The Passing of Whitney Gray
by S. Daily Warren
Life came to a swift and tragic end for Whitney Gray around 8:30pm Sunday night on October 16, 2016. She leaves behind 2 sons, one 6 months old and the other 3 years. I know because I was there when she was shot and when she breathed her last breath on the sidewalk of the 1600 block of Sterling in Independence.
I was riding home from seeing a friend that night. Heading north on Sterling just past 23rd street I noticed 2 cars driving erratically, looking for all the world like a road rage incident about to happen. There’s a saying among motorcyclists: he with the most tires wins. Smart riders stay away from this nonsense because our speed and agility is our only defense, so when a white truck started tailgating a minivan within inches I just hung back.
At the wheel of her minivan, her two sons safely strapped in car seats behind her and her 16-year old niece in the passenger seat, Whitney Gray pulled up to the light at Sterling and Winner Road in the left hand turning lane. She was probably heading home because she lives around Van Horn High School where another fatal shooting occurred about a month ago. She was even interviewed on Fox 4 news. The white truck driven by the now-incarcerated Christopher Taylor deliberately pulled up parallel to her. It looked like words were being exchanged and the niece stuck her arm out of the passenger window, either gesturing or as some claim throwing a drink at the other driver.
The light turns green and Whitney stays put, waiting on the green left-turn arrow, but Taylor pulls forward slightly. I heard what I thought at first was a car backfire but instantly realized it was a gun shot, and it was no .22 but a heavier caliber weapon. Whitney’s vehicle moved slowly forward and to the left, bounced gently off the curb then meandered back right across all 4 lanes of traffic, coming to a stop in the front yard of someone’s house in the 1600 block. The niece jumps out of the vehicle and is screaming that she had told him there were kids in the car. The driver’s side door opens and a bleeding Whitney Gray steps unsteadily out, then collapses to the sidewalk. Myself and a good Samaritan by the name of Mike are the first there, heading straight for Whitney. Mike rips off his sweatshirt and tries to staunch the bleeding while I call 911. Neither of us are EMTs or cops, we don’t know exactly what to do. While he’s trying to save Whitney’s life I go around to the niece, who is understandably hysterical. I have to shake her to get her to tell me Whitney’s name, then I see the two children in the back, both crying. The 3-year old wants to know where his mother is. They both are miraculously unharmed and I try to calm the little boy by telling him it will be all right, but it’s not going to be. I pull Jordan over to the children and tell her she has to look after them, then I go back to Whitney.
She’s fading fast. I had never seen a literal pool of blood before. She’d been shot directly in the chest, center mass. I grab her hand and begin speaking her name, gently shaking her leg, telling her that help is on the way, to stay with us, that her babies need her. I would have said anything. I can feel her squeezing my hand, but it most likely was reflexive, something trauma victims experience that is called decorticate posturing. She never said a word. Her big beautiful blue eyes glazed over, she exhaled once, then she was gone.
Independence police descended like a wrathful storm within minutes. I’ve never seen such professionalism as they immediately took complete control over an impossibly chaotic scene. Witnesses are separated because in our shock our version of events gets confused, as I quickly found out. I saw a white SUV. No, it was a truck with a camper shell. No it was a truck without a camper shell. And all the while the cops are flying into action. One officer later told me that when something like this happens the detectives work 24/7 until something breaks, that they hold on to their mission like a bulldog, and that’s what they did. Their tireless and exemplary efforts nabbed the bad guy in about 36 hours 2 states away. But there was something else.
I once lived on a block where one house almost certainly contained a meth lab. Everyone on the street knew it. Independence PD sent an officer out to just sit outside this house, and the occupants decided about that time that leaving the area for good was an excellent idea. But while the officer was there I rode up on my Triumph, showed him my empty hands and thanked him for what he was doing without going into any specifics. He didn’t say anything and his gaze returned back to the house. Genuinely appreciative, I offered him a copy of the motorcycle magazine I work for. He said curtly, “I don’t do motorcycles” and his demeanor made it clear this was the end of the conversation. I thanked him again, put my helmet back on and rode back up the street to my home. He hadn’t said another word, just went back to doing his job. This was his game face. I knew about the game face but it’s always disconcerting to see, and I suspect it’s quite terrible when pointed at you.
When the officers flooded the scene, put up the tape, rounded up the witnesses and started casting their ever-widening nets to catch the assailant, they were all wearing their game faces. Not to say they weren’t polite, they were. Even gentle when it came to me and Mike as witnesses. You could feel their compassion, yet another reminder that these are human beings doing a rough job. A young woman had been shot, mortally. But when they saw the children in the back a mask of ice descended over the face of one of the officers, then he started barking orders to get the kids away from the car. He himself, gentle as a grandfather, scooped up the babies and got them into the hands of the niece and female officers, and it took me a while to figure out why. He was preventing any further trauma to their young lives. That was police work AND humanity on a level I’d never seen. It didn’t take a forensics expert to see that the trajectory of the bullet, after punching a fatal hole through Whitney was heading directly for the 8-month old behind her. She literally took a bullet for her son. The officers saw all this in the blink of an eye and the look on their faces when seeing a woman slain and her children in the line of fire was indeed terrible to behold.
My name is Spencer Warren. I ride a motorcycle, do some writing and photography for a magazine and eek out a meager living doing some sewing and leather work. I’m nobody. I couldn’t even get past the initial shock to give any truly useful information to the police and God knows how they sort through the multiple versions and discrepancies. I didn’t do anything except offer the most rudimentary expression of human dignity.
There were so many other things I wish I’d done. I should have been able to perform CPR. I should have thought to try and stop the bleeding from the exit wound. I could have chased the shooter and at least got a license plate number. Instead all I did was hold a dying woman’s hand and helplessly call out her name, trying to get her to maintain her fragile hold on life and in the end I couldn’t even do that.
There are a couple of takeaways here. First, I never cease to be amazed by how tough women are when they need to be. Whitney was shot in the chest at fairly close range by a large caliber weapon, yet still managed to navigate her vehicle carrying her children to a safe place off the busy street. Then she got out of the vehicle under her own power and even managed to stand for a few moments and take one or two faltering steps. That’s toughness. Mama bear toughness.
Maybe most importantly, don’t escalate. Walk away. No one ever actually wins a fight and I’ve never had an argument worth dying for.
Also, training-training-training. It’s been a few years since I’ve had CPR or first aid training and when the moment of crisis came I remembered precisely nothing. But most of all I was overwhelmed by the compassion, seriousness, responsiveness, professionalism and incredible skill of the Independence Police. They were the cavalry coming over the hill. They were and are the real heroes here; courageous, tireless, under-appreciated, devoted to duty and deeply human. They’re out there every day and night, watching over us. They are the thin blue line standing between our civilization and utter anarchy. Their families never know if they’ll even be coming home each night. And on this particular Sunday night I received the smallest, bitter sample of some of the horrors they have to deal with daily and the ensuing nightmares that plague them. For the rest of my days I’ll see the beautiful face of Whitney Gray exhaling her last breath.
Rest in the sweetest peace, Whitney. May God bless your children and your loved ones and the hole your tragic death has left in their lives.