January 19, 2016
“He’s laying on the, eh, exit ramp at Ridge Avenue having CPR performed on him at this time. He ain’t going nowhere.”
Those words come from a Philadelphia police radio call broadcast on Thursday, Jan. 7. The “he” was a 29-year-old father of two named Dontay A. Walker.
Walker had just driven his girlfriend Lawanda’s silver Chrysler 300 northbound in the southbound lanes of Roosevelt Boulevard in East Falls, then crashed head first into an approaching Toyota Camry. The collision sent helicopters scrambling to the skies to get footage of a highway closed down for several traffic-heavy hours.
Walker's passenger would be hospitalized, as would two women in the other vehicle. They would all survive. Relatives said the victims expressed appreciation for the flowers they later sent to their hospital rooms as a show of concern, care and respect.
Walker – known as “Tay” to loved ones – emerged from the wreckage and tried to flee the scene by jumping off the highway onto an exit ramp below. He’d sever his foot, hit the back of his head on the ground after falling and, hours later, die from his injuries.
News stories about the incident would allege the car was stolen (it wasn’t, police later confirmed to PhillyVoice) and focus, in part, on the commuting inconveniences foisted upon afternoon drivers.
“He’s not the monster that they tried to portray him as, that they say he was. He was somebody’s father. He was somebody’s brother. He was somebody’s son. He was somebody’s nephew. He was somebody’s friend. He. Was. Somebody. Hallelujah Jesus! And we won’t let anybody take that away from us.” – Michelle Robinson, on his deceased cousin Dontay A. Walker
What they wouldn’t delve into is why exactly the life of “a loving individual who was always happy” came to an end in a fashion so dramatically unexpected that it left grieving friends and relatives worried it would define who he was in his nearly three decades on Earth.
On Monday, hundreds gathered at Shiloh Apostolic Church at 15th and Master streets to make sure that didn’t happen.
“He’s not the monster that they tried to portray him as, that they say he was,” Michelle Robinson – Homegoing Celebration officiator and Walker’s cousin – said from the pulpit. “He was somebody’s father. He was somebody’s brother. He was somebody’s son. He was somebody’s nephew. He was somebody’s friend. He. Was. Somebody. Hallelujah Jesus! And we won’t let anybody take that away from us.”
Within two hours, the large tribute-photograph displays standing on either side of a body covered in a salmon-colored shirt and more, would be fashioned into two halves of a coffin lid.
Some survivors wailed and fell down in emotional agony; others held their pained loved ones up as the casket was closed. Dozens upon dozens more were already outside, shivering and remembering a fallen loved one.
They said he would have smiled broadly at a show of love and appreciation that prompted a one-memorial-booklet-per-household request since demand far outweighed supply.
After a service that stretched beyond two hours, they led one another out of the church into the bitter Monday afternoon cold as a trio of singers finished the final verses of Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.”
Eleven days after a situation still shrouded in uncertainty unfolded on the Boulevard, a silver hearse waited on the North Philly sidewalk to take Walker's body to its final resting place, leaving survivors to defend their version of a life story since reduced to a police report entry.
Tabitha West is Walker's cousin. Walker's mother, father and seven siblings ceded her the role of family spokesperson; she tried to get news cameras to a family vigil in the aftermath of the crash to no avail.
Sitting down for a chat with PhillyVoice in her Darby, Delaware County kitchen on Friday, she mentioned that this is the second tragedy to befall the family in recent months.
Her 16-year-old brother, Saleem West, was shot and killed while riding his bicycle in Strawberry Mansion on Nov. 1.
One of the alleged teen shooters is scheduled to face a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, meaning relatives buried one loved one on Monday and will hear details behind the slaying of another two days later.
She will worry about that later though; Walker was on the minds of her entire family.
Initial reports had Dontay Walker getting into a domestic dispute with his girlfriend and her mother in the minutes leading up to the crash. He’d been acting strangely, they say. An unusual paranoia had set in.
“My dad was a good man. He had a good heart. He loved everyone around him near or apart. My dad was a king. I was his princess. … My dad is now my angel who will live forever in my heart. I love you Daddy, always and forever.” – a message from his daughter, Donyae, 9, in the funeral booklet
It was out of character for a man who last year started a moving business – You Call, We Haul LLC – of which he was proud and committed. The only mark on his criminal record wasn’t a mark at all: A disorderly conduct charge was withdrawn six years ago.
On the day of the crash, there was talk about having him “302’d,” or involuntarily committed for psychological evaluation, which may have led to him removing his fiancée from the car on Germantown Avenue and, unable to carry her mother out of the Chrysler, taking off with her inside. News reports had witnesses giving her a cellphone to call police.
Walker wasn’t crazy, and he wasn’t a drug addict, West said. While they have to wait a few more weeks for the results of a toxicology report, there are suspicions that he was slipped something, or came across synthetic marijuana that caused an inexplicable mental reaction.
