Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Who shot Day Day? Friends, mentors shocked over killing of popular, pint-sized Fresno athlete Deondre Howard

During the final hours of his young life, Deondre Howard had to confront his greatest, and perhaps only, fear.

The fear of becoming a gunshot victim.

Every football and baseball coach at Edison High knew. Sometimes they’d even joke with Howard about it. Each day after practice, there would be “Day Day” (the nickname everyone knew him by) standing next to their cars and asking for a ride home.

It didn’t matter that “home” for a good chunk of Howard’s high school years was an apartment complex located practically across the street from campus.

“Day Day would rather wait an hour for a ride than a walk that would have taken him 5 minutes,” Tigers baseball coach Cliff Rold said.

Added assistant Brandon Simon, “He would tell me all the time, ‘I’m not about to be no one’s accident.’”

The bullet that killed Howard outside his mother’s central Fresno condo in the wee hours of Aug. 29 was no accident. It was a purposeful, cowardly act that extinguished the life of one of our city’s brightest young lights.

Two hours after police responded to a 1:26 a.m. emergency call of shots fired near Shaw and Valentine avenues, the 21-year-old died at Community Regional Medical Center from a single gunshot wound to the torso.

Howard’s 16-year-old brother, the second victim of a gunman who remains at large, sustained a graze wound to his back.

Fresno police Lt. Mark Salazar said detectives have interviewed 83 people including a potential suspect who matched the gunman’s physical description and voluntarily submitted himself for questioning. Six were assigned to the case during the 72 hours following the shooting, and two currently.

“These detectives have worked around the clock talking to people – some of them haven’t even gone home,” Salazar said Friday afternoon. “This case is a huge priority for us, and we’re not going to spare any resources in order to catch the person who did this.”

Whenever we hear about a shooting, especially one involving a young African-American male with ties to southwest Fresno, certain suppositions come easy.

Gangs had to be involved, right? The victim had to be a thug, right?

No and no. In Deondre Howard’s case, common assumptions couldn’t be more wrong.

Which is why 500 mourners turned out for a candlelight vigil in Howard’s honor on the evening following his death and 400 attended Saturday’s memorial service at The Worship Center in Fowler.

“Day Day was one of the coolest kids ever to come through west Fresno,” said Tony Perry, the defensive backs guru who coached Howard in youth football. “That’s why it hurts so much.”

“He was the rose that grew from concrete,” said Tigers assistant Dennis Brewer. “That was Day Day.”

Howard is listed at 5 feet, 7 inches and 140 pounds on the Fresno City College baseball roster – and even that might be an exaggeration.

But crammed inside that slight frame was a competitive fire and zeal that dwarfed everyone else’s.

Day Day was the kid who, as a fifth-grader, would attend varsity football practice at Edison and sneak onto the field when the coaches weren’t looking to run routes.

Who, after sliding across home plate with the winning run for the Tigers, started doing snow angels in the dirt. Who would scream, “Let’s go!” at the top of his lungs after recording a strikeout. Both were expressions of pure joy.

Who took 18 units last semester at Fresno City so he could be eligible to play baseball, his ticket to a four-year degree.

“Athletics was his way out,” said Harold Chuhlantseff, who coached Howard in Pop Warner and became a lifelong mentor. So much so that he considered Day Day like one of his own sons.

“This kid did not want any free rides. He didn’t want anything handed to him. He wanted to earn everything he got.”

Howard excelled in football and baseball at Edison, but his size made college baseball a more realistic prospect. Even then, you don’t see too many 5-7 left-handed pitchers who can also chase down flies in center field.

Not that Day Day ever let size matter.

“He thought he was Superman on the mound,” Edison pitching coach Dave Wilson said. “He had more confidence in that little body of his than any kid I’ve ever coached.

“I teach my own son, who is 10 years old, to think like Day Day did. He wanted to be in the moment – in everything.”

“He was just so driven,” said Preston Scott, Howard’s teammate in football and baseball and a close friend since the second grade. “He had ambition and a plan. He just had a large heart.”

