NORFOLK — “This man is my murderer,” ODU student pointed to the third person in his bedroom. “If I get killed,” he told his housemate and good friend, “This is the man who has murdered me.”
Jake Carey, whose room was next to the front door, was shot 5 times as he rushed to Cummings’ side. He survived.
On the night of the murder, June 10, 2011, the two men lived in a house at the corner of 42nd and Killam St., just a block away from the main campus of ODU. A third housemate, Christian Platon had gone to northern Virginia to work during his summer break.
Carey, who had been hospitalized in critical condition and had missed the funeral in Cummings’ grandmother’s church, Ruth’s Victory Prayer Chapel in Baltimore, picked up the person Cummings had marked as his would-be murderer from a police lineup.
A few months later, a prisoner overheard other inmates bragging about the murder and alerted investigators, Cummings’ sister Lani Randall said.
Officer Joanne Hughes of Norfolk police said that the case is still under investigation and could not share any information with public. She said circumstantial evidence couldn’t be used to arrest a suspect.
Police told Cummings’ father that there had been 4 assailants. One waited in the car, 3 went inside.
How had it come to this? Family and friends wondered. How could a young man with so much promise had been killed in such brutal way?
Cummings’ posted pictures of his uncle Rep. Elijah Cummings and President Obama as his role models on his Facebook page. He chose to study criminal justice, hoping to follow in their footsteps, his family members said.
Friend and family said that Cummings was a leader with great work ethics. When in high school, he had a lawn service business in Woodbridge, making enough money to pay 1/3 of the cost of his own truck. His father paid the rest.
At the end, this spirit of entrepreneurship, the drive to help others and the need to be popular led to Cummings’ death.
Shortly after joining Theta Chi fraternity, Cummings realized that younger members needed mentoring. His obituary said, “Drawn to the fraternity’s high standards of morals and ethics, Chris strived to make a difference in his community as a volunteer at ForKids, where he counseled local youth, alongside his fellow fraternity brothers.”
Cummings took Dylan Gingerich, a shy and sometimes awkward freshman, under his wings and tried to build up his self-confidence, Gingerich said.
Cummings hosted parties, sometimes twice a week. All friends and friends of friends were welcomed. Drugs were never used, but for a few special friends who lingered, Cummings had a treat in his room.
Christian Platon said that Cummings’ room didn’t look like other college housing. He had decorated it tastefully. The sofa with the print of cartoon characters coordinated with the red sofa. Cummings purchased a 70-inch flat-screen TV worth $2,000, when flat screens were items of luxury, Carey said.
Cummings had a laptop and a desktop computer. He bought an expensive memory foam mattress, a novelty those days.
Pictures of his room at ODU shows a modest room, cramped with a desk, a chair, a bed and sofa — not much different from other student housing.
Cummings purchased good marijuana from a supplier in Northern Virginia, where his family lived and sold it to the many friends he had made. The extra money paid for nice sneakers, stylish clothing, nice dinners out with friends and gifts for his girlfriend Ana Hernandez.
His aunt, Yvonne Cummings said that Cummings had surprised her with a WEE game for Christmas. He was thoughtful that way. “He was working; how else could he buy gifts for everyone?” she said.
Cummings worked as a laborer that summer, pouring cement for $12/hour at Gingerich’s family construction company.
The first inkling his father had that something wasn’t quite right was when he showed him how much money he had saved, all in $20 bills. “Chris, I hope you are not getting into any kind of trouble,” he said, alarmed. “Oh, Dad, you’re just like mom, always worrying,” Chris said.
Cummings had sent his son $1,700 a month so that he wouldn’t have to borrow money for his tuition and bought a small TV for him, not knowing until after his son’s death about the expensive TV.
Everyone who passed by the house could see that TV, Carey said, the blinds on the window were left open at night. The TV screen beckoned troublemakers in the dangerous neighborhood around the university.
