My’onna plays a game with her mother at their apartment in Southeast Washington.(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
She never wanted to be left out, so My’onna Hinton, who was 4, followed her 7-year-old relative down a hallway and into an unfamiliar apartment in Southeast Washington. Tee was used to that, because My’onna had been trailing after him since she could first walk.
The two of them had been close all her life, despite their differences. She loved Barbies, Disney cartoons and having her toenails painted bright pink, and he was fixated on football, LeBron James and crashing cars in Grand Theft Auto V. But My’onna looked up to him, and Tee looked out for her.
Now the kids were inside the apartment, and the 9-year-old boy who lived there wanted to show Tee something. With no adults home, and My’onna’s mom doing a girl’s hair in the building next door, he took them to a back bedroom and opened a dresser drawer. Inside was a gun.
The boy, Tee said later, handed it to him.
“That’s not real,” Tee responded. “That’s a toy.”
Then his finger squeezed the trigger, Tee recalled in an interview, and he heard a boom. Then he felt the gun’s butt slam against his chest. Then he looked down and saw My’onna on the floor, blood streaming from her neck.
Tee knelt beside her.
“My’onna, are you okay?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. He tried to pick her up, but My’onna, lying on her side and staring blankly ahead, couldn’t move. Tee cradled her head and cried.
My'onna poses for a photo three days before the shooting. (Brayonna Hinton)
It was May 25, 2020, and America had just entered its worst stretch of gun violence in at least two decades. By year’s end, bullets would kill more than 43,000 people, including hundreds of kids. Children have paid an especially brutal price in the nation’s capital, where 95 of them were shot — nine fatally — last year. But even in cities and states with the toughest firearm laws, America has long struggled to hold gun owners accountable when they leave a weapon somewhere a child can find it, a reality that would prove true for the man whose negligence left My’onna bleeding last summer.
As Tee held her, the boy who’d showed him the gun dashed outside to find Juwan T. Ford, the owner of the unregistered, illegal weapon. Ford, 23, had stayed in the apartment off and on for months and, according to court records, was sitting in a car talking to a friend. Although the boy spoke to him, he didn’t move until Tee and another child also ran out. Then Ford sprinted into the building, and all three kids chased after him.
Inside, he found My’onna sprawled in the bedroom’s doorway. Ford, who had a child of his own, stepped past her small body and, a prosecutor later said, ordered Tee to hand him the weapon. As the kids fled, Ford wrapped the gun in a black T-shirt, then he walked out, leaving My’onna to die alone.
My’onna peers out from the back seat of her mother's car. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
‘Get us a helicopter’
Brayonna Hinton, My’onna’s mom, didn’t understand. Tee was standing in front of her, crying, his shirt splotched in red. She feared he’d been hit by a car.
“I didn’t know it was real,” he told her.
“What?” she asked.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” said Tee, who is being identified only by his middle name to protect his privacy. “I’m sorry.”
She rushed outside, and into the neighboring apartment.
When she found her daughter, Brayonna feared she would pass out. Chest pounding, she called 911, then used a towel in the kitchen to press against the side of My’onna’s neck, unaware that the round had traveled through one side and out the other.
“He shot me,” her daughter muttered.
Her eyes were still open, but she wasn’t moving, Brayonna told the operator. She pleaded with them to hurry. The bleeding was getting worse.
“You’ll be okay,” said Brayonna, 23, though she didn’t believe that. Her only child, she thought, was about to die in front of her.
My’onna had been fading for nearly 10 minutes when a pair of D.C. firetrucks pulled up, and Alex Henry and Eric Budd, both paramedics, darted through a chaotic, screaming crowd and into the building.
The bullet might have struck her spine, the men surmised. They debated stabilizing her back before moving her, but there was so much blood — a trail of it now running at least eight feet down the hallway.
“We don’t have time,” said Budd, a father of two. “We gotta go.”
