From Tragedy to Tragedy: One Woman’s Struggle to Rebuild After Losing Her Family to Gun Violence

Over the course of five years, Barbie Bowlin lost four family members to gun violence in South Jamaica, Queens. She says she's been living in a nightmare—a nightmare that never ends.

D'aja Robinson's memorial stands in Baisley Pond Park, meters away from the bus stop where Robinson was shot. (Santiago Arnaiz/The Ink)
D’aja Robinson’s memorial stands in Baisley Pond Park near the bus stop where she was shot. (The Ink/Santiago Arnaiz)

The snow was falling on Barbie Bowlin’s shoulders that night in December 2010. Her husband, Gary, had taken the car, so when his brother Colin, rushed over and told her to head to the barbershop—that it was an emergency—she was forced to walk the four blocks over on foot. Eight months pregnant, Barbie Bowlin remembers that she was in a daze. Her husband wasn’t answering his phone, she said. He always answered his phone. When she arrived, she saw the barbershop already cordoned off in yellow police tape.

Less than a year later, Colin Bowlin, a former New York City police officer, was playing dice on a street corner along Sutphin Boulevard when, according to police reports, a sore loser decided to end Bowlin’s winning streak. Refusing to get into a fight, Bowlin walked away. It was six a.m. when Barbie Bowlin’s phone went off. She picked up, expecting some overexcited well-wisher because it was her birthday. Instead, she said she heard the voice of her sister-in-law, Wendy, screaming and crying. This can’t be true, Bowlin thought to herself. Not again.

Then in May 2013, two gang members shot up a Q6 bus heading down Sutphin Boulevard. Among those on the bus was 14-year-old D’aja Robinson, Barbie Bowlin’s cousin. D’aja was heading home from a friend’s Sweet 16 party. She had called her mother and grandmother to let them know that she had left the party and was on her way home. She had just taken her seat at the back of the bus when the bullets crashed through the windows.

Barbie Bowlin’s son, Khalil, took the deaths of his family members hard. According to Bowlin, he got involved with a gang shortly after his father’s death. His uncle Colin tried to reach out to him, as did the rest of their family. Khalil grew cold to everyone around him, showing up less and less at home. After the death of D’aja, he was lost to the Bowlins completely, his mother said. In March 2014, a car pulled up to a house where Khalil and his friends were hanging out. A gunman in the car opened fire and two teenagers went down. One survived. Khalil didn’t. He was 17 years old.

Khalil Bowlin, 12, and his father Gary Bowlin. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Bowlin)
Khalil Bowlin and his father Gary Bowlin. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Bowlin)

Over the course of five years, four different members of the Bowlin family were shot to death in the Greater Jamaica area, all within two miles of each other. Men with guns killed Barbie Bowlin’s husband, brother-in-law, cousin and son. According to DATA2GO.NYC, an online mapping tool created by the nonprofit Measure of America, New York City police reported 17 homicides in Jamaica in 2014 alone, over three times more than the city average that year. ranked the region bottom in the borough on their Crime & Safety Report, citing rising trends in shooting incidents.

“People die every day over here,” said Barbie Bowlin as she sat on a bench in Baisley Pond Park in South Jamaica. She had just finished a shift at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she works as a nursing assistant. She clocks in every day now, losing herself in her job. At the park, she was still wearing her scrubs.

Her second son, Kaden, now five, was born three and a half weeks after his father’s funeral. “It wasn’t like he did anything wrong,” she said. “Then you take my son away. You take my cousin away. You take my brother-in-law away. It’s just like a pattern. It’s like, do I get used to this?”

Kaden will turn six next February. He never knew his father and barely remembers D’aja. During Khalil’s wake, he walked around the room telling people that his older brother was just asleep and would wake up soon. Kaden spends his days either in school or at home. He’s never allowed to play outside with other kids. His mother refuses to let him out of sight. She’s afraid he might die. “It’s like a nightmare,” she said, “a nightmare that keeps coming.”

Barbie Bowlin and her husband had been together since they were teenagers. “He used to do bad things as a teenager, you know, we all used to do bad stuff,” she said. “But, once he became an adult, and started working for the city, he was a family man. But he still had the childhood friends that weren’t good.” Barbie Bowlin said her husband worked hard as a mechanic for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and often gave money to people who needed it. “That’s just him,” she said. “He was a nice person.”

He also liked to gamble. “He used to play cards for money, after hours at the barbershop,” Barbie Bowlin said. On one of those nights, Dec. 29, 2010, a man named Kereim Richardson came into the shop as her husband and some friends were playing cards. Barbie Bowlin remembers Richardson as a man who had shown up a number of times at their house for dinner. He was one of her husband’s many friends she disapproved of. Richardson was an angry man, she said, always cursing and losing his temper during card games. That night at the barbershop, witnesses who testified at the trial said her husband stood up to go to the bathroom. Richardson followed him. A moment later, a gun went off. Police said Richardson shot Gary Bowlin five times. Richardson did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.

