‘He Brought a Gun to a Fistfight’

The New York Police Department’s Argus cameras spin slowly, surveilling all 360 degrees of the intersections they’re mounted in. Before the sun rose on July 27, 2013, one caught the flash of a muzzle – the exact moment Claude Ward raised a handgun, extended his arm and fired two bullets into 17-year-old Kamau Chandler.

Ward’s defense attorney, John Stella, said the video evidence dredged up only a few days before the 2015 trial refuted Ward’s claim that he acted in self-defense. Ward, who was 18 at the time of the crime, wasn’t identifiable in the footage but witnesses described him wearing clothes that matched the outfit on tape.

“It was the just the worst possible chance someone could have,” said Stella, who explained how the surveillance cameras worked.

Ward’s unconvincing explanation of that night’s events didn’t help, Stella added. In a written statement to detectives, Ward claimed he was tying his shoelaces when he heard Chandler and his friends say they planned to kill him. He said the threat terrified him so he tried to walk past the group quickly, at one point turning around to keep an eye on them. Ward tripped and fell backward onto a pile of black trash bags that obstructed the sidewalk before stumbling upon a handgun as he stood back up.

He claims Chandler and his friends were advancing, so he raised the object – unaware it was a gun – and fired it by accident. They continued to approach, so he fired again. Ward wrote that he fled the scene because Chandler’s friends began to chase after him and mentioned multiple times that he “became scared for his life.”

During the trial, witnesses testified that Ward was the one to bump into Chandler and instigate an argument. When Ward tripped and fell into the trash bags, Chandler and his friends laughed. Ward stood up and fired shots at Chandler, before fleeing the scene. Chandler’s body was later searched, and detectives concluded he wasn’t carrying any weapons.

Stella said Ward still may have felt he had to defend himself to a certain extent.

“But he brought a gun to a fistfight,” he said. “That’s the best way to describe it.”

In 2015, a jury convicted Ward of second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Ward, who’s in the early stages of his initial appeal, is serving 18 years to life at Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate Stormville. To a 20-year-old, it may have seemed like a lifetime – but Ward could eventually get his second chance. Chandler will not.

A few days before he died, Chandler called his grandfather, Osei Chandler, to check in. He called his grandfather GP, a nickname he’d come up with when he was 15 years old.

“I just wanted to see how you were doing and tell you I love you,” Kamau Chandler told his grandfather.

Kamau Chandler (Photo courtesy of Jewel Chandler)

Osei Chandler said the call was out of character. He raised his grandson for about seven years when he was in grade school, but they had grown apart when Kamau Chandler moved out of his house in South Carolina and into his father’s home in Brooklyn. Since then, they’d only spoken a few times.

“It was alright, but it wasn’t the same,” Osei Chandler said.

That Tuesday call was the last time Osei Chandler would speak to his grandson. He told Kamau he wasn’t going to worry about him anymore because his grandson knew what the right thing was and how to do it, he recalled.

Osei Chandler has documented Chandler’s childhood in Charleston, collecting anecdotes for a file he called “The Kamau Kronicles.” He remembered a 5-year-old Kamau coming to his defense in August 2002.

That summer morning, Osei Chandler was getting ready to take his grandson and a 7-year-old girl to the park when she pointed out “an ushy red bump” on his head. He told her he would get it taken care of and no one spoke for a couple seconds when  Kamau chimed in, his grandfather recalled.

“Red is a pretty color,” the little boy said before going back to sucking him thumb. “Besides, it doesn’t matter how you look on the outside; it only matters what’s in your heart.”

Kamau, whose name means “quiet warrior” in Swahili, was younger than two of his siblings but always looked after them. Reflecting on his grandson’s death, Osei Chandler said he thinks Chandler was acting in that capacity that night as his friends’ protector.

“That’s probably what got him killed,” he said.

Kamau Chandler (left) with his father, grandfather and uncle. (Photo courtesy of Osei Chandler)

Kamau’s great-aunt Jewel Chandler said he also took good care of his younger half-sisters as a teenager. He would use the money he made doing chores and maintenance work to buy the three of them new shoes, she remembered.

