Brazen shootings of best friends remain unsolved
Pair were close friends with Oscar Grant and all three are now buried side by side in Hayward; families still searching for justice
They were inseparable in life. Now, they’re inseparable in death.
Buried shoulder-to-shoulder in a Hayward cemetery, their tombstones arranged in a neat row, Oscar Grant III, Johntue Caldwell and Kristofer Rafferty’s lives all were cut short by a bullet. But while Grant’s death at the hands of a BART police officer 10 years ago ignited protests and ushered in a new era of awareness and anger over police misconduct, the violent deaths some years later of two of Grant’s best friends have largely gone unnoticed, leaving their families desperately searching for some semblance of justice.
The circumstances were different, said Jack Bryson of Richmond, whose own two sons were with Grant, Caldwell and Rafferty on the train platform at Fruitvale station when Grant was shot, but their stories are intertwined.
When they were in elementary school in Hayward, the three boys gathered under a set of bleachers and took a blood oath, swearing their fidelity to each other as brothers, said Sharon Rafferty, Kristofer Rafferty’s mom. It was a bond forged from a pain they all shared: the absence of their fathers, said Zeporia Smith, Caldwell’s mother.
Together with two other close friends, they shared their early lives in Hayward playing basketball, baseball and football, spending their afternoons and weekends at each other’s houses, Bryson said. Later in life, they helped raise each other’s children.
“We always talk about children or young men who are murdered by the police,” he said, “but we don’t talk about … anyone else murdered by violence. No one is talking about that.”
Caldwell and Rafferty’s deaths were particularly brazen. Both men were shot in broad daylight in Hayward. Both shootings were in public with witnesses providing descriptions of the alleged assailants to police, according to Caldwell’s and Rafferty’s mothers, who both live in Antioch. Both cases resulted in arrests. But none of the suspects have ever been charged.
Caldwell was on his way to sell a car in Hayward when he was killed in 2011, two years after Grant died, Smith said. He had been planning to use the $1,500 he expected to earn from the sale to take his two sons and their mother, along with Grant’s
daughter and her mom, to Disneyland. Caldwell was the godfather to Grant’s daughter and made sure she and her mom were taken care of when Grant died, Smith said.
When Caldwell was killed, Kris Rafferty played the same role for Caldwell’s kids, taking them on trips or buying them clothes and toys. Both men were trying to become better fathers to their children, said Sharon Rafferty. They had made mistakes, she said, but they were trying to set out on a different track.
Kris Rafferty was shot in 2016 on his 30th birthday and died several days later, Sharon Rafferty said. He had been planning to start a new internship in construction management the next day, a job that would have put him and his family on firm financial footing. Caldwell was training to become an electrician, Smith said, and she’d often drive him to his classes in Fremont.
“I felt so good doing that,” she said. “They were becoming men.”
The lack of criminal charges — let alone a conviction — keeps Sharon Rafferty up at night. Maintaining pressure on the Hayward police and Alameda County District’s Attorney office to find justice for her son and hold his killers accountable has become a solitary crusade, she said. It’s filled with messages that go unanswered and appeals that seem to fall on deaf ears, she said.
“I have no faith in the justice system — absolutely none — and, it started with Oscar,” Sharon Rafferty said. “My concern is that I’m alone, but I’m doing what I need to do to get justice for my son.”
Sharon Rafferty took her son’s case to Nancy O’Malley, the District Attorney for Alameda County, hoping it would spur some results. The case remains in O’Malley’s office, said Lt. Guy Jakund with the investigations bureau at Hayward Police Department. He says he understands the frustration both Sharon Rafferty and Smith feel. O’Malley’s office deferred to Hayward police for comment.
“I have full empathy for them,” Jakund said. “You try to do right by the family and have empathy and try to do what you can to bring justice to who did this to their sons.”
Still, he said, in order to bring charges against the suspects in both killings, they need irrefutable evidence.
“The toughest part is not being able to get strong enough evidence together to get a charge,” he said. “We’re still very hopeful that we will.”
While Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mom, sees a deeper injustice in her son’s death because it was at the hands of a police officer, who was entrusted with powers that ordinary citizens are not, she acknowledged the hurt Sharon Rafferty and Smith still feel.
“The pain is the same,” Johnson said.
But, for Bryson, the deaths of Grant, Caldwell and Rafferty are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. They can all be traced back to a long history of racial injustice in the country, through systems that first created urbanized ghettos, then criminalized poverty, said Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.
Bryson has become an unlikely activist in the wake of Grant’s death, a conviction compounded by seeing his sons’ friends slain in the streets.
“Oscar has woken me up and given me the greenlight to speak on not only police brutality but the violence that goes on in our community,” he said, “because all of them are in the same category. They’re all senseless murders.”