What was clear – she said – is that he hadn’t been himself in the days prior to his death, and references to friends sneakily becoming exploitative enemies were alluded to from the pulpit at his funeral.
“His girlfriend said he’d been acting different. It started that Monday, she said,” explained West. “He was not himself. She spoke with his mother, and when I spoke with his mother, she said she scared him as well. She was asking where he was so she could get to him. When she spoke to him, he said he felt like someone was after him.”
Talk of an involuntary commitment “made him snap. He just wanted to get out of there,” West said, adding that she was told they were on their way to get him help when everything went haywire on Germantown Avenue.
“I was told by the girlfriend that he snatched her out of the car, saying, ‘You all just need to get out, get out, get out,’” she continued.
Unable to get the girlfriend’s mother out of the car, he took off driving on the path that ended on the Boulevard shortly thereafter.
“I don’t understand what all happened myself," Tabitha West said. "Maybe once we get the toxicology report back, we’ll know more about what was really going on with him. Nothing was mentally wrong with him like the news stated like he’s insane or on heroin. His mother put it to me like maybe he got his hands on some bad weed or something. … If you’re paranoid, you’re jumping like you want to get away. We’re left with no answers right now.”
West, who would be among relatives who went to the Medical Examiner’s Office to identify the body, said she talked to Walker that Monday. He told her everything was OK but that he’d tell her what was going on later.
“He’s not a violent guy. He’s never put his hands on a woman before,” she said. “So when I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it because it was so out of character for him.”
Her biggest concern now is for his 9-year-old daughter, specifically how the online record will reflect this incident anytime she wants to look up her father on the Internet.
“I wanted to give her peace of mind. One mistake does not determine your entire life, and what makes it worse is that his one mistake cost him his life. It was truly an accident,” West said. “I don’t feel like it should cost him his reputation with his children and the people he’s impacted. He was a great father.
"I didn’t want him to die with people thinking the worst of him. I wanted to let the world have a clearer notion of who he was as a person.”
Monday’s funeral started at 11 a.m., after a two-hour viewing.
It took half an hour for members of the immediate family to walk up the center aisle, pay their respects before an open casket and take their seats in the pews. The whole "family on the left, friends on the right" seating arrangement was unnecessary, mourners said, since friends were family to Walker.
The sounds of gospel singers backed by an organist filled the air.
There were friends wearing jackets representing various auto clubs in the region, including True 2 Da Game crew, of which he was a "passionate member," and relatives leaning on one another for support.
Michelle Robinson, the cousin and minister, testified about Walker's good qualities from the pulpit. He was fearless and generous, she said, claims supported by shouts from the pews.
“Dontay was loved. … I thank God that family knows how to pull together,” said Robinson who, in a cruel irony, learned that the women injured in the other car were related to her boss at work.
“How about we send the news [media] Dontay’s obituary, because they always got something negative to say. Nobody’s perfect. No matter what you did, God still loves you.” – Michelle Robinson, a cousin, from the funeral pulpit
“I told him, ‘That wasn’t my cousin; what they’re saying about him isn’t true.' I told him we sent flowers, and you know what he said to me? ‘That made my family's day, out of respect, because we’ve never seen that happen before,’” Robinson said. “We did it for Dontay, to make sure they knew he wasn’t the monster that he’s been portrayed as.”
Details usually contained in an obituary were then read onto the public record.
His academic studies within the Upper Darby School District and at Temple University and the Community College of Philadelphia.
A career path as an emergency medical technician with Keystone Transport and the launch of his moving company.
His penchant for being a “friend for life.”
His elation about being a father to Donyae, 9, and his 4-year-old namesake son.
“My dad was a good man. He had a good heart. He loved everyone around him near or apart,” read a message from his daughter in the funeral booklet. “My dad was a king. I was his princess. … My dad is now my angel who will live forever in my heart. I love you Daddy, always and forever.”
Finding solace in pain, they leaned upon the perceived unpredictability of God’s will, and how their loved one now joined Him in the afterlife.
“How about we send the news [media] Dontay’s obituary, because they always got something negative to say,” Robinson said from the pulpit to thunderous applause. “Nobody’s perfect. No matter what you did, God still loves you.”
Then, she ceded the microphone for reflections from family and friends.
“I’m looking right at you now, wishing you’d open your eyes,” a cousin said in rhyming verse, looking at the casket, “but when I look to the skies, I see your angel wings fly.”
Which is another way of saying that despite knowing that the CPR being administered near the Roosevelt Boulevard off-ramp didn’t save his life, Dontay A. Walker did go somewhere from there, no matter what the police radio claimed 11 days earlier.
And when he did, he left behind a family that finds itself awaiting a medical report that may, or may not, help answer the biggest question of all: Why?