He was sitting in the driver's seat of his red Buick Regal that Nov. 27 afternoon, waiting to leave school, when his friend Wesley Smith, 17, sneaked over unseen to the passenger side. Wesley knocked on the window and crouched down, grinning. "Wes was looking at me and smiling," says Wesley's brother Scott, 16. "He was trying to fool Keith."
The boys all attended Chelsea School, a sprawling, kindergarten-to-12th-grade, red-brick schoolhouse set alongside a county road about 10 miles outside Birmingham, Ala. On school days, the cracked blacktop lot where the older kids park resembles the deck of a freighter bringing Toyotas from Japan. Cars are crammed 10 deep and seven across, and when classes let out just after 3 p.m., the kids wander around, talking or acting silly, while the jam untangles. School kids are always the craziest after the final bell rings, after six and a half hours behind blackboards, hardly breathing, taking math.
"Keith got out of the car," Scott says, "and then Wes jumped up and opened the door real quick. Keith was pointing the gun at him."
The gun went off, pop, in Wesley's face. Scott heard the sound and thought it was a cap pistol. Wesley felt the explosion and fell back, hoping it was a blank. "I was looking right at the gun, and I didn't feel the bullet hit me or anything," he says. "I was just dizzy and I fell down." He remembers that it didn't feel like a live bullet, at least not the way he imagined a live bullet would feel after watching so many Westerns and war movies.
The bullet was a .22-caliber hollow point. The gun was a nine-shot long-barrel revolver. The slug hit Wesley in the mouth. A few weeks after he was shot, Wesley demonstrated the striking power of a .22 hollow point by firing an identical bullet through a two-by-four at close range. He used one of the eight rifles and shotguns he keeps in his room.
A bullet from a pistol hits with less impact than the same bullet from a rifle, and that may be a reason why Wesley survived. Another was Keith's choice of weapon. His .22 was the less lethal of the two pistols his father, Virgil, the owner of a construction company, had given him: The .38 was back at home. A 16-year-old boy carrying a loaded, unlicensed revolver in his car isn't legal in Alabama, but it isn't particularly unexpected either. Virgil says, "I didn't know he had it in the car, and I wouldn't have thought much about it if I did. I wouldn't have agreed to it being loaded, though."
Handgun possession is a moral issue to some people, a regional issue to others. To most Northerners, revolvers are concealed weapons. To Southerners, says Virgil, "They're instruments to use for enjoyment, for hunting or target practice." When he was in the woods hunting deer, Keith usually carried the .22 in his belt to pick off rabbits and squirrels. In this part of Alabama, country making a last stand against suburbia, carrying a weapon isn't a felony, it's a family activity. Small boys learn to count from one to .30-30.
As Wesley fell back in the parking lot, numb and bleeding, Keith ran around his car to help. He made certain Wesley was sitting upright and staying conscious. He cradled him, talked to him, acted every bit the man. Wesley recalls asking Keith, "Is it a blank?" Keith replied that the gun was real and loaded. He asked Keith why he pulled it out like that, and Keith replied, "I'm sorry, it was an accident." A paramedic arrived minutes later and Keith was told to move aside.
Wesley went to the hospital by ambulance, stayed 12 days and was back in school on Dec. 16. The bullet had grazed his lip, knocked out two teeth, cracked his jawbone, ricocheted downward, skimmed a tonsil and come to rest in his throat. Aside from having to eat creamed soups, he says the worst part of the hospital stay was listening to the preachers who visited him and explained how difficult it would be for him to forgive Keith for what he had done.
Wesley shakes his head, very slowly, because it's still tender up there. He is sitting on a sofa in his family's double-wide mobile home, logs burning in the fireplace, silver get-well balloons hanging from the ceiling. He holds one hand over the bandages covering his tracheotomy so he doesn't whistle while he talks, and says, "I never thought it was his fault. I figured it was an accident. My mom said I might have trouble sleeping after this. I haven't. It hasn't bothered me at all. I didn't do anything to cause it. But I want to say something like, 'Keith, you didn't have to do it.' "
It seemed to everyone standing around Wesley that Keith was just doing what he was told. He was told to leave care of Wesley to the paramedic, so he did. He was told to move his car, clear a path for the ambulance, so he walked back to the car and got in. Then he picked up the revolver, held it to the back of his head and shot himself dead. "The kind of person Keith was," says his sister Kristy, 20, "if anything went wrong, he'd punish himself."
Like most boys, Keith had caused some pain during his lifetime. His mother, two sisters and grandmother remember each incident clearly, not because of what he did but because of how he felt afterward. He threw a rock that hit his younger sister Kelly when he was 6, and when she bled he couldn't stop apologizing. He and his cousin shot a bird with a BB gun when he was 8, and he cried. When he was 14 he took a friend hunting, and the friend shot a doe and a fawn. "He couldn't stand it," says Kristy. "He said it was his fault because he was the one who took them hunting." He grew up that way, understanding responsibility, and when his grandfather died and his parents divorced this year, he felt the burden even more. "He said he was the only man in the family," says Kristy, "and he was always trying to help everybody. He felt he always had to take care of us."