Barbie and Gary Bowlin posing on their wedding day. The high school sweethearts would have been a couple for 23 years this year. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Bowlin)
Barbie and Gary Bowlin posing on their wedding day. The high school sweethearts would have been a couple for 23 years this year. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Bowlin)

Barbie Bowlin said the cops wouldn’t tell her what had happened when she arrived at the scene. She begged to see her husband but wasn’t let past the police tape. That night, the entire family gathered in her living room and waited for news. The next afternoon, they got a visit from the police telling them that her husband was found dead. “There’s consequences behind the things you do,” she said. “He knew that. He definitely knew that.”

After his father’s death, Khalil’s behavior changed drastically. “Before my husband got killed, my son used to, like, hang out with certain boys,” she said. “But it wasn’t bad as how it was after my husband passed away. He still listened. He still came to the house. He still did chores. He still, you know, did what he was supposed to do. After my husband passed? We didn’t really have a relationship, because we didn’t talk. He just shut down.”

According to his mother, Khalil got into a lot of trouble over the years. She said one judge took pity on him because of the tragedies he had endured. But he warned her son to shape up. “The judge said to him, “ ‘For your age, your record is like a book,’ ” she said. “And he was only 17 at the time.”

After his uncle Colin was murdered, things only got worse. “The last uncle left talked to him, Mark Bowlin, he talked to him,” Barbie Bowlin said, explaining how the family did everything they could to reach out to her son Khalil. “His grandmother, his aunt, they cried for him—cried to him—to stop doing what he doing. He just didn’t care. He was already in that frame of mind, where I just don’t care anymore. You took away my family members so I won’t care about you. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about no one.”

Barbie Bowlin shifted on the bench, looking towards a pink shed 15 feet away. It was a memorial put up by the community in memory of her cousin D’aja Robinson. Pictures of the young girl adorn the boards. Messages are scrawled all over it in marker. “This is her first time her mother let her go somewhere by herself,” Barbie Bowlin said, recounting the day D’aja was murdered over three years ago, right across the street from where the memorial now stands. “And look what happened. She was sitting on the bus and she got shot in her head.” Barbie Bowlin shook her head at the thought, then continued matter-of-factly. Despite the weight of her words, she didn’t break once.

D'aja Robinson's memorial is covered in messages from friends and family. (Santiago Arnaiz/The Ink)
D’aja Robinson’s memorial is covered in messages from friends and family. (The Ink/Santiago Arnaiz)

After D’Aja’s death, she saw the shell Khalil had built for himself break down for the first time. “I’ll never forget when D’aja got killed,” she said. “He curled up like a baby. I never ever in my life seen my son do that. In the living room, on the couch, he balled up like a baby. He started crying, screaming her name. I’ll never forget that, ever. That affected him so bad that, I think he wanted to die.”

On March 30, 2014, Khalil Bowlin was shot in the chest along Lakewood Avenue. His mother suspects the shooting was gang-related. There’s no sense sugarcoating anything, she said. She never claimed her son was a saint. “I knew what my son was into,” she said. “I knew what he was doing. But I know why he was doing it.”

Gary Bowlin’s murderer Kereim Richardson and D’aja Robinson’s shooter and alleged shooter, Kevin McClinton and Shamel Capers, are all currently in custody. Richardson and McClinton are serving life sentences for their crimes, while Capers is awaiting trial. But any sense of closure for the family is fleeting. According to New York City Department of Correction records, Colin Bowlin’s alleged murderer, Devante Seabrook, was released in September. Barbie Bowlin said it was due to a lack of evidence. Khalil Bowlin’s killers were never caught.

In the aftermath of Khalil’s death, Barbie Bowlin had only her son Kaden left at home. They left the house she and her husband  bought together, opting to rent a smaller apartment instead. She remembers sitting alone in her room in the darkness for hours, thinking about the murderers who stole her family from her. She also remembers being approached by a man offering her justice.

Kaden Bowlin, six months old, and his older brother Khalil Bowlin, 14. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Bowlin)
Kaden Bowlin, six months old, and his older brother Khalil Bowlin. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Bowlin)

“I had someone who said to me, if you give me $2,000, I will go and kill him right now,” she said. “And you know what? I was going to do it. But then, I just thought of my son Kaden and the consequences of me going to jail, conspiracy to murder, or someone trying to retaliate, kill me or him. If he wasn’t born, things would’ve gone very differently. I could’ve been in jail for murder. I could’ve been crazy in a crazy home. I could’ve been anywhere. I could’ve been dead too. I could’ve turned into an alcoholic.” In just five years, her entire world had been torn apart by violence. It took her husband, her brother-in-law, her cousin, her son and almost took her as well. But she’d be damned if it took Kaden. “I love my son,” she said. “And I’m gonna make sure he has the best.”

On Oct. 1, Barbie Bowlin and Kaden packed their bags and left Queens for good. “Going back to Queens is like someone telling me I can give you back Khalil on this earth,” she said. “And you and I both know that’s not gonna happen.” Today, she and her son live in Cranford, N.J., where she is working towards a nursing degree. She said she couldn’t save Khalil, but maybe she can save someone else. Barbie Bowlin said she’s found a small measure of peace in her new home—some space for Kaden to play outdoors and for her to finally move on and find some happiness of her own.