Marek Warszawski

Marek Warszawski: Who shot Day Day? Unsolved killing of Deondre Howard echoes through Fresno

Preston Scott keeps the audio file.

Scott can’t explain why his phone recorded one of his many, many conversations with Deondre “Day Day” Howard, his best friend since second grade. He’s just thankful it did.

The conversation isn’t much: two friends chatting about school and baseball. What matters now is being able to hear Howard’s voice. Matters so much that when Scott got a new phone, he transferred the file.

On Jan. 7, the day Day Day would have turned 22, Scott drove by himself to the cemetery where Howard’s body is buried, located the still-unmarked grave (with help from a map drawn by “the lady in the office”) and played back their conversation.

“His biggest goal in life was to get out of the west side,” Scott says with a wistful sigh. “Just get out of the west side and make it in pro ball. Those were his dreams.”

Dave Wilson hangs the photos.

Edison High’s pitching coach has four pictures positioned around his desk in the office he shares with the other Tigers coaches. Two are of Wilson’s own family. The other two are of Day Day.

“He had more confidence than any other kid I’ve coached in any sport,” Wilson says one afternoon while staring at the photos. “He lived for the big moment.”

It would be one thing if Howard stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 200 pounds. Howard was 5-7 and 140 fully grown – if that.

How can a kid that puny be so confident on a baseball diamond? No one can be certain. Wilson only hopes to instill similar qualities in his 11-year-old son, Trevor.

“I’m teaching him to think like Day Day thought,” Wilson says. “There was no situation on any athletic field in which Day Day ever doubted himself.”

Latoya Goodwin wears the jacket.

Howard, her nephew, gave Goodwin his Edison letterman’s jacket upon his graduation in 2013. As a gift.

“I’m not going to be wearing this no more,” Day Day told her.

Goodwin didn’t wear it much, either. Not at first. That changed after Howard was shot to death Aug. 29 outside his mother’s northwest Fresno condo, a senseless killing that remains unsolved. Soon as it got cold enough for a jacket, she has worn no other.

Every night before going to sleep, Goodwin hangs the jacket from the chair beside her bed. It’s the last thing she does. Every morning when she wakes up, the jacket is the first thing she sees.

“I wear it now for him,” Goodwin says, “and I’ll be wearing it in court when we see the person who did this.”

‘The light of our program’

It’s baseball season at Fresno City College – always a time of optimism for a program that has won 18 conference titles under coach Ron Scott – but this year something is missing.

That something is Day Day. If not for a fateful bullet fired from a .22, Howard would have spent the weekend at Euless Park patrolling center field and pitching out of the bullpen, using every bit of his frame to unleash mid-80s fastballs.

Callous as it sounds, the Rams have other guys who can play center field and pitch left-handed. Not so easily replaced is the personality that entertained and delighted everyone by dancing in the middle of pregame huddles.

“He’s the guy who brought the team together with his humor,” says Conly Biglione, one of the pallbearers at Howard’s funeral. “It’s been toned down since he’s been gone.”

“He was just the light of our program,” teammate Logan Poisall adds. “Everything he did brightened everybody up.”

Besides Day Day’s vibe and unbridled joy, Staphon Boutte misses having Howard as a peer. He misses the phone calls imploring him to go to class and his friend’s mammoth drive to make it into pro baseball despite his lack of size.

The 5-5, 165-pound Boutte can relate to that.

“We’re both small guys trying to get out of here, you know?” the Central High graduate says. “We told each other we’re going to grind out this year and push each other.

“We had math together, and it was hard to go every day,” Boutte continues. “But he’d call me, like, ‘Hey, I need you to come get me. We have to get to class.’ He pushed me to go harder in school, and that’s a big thing.”

The Rams are honoring Howard by displaying his jersey in their dugout during games. They also named their fall tournament trophy after him.

Several players are dedicating the season to Howard. Boutte switched from No. 31 to the 42 Day Day wore as a freshman, and Poisall pledged to not let his memory fade.

“Every time we kind of get sidetracked or off our common goal, I’m going to say something about Day Day,” the team captain says. “We’re playing for a larger purpose this year because we’re playing for him. It’s bigger than just Fresno City.”

‘I want to make sure his name rings’

At Edison, where Howard was both adored and revered, baseball coach Cliff Rold is doing something different for Saturday’s annual banquet.

Tigers coach since 1994, Rold had never retired a jersey number. The No. 1 Howard wore during his high school years will become the first. Day Day also will be inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.

“He encapsulated what Edison High baseball is all about,” Rold says.

What does Rold mean by that? He means the Tigers, more so than most teams, are a mix of players with different skin colors and economic backgrounds.

Over the years, Edison has enjoyed quite a run of center fielders: Ricky Manning Jr., Clifton Smith, Brandon Breazell, Marquise Cooper, then Deondre Howard.

“And out of all those incredible players, Day Day was the most valuable because of what he did on the mound and at the plate,” Rold says.

Howard was the kid who never got flustered, or even responded, when fans of opposing teams razzed him about his size. He was the kid who never complained to teammates, even when one of them made an error that cost him a no-hitter.

“He never said a word about it,” Rold says, nodding in Wilson’s direction. “You and I were not as forgiving.”

Growing up, Howard’s primary male influence was Terry Goodwin, his mother’s stepdad. It was Goodwin who first put a football in Day Day’s hands and introduced him to fishing, which became a favorite pastime.