Ward and his siblings were also close. His older brother Kenny McLemore said Ward was the youngest of the bunch – but you couldn’t tell the second he picked up a ball.

He and his siblings grew up playing football, baseball and basketball in both their front and backyards. They were raised in the Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, where they would agree on imaginary sidelines, end zones and bases. McLemore, 25, pointed to a community garden that sat between a couple public housing buildings the family moved between over the years.

“This used to be the football field, and it was a spectacle,” he said, remembering how neighbors would gather on afternoons and weekends to watch the kids play football.

Instead of going home after school, he and his brother would play sports. McLemore said he was upset at first when the space was converted into a garden but it seemed fitting.

“We did a lot of growing up here,” he said, thinking back to their childhood about 10 years ago.

McLemore, who works in retail and personal training, said the basketball court across the street was outfitted with concrete benches that would be packed with families watching from the sidelines. But the courts they used for tournaments were a little more secluded, hidden further behind the apartment buildings.

He and Ward would often play as a team of two, and Ward was young compared to other players, but good. He smiled as he remembered one game in particular.

It was the top of the second half, and they were down. Desperate to make a comeback, McLemore, 10, passed the ball to a 6-year-old Ward, but they lost possession right away.

“He caught the ball at center court and took the two biggest steps I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “But at the end we won, so I can laugh about it now.”

A young Kenny McLemore hugs his baby brother, Claude Ward. (Photo courtesy of Kenny McLemore)

Ward’s aunt Marcella Bermudez, who treated McLemore and Ward as her own, said Ward also excelled in football. She said the brothers played for the Brooklyn Chiefs Youth Organization with her son Shakur Bey, 20, and the three were inseparable. They won awards every year and traveled to play in the league’s championship games.

Bey said Ward was a team player, even though he could’ve carried the team himself. They once played a game during which it was every man for himself, and Ward came out on top.

“He ran an entire offense by himself,” Bey said, laughing about how Ward tossed and caught the ball himself as if there was more than one of him.

McLemore said he and his brother began to grow apart when Ward transitioned into Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, Brooklyn. Their older siblings began their adult lives and the two youngest brothers got their own bedrooms and started to make their own friends.

Bermuda said she didn’t think Ward’s friends were a good influence but news of his arrest still shocked her. Even so, she’s glad Ward is safe in prison and away from the bad people in his life, she added.

“If he didn’t go there, he would have ended up dead in the streets,” she said.

Claude Ward (bottom left) with his mother and older siblings. (Photo courtesy of Kenny McLemore)

Instead, it was Chandler who was killed that Saturday morning in 2013.

Jewel Chandler said more than 400 people attended his funeral, from friends and school administrators to local politicians.

“He made a huge impact in such a short amount of time,” she said.

Jewel Chandler said she dealt with her grief for her nephew the only way she knew how – by putting something back into the world that wasn’t there before.

In 2014, she hosted a free conference in Georgia in hopes of helping other teenage boys avoid the mistake that cost her Kamau. Named “The K.A.M.A.U. Project” in memoriam, the event featured motivational speakers, attorneys and probation officers on topics such as conflict management, anger resolution and bullying.

Jewel Chandler said K.A.M.A.U. also stands for “Keeping African-American Men Alive and Uplifted.” She was able to pair each young man who attended with a mentor, and hopes to continue the project by publishing a series of comic books about young people whose lives were senselessly wasted by acts of gun violence. The first issue will feature Kamau’s story.

Ward’s brother McLemore, who moved to the Upper West Side in July, also hopes to publish a book or shoot a documentary about how growing up in what he called a slum has impacted his life. He said he takes every opportunity to tell the people around him he loves them because gun violence has taken a lot of people he cared about.

“When people look at me, they see smiles and happiness and love,” he said. “But if they knew everything I’ve been through, they’d know that they could change their lives in a dramatic way, too.”