How one bullet can alter a life

16 people shot accidentally in Volusia-Flagler in 2018; some were children



A .45-caliber bullet pierced Amarion McDuffie’s chin, blasted his jawbone to bits and exited just below his right ear.

By the time Keosha McDuffie saw her 12-year-old son, there was so much blood she couldn’t pinpoint its source.

“His body was jumping on the stretcher, and they was ripping all his clothes off. He was crying,” Keosha said. “I was screaming and yelling.”

Earlier that afternoon, Amarion had asked permission to attend a sleepover with school friends across town from the McDuffies’ Daytona Beach apartment.

Keosha felt uneasy when she pulled up to the host boy’s home on Jan. 6, 2018 — the last Saturday of Christmas vacation. The boy’s mother wasn’t there, and an adult tenant was babysitting.

“I never let (my kids) go nowhere unless it’s with immediate family,” said Keosha, a 36-year-old single mother of four. “The one time I let him go…”

Amarion joined the more than 6,000 people in Florida treated each year for gunshot wounds. Daytona Beach’s Halifax Health Medical Center admitted 58 patients with gunshot wounds last year, Halifax Health spokeswoman Tangela Boyd said. That number excludes those discharged from the emergency room as well as those admitted for less than 24 hours who were not treated by the trauma team.

Survivors often are saddled with long-term physical and emotional burdens. And the staggering financial cost of treatment falls not only on the victims, but on the community.

The News-Journal set out to compile and analyze every incident in which a person was shot in Volusia and Flagler counties over the course of 2018, the first such local study. No single source tracks every shooting, so the effort required that reporters make dozens of public records requests to 15 local law enforcement agencies in order to build a comprehensive list.

Of the 176 people shot locally last year, 16 were wounded in non-fatal firearm accidents.

The News-Journal attempted to contact each of them. Several, including Amarion and Keosha, agreed to share their stories.

Bullets and the body

After Amarion was shot, emergency responders transported him from his friend’s home to Halifax Health.

The hospital, which treats most Volusia and Flagler shooting victims as well as some from surrounding counties, has an around-the-clock medical team, blood bank and operating room for trauma patients, said Dr. Slobodan Jazarevic, director of the hospital’s trauma department. The hospital brought in “Dr. J,” as colleagues call him, four years ago to upgrade its trauma treatment capabilities.

Keosha arrived as Halifax Health’s trauma team stabilized Amarion for air transport to Orlando’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children for surgery because of that facility’s expertise with pediatric patients.

Doctors told Keosha her son’s condition could have been much worse, but his strong jawbone forced the bullet that struck his chin outward and away from his carotid artery.

Such impossible-to-predict variables make gunshot wounds much trickier to assess than other penetrating injuries, Jazarevic said. A knife wound, for instance, is contained to an area the size of the blade, but bullets can burrow into a blood vessel, flow away from the entry point and inflict widespread damage.

“A round enters here — may go up, may go down, may go left, may go right, make a turn — you don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Jazarevic said in a thick Croatian accent. “Sometimes you get shot in the abdomen and we find the bullet down by the foot.”

Numerous factors determine the severity of a victim’s injuries. Was an internal organ perforated? Was a major artery punctured? What caliber was the bullet? From which angle did it enter the body?

And misconceptions abound.

“(People think), ‘Oh, you got shot in the heart. You will die,’ ” Jazarevic said. “No, not necessarily. I’ll open your chest real fast, I’ll probably stop (the bleeding) and fix the hole in there and you’ll be fine.”

A punctured lung may not be fatal, either, because the bleeding stops on its own. On the other hand, he said, “An injury to the major (blood) vessel of the leg will kill you if you don’t come to a hospital because you will bleed to death on the street.”

A common belief, perpetuated by Hollywood, is that gunshot victims must undergo surgery to remove bullets or shrapnel lodged in their bodies.

“Only in movies (do) we take bullets out,” Jazarevic said, unless they’re causing further harm or discomfort. “(A round) can do bad things going in and coming out. But once there, it’s in tissue and doesn’t matter. You can leave it there.”

And there are freak incidents, too, in which people survive suicidal shots to the head or, in Amarion’s case, a close-range bullet to the face.