Keith's death fits no convenient pattern of teenage suicide. He wasn't depressed, withdrawn or moody. His parents' divorce was wrenching, and such a problem is characteristic of teenage suicide, but his family, his school guidance counselor and most of his friends say he was adjusting well. They believe he killed himself because he was too caring a person to absorb what he had done to a friend, too responsible a person to forgive himself for the way he had handled the gun. A girlfriend, Lauren Parrish, 15, says, "There was no way Keith could have lived knowing he hurt someone with something he knew so much about, especially if he thought he had killed Wes. He knew everything about guns and he was so careful. He didn't like people messing around with guns."
Around his friends he was different. Around boys he played like a boy, and what he had to play with were his guns. Tommy Turner, 16, says, "He'd like to act like he was going to shoot somebody but he really wouldn't." Another friend, Scott Fortner, 16, says, "He'd like to scare you now and then. You'd have your back turned and he'd shoot up in the air to make you jump."
While it seems clear that Keith was just playing when he pulled the gun on Wesley, there are only theories as to why he pointed a loaded gun and why he pulled the trigger. Virgil Kitson thinks his son must have loaded the gun weeks earlier, then forgot and pulled the trigger "when the child in him came out." The principal of Chelsea, Glen Frederick, says, "I'm sure he knew better, but to sum it up, he was still 16 years old."
As Keith and Wesley sat together on the blacktop, Wesley tried explaining that he would be all right. He doesn't know if Keith understood. Keith surely saw the blood pouring from Wesley's face. He might not have noticed that Wesley was sitting with his legs spread wide apart, making sure the puddling blood didn't stain his new Reeboks.
Scott Fortner says he and Keith talked just before Keith got back in his car. He says people were yelling for someone to call the sheriff, and Keith turned to him worriedly.
"What's gonna happen?" Keith asked.
"What do you mean?" Scott said.
"What'll they do to me?"
"The cops won't do nothing."
Scott's instincts were correct. Sgt. Billy Thomas of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office says the shooting would have been ruled accidental, and nothing would have been done about the unlicensed handgun.
When Keith got back into his car, the revolver was lying there. Sergeant Thomas says it never had been moved, that Keith dropped it after shooting Wesley and picked it up when he returned to the car. There is another version of the story, a discomfiting version that suggests the gun was thoughtlessly handled and allowed to get back into Keith's hands.
Scott Fortner says he picked up the gun after Keith shot Wesley, emptied out the bullets—seven live rounds and one spent shell—and threw them under the football stands. He says he gave the gun to a teacher, and several people handled it before the gun was put back in Keith's car. Keith's sister Kelly, 15, says she saw someone holding the gun after Wesley was shot and said to herself, "Good, they have the gun."
Why is Scott's version of events disregarded by the sheriff's department? Because Sergeant Thomas says he removed two spent shells from the revolver during his investigation. Since only two shots were fired, he cannot believe that Scott removed a spent shell and threw it under the stands.
Nobody disagrees about what happened after Keith returned to the car. He opened the cylinder and either checked to make certain the hammer would fall on a live round or loaded more bullets. Judith Arnold, the Chelsea guidance counselor, was the nearest witness to Keith's death.
"I asked him to put the gun down," says Arnold, "and he did. I didn't think anything at that point, didn't read what he was planning to do. He picked it up again, looked at me, and I said, 'Put the gun down, Keith.' He said, 'No, I won't.' It was a determined thing. There was fear on his face and his eyes were wild." Tommy Turner says he saw Keith put the gun to his head, holding it upside down with his thumb on the trigger; then he jumped toward the car. "I just barely missed him," Turner says. "A couple seconds more, I could have got the gun."
Wesley did pretty well in the hospital. He got a lot of cards from girls asking him out on dates, which impressed his father, Jerry, a supervisor at Southern Company Services, Inc. Jerry says, "People he's been trying to get a date with who wouldn't have anything to do with him were saying they couldn't wait until he got out so they could have their date." They were too late. By the time he left the hospital, he was going with Carolyn Patrick, 16, who had come to see him almost every day. Going back to school wasn't as painful as he was warned it would be, either. He says, "The only thing different was everybody saying 'hey' and hugging me." He expected that wouldn't last.
Kelly Kitson, Keith's sister, transferred out of Chelsea. For her, going back was too hard. It was Keith's school, and he was doing pretty well. A sophomore, he was good enough in classes that he knew he had a future, good enough in sports that the football coach, was talking to him about trying out next year. He was strong and tall and had about as many girlfriends as a boy could possibly need. He was a fine boy, just a little too careless and a little too sensitive. As his father says, "If Keith had made it to adulthood, he'd have been a hell of a man."
The day he died in his high school parking lot, Keith Kitson was 16 years old. He called himself the man in his family, but his mother still cut his hair. He avoided white sugar but almost always ate Cap'n Crunch for breakfast. He lectured his sisters on gun safety but played games with the handgun he carried in his car. Keith was partly a man, partly a boy, and it killed him.