Friends and mentors say Day Day was not the type of person who sought confrontation. If confrontation found him, he’d walk away.

Which is why there is so much shock and bewilderment throughout Fresno – and not just on the west side – over Howard’s untimely death and the events that led to it.

“What happened to Day Day is a serious wake-up call to the community,” said C.J. Jones, a mentor who trained with Howard. “If Day Day can get killed, anyone can get killed.”

Even though Howard graduated from Edison in 2013, he remained a fixture at games and often would attend football practice.

Tigers coach Matt Johnson would ask his superiors to let Day Day into games for free even though he didn’t have a specific role with the team.

“He had carte blanche in our program at any time,” Johnson said. “That’s just the kind of kid he was.”

Howard spent the last evening of his life on the Edison sideline helping close friend and ex-teammate Jamel Muhammad film the game. After the Tigers lost to Buchanan on a last-second touchdown, he hugged Perry goodbye (returning a straw hat he had borrowed earlier) and left Sunnyside Stadium with Muhammad and his younger brother.

One of the final phone calls Howard made was to Chuhlantseff, a 45-year-old commercial insurance broker and ex-golf pro who was so attached to Day Day that he took him clothes shopping and paid his cellphone bill.

Their conversation began at 10:15 p.m. and lasted 35 minutes.

Howard and Chuhlantseff were so close that Day Day often called the older man “Dad” even though his own father was still around.

“He told me, ‘I want to move in with you, Dad,’” Chuhlantseff said. “I told him that he could, provided he followed the rules,” a list that included getting a job, keeping his grades up and no drinking or smoking.

Howard and Chuhlantseff also spoke about a woman who had been calling and texting Day Day incessantly and that he wanted to have her number blocked. That same woman later became a key witness to his death.

“I told him the same things I always told him, that nothing good happens after 11,” Chuhlantseff recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going straight home and I’ll call you in the morning. Love you.’

“That’s the last thing he said before hanging up.”

Howard dropped off Muhammad at home before he and his brother drove to their mother’s condo at 4634 N. Charles Ave., just south of Shaw and Valentine.

What happened after that remains murky. Evidently, however, the woman who had been calling and texting Day Day nonstop also drove herself to his mother’s neighborhood.

According to Howard’s friends, Day Day was standing outside the woman’s car when an unknown gunman walked up and shot him. Howard fled with the .22-caliber bullet lodged in his torso and tried to get away by climbing a nearby fence.

The motive is unclear.

“It had something to do with that girl,” said Perry, echoing a widely held sentiment among Howard’s friends and mentors.

Salazar, the Fresno police lieutenant, said detectives questioned and released the woman after she “gave a pretty credible statement that she was not involved with the shooting.”

Other suspects have been interviewed, including one whose photo was widely circulated this week among Howard’s friends. (Howard’s 16-year-old brother apparently had his back turned and cannot help ID the suspect.)

“You have people doing their own Facebook investigations,” Salazar said. “If a guy is wearing dreadlocks or wearing a certain color shirt, then people think he’s the one who’s responsible.”

Howard’s many friends and ex-coaches remain shocked and grieving over his senseless death. None of them have gotten much sleep. A reward has been issued for anyone who provides information that leads to the shooter’s arrest.

“I’ve been in tears for days,” said Jones, the mentor and training partner. “A lot of people cared deeply about that boy. It’s just a shame that the community only comes together like this when we lose somebody.”

Rold, the Edison baseball coach, likened Howard to 1950s pop singer Ritchie Valens, who had a fear of flying. Then on Feb. 3, 1959, Valens died in the same infamous airplane crash that also killed musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

“I think Day Day lived his whole life avoiding this kind of situation,” Rold said, “and it caught him anyway.”

Deondre Howard Memorial Fund

A memorial fund has been established through EECU. Donate to account No. 12029660. Phone 559-437-7700; or mail to EECU, P.O. Box 5242 Fresno 93755.