‘Every angel touching his body’

Keosha didn’t know her son’s friend had access to a gun when she dropped him off at the sleepover.

The boys had been playing the video game “Grand Theft Auto V” together online, and Amarion’s friend boasted that his mother owned a real version of the virtual gun they fired in the game — a Rossi Ranch Hand Model 92.

At the house, the boy and Amarion went to the master bedroom where the gun was stored in a closet. The other boy retrieved the gun from a shelf and it fired. Volusia County Sheriff’s Office deputies determined the shooting was accidental, according to an incident report. 

“I was in shock,” said Amarion, now 13. “I tasted the blood in my mouth.”

That’s when he realized he’d been shot and ran to the babysitter for help. The man had been listening to music and didn’t hear the disturbance, the report states.

“I had to call (9-1-1) myself,” Amarion said.

Keosha’s initial disbelief when a nurse called to deliver the details soon shifted to panic.

“Of course there’s me in danger, running every light trying to get to the hospital,” she said. She rushed through lobby security, obtained a visitor ID and ran to the trauma room where she found her son bloody and crying — but alive.

“I swear he had every angel touching his body,” Keosha said. “His jawbone can be replaced. Teeth can be replaced.”

And they’ll need to be. But that will come later.

At Arnold Palmer, a medical team drained the bullet hole below Amarion’s ear, plucked scattered shards of teeth and bone from his mouth and throat, stitched up the entry wound on his chin and wired his jaw shut.

“The doctors couldn’t even describe how many pieces were shattered in his mouth,” Keosha said. “They didn’t want him to wake up and choke.”

After surgery, a tube drained fluids from Amarion’s neck for five days. And then Keosha took him home.

He was stable, but not out of danger.

“The only thing they said could make it get life-threatening was if I did not take care of him and he got an infection,” Keosha said.

She bought bandages and a blender to make shakes and smoothies he could drink through a straw. About a week after returning home, Amarion collapsed in the kitchen. He wasn’t getting the nourishment he needed from those liquid meals.

“He was drinking Ensure, but he needed me to blend up broccoli. I saw him shaking,” Keosha said. “That scared me.”

She quit her retail job to nurse him full time, and her father helped her pay the bills for two months until she felt it was safe to return to work.

Amarion missed the whole spring semester at Campbell Middle School. He underwent a second surgery six weeks after the shooting.

“He was still tasting the bullet, so they had to go in and wash his mouth out and make sure there was no pieces of the bullet left in there,” Keosha said. They also removed the wires.

“The first thing he asked the doctor when he came out of the second surgery was, ‘Can I eat?’”

Amarion graduated to soft food but still can only chew on the left side of his mouth — the lower right side is nothing but tissue.

Shootings’ costs: Flesh and $5 billion

More than a year after the shooting, Keosha has yet to receive a medical bill. She anticipates a big assist from Medicaid. But that won’t cover her out-of-pocket costs for the blender, the bandages, a babysitter, the special food, the lost wages or the gas for round trips to Orlando.

The direct cost of the 6,000-plus shootings in Florida each year — which includes health care, law enforcement and court expenses, costs to employers and lost income — is more than $5 billion, and approximately $950 million of that burden falls on taxpayers, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s 2018 report, “The Economic Cost of Gun Violence in Florida.”

Amarion endured an unexpected surgery in February to extract shards of bone and misshapen teeth that were cutting through his gums. And he still faces another major operation to rebuild his jawbone using bone from his hip, but doctors want to watch how his jaw grows back on its own first. Then he’ll need teeth implants.

The whole ordeal has left an emotional and social imprint on him as well.

In the shooting’s wake, “my face looked fat,” Amarion said, and he had an eye-catching bandage on his neck for a while. “I wore a hoodie because I didn’t feel like explaining myself to people.”

He wouldn’t leave the house with his head uncovered. He had to get glasses, and “everyone he looked at he was scared of,” Keosha said.

His demeanor has changed, too. “He’s more to himself now. All the energy he used to have, he just don’t have all that anymore,” she said.

She moved her family to Port Orange — and a different school zone — to keep Amarion from crossing paths with his former schoolmates.

The mother of the boy who shot Amarion was charged with improper storage of a firearm and sentenced to six months of probation. 