Eric Budd, one of the D.C. fire paramedics who responded to the shooting, holds My’onna. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
Henry, a thick-armed veteran of 12 years, scooped the girl up, cradling her 33-pound frame like an infant’s to keep her head from moving. Budd cleared a path through the crowd until they reached the ambulance.
Frantic, Brayonna chased after them, but the doors swung shut before she caught up.
“I’m the mother,” she shouted, begging to get through, but the first responders kept her away.
Inside the ambulance, her daughter’s heart had stopped beating.
As both men scrambled to change into protective gear — gowns, hairnets, gloves, face shields — Henry placed the base of his right palm on her chest, pumping with only one hand because her body was too small for two. A half-minute later, she started breathing again.
The men knew they had to get her to Children’s National Hospital, but they knew, too, that she probably wouldn’t survive the six-mile drive through D.C. traffic.
“Get us a helicopter if you can,” Budd called over the radio before threading a breathing tube down a dime-sized hole in her swelling throat.
Stay calm, the men told each other. Deep breaths.
A Park Police helicopter was soon on its way to a landing zone on Wheeler Road, less than a mile away. It gave her a chance, the paramedics thought, even after she needed a second round of compressions.
At the landing spot, they loaded her into the helicopter, its rotors churning. She was close now, just three minutes from a hospital equipped with what she needed to stay alive, but as the helicopter neared the roof, the men watched her heart rate plummet on the monitor: 90, 85, 80, 75.
By the time they landed, it had dipped into the 60s. By the time they reached the elevator, it had stopped.
Henry began pressing again, but on the monitor, the number didn’t climb.
Pump. Pump. Pump.
The elevator door opened, and a team of nurses and doctors awaited. Budd told them what he knew: gunshot victim; entry in the neck; exit through the neck; three rounds of CPR.
But the third round wasn’t over. Henry lifted his palm from her chest as a member of the hospital staff pushed one in its place.
Budd and Henry stepped to the side, their gowns soaked with blood and sweat. Combined, the paramedics had treated more than 200 gunshot victims in D.C., and they tried to save everyone, but never had the men wanted someone to live more than the 4-year-old whose name they still didn’t know.
Pump. Pump. Pump.
Then, at last, a heartbeat.
My’onna plays air hockey during a therapy session at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Occupational therapist Lia Brunn and My’onna’s mother, Brayonna, watch as the girl plays with clay. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
My’onna holds a pair of scissors during her therapy session. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
‘Why can’t I move?'
She had four choices: red, blue, green, and what she called “yellow,” which meant yellow.
“Mommy,” My’onna said. “I’ll be the blue, and you be the red.”
“Okay,” Brayonna replied on that June afternoon, snapping together the plastic pieces to Hungry Hungry Hippos while her daughter watched from an electric wheelchair parked in their apartment’s living room.
Brayonna slid a table over.
“Put your feet up so I can put this right here,” she said because My’onna’s legs were still dangling off the front of the footrests.
“You do it,” her daughter replied.
“No, you do it,” Brayonna insisted.
It had been 13 months since the day of the shooting, the same day that My’onna walked for the last time. In the “before,” the single word they now used for their old life, she and My’onna disagreed over her daughter’s bedtime or if she could eat another bag of Cheetos. Now, in the “after,” what they often debated was whether My’onna would try to pick up a pencil or hold a spoon or move her foot.
This time, the girl relented. She braced her left hand against the wheelchair’s armrest and pushed back, staring down at her legs, willing them to respond. Teeth clenched, she hoisted the heel of her left foot up a couple of inches.
“I see you moving it. Good job,” Brayonna said, reaching down to lift her feet the rest of the way.
“Can you feel me holding it?” her mom asked, squeezing her left leg.
My’onna paused to think about it. She wasn’t sure.
Brayonna told her to close her eyes and lookup.
“What am I doing?” her mom asked, running a fingernail across her shin.
“Oh, you scratching it,” My’onna said, and now she was feeling confident. “Do it again.”