As Howard began to get involved in sports, he attracted a number of coaches and adult mentors who went out of their way to help. Many drove him home after practices and games – Day Day was fearful of getting shot and would rather wait an hour by their cars than risk a 5-minute walk through southwest Fresno – while others tutored him in academics, purchased his clothing and paid his cellphone bill.

Why did so many adults feel the need to help the slight boy with the enormous heart? Terance Frazier says it’s because Howard was so driven to help himself.

“He gave you hope,” says Frazier, the Fresno real-estate developer who coached Howard at the Central Cal Baseball Academy. “Everybody thought we were helping Day Day along, but the truth was he was helping us by giving us hope that the future would be bright.”

Memorial funds in Howard’s name have been established at Edison, where there are plans to erect a campus statue, and by Frazier and his academy. The ex-minor leaguer also plans to honor Day Day by installing a plaque or naming a field after him at Granite Park, the foundering sports complex his nonprofit is reviving in east-central Fresno.

“I want to make sure his name rings in this Valley for a long time,” Frazier says.

‘He don’t trust nobody’

Jonte McCreary refused to go back to the condo near Shaw and Valentine avenues where her oldest son was killed. With assistance from The James Rowland Crime Victim Assistance Center, she didn’t have to.

“I couldn’t stay there no more,” she says flatly.

Today, McCreary and her six children live in an apartment on Olive Avenue near Highway 168. The new place is clean and nicely furnished. Save for a few photos and newspaper clippings of Day Day hanging in the living room, the walls are bare.

The photos and clippings serve as a comfort. They’re also a constant reminder.

“I’ve changed physically. I’ve changed emotionally. I’m always mad,” McCreary says, her words competing with tears. “Everything’s changed. People don’t understand what I go through because my baby was killed for nothing.”

Howard did not live at home with his mother and siblings but was a frequent visitor. Whenever the family heard music thumping from car speakers, they knew Day Day would be walking through the door.

“The kids would be like, ‘Mama, Day Day’s outside,’ ” McCreary says. “I don’t hear that no more.”

Even though Day Day was shorter in stature than three of his younger brothers, they still looked up to him. Mom worries about the impact Deondre’s absence will have on them, especially 16-year-old Deontay.

More than just a witness to his brother’s murder, Deontay himself nearly became a victim. He, too, was shot. Fortunately the bullet only grazed his shoulder.

That wound has long since healed. Five and a half months since the shooting, it’s the mental scars that have the family concerned.

“He don’t talk to nobody no more,” McCreary says. “He don’t trust nobody. He don’t want to sleep in his own room because he’s hearing voices and having nightmares. He says every time he thinks about it, he gets mad.”

Once a week, every Monday afternoon between 3 and 4, mother and son see a grief therapist. Deontay also is getting counseling through McLane High.

Whether it’s helping, one can only hope.

“He doesn’t say anything. He just sits there and goes like this,” McCreary says while twisting her finger through her hair.

‘It’s a heartbreaking case’

Five months, two weeks and two days later, a significant question remains:

Who shot Day Day?

Fresno had 39 homicide victims in 2015. Twenty-six of the 39 murder cases have been “cleared,” police parlance for charging a suspect with the crime or issuing an arrest warrant. Howard’s is one of the remaining 13.

Lt. Burke Farrah, who commands the Fresno Police Department’s Street Violence Section, says that’s not because of a lack of investigative effort.

“It’s very, very important,” Farrah says. “Without exception when I’m out in the community and people ask me about murders, they always ask about this one. It’s a heartbreaking case.”

Although no one has been charged with Day Day’s murder, some progress has been made. Police have identified a potential suspect, in custody for an unrelated crime, and are in possession of physical evidence related to the case, according to family members.

Farrah confirmed those details but was understandably reluctant to say much else.

“If I had aces, I’d roll them. But I don’t have those aces yet,” he says. “What we really need is the public to corroborate what we already know.”

What is known to police, as well as Day Day’s friends and family, is that the shooter paced the block in front of 4634 N. Charles Ave. in northwest Fresno multiple times before he began shooting.

Deondre was standing outside a car, leaning against the front passenger side window, when the shooting started. Deontay was sitting in the front passenger seat. To escape the gunfire, both brothers fled in the direction opposite their mother’s condo and vaulted over a wall where they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Two hours later, Day Day was pronounced dead at Community Regional Medical Center.

“The first time the (shooter) walked by, Day Day said, ‘That’s weird. Let’s go in the house,’ ” says Goodwin, Howard’s aunt. “The second time, he said, ‘It’s time to go. I don’t know who this dude is.’ The third time, he got about halfway and (Deontay) said he started running toward them shooting.”

Neither brother had any gang involvement, leaving investigators to believe Howard’s murder was a case of mistaken identity.

Police questioned dozens of people, including the young woman who was driving the car and a man whose photograph was widely circulated on Facebook among Day Day’s friends. But Farrah believes other potential witnesses have yet to come forward or choose not to.

“It’s very frustrating to the detectives involved in the case,” Farrah says. “We have to get past the culture that allows someone to witness a murder and still say, ‘I didn’t see anything.’ We have to get past that.”

Since that fateful night last August, family members have grown weary of the street talk and speculation. They want an arrest made and someone to go to trial. Closure is the only comfort left.

“I want to hear from the horse’s mouth, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” McCreary says. “I want to know why. Because if you did it because you thought he was someone else, you need to suffer. Because Day Day wasn’t no bad kid.

“If you had a problem with Day Day, you shoulda talked to him like a man. You didn’t have to shoot my baby.”