When Monroe Bird III dreams, he’s playing basketball again, his long legs running up the court at Okemah High School where he starred as a prep.
He dreams, and he’s driving to a friend’s house to watch TV.
He dreams, and he’s kissing his girlfriend, or going to the mall.
When Monroe “Trey” Bird dreams, he’s whole again.
It’s when he’s awake that reality sinks in.
First, he can’t feel his toes, then he realizes his legs aren’t responding. His arms won’t move. His eyes will dart around the room, and he’ll hear the rhythmic sounds of the ventilator helping him breathe.
Bird is paralyzed from the neck down, shot through the neck earlier this year by a private security guard at a south Tulsa apartment complex.
“Waking up and not being able to move, it’s on me every day,” Bird said from his bed in living room of the family’s home in Boley, where he lives with his mom and stepfather.
“It’s like when I wake up, it’s back to reality.”
That was going to be the lede to a story I wrote about Trey, to be published later this month. He survived being shot through the neck, crashing into a tree, having his paralyzed body yanked from the car and then, for months, recovering in a hospital bed with a machine helping him breathe.
But all that ended Tuesday night, when family members announced he had died.
I had written about Trey a few times before I’d actually met him. He was shot Feb. 4 outside a south Tulsa apartment complex while in a car with a girlfriend. The security guard, Ricky Stone, told police he had been warned by the complex to run off people who were having sex in the parking lot, so he approached the car and asked for identification.
Both Trey and the girl have denied since the shooting that anything sexual was taking place. Trey lived in Boley, but was staying in Tulsa at the time, living with friends while he worked a part-time job.
One of those friends introduced the two, according to statements the girl made to police, who said Trey had driven her home while they talked about their families.
Trey’s shooting came at a tumultuous time both in Tulsa and nationwide. The conversation about police brutality toward blacks had gained traction, and locally, Trey was the fifth person in less than a month to be shot in what officials termed a “self-defense shooting.”
That definition was something that his family has fought against since. According to Stone, Trey intentionally rammed him with the car in an escape attempt. The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office ruled the shooting justified, saying that Stone had cause to shoot at Trey’s fleeing vehicle since the collision between the two had already occurred.
Stone told police that he yelled: “If you try to hit me, I will shoot.”
Trey’s account differed. He said the sight of a gun-wielding man threatening to shoot him scared him enough that he felt he had no choice but to flee. With Stone standing directly behind Trey’s car, pinning him him in, Trey said he had nowhere to go but backwards, unintentionally colliding with the security guard.
Some facts that are not in contention: Stone had marijuana in his possession at the time of the shooting, admitted to police that he would test positive if given a blood test. Months after the shooting, he was charged with a misdemeanor for drug possession.
Another inarguable fact: Stone, who knew a young girl was inside the vehicle, fired at it three times as was driving away.
It’s doubtful Monroe’s death will have an effect on Stone’s case. The security guard, knowing he would likely face drug charges, moved to Texas before the charge was filed, court records show, and it’s unlikely he would be extradited here on the outstanding warrant filed in Tulsa County.
‘Justice for Monroe’
I first met Johnny Magness, Trey’s stepfather, months ago during a rally outside of the courthouse. It was 6 p.m. and pouring rain, so most of the passing downtown traffic had come and gone, but Johnny still paced the sidewalk with his megaphone, shouting “Justice for Monroe” on repeat.
At the time, Trey was at a Tulsa hospital, hooked up to a breathing machine, and bills were mounting. The plan had been for Trey to leave Tulsa for a rehabilitation facility in Houston, where he would be weaned off his ventilator, and his physical rehab would be accelerated.
Zondra Magness, Trey’s mom, said doctors told her that hope for Trey’s recovery was not lost, that, over time, he might regain some use of body parts he could no longer feel. But that time was running out — if some connections inside his body remained, they wouldn’t last forever.
Time was of the essence.
But that’s when the family received more devastating news: Their insurance company, armed with the DA’s ruling on the shooting, had denied their claims. The hospital told the family the time was coming where Trey, who was unable to breathe for more than a few minutes on his own, would have to leave.
“You look around at all these shootings, where people die and there are riots and protests,” Johnny told me that day. “And you look at Trey, and I think because he lived, no one cared. It’s like everyone just forgot about it.”
Zondra had spent every day at the hospital with her son. He needed to be turned every two hours to prevent bed sores, and at times, he needed encouragement to continue on. She would sing to him when his anxiety rose, as it did every time he woke up, and she would inspire him to train himself to breathe without the ventilator.
For 110 days, she spent almost every hour by her son’s side.
“After that long, we thought we were a part of the furniture,” she told me.
But upon hearing that Trey was going to be sent home, Zondra took on a new responsibility: full-time nurse.
She knew that sooner or later Trey was coming to the family’s small house in Boley, and they would need to purchase a full-sized hospital bed with a breathing machine. They needed to teach themselves how to lift all 6 feet and 8 inches of Trey out of that bed and into a wheelchair.
They needed to plan on the possibility of being full-time caretakers for the rest of Trey’s life.
And when Trey came home, things improved, Zondra said, though it wasn’t easy.
A GoFundMe page the family set up had garnered attention on Twitter and Facebook, and raised more than $30,000, which allowed the family to buy a proper hospital bed. But when it came, it was in pieces, so Zondra and Johnny spent many nights figuring out how to put it together and make it work.
“It’s not like a recliner, that’s for sure,” Johnny said. “It was a little more complicated than that.”
The bed was nearly too big for the living room, pushing all the furniture to the side. And Trey’s long limbs were too big for a standard bed, so it needed an extender.
Even after that was installed, his long legs still dangled off the edge.
That was a problem, because, unable to move his feet, circulation would eventually be cut off. So Zondra rigged something up with styrofoam and and elastic bands to keep her son’s feet propped up.
“It hasn’t been perfect,” she said. “But what is? I’m a positive person, so I like to focus on the positives. That’s just how I am.”
‘I don’t want to live this life’
The first time I actually met Trey was this past May, in his hospital room. My hope was to be able to chronicle his recovery, and I told him that I’d stay in touch. He wasn’t particularly chipper that day, but there was hope in his voice.
When I traveled to Boley last month to visit with him and his mother, it wasn’t hard to sense the despair in his voice. The insurance company was still balking at paying for his rehab, and Zondra said they couldn’t find a facility for him that didn’t need at least a $100,000 down payment.
Trey told me that day that he loved to sleep, because when he dreamed, he would almost always be running.
It was the little things, like looking to his left and seