116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Turn a negative into a positive.
For the past six months, that has been Kayla Panos-Blackcloud's maxim as she continues to recover from a heinous shooting that left two of her friends dead and her permanently injured — physically, emotionally and mentally.
Blackcloud has pushed to use her experience to send a message, and that message is simple — it's time for people to 'put their guns down.'
'We need to find another way to deal with our problems,' she said.
Blackcloud, 20, is one of four people who were shot May 18 in the parking lot of the Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Court SW.
Blackcloud — who was 19 at the time — was in the driver's seat of her black Buick Rendezvous about 1:20 a.m. when the assailant walked up to the parked sport utility vehicle and opened fire.
Blackcloud was shot in the face. The bullet entered below her right eye, breaking her jaw and sending bone fragments into her brain as it tore through her skull and ultimately stopped when it smashed into her left cheek bone.
Matrell Johnson and Royal Abram, both 18, were killed. They were in the SUV's back seat when the shooter opened fire, according to a criminal complaint.
Booker McKinney, then 19 and sitting in the front passenger seat, was shot but survived.
Police have made two arrests since the killings.
Andre Richardson, 26, was arrested June 4 and charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempt to commit murder, two counts willful injury causing serious injury and one count each of intimidation with a weapon, felon in possession of a firearm and going armed with intent.
The second suspect, Alexandra Smith, 24, was charged as an accessory.
In the months following the shooting, Blackcloud said she has worked to piece together what happened to her and her friends. Last week, she sat down at the Cedar Rapids Public Library to share the story.
The night started at a friend's apartment with a party to celebrate the end of school, she said.
At some point, Blackcloud said Richardson walked into the party with Smith and another girl. Richardson had a gun, she said, and that's when she decided it was time to leave.
'I immediately pulled the plug to the music, shouted to shut the party down and told everybody they had to leave,' she said.
Blackcloud said Richardson and the two women left. As she was preparing to leave, Johnson, Abram and McKinney asked her for rides.
'I'd known Royal since we were kids, and I went to school with Matrell, so we were all friends and I knew where they lived,' she said.
McKinney, Blackcloud said, was best friends with Johnson, so when he asked for a ride home, she agreed.
The foursome piled into her SUV and headed out, stopping at the shop to grab some drinks.
'We were all hot and thirsty,' she said. 'I was getting their orders — they all asked for Sprites — and then I went into my (center) console to get some money and when I looked up, he was right there.'
Richardson was standing at the passenger side window where McKinney was seated, Blackcloud said. In his hand, she said, was a gun. Blackcloud said she attempted to put her car in reverse to get away, but Richardson started shooting.
'He never said anything,' she said. 'He shot me first, and then he shot Booker in the stomach … and then I blacked out.'
Before she lost consciousness, Blackcloud said McKinney had managed to bail out of the SUV and go for help. Johnson and Abram died at the scene.
According to the criminal complaint, video surveillance from the shop showed Richardson repeatedly shooting into Blackcloud's SUV with a .45-caliber handgun. On multiple occasions, police said, the gun jammed and Richardson could be seen clearing the weapon and continuing to fire.
When she woke up later at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Blackcloud said she couldn't remember what had happened to her.
'At first I was just confused,' she said. 'I didn't know what happened, and in the hospital I had been having dreams about being in a car accident, so that's what I thought happened.'
It wasn't until she asked her mother about what happened that she learned she was shot and that two of her friends were dead.
'And that's when it all started coming back to me and I started breaking down,' she said.
Blackcloud said she didn't know Richardson, but she recognized him as the shooter when she saw his picture in the news. She said she doesn't know why she was shot.
'I have never seen or met him before in my life,' she said. 'And I kept asking my mom, 'Why did this happen?''
It's a question, she said, that she'd like to ask Richardson if she ever gets the chance.
'How could you just do this to innocent people? To people … that were just starting their lives?' she said.
Blackcloud's injuries were extensive and potentially deadly.
'They didn't think I was going to live,' she said. And if she did survive, the doctors 'told my mom I would likely just be lying in bed for the rest of my life, not able to move or speak.'
Bone fragments from the right side of her jaw and cheekbone had torn into her brain, causing significant damage. Doctors had to remove a segment of her skull to accommodate the swelling in her brain, and when she woke up, she had to relearn how to talk, walk, eat, dress herself and perform other basic functions.
Now, roughly six months later, Blackcloud said she still is dealing with the aftermath.
'My jaw still is broken,' she said. 'And the right side of my face is paralyzed.'
Additionally, she has minimal use of her left hand, walking appears to be physically taxing — though she has made remarkable progress — and her fine motor function is compromised. She also wears a helmet to protect her brain where the piece of skull was removed.
Sitting in the downtown library, sharing her story with a reporter, Blackcloud appeared to have accepted her new reality and determined to create good in the wake of such a shocking tragedy.
Recently, she spoke at a Cedar Rapids Mons Demand Action meeting at the library, sharing her story with the public for the first time. There, she made a public appeal for the violence to stop.
'I've had multiple friends that have been shot and killed,' she told The Gazette. 'They all died at young ages. And me and Royal, we always talked about why they had to go so young. We didn't think it would ever happen to us, and now he's dead. So it could happen to anyone.'
Blackcloud said she hopes to inspire the community to find other ways to settle grievances — ways that do not involve guns or violence.
'I can't lose no more friends,' she said. 'I can't. … I know what it feels like to lose someone close to you and it's not until somebody close to you dies that it really sinks in that we can't keep on losing young kids like this. It's time to just put down the guns'
Though Blackcloud said she plans to continue her foray into activism, more than anything she is ready to move on with her life.
Next year, she said, she plans to move to Ankeny where she will start college at Des Moines Area Community College where she wants to study criminal justice and family human services so she can help kids 'stay out of trouble.'
'I'm just ready to get to school and start my new life,' she said. 'I want to make the city a better place to live because those kids don't need to go through what we went through — watching their friends get put into a casket and having tears run down your face and watching their families go through that horror.'
Having come so close to death, Blackcloud said her perspective on life has changed.
'I look at life way different than I ever did,' she said. 'Life's too short. You just got to take that opportunity that you have and just try to help. You can always look for the negatives, they'll always be there, but you just got to keep on pushing and do everything you can … to look at all the negatives and then just try to turn them into positives.'
Comments: (319) 398-8238; firstname.lastname@example.org