Her time has been served, but the repercussions for Keosha’s family continue to surface. “That’s not fair,” Keosha said. “As time goes on you think, ‘Oh my God, this ain’t right.’ ”

'My child must be dead'

9 children among 176 shot in Volusia-Flagler in 2018

Nalonie is afraid to let her kids out of her sight — especially Armoni Faison, her oldest daughter.

“I can’t sleep when she’s gone,” Nalonie Wyche said. “I keep calling the phone. I go numerous times to check on her even though I know she down the street.”

From a porch chair, she watches the late afternoon activity in front of her concrete block home in DeLand’s Candlelight Oaks neighborhood. Sports cars blaring rap music and rumbling pickup trucks suspended above oversize tires travel the street, business as usual.

But it’s not those familiar sounds that gnaw at Nalonie. It’s the pop of gunfire she fears.

Seven people were shot within less than a mile of her home in 2018. Four of them were children. One of them was Armoni.

The News-Journal set out to compile and analyze every incident in which a person was shot in Volusia and Flagler counties over the course of 2018, the first such local study. No single source tracks every shooting, so the effort required that reporters make dozens of public records requests to 15 local law enforcement agencies in order to build a comprehensive list.

Counted among the 176 shooting victims of 2018 are nine children ages 17 and younger, including one who died of his injuries. The News-Journal attempted to contact each survivor. Armoni and her mother agreed to share their experience.

Nalonie said she felt both panic and anger when she learned Armoni had been shot. Both flash across her eyes at the recollection.

The evening of Nov. 17, 2018, Nalonie put her four younger children to bed and settled down in front of her TV with a drink. Around 10:30 p.m., her partner burst into the room.

“Lonie, hurry up and get your shoes and stuff on, we gotta go and get Moni,” he urged. “She’s been shot.”

Her eyes widened, brows raised in disbelief.

“I’m lookin’ at him like, ‘Is this some type of damn joke?’ ” said Nalonie, 34. “I’m lookin’ for my car keys, I’m just going crazy right now. I hopped in my car and I swear I had to be goin’ about 90 miles (an hour).”

She nearly plowed through a mailbox in her rush to drive around the block to the home where Armoni was supposed to be sleeping over with friends.

“I’m thinkin’ at this point, ‘Shot — my child must be dead.’ ”

Less than half a mile from her home, Nalonie lifted the yellow police tape stretched in front of the scene and darted past investigators into the house. She saw her 15-year-old daughter stretched out and bloody in the backyard.

A 14-year-old witness initially told police that she and another teen were the only people on the porch with Armoni when a shot was fired from an unknown location and Armoni fell to the ground, a charging affidavit shows.

Nalonie didn’t buy it.

“Everyone at the house lied and fabricated a story. They said they didn’t know what happened and said someone came out of the woods shooting,” Nalonie said. “Armoni knew who did it. My gut feeling told me that.”

Investigators, too, noted the girls’ statements didn’t match the evidence — a 9 mm shell casing found on the ground near Armoni — and a different story emerged.

The girls eventually said they had walked to a nearby convenience store. Along the way, they passed a man who made “lewd comments” to them, according to the affidavit. They returned to the home, where a 13-year-old boy joined them on the back porch.

When they told the boy, Cameron Cuthrell, about their encounter, he produced a handgun in what one of the girls interpreted as an indication he was “going to protect them,” according to a charging affidavit.

But the boy’s bravado endangered them instead. The gun fired, and Armoni fell to her knees and blacked out.

She didn’t realize she’d been shot at first. Then she opened her eyes.

“That’s when I noticed,” Armoni said. “I just seen blood.”

The bullet tore through her forearm, bored into her abdomen and lodged in her pelvis. She rolled onto her back and felt a burning sensation as the bullet burrowed into bone, fracturing her hip.

First responders loaded Armoni into a helicopter and airlifted her to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando to undergo emergency surgery.

“My bullet holes was real big,” Armoni said, lifting her shirt to show the scars. “They were open and you could see my meat from my stomach, but (the surgical team) closed it.”

Doctors sliced open Armoni’s abdomen from sternum to pelvis to repair her damaged intestines and clamped the incision shut with 27 staples.

Armoni lay in a hospital bed for five days as a tube inserted in the bullet hole drained fluid from the wound and attendants changed the dressings on her stomach and arm.