My’onna and her mother arrive for therapy at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Brayonna carries My’onna during a therapy session in July.(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Brayonna helps My’onna during a therapy session.(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Her mom smiled. My’onna might have peeked, but it didn’t matter. In the after, Brayonna had learned to become more than a parent to her daughter. She was also her chief encourager, near-constant playmate, at-home therapist, and primary caretaker, though most days she got help from her boyfriend and nurses provided through a Medicaid program.
After she’d fed marbles to the blue hippo, My’onna wanted to play in her room, and that meant Brayonna had to go, too. My’onna maneuvered her wheelchair past the list of rehab instructions taped to her door, past the “Smiles Are in Style” sign on the wall, past the pink Minnie Mouse bedspread covered in a pee pad from the last time Brayonna had changed her daughter’s catheter. In the corner of the room, she pulled up to a five-foot Barbie Dreamhouse, studying the current arrangement.
“Mom, let’s play,” she said, motioning her hand, fingers rigidly curled in a ball, toward one of the dolls. “Take that Black girl. Put her in the wheelchair.”
“Oh, she belongs in the wheelchair?”
“Uh huh,” she said.
“Get her in the elevator,” My’onna instructed, and she pointed to the dollhouse’s most remote room, obscured behind two doors in the bottom left corner. “Put her in the basement. And let her lay down.”
My’onna jokes about which elevator would arrive first after a therapy session. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
A year earlier, Brayonna had been told that her daughter might not ever talk again, might never regain feeling below her neck, might need tubes in her throat to help her eat and breathe for the rest of her life.
After the flight to Children’s, another helicopter had moved My’onna to Baltimore for an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The bullet had burst her C5 vertebra, but, remarkably, the round had tumbled millimeters past her major arteries and narrowly missed severing her spine. Her surgeons cleaned out the shards of bone, replaced it with a graft taken from her pelvis, and hoped that her body would begin to heal.
And it did. The doctors discovered that she could breathe and eat on her own, and when they took the tubes out, she could speak, too.
“Mommy,” came the first word, buoying Brayonna, who slept beside her daughter nearly every night at the hospital.
My’onna finishes a morning of therapy with her mom and child life specialist Sam Childs. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
My’onna could move her arms, though her right didn’t work as well, and she struggled to extend her fingers on either hand. To control her Roblox character on an iPad, she used the knuckle on her left pinkie.
“Why can’t I move?” she asked her mom one day. “Is it because the bullet did this to me?”
After more than a month at Johns Hopkins, much of it spent in intensive care, My’onna transferred to the nearby Kennedy Krieger Institute to begin inpatient therapy.
On her first visit to the gym, she threw a tantrum, spitting at her therapist. As her child life specialist Emily Winter-Cronan watched, she realized My’onna was reckoning with what the injury had stripped from her.
My’onna could no longer scoot down waterslides or kick her feet in the pool. She couldn’t bounce around Chuck E. Cheese, collecting tickets to exchange for cotton candy. She couldn’t ride her pink bicycle. She couldn’t dance to TikTok videos. She couldn’t strike elegant poses in a faux fur coat for the Instagram page Brayonna created to help her daughter become a model someday. She couldn’t even pick up a Barbie.
My‘onna Hinton, age 3, learning to swim in 2018 with her mom, Brayonna (Brayonna Hinton)
Winter-Cronan began designing “science experiments” that put My’onna entirely in charge. She mixed glue, soap, and gardening soil in buckets and let My’onna smear the slime on her hands, face, hair, wherever she wanted. And that was the point.
My’onna studied photos of herself from her time in the ICU and, over and over, asked Winter-Cronan to explain what each piece of equipment had done. She learned to describe what had happened to her — “my spine got hurt” — and obsessed over how other kids’ injuries were different from her own.
One afternoon, My’onna called Winter-Cronan closer to her bed and whispered in her ear:
“I got shot.”
“He didn’t mean to.”
“It was an accident.”
My’onna knew that was true, but when she returned to life in Washington after three months of treatment at Kennedy Krieger, the consequences of that truth became harder to accept.
