On a late-summer night, nine-year-old Z’yon Person was fatally shot in North Durham. 

He was one of five kids riding in a Ford Escape driven by his aunt, Danyell Ragland, who was taking the kids for snow cones. 

“They all had little chores they had done over the weekend, and she had promised she would take them out,” Z’yon’s grandmother, Sandra Person, told the INDY. “They said they wanted to go to Pelican’s.”

It was a Sunday—August 18. Z’yon’s mother, Ashley Ragland, was going to take him and his siblings back-to-school shopping the next day. Z’yon was going to start the fourth grade a week later. 

Sandra Person says that, as the Escape approached the intersection of Duke and Leon Streets,  a burgundy Honda Accord rolled up beside them. Someone inside fired gunshots through a rear-side window of the SUV.

“My granddaughter said, ‘They shooting,’” she says. 

“Y’all get down!” Danyell Ragland yelled at the kids. In the barrage of gunfire—“fifteen to twenty-two bullets,” Sandra Person says—Z’yon was struck in the back of the head, near his left ear, the bullet exiting through his forehead. His head slumped in his sister’s lap. 

Z’yon’s cousin, who was sitting in the rear of the SUV, told his aunt that Z’yon was bleeding. Instead of waiting on an ambulance, she sped to the nearby Duke Hospital. His cousin, who had just turned eight, had been struck by a bullet that went through his forearm, but it wasn’t life-threatening. 

Z’yon died just after 2:00 a.m. the next morning. 

“The doctors said if Z’yon would have made it, he would have been brain dead,” Sandra Person says. “The detective said Z’yon’s spirit went through that car and protected everyone.”

Three young black men have been charged in connection with Z’yon’s death.

Z’yon’s death shocked the conscience of a city where the murder of young black men by other young black men is a common occurrence, serving as an avatar for all that has gone wrong amid Durham’s growth and prosperity. The little boy with a big smile and bigger dreams was the collateral damage of an undeclared war among the hopeless and the impoverished. As of early December, the city has seen three-dozen criminal homicides, according to the police; most of the victims and those charged with their deaths have been young black men. 

At a press conference after his death, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry captured the sentiment of an entire city when she said, “Z’yon belongs to all of us.”

Z’yon wasn’t fighting anyone’s war. He was a little boy with a mass of cute dreads that stopped just below his ears, the starting quarterback for the Tri-City Panthers football team, which had just started practice, and went undefeated without him this year. He scored high marks on his end-of-third-grade tests.

“He was a child that didn’t need a whole lot,” his grandmother says. “It didn’t take much to make him happy. He loved everyone. He was a hugger.”

Thanksgiving was a difficult time for his grandmother, who remembered his happy presence at past family gatherings.

“He would come through the door, say, ‘Hey Grandma!,’ give me a hug, and ask, ‘You got my ham? You got my greens, too? You put vinegar on it? You got my potato salad? You got my sweet potato pie?’ The girls would be in the kitchen with me, so he’d tell me, ‘Grandma, when you finish, let me know so I can get the garbage.’ He would sit up under me. He was a beautiful child.”

In the weeks after Z’yon was shot, Person says it was “really, really hard” for her. It’s been even tougher for the children who were in the SUV with Z’yon the night he was killed. After he was shot, his ten-year-old cousin, who was in the front seat of the SUV, couldn’t stop crying.

“For weeks, she walked around with Z’yon’s sneakers,” Person says. 

The cousin who was shot, whom Sandra Person describes as an “outgoing” youngster, became withdrawn. “All he wanted to do was sleep,” she says. “He stayed to himself and separated himself from everybody. He wouldn’t eat, not even his favorite food.”

His sister “saw her brother dying in front of her face,” Person adds. “She became really angry, snappy, and mad because her brother was gone.”

The children, along with their aunt, are all undergoing counseling, while Z’yon’s mother is also seeking therapy.

Person holds on by looking after her family, especially her octogenarian mother, and by literally holding onto her grandson’s memories. She still has a video on her phone of Z’yon and her other grandkids tickling her feet, and his daily text messages to her that all begin with “Good morning, Grandma.”

“He was such a sweet child,” she says. “So lovable and helpful.”

Person says she’s angry about the rash of gun violence in Durham. Last year, Z’yon’s godfather was abducted and presumably killed over two kilos of stolen cocaine; police believe his body, which has never been recovered, was fed to hogs, according to search warrants. 

“We got lives being taken for no reason at all,” Person says. “There are plenty of other people out here whose lives are hurting. I’m just sitting here talking about it, and it hurts down to my soul.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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