A funny thing happened in the 15 months since Jeremey Lake was shot to death in the street outside the dimly lit brick home he shared with his mom and aunt.
Most people forgot about his case.
Such is life in the 24-hour news cycle. Another high-profile shooting happens and people move on, even from a case where a mixed-race teenager was allegedly shot to death by a white, off-duty cop.
In a way, Pam Wilkins said, the trajectory of her nephew’s story was helpful as the family sought to move on. No one wants to relive that day over and over, she said, though she still struggles with memories of seeing Lake’s body lying on her front lawn.
“We’re still in the same house, so every time we go outside the front door, I kind of have to shake that vision, because I can still visualize Jeremey laying there in a pool of blood,” she said.
Since Lake was shot to death Aug. 4, 2014, Wilkins said she has focused on moving forward on both the legal case against Shannon Kepler as well as the civil case filed in Lake’s name. Authorities allege that Kepler killed Lake, shot at his daughter, Lisa Kepler, who was dating Lake, fired again at Lake’s little brother Michael, then sped away in a black Chevrolet Suburban.
But Wilkins and her family recently got to take a break from that focus. Because her nephew left something behind for them.
‘He heard the heartbeat’
While Wilkins is talking about her nephew, his “spitting image” is just a few feet away, awkwardly bouncing from person to person, targeting whoever has the closest piece of pizza.
That’s what brought Wilkins and Lake’s mother, Sherri Hamilton, to this small east Tulsa apartment. A little more than two months after Lake was killed, his former girlfriend gave birth to his son, also named Jeremey.
Family members call the brown-haired, blue-eyed boy “Little Man” or “Little Jeremey.” He’s officially named “Jeremey Alan Duwayne Lake II” and he recently celebrated his first birthday.
“I don’t know if this sounds gloating, but I love to be able to look at him and be like, ‘I’m the only one that has a piece of Jeremey left,” Heather Winters, the boy’s mother, said.
Lake and Winters had been expectant parents once before, but she had miscarried. They were devastated, but vowed to try again.
When she found out she was pregnant again, that’s when Lake “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Wilkins said.
“My daughter has three kids, and Jeremey was always asking her for tips on how to hold a baby, or how to feed a baby,” Wilkins said. “When he found out Heather was pregnant again, that’s when he got accepted into welding school. He was so excited to be a father.
“Some people have said to me, ‘Oh it’s a shame he died not knowing he was going to be a father.’ But he knew; he went to a doctor’s appointment. He heard the heartbeat.”
Three months and six days after Lake was killed, his son — 21 inches and 5.9 pounds — was born.
Winters is sitting on a small chair outside her second floor apartment. She manages to hold onto the curious toddler for a few minutes, but finally relents and lets him run inside to pester the partygoers munching away on birthday pizza.
“He gets that stubbornness from his dad, for sure,” she said, laughing. “Sometimes I’ll tell him no, and I’ll put on my mean face so he knows I’m serious, and he’ll just laugh and smile at me. I didn’t need a paternity test to know he was Jeremey’s. He acts just like him.”
But the paternity test was important for a different reason. With the civil suit looming, Wilkins said the family was eager to establish her nephew’s paternity, so any judgment would be given to Jeremey’s son.
“That’s what needed to be done,” she said. “Because Jeremey can’t be here to take care of his son.”
On Oct. 1, they got the news they were after. Winters triumphantly posted a picture of the test to the “Justice for Jeremey” Facebook page Wilkins had set up after the shooting.
Its caption simply states: “My son is Jeremey’s.”
The document stated the probability of little Jeremey belonging to big Jeremey was 99.9998 percent.
“I was laughing,” Wilkins said, “because people had doubted that Little Jeremey was his son. I said people shouldn’t doubt now, because it’s only 99.9999-whatever percent.”
Waiting for the trial
To say the last 15 months have not been easy for the family members Lake left behind would be an understatement.
First, Lake’s remaining relatives found themselves caught in the ongoing discussion of race and police brutality and all the media attention that comes with it.
Then Kepler’s wife, also a police officer, was released from jail following her arrest for allegedly aiding Kepler after the shooting. No charges were filed against Gina Kepler and she went back to work for TPD.
Lisa Kepler — described by friends of the Keplers as a troubled child the family had adopted — left town. Lisa Kepler agreed to an interview with The Frontier, then declined, saying she had moved back in with her biological father and was anticipating a hospital stay.
Then Wilkins was forced to file a protective order against a witness to her nephew’s shooting.
Joshua Mills, who told reporters he held Lake in his arms as the teenager bled to death, and his wife Katherine, allegedly destroyed some of Wilkins’ property, damaged her car, and said they would not testify on Lake’s behalf unless Wilkins paid them money.
Then Shannon Kepler, who had bonded out of jail, was allowed to retire from TPD, getting a healthy retirement check. Legal? Yes. But it angered Lake’s family.
“He took an oath to protect and serve, and he took Jeremey from us. How does that make sense?” Wilkins asked.
Now Shannon Kepler’s attorney, Richard O’Carroll, is squabbling with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office, saying prosecutors have not provided him with some evidence he has requested. The trial is set to begin Jan. 11, but the ongoing issues are threatening to delay it.
All of that leaves Lake’s family frustrated. The night before the preliminary hearing last December, Wilkins said she got a subpoena from O’Carroll’s office. Confused, she called Kunzweiler to ask what to do.
“I said, ‘Doesn’t he know I’ll be a hostile witness for him?’” she said. “(Kunzweiler) told me it was just to keep me out of the courtroom.” (People subpoenaed to testify cannot be present in a courtroom for anyone else’s testimony.)
“We want justice, total justice,” Wilkins said. “We’re ready to get this over with. We wonder if (Kepler is) going to get a plea deal. We wonder if he’s going to get away with the whole thing. His attorney is trying to get Kunzweiler kicked off the case. We don’t know what’s going on half the time.”
Winters has the same fears, saying she is afraid Kepler will be let go.
“Just the fact that it has taken this long and they’re just starting the trial, and even it might not actually happen when they say it will, it’s just frustrating,” she said.
For now, Winters is trying to focus on family.
As more people began to show up for little Jeremey’s party, Winters finished the interview. She was afraid the boy would bother people attending the party, so she wanted to go inside and make sure he was behaving.
But when she walked in, past the makeshift wooden baby gate on her apartment’s front door, she found her son sitting peacefully in Wilkins’ arms.
“Jeremey left a piece of himself behind that we cherish,” Wilkins said. “He’s not here with us but in a way, he is.”