Public Safety

A murder outside a Cedar Rapids smoke shop shakes a mom's faith in the community

'My life is lonely without him,' says Ethel Brown, mother of Royal Abram

Ethel Brown, mother of Royal Abram, sits for a portrait Wednesday accompanied by a photograph taken of her son as well a
Ethel Brown, mother of Royal Abram, sits for a portrait Wednesday accompanied by a photograph taken of her son as well as his urn at Redmond Park in Cedar Rapids. Abram, 18, was one of four people shot May 18, 2019, in the parking lot of the Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Court SW. Along with Abram, Matrell Johnson, 18, was also killed in the shooting. Brown says that she feels the community has been too focused on economic development instead of on youth programs and opportunities. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s been nearly a year since her son was shot and killed outside southwest Cedar Rapids smoke shop, and with her son’s life went Ethel Brown’s sense of light and purpose — along with her faith in the community where she has lived for 51 years.

“My life is lonely without him,” she said. “My house is lonely — there’s no noise in my house without him. I come home from work to an empty house — there’s no one there to greet me or talk to me about the day — and I change into my pajamas and I sit in my bedroom.

“I miss my child,” she said. “I miss my best friend, my biggest supporter, my loudest encourager. The one who loved me through thick and thin, no matter what.”

Brown’s son, Royal Abram, 18, was one of four Cedar Rapids teens shot May 18, 2019, in a vehicle in the parking lot of Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Court SW. Abram and Matrell Johnson, also 18, were killed while 19-year-olds Kayla Panos-Blackcloud and Booker McKinney were seriously injured.

Andre Richardson, 26, was arrested June 4, 2019, 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 day before her son died, Brown said she had this “overwhelming urge” to be around him — so much so that when she dropped him off at work, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the area and ended up sitting at the Footlocker at Lindale Mall and watching him work.

“I couldn’t pull myself away from him,” she said. “I just wanted to be in his presence.”

Roughly nine hours later, her son was dead.

Her son was shot, after leaving a party, over something he had nothing to do with, she said.


“My child did not have to die that night,” she said. “He had gone to that party that night because he didn’t want Kayla to go alone. He wanted to be there to protect her. That’s what kind of young man he was. He was at that party because I told him to go and be with his friends and be a protector.”

Brown said she wasn’t the only person who suffered a loss.

Classmates and kids in the neighborhood lost a fierce friend. Kids who were bullied lost a protector. Cedar Rapids lost a young man who wanted to help his community, she said.

“My kid was not a gang banger. He was not in the streets being a troublemaker. He gave to others even though we didn’t have much to give,” Brown said.

After the shooting, Brown said children from the neighborhood and classmates at Metro High School started sharing stories with her about how her son had helped them.

“I can tell you stories of Royal taking the shoes off his feet to give to a kid at school because he was tired of people bullying this kid because his toes were sticking out of the toes of his shoes,” she said. “I can tell you a story about Royal carrying two quarters in his pocket to school every single day, because he realized there was a little girl in day care who looked for change in the vending machine, and if he carried those two quarters — and made a game out of it for her — she had a good day at school. He made sure she had a good day every day. My child was the type of kid who carried a puppy 15 miles back to its owner … because he wanted to make sure that that puppy made it back to its proper owner.”

Brown heard stories of her son sneaking out at night to sit with a girl who was having suicidal urges. Others told her he had an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on.

And in the wake of her loss, Brown said the community she loves has done nothing to help her and not enough to stop the killing.

There are a lot of young men who have lost their lives in the last 18 months, and we live in a community that doesn’t seem to care,” she said.


After her son was killed, she said, the City Council, the police department and victim advocate organizations let her down with a lack of support. She lost a good-paying job and lived for months off the small amount of savings she had put away.

“I love Cedar Rapids,” she said. “This is the community that I was born and raised in and I’ve loved this town my whole entire life. But I can tell you that in the last 18 months, I don’t feel like this community loves me as much as I love it.”

Over the decade, Brown said she has watched Cedar Rapids transform from a town where she felt safe as a child to one that is focused on attracting and accommodating the wealthy while ignoring those struggling to make ends meet. A city, she felt, is too focused on sweeping its problems — like gun violence — under the rug instead of intervening before more young people die.

“We as a community have to admit we have a problem, and get some help from some of these bigger cities,” she said. “Get some folks in here, from Chicago or Detroit or Kansas City, who deal with gangs and violence and guns and can clean up our streets. If we can’t admit there is a problem, and instead we just keep sweeping dirt under the rug, nobody really sees how big that dirt pile is. But our dirt pile is huge right now.”

Brown said, from her perspective, the city’s social service organizations and nonprofit organizations are fighting each other over grant money instead of working together to address the problem and create solutions.

“If five organizations would combine their efforts … we could actually accomplish things in our community that would help combat the violence that we’re seeing,” she said.

But she’s not optimistic that will happen, she said, “because people don’t care.”

As for Brown, the loss of her only son is felt every minute of every day — it’s something from which she will never fully recover.


“He faced each day with a smile and always tried to help others,” Brown said. “And I think that, as a community, if more people could take Royal’s motto, and put it to use in their lives, we could get better as a community.”

His motto, she said: “Two feet and a heartbeat.”

“He felt that as long as his two feet hit the floor every morning and his heart was beating, he could make it through every single day and accomplish whatever came his way,” Brown said. “That’s how he lived his life — two feet and a heartbeat. He said it to me all the time — ‘Two feet and a heartbeat, Mom.’”

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