Nalonie split time between Armoni’s hospital bedside and her children in DeLand. When Armoni was released to go home, Nalonie “had to play Mommy Doctor,” she said.

She poked gauze strips into the hole in Armoni’s belly with a long cotton swab two or three times a day until it closed and dabbed gently at the staples to keep the surgical cut clean.

By Christmas — which also was Armoni’s 16th birthday — most of the staples had been removed.

They’re all gone now. Deep, probably permanent scars have taken their place.

But the memory of Armoni bleeding on the ground still flashes afresh in Nalonie’s mind anytime Armoni leaves home. “But I know I can’t just keep her trapped in,” Nalonie said.

Cameron apologized to Armoni and has been charged with a felony for carrying a concealed weapon and misdemeanors for discharging a firearm in public and unlawful possession of a firearm by a juvenile. A Taurus PT92 handgun found at the scene had been reported missing or stolen from a Pierson residence in October, a Volusia County Sheriff’s Office report shows.

No arrest has been made in four of the seven shooting incidents that occurred near Nalonie's home last year. The oldest victim in those cases was 22. She worries her children remain at risk.

“I think (my son is) gonna get hit,” she said. “Somebody else will be playing with a gun and he gonna get shot.”

She imagines aloud a fresh start in another state with less crime and better-paying jobs.

“I wouldn’t care if it’s somewhere in the country where I got to raise up cows and chickens,” Nalonie said. “I’d rather be far away.”

One year of Volusia-Flagler shootings - how we did it

To report this project, The Daytona Beach News-Journal for the first time ever compiled records on every shooting over the course of a year in which a person was killed or wounded in Volusia and Flagler counties.

Our reporting sought to include every shooting victim from 2018, including those shot by others or themselves, intentionally or by accident.

Police and other government agencies don’t list or track every shooting injury — many are non-criminal — so reporters Suzanne Hirt, Frank Fernandez, Patricio G. Balona and Matt Bruce made dozens of public records requests to all 15 local police agencies to obtain incident reports on the 176 people shot in 2018. The aggregated data and details — provided with analysis and visualization help from Data Editor Dinah Voyles Pulver — became the basis for this project.

We found that shootings that are investigated as crimes are well documented by law enforcement. But other incidents involving people being shot — especially suicides — were sometimes coded differently, and some records officials missed some shootings on the first request for a report. In early January, we believed we had reports of all the shootings only to find through a records request to the Volusia County Medical Examiners Office that there were 36 more self-inflicted gunshot deaths.

We found that shootings that were investigated as crimes were well documented by law enforcement. But other incidents involving people being shot — especially suicides — were sometimes coded differently, and records officials missed some shootings on the first request for a report. In early January, we believed we had reports of all the shootings, only to find through a records request to the Volusia County Medical Examiners Office that there were 36 more self-inflicted gunshot deaths.

The News-Journal, except in rare instances, doesn’t write stories about suicides that are committed in private, so without even a news report, public documents were much harder to obtain weeks or months later.

"The cold fact that the vast majority of fatal shootings turned out to be suicides is something that deserves further reporting," said News-Journal Editor Pat Rice. "Whatever one's thoughts are about guns, it's important that as a community we work harder to prevent people from harming themselves. That's an issue The News-Journal will continue to pursue."

As the data collecting continued, reporters attempted to contact all 64 people who survived a shooting last year. Most were hard to reach or find, but Hirt interviewed several of them and their loved ones, including: a woman whose partner shot her at close range; two children wounded in accidental shootings; two men who shot themselves unintentionally; and the roommate of a man who committed suicide. Other survivors reached declined to discuss their ordeals.

Fernandez looked at gun suicides, which accounted for the majority of local and national shooting deaths last year. Fernandez spoke to a mother whose adult son shot himself to death in their Volusia County home four years after the son witnessed an undercover sheriff’s deputy shoot and kill his father.

Reporters also mined federal government agencies’ databases and reports to bring context to the local data The News-Journal collected. Sources used outside of local law enforcement include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide-prevention and firearms injuries studies and, for fatalities, medical examiners.

John Gallas is The News-Journal's deputy managing editor for digital and editor for crime, courts and breaking news in Volusia County.