A year ago, an upset father called with a powerful message about language.
“Stray bullet” was the term he had read in a column.
The wording cut Melvin Wackerle to his core. It did in the days after his daughter was shot to death as she was driving her family home from Starlight Theatre in July 2009. It hurt him when he read it in a column about a separate shooting a few years later. And it turned his stomach last week when he heard it prior to the press conference announcing that charges had been filed in his daughter’s murder.
“There is somebody, somewhere, who is responsible for every bullet fired,” he said in our initial conversation.
It’s a matter of accountability. The connotation of a bullet “straying” seemingly exonerates the shooters, as if there was no intent to harm.
In the death of Wackerle’s daughter, Deanna L. Lieber, there very much was an intent to harm. It’s just that she wasn’t the intended victim.
She was caught in crossfire.
On Friday, Calah D. Johnson, 32, was charged with second-degree murder and for discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle in Lieber’s death.
Much of the news coverage focused on the extraordinary detective work. Police were able to get license plates on the cars involved because of a red-light camera at the scene, the intersection of Bruce R. Watkins Drive at 59th Street. The plates led to the cars’ owners, their acquaintances and eventually witnesses who talked.
When we first spoke, Wackerle knew that Friday might come, the details of how the case was progressing. But it was too soon to be made public. At the time, he said the family was somewhat relieved that police believed the person responsible was already off the streets. Johnson is serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for cocaine trafficking.
On Saturday, Wackerle said he remains just as adamant about the terminology. “It was a bullet fired in anger and intended to hit someone,” he said.
Wackerle said accidental shootings are different, but notes foolishness is often involved.
He makes an important point of responsibility, of accuracy now that the charges are filed. In journalism, in life, it is so easy to reiterate common phrasings. This isn’t splitting hairs or arguing semantics.
No bullet “strays” itself anywhere, much less into a human being.