that came along with it," she explains. "I just couldn't pick and choose the good parts."
In early June, Jonathan and Cynthia — in matching black tux and dress with red accessories — were Payton's senior prom king and queen.
He didn't want to go. Proms are for dancing. He was in a chair. But Cynthia insisted.
Ten days later, in cap and gown, Jonathan waited for his name to be called to get his diploma. Friends and Joshua urged him: "Do a wheelie!" And he did pop one as he rolled across the stage, grinning widely and waving to the cheering audience.
In two months, he'd come a long way.
As summer began, Jonathan learned about tools that could make his life easier.
At a disabilities convention, he checked out motorized wheelchairs, trucks that can be adapted with hand controls and exoskeletons, Iron-man-style body suits that help the paralyzed walk.
The highlight was an all-terrain wheelchair with tracks rather than wheels, allowing the user to navigate dirt trails. Joshua lifted his brother in, and slowly the chair unfolded like a vertical accordion until Jonathan was standing.
Using hand controls, he whirled around the floor, his face lighting up as his mother recorded him on her cell phone.
"We're getting one!" he teased. Not really. The price tag was about $16,000.
The convention also offered a chance to network. "I thought a lot of disabled people couldn't do things for themselves," he says. "Now, I know they have full lives."
Slowly, Jonathan gained back some of the 30 pounds he'd lost and focused on therapy that included push-ups, weightlifting and other exercises. He faced medical setbacks and adjustments, too.
He developed blood clots in both legs, which were treated with medicine.
And on the cracked, uneven city streets, he occasionally fell from his wheelchair. Once, it happened while he and Cynthia were on busy Michigan Avenue for a lunch date to celebrate their first anniversary. She was upset; he brushed it off.
The shooting, inevitably, changed their relationship. "At first it was hard," he says. "She was distraught and I was lost ... But eventually we worked it out."
There were no more spontaneous expeditions. Every trip had to be planned. "The innocence of just being a high school girlfriend is long gone," Cynthia says.
Jonathan offered her the chance to call it quits. "I understand this is a very large emotional burden," he says. She said no. "Both of us love each other too much to end it," Cynthia says.
Family tensions surfaced, too. Jonathan's father wanted to move from Little Village but his mother was determined to stay, and they've agreed to do so, largely because it's convenient to her job, Jonathan's school and therapy. It also spares the added financial pressure of a mortgage.
A fund has been established to help defray medical costs. But the family also faces enormous expenses to make the inside of the house wheelchair accessible and build a ramp or a lift so Jonathan can get in and out by himself.
His mother says those are their priorities, not finding the shooter.
"Why should I give him any thought?" she says. Unless the shooter "lives under a rock, he sees what he's done. The question is: Is he sorry for what he did?"
Jonathan's sentiments are similar.
"If I lived with spite every day, then I don't think I would be able to function properly," he says. "I'd be very miserable if I were worrying about what he's doing or where he is. I don't think it's worth it."
Little gets on his nerves, except people saying they're sorry or asking silly questions, such as, "What do you miss the most?"
"Do I miss running or do I miss riding my bike? Of course," he says. "Why would you ask me that?"
His family's support and his desire, he adds, keep him strong.
"If I crumble, then I feel like everything around me would, too. ... I'm not pretending to be happy. I'm just living my life as I would normally and that's keeping everyone around me sane."
On an unusually warm September morning, Jonathan pauses as he heads toward the door.
His grandmother kisses him on the forehead and in Spanish whispers, "May God bless you, my child."
"A ti tambien," Jonathan replies. You, too.
It's his first day of college at DePaul. His mother gingerly takes him down the steps in the chair, stopping at each one. He's mapped out the half-mile route to the el that has the smoothest curbs.
Two elevators up, they get on a train and when they reach the downtown campus, they head to a university plaque where she photographs her first-born on this momentous day.
Jonathan plans to pursue a career in a broadcast journalism, marketing or public relations.
Though he has made much progress, hurdles remain. One of his DePaul classes requires some travel to neighborhoods and he's not yet able to take the el alone. He also has spasms that make his legs jerk involuntarily at times.
His mother worries about Jonathan being lonely now that Cynthia and some pals are away at college.
"It's heartbreaking for me to think of how this kid was six months ago," she says, "... looking forward to the world — it's kind of like he has to start all over again."
Jonathan, though, is optimistic. He's getting therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he plans to join a sports team. He hopes to participate in exoskeleton research. And he's preparing to soon get his driver's license for his Ford Fusion, outfitted with hand controls.
He's grateful to his mom for helping him in the morning, then escorting him to school and back. But, he says, "It's like I'm in kindergarten again. It sucks."
He longs to be on his own.
"I want to be able to get up when I want to, get to school when I have to, go out to eat when I want to ... then go home," he says. "I just want my independence back."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/@scohenAP . National writer Martha Irvine contributed to this report.