Aug. 31, 2018 the lives of Mary Snipes and her family changed forever when her eldest son, Felix Snipes, fell victim to a fatal shooting.
She will never forget that night. It’s engraved, she said, on her “heart, mind and soul.”
It was a Friday. Her husband, Willie, received a call as he prepared to take to the field. A longtime coach, Willie serves as an assistant coach to the Junction City High School football team and it was the first game of the season.
But when he received that call, he immediately called his wife.
Mary knew something was up when she received a call from her husband during a game.
“When I saw my light flashing on the phone, looked at it, saw Willie’s number, said ‘okay, what’s going on? Why’s he calling me when it’s game time — almost game time?’” she said. “I picked up the phone and he told me to ‘hurry up and get to the hospital.’”
He told Mary that Felix had been shot and was about to be airlifted from the hospital via helicopter to Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka.
“I just started screaming,” she said.
She dropped her youngest child off at her in-laws' house and sped to the hospital, where she and her husband watched from the parking lot as Felix was wheeled from the hospital and loaded onto the helicopter by EMTs.
They wouldn’t let the Snipes family go near their son, which Mary said hurt because she couldn’t go to him and comfort him, to let him know they were there.
As the helicopter took off, a police officer told them to go ahead to Topeka and so they did.
“Right to this day, I cannot handle the sound of a helicopter,” Mary said.
The hardest thing, she said, was that no one told them what was going on.
She had no idea until the case went to court what his death had been like — if he’d been crying or screaming or in pain — she said.
Mary found out that Felix had been lucid and talking after he was shot from a video that was shown during the court proceedings. Felix calm and was able to give his name to the responding officer — something she said offered her a measure of peace.
A soldier waited with Felix after he had been shot, Mary said — the only person who stopped to help her son as he lay there, wounded. The soldier stayed there the entire time.
She recalls hearing someone had said that the man wearing white pants wouldn’t survive. There were two men shot in the attack that claimed Felix’s life and she had no idea until much later if the man in the white pants was her son or not.
This is another thing she learned during the course of the trial.
Mary still has the last text Felix sent her, which she will never delete.
“He was getting ready to leave Junction,” she said. “And I told him, I was glad that he was getting ready to go.”
He told her he understood — knew she wanted him to leave his hometown.
She recalls, in the aftermath of Felix’s shooting, lying awake in bed with her husband, both of them in disbelief.
Mary said she screamed and cried then — asked why this had happened to her family.
She was determined the world would hear Felix’s story.
“Somebody’s going to know what happened,” she said. “Somebody’s going to know his name.”
Her husband warned her no one would listen to their son’s story, but she disagreed.
“Somebody’s going to listen,” Mary said. “I don’t care where I have to go for somebody to listen to what happened to our son. But somebody’s going to listen.”
Mary remembers what her son was like growing up. He was protective of his two siblings — Shemika and Travis — and loving.
Felix had a penchant for the limelight — he attracted it.
“He loved to sing, he loved to dance,” she said, right up until the week he was shot.
Mary still has home videos of him.
“We cried a little bit — I cried a little bit — and laughed,” she said, watching them. “He was more or less a happy kid — somebody who always wanted everybody to get along with each other.”
It was difficult, she said, to deal with what had happened to Felix in part because, as a mother, she felt it was her duty to protect him regardless of how old he was.
The loss of Felix damaged her trust in others.
“There’s something that is precious and a gift that was taken for us,” Mary said. “I have always been protective of our children. Now I’m even more protective … This experience gives you a sense of being more cautious than ever.”
Mary has been a mother for a long time and she said things have changed for parents over the years. When her eldest children, Felix and Shemika — were growing up, she taught them the usual things. Bad touch versus good touch, stranger danger and similar.
Today’s parents, she said, must teach their children so much more.
“You have to teach kids about more and more things … Anything can happen any place,” Mary said.
Mass shootings have become so common in schools and in other venues children routinely go through drills and lessons on how best to survive them, to the point where a large percentage of teens told Pew Research Center they were worried a shooting would happen at their school.
According to Pew, 57 percent of teens polled were concerned about their school experiencing a shooting, according to www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/18/a-majority-of-u-s-teens-fear-a-shooting-could-happen-at-their-school-and-most-parents-share-their-concern/ .
In the aftermath of Felix’s loss, Mary has learned all about this and preached it to others at every opportunity.
In the aftermath, she coped through faith, prayer, and support from the people she loves.
She has also coped by standing up and talking about what her family has endured and how she believes it might have been prevented.
Mary founded the Junction City chapter of national advocacy group Moms Demand Action after her son was shot, in part because there were no real resources for people such as herself and her family who had been victims of gun violence.
The only local resource Mary could find was one for victims of domestic violence and another for victims of drunk drivers — all different situations than she and her family had found themselves in.
She remembers looking for help after the shooting, calling and out-of-state number and being redirected to a lawyer — something she neither wanted nor needed.
The Snipes family needed a support network, she said, not legal help.
Mary persisted and tracked down what she was looking for — people without the support of which she said she would likely not have made it.
Her quest led her to speaking with now-Gov. Laura Kelly while Kelly was still on the campaign trail and to the group Moms Demand Action. She attended meetings in Manhattan and events in Topeka before determining Junction City needed a branch of its own.
“It’s a great feeling, because there are individuals out there that won’t speak up,” she said, of being able to be a voice for others in situations similar to her own.
Also, she said, it is good to be able to take action and honor her son in a productive way.
“He will be continued; forever loved — honored — eternally,” she said. “I say his name again — Felix. Felix Snipes.”
National Gun Violence Survivors Week started Feb. 1 and will run until Feb. 8. The City Commission of Junction City acknowledged the week of awareness during one of its January meetings.
Mary hopes people will take the time to remember victims — such as Felix and all those who knew and loved him — and to take action to end gun violence and understand what she really intends with her activism.
“Individuals think you’re out there trying to take weapons away from them,” she said. “That’s not what you’re doing. You’re out there talking about gun safety, you’re out there talking about taking guns out of the hands of criminals. You’re out there talking about not having individuals with guns that are having mental issues or that are dangerous to themselves and others. We’re talking about safety. I want to live in a safe community. So you’re talking about having other people living in a safe community. Everybody wants to live in a safe community.”