It was just a few of weeks after he turned 21 that Zachary Nelson told his family he needed to get out of New Orleans.
The violence in the city was getting worse, he told them. He had dreams of moving to Los Angeles, maybe even Miami. Somewhere, anywhere but New Orleans if he was going to live to see 22.
Nelson never made it.
In the early morning hours of June 3, he was one of three bystanders shot and killed by a man who opened fire into a crowd at a graduation party.
Nelson was running to safety after a fight broke out. A bullet struck him in the back of the head.
“They had been at the party maybe 10 minutes when the shooting started,” his aunt Daria Thomas told CNN. “It wasn’t supposed to be him. He wasn’t in a gang. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He got great grades. He worked and went to school. He was just caught in the crossfire.”
Nelson was one of 13 people shot that night in New Orleans — the most violent day so far in what has been a violent year in this colorful Louisiana city better known for parades and jambalaya.
Through June 11 of this year the city has seen 252 shooting incidents — instances in which at least one person was hit by a bullet — according to New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher. That’s a huge jump from the same period in 2016, when there were 179 shooting incidents.
Some blame the depleted ranks at the New Orleans Police Department, which has left the force understaffed and overwhelmed. But the police say they also are seeing an increase in gang violence, directly related to control of the opioid street trade.
“The opioid epidemic and the heroin trade it fuels has driven much of the violence we’ve seen in recent months,” New Orleans Superintendent of Police Michael Harrison told CNN in a statement. “Retaliations and counter-retaliations, gang violence and collateral impact are all amplified and made worse in the context of the larger epidemic.”
A growing problem
America has been in the grip of a deadly and growing opioid epidemic for several years. And New Orleans is not immune from its ripple effects.
The New Orleans Coroner’s office has warned of “an accelerating public health crisis of drug-related deaths.”
“Regarding criminal justice, I call upon leaders at all levels to support and expand drug diversion programs and drug courts that prioritize treatment rather than punishment for users,” the city’s coroner said recently in a statement.
The New Orleans Field Division for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told CNN that opioid usage in the city is becoming increasingly problematic. Unlike the New Orleans police chief, the DEA did not draw a direct correlation between the epidemic for the spike in shootings in the city.
But the statistics paint a grim picture.
In 2016, Orleans Parish had more drug-related overdoses (211) than homicides (174), according to the DEA. Of the 211 drug-related deaths, 166 were caused by opiates, according to the city coroner.
And accidental drug-related overdoses in 2016 were more than double that of 2015, the coroner said.
‘They help fuel this violence’
These statistics are no surprise to Lisa Fitzpatrick, who sees the drug trade firsthand outside her drop-in community center in Center City, a particularly crime-ridden area of New Orleans.
The shooting violence starts with the drug market, she says.
“I see the people who come in here to buy the drugs,” Fitzpatrick says. “They drive cars that most people in my neighborhood can’t afford. They’re usually young, and seemingly well-off. They’re not from my neighborhood. Some of them have out-of-state plates. They help fuel this violence.”
In 2009, Fitzpatrick founded the APEX Youth Center from her living room to help disenfranchised youth in New Orleans.
“I work in the most incarcerated part, of the most incarcerated state, in the most incarcerated country in the world,” she said. “The despair carries over. I long for a day when it does not.”
The work Fitzpatrick does is not glamorous, “but it sure is beautiful,” she says.
And often very sad.
Every Sunday, her group holds a prayer service. During a portion of it, they read the names of those who were recently shot and killed.
On the week she spoke to CNN, she read out the names of seven people killed by gun violence.
“And when we read the names, someone will gasp and say, ‘I know their mom.’ Or, ‘that was my cousin. I know them.’ It happens a lot when we read the names. We remember the names in a sacred place because it’s very important. Their lives are important and sacred.
“That might be the only time someone says their name instead of just referring to them as another young black male found dead.”
‘What are they doing about it?’
One of the names she read out loud that Sunday was Zachary Nelson’s.
By his aunt’s account, Nelson was “a good kid, who was raised properly.”
“He wasn’t surrounded by the violence, he was one of the ones doing it right … staying out of trouble,” Thomas told CNN. “He had a host of friends. He loved music. He had a style to him. And boy did he love those Gucci sunglasses,” she said laughing. “He would tell us that he got his expensive taste from us.”
Like many in New Orleans, Thomas is weary of the violence plaguing her city.
“For him to be taken like that — senseless violence — this has to stop. Because this is ongoing and the criminals feel like they can do whatever they want,” she said. “He was a victim to everything that’s been going on in this city.’
Another collateral victim in a city grappling with an increase in gang violence and their links to the influx of opioids.
Police, citing an ongoing investigation, have not said what was behind the shooting that killed Nelson.
But don’t tell Thomas that drugs may have played a role in her nephew’s death.
“To me, it’s an excuse. I don’t believe that. My nephew had nothing to do with drugs. The person who shot him might have, but not Zach,” she said.
“If that is what the cause is, then what are they doing about it?”