ODU had originally been a commuter school, but during the last decade it had started a campaign to attract students outside the Hampton Roads, especially from northern Virginia. Lacking enough dormitories, many students, like Cummings, chose to live in communal houses in the neighborhood, often unaware that it was plagued with criminals.
The university had encroached on a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood. Students with their cellphones and laptops, wandering around the neighborhood late into the night after parties, had become targets. Burglars were brave enough to break down doors to demand money and property.
On April 14, 6 gunmen with face masks broke into a house on 42nd street and forced two students to hand over electronics, laptops, cellphones and game console, The Virginian Pilot reported. This was just one of many incidents of criminal activities around ODU.
Still, Cummings felt safe.
Carey said, “Chris knew how to live a good life.” His vivaciousness and optimism were contagious and attracted many young students.
The trouble started, Platon said, when a neighbor, not a student, became friendly with Cummings and got himself invited to the parties. He later introduced Cummings to another man from Newport News, someone who wasn’t a student. Young and naïve, Cummings welcomed this new man because he was a friend of a friend, Platon said.
On May 17, this man came to Cummings’ room to smoke pot. He was to lock the door to the house on his way out. Cummings was looking out his bedroom window, ordering pizza on his cell phone, when he saw a suspicious man outside. He was wearing a warm jacket with the hood over his head on a balmy night. Cummings knew something wasn’t right. He ran down the stairs, and as the armed man was about to enter the house through the unlocked door, Cummings wrestled with him, holding on tightly to the hand with gun and managed to chase away the intruder.
“Chris was brave like that,” Carey said.
Cummings’ father said that, when in high school, his son was punched in the face by another student. The father took the son to confront his bully in the parking lot of a mall and told him, “punch him back.” That payment in violence gained Cummings the respect of other students and the bully himself.
“I knew Chris wouldn’t be able to survive if he didn’t defend himself. He changed after that and wasn’t afraid,” James Cummings said. In a school where many students came from single-family homes with absent fathers, he wanted everyone to know that his son had an involved father; that he was protected.
The violent incident at his doorstep worried Cummings. His parents insisted he had to move out of the house. Cummings said he was going to buy a gun to defend himself, but was unable to purchase one legally, according to his father.
James and Rosa Cummings had offered to send their only son to Spain that summer to work with his mother’s family who owned a house painting business. He could have earned some money and learned Spanish, as he had always wanted. “I just wanted him to get away from here, from America, and see a new life,” James Cummings said. But his son had decided to take a summer class in Criminal Justice and had been been offered the job at the cement factory.
On June 9, the Newport News man brought over two other friends. They all went to the bedroom to watch The Miami Heat vs Dallas Mavericks and to smoke. One of the men pulled out a gun asked Cummings to pack the marijuana, the bong, money and everything else, Platon said.
“Who have you brought into my life?” Cummings had asked the first man, according to Carey. Cummings kicked the two guests out of his house. They yelled that they would be back to kill him. He held onto the first man until Carey came home, and that’s when he marked the man as his would-be killer.
Platon said that the argument had been about something else as well. Cummings found a dealer who would sell him cheaper, lower quality marijuana. Cummings calculated that he could make more money by selling the cheaper drug for the same price. The two men had said, “What’s this shit?” They were insulted.
That night, Carey invited Cummings to go to a party with him, but Cummings was subdued. “I have a bad feeling,” he told Carey.
According to Platon, Cummings had called his dealer in northern Virginia that night. They had an argument and Cummings had tried hard to appease him.
Cummings later called Gingerich to say he was afraid, but refused the offer to stay at his house in Virginia Beach. “I would have called the police if I had known that this was that serious,” Gingerich said. He had just returned home from a long day at work and fell asleep soon after. He would wake up to a call by a friend who, sobbing, told him their good friend was dead.
Cummings talked to his girlfriend Ana that night until early hours of morning. Later, she told friends that Cummings sounded as if he was saying goodbye. Cummings posted the last entry on his Facebook page: “A house on the cloud and God’s my landlord,” part of the lyrics from “Alligator Sky” by Adam R. Young.
At the end, Cummings wasn’t sleeping on his expensive and comfortable mattress that night when his would-be murderers broke down the door. Platon thinks that Cummings was sitting vigilant on the red sofa by the window. He might have fallen asleep just before the intruders rushed upstairs.
“They were on a mission,” Carey said. They knew where they were going.
They ran up the stairs and turned right turn down the hallway. At first, Carey thought their third housemate had come home late. Then there was a skirmish above his bedroom; shots were fired; he thought he heard people running down the stairs. He waited until it was quiet, and, heart pounding, opened his door slowly. Cummings was at the bottom of the stairs.
“Chris, Chris, Are you ok?” he whispered. Christmas lights had been left on the staircase and emitted a faint glow. Carey saw a tall man in white shirt; strobes of light; the sound of repeated gunfire; he was in pain; burning; then unconscious. That was 3:45 a.m., he said.
When Carey came around, all was quiet. The front door was left open. His friend was covered in blood.
Carey was bleeding and couldn’t feel parts of his body. He dragged himself out the door, across the street and banged on a neighbor’s door. A bullet had hit him on the neck. He couldn’t yell. His bloody fingerprints marked the door, which remained locked.
Carey was lucky. A woman found him bloody, still in his underwear, on the street and called the police. “My friend, Chris,” he motioned the woman to get close to him to hear his whispers. “I am not leaving you alone. You are alive, and I don’t know if he is.”
At 4:46 a.m., the police came and dispatched the K-9 unit, sending the dogs in first; at 5:10 a.m, the medics pronounced Christopher Cummings dead, according to the incident report requested through FOIA.
James Cummings said the police told him the front door was blocked by his son’s body, and they had a hard time getting in. Carey had last seen Cummings slumped on the stairs. James Cummings wasn’t sure if the dogs had moved the body or if his son, still alive, had tried to leave the house and had pushed the door closed in his endeavor.
Although the police report showed that the next of kin were notified, Cummings’ mother heard the news from Ana. She then tried to call her husband, who was in a meeting and missed all messages until 11:00 a.m.
Cummings’ uncle, Rep. Elijah Cummings came to Norfolk to visit his beloved nephew’s house and was shocked that neighbors had to arm themselves. The school should have warned students that they were in a war zone. He and his brother met with John Broderick, president of ODU and the chief of police in order to advocate safety for students on and around the campus.
Four years later, Ilana Davlin, an ODU student called the Virginian Pilot to complain about the off-campus safety. Living a block away from the school, she heard gunshots and screams at night. She didn’t know about Christopher Cummings’ murder, but added that students called Killem, a street that ran behind her building and Cummings, “ ‘Kill ‘Em’ Street.”
Ben Ipson, an incoming freshman that fall, remembers his mother begging him to choose a different school. Students, who still had a choice so late in the summer of 2011, opted out of ODU, he said.
“Chris was raised in Mayberry,” in comfort and love, Rep. Cummings said. He was too naive to know about the life of crime.
Rep. Cummings, who had lived in a crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood for the last 30 years in order to be among his people, said that he feared his neighbors as well.
He said that when he went to high school graduations, he felt as if he was attending church services. Family members in their Sunday’s best stood with their arms up, shouting “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lord,” as names of graduates were called. Tears of joy flowed because their loved ones had survived the streets to reach that moment.
He was surrounded by a different world, Rep. Cummings said, a world about which his nephew knew nothing. Rep. Cummings said that crime was a real job for many hopeless people, many of his constituents among them, trapped in poor African/American neighborhoods.
Cummings had learned to defend himself, to be self-reliant. That fateful night, however, with no guns, no protection from the police or the university, he wasn’t a match for the kind of people he had never imagined he would meet.
His friends, devastated from the loss, tattooed Cummings’ words on their backs:
“Speak my mind; pour out my heart; love my soul”
A postcard to his dad.
Courtesy of James Cummings