Tragedy, Tears—& Courage

updated 08/27/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Two days after the cold-blooded carnage that claimed the lives of her brother and two friends, Natasha Aeriel lay in University Hospital in Newark, N.J., struggling to recover from wounds left by a bullet fired into her head at close range. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, investigators paced outside her door, waiting to show her a photo array. Given the no-snitching ethos that governs Newark's mean streets—fearing for their own lives, witnesses to crimes and even crime victims are often unwilling to cooperate with police—they couldn't count on Natasha's help. But when the 19-year-old came to, she did something almost as brazen as the crime itself: She identified one of the men involved in the shootings. "Somehow she gathered the courage to say, 'I will stand up for my friends,'" says Councilman Ronald Rice, who represents the ward where the killings took place. "She has touched us all."

In a year that has already brought Newark's homicide toll to 60, these three slayings—and this one brave survivor—have riveted a nation's attention and galvanized a crime-plagued city. These were the good kids, community-minded college students with a love of music, family and life, who symbolized what Mayor Cory Booker calls "Newark's hope, promise and spirit." With three suspects in custody (thanks in large part to Natasha's help) and police hunting for as many as three more perps, residents showed new resolve to take back their streets. Calls poured into police tip lines; corporations pledged money for a high-tech gunshot detection system; citizens vowed to pump new life into mentoring and curfew programs. "People are stepping forward and making tangible, measurable commitments," says Booker. "This is a defining moment for our city."

Certainly, the city's 274,321 residents don't want to be defined by the events of Aug. 4. At around 11 p.m. that night, Natasha and her trio of constant companions—brother Terrance "T.J.," 18; best friend Iofemi Hightower, 20; and pal Dashon Harvey, 20—arrived at a favorite quiet spot behind the Mount Vernon School in Ivy Hill, one of Newark's lowest crime areas. "They were always laughing; they always had you laughing," says friend Victoria Irvin, 19. "They just wanted to have good, clean fun." Indicative of the type of kids these were, the four had looked for a place where they could play their music without disturbing others. This was it: a set of aluminum bleachers near a small playground. "It was something they stumbled on," says Laquinta Hightower, Iofemi's cousin. "They thought it was safe."

As police have pieced together the attack, two men were already on the playground when the four arrived. When more men and boys, some of them as young as 15, showed up, the friends nervously texted each other via cell phone that it was time to leave. But before they could flee, Natasha was shot. Iofemi, T.J. and Dashon were then marched to a wall and forced to kneel. Then each was shot in the back of the head. "They weren't bothering anybody," says Iofemi's distraught mom, Shalga. Police would later arrest two unidentified 15-year-old boys and Jose Carranza, 28, an illegal immigrant from Peru who was out on $150,000 bail for charges of aggravated assault and sexual abuse of a child. (The attack may have been gang- or robbery-related.)

On Aug. 12, the day after she buried her daughter, Shalga visited Natasha in the hospital. She declined to discuss Natasha's injuries but said "Moochie Baby," as Iofemi called her, was sitting up in bed and poised to make a full recovery. "We were laughing and talking, but we cried, too," Shalga says. "She said her heart is hurting."

It's hard to imagine when that pain will stop. Iofemi had been Natasha's best friend since fifth grade, "each other's right elbow," says Shalga. They marched together in the high school band—Iofemi on drums, Natasha on alto sax—and planned to room together at Delaware State University, where Natasha is a third-year biology major, and Iofemi was about to enter after working to save up for tuition. Iofemi was buried with her white-gloved hands clutching her drumsticks.

Natasha's friend Dashon was already a standout on the Delaware campus, where the psych major had been voted "Mr. Junior." T.J., a charismatic drum major who was ordained as a minister at 14, was about to begin his sophomore year. "He was sunshine," says Dale Goodwin of the nonprofit Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, where T.J. worked with young kids. He was also inseparable from Natasha. "It's gonna be a long mental healing period for her," says their friend Irvin.

For the community, too. But the deaths and Natasha's pain are not in vain. "Over the years a lot of people have turned their backs," says James Harvey, Dashon's dad. "We can't afford to turn our backs any longer."

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