“Can I go play?” she would ask when her mom drove past kids on swings and slides, knowing that she couldn’t.
The most frequent target of her frustration was Tee, who she still saw all the time.
Sometimes, My’onna demanded that he not join on family outings.
“I can’t walk more because he shot me,” she once declared.
Another time, when Brayonna bought her ice cream, she asked that he not get any.
When Tee would call to check on her — “What’s she doing? Can I talk to her?” — she’d refuse to speak with him.
It wasn’t his fault, Brayonna reminded her. The person responsible was the man who had left the gun in the drawer.
That was the same thing the family had told Tee since the first night when his mother gave him a bath to wash My’onna’s blood off his skin. Tee told himself that, too. But the assurances couldn’t stop his nightmares, always of the gun, or quiet his fear that My’onna wouldn’t ever forgive him.
Tee never talked to her about what happened.
“If she hears that,” he said, “she gets mad.”
My’onna sits in her bedroom at her mother's apartment in Southeast Washington.(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
My’onna talks with her mother, who has tracked her daughter's journey of recovery on a YouTube channel, "Keepin’ Up With My’onna & Brayonna."(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
My’onna and her mother play with dolls in the girl's bedroom.(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
‘A slap on the wrist’
Brayonna fidgeted atop a stool at her kitchen counter, waiting for the man responsible for the after to start talking. Juwan T. Ford, inmate No. 358457 at the D.C. jail, sat in a conference room in front of a camera for his live-streamed sentencing. He had a thin mustache and short hair and wore a white shirt beneath his orange jumpsuit.
“I’m sorry for what happened and I apologize to the family and also to my family,” he said, his voice quiet. “There’s not a day that I didn’t think about the situation.”
Ford had been locked up since Sept. 30, four months after My’onna’s shooting and five days before she returned home for the first time.
D.C. police had recovered security footage that revealed what happened in the moments after Ford wrapped his gun in the black T-shirt and walked out.
Juwan Ford in an image taken from a music video, which was part of the sentencing documents filed by the U.S. attorney's office.
In the front yard, he spoke to a friend, later claiming he told her to call 911. He also shoved Tee, a gesture that police interpreted as a demand to leave. Then Ford ran up the street to get rid of the evidence, investigators said. They never found the gun.
Detectives interviewed Tee before speaking to the two other children present at the shooting, and both claimed in nearly identical accounts that Tee had brought the gun into the apartment. The kids also denied knowing almost anything about Ford, including his name, despite the fact that he had lived in the home off and on for more than two months. Investigators believed Ford had ordered the two children to lie, the prosecutor later told the judge.
After his arrest, the U.S. attorney’s office decided not to charge him with cruelty to children, a felony that could have sent him to prison for a decade but would have forced Tee and the other kids to testify. Instead, Ford took a plea deal, admitting to carrying a pistol without a license and attempting to tamper with evidence.
Ford later suggested to a probation officer that he’d taken the gun out of the apartment not to protect himself but to protect the other children, a contention he seemed to raise again at his sentencing hearing, as Brayonna watched on her phone.
“I just wanted to help,” he said to D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz. “All I could do is help.”
He’s a liar, Brayonna thought, because he’d done nothing to help.
To her, it sometimes felt like no one understood how much Ford’s negligence had cost them. Before the shooting, she had envisioned becoming a police officer or enlisting in the Army, but now, all she could do was work nights as a security guard in downtown D.C., because that’s when nurses were typically available to watch My’onna. She didn’t want to depend on the government assistance that helped cover their meals and rent, but how, as a single mom, could she ever pursue a real career when her daughter would need 24-hour care for years, if not forever?
At an earlier virtual hearing, she’d pleaded with the court to hold Ford responsible.
“How could someone be that careless and that uncaring?” she said, before addressing him directly. “Now you want to act as your care. You didn’t care then when that baby was laying on the ground, sitting there bleeding. You walked away. And of course, now you care. Now you have remorse because you’re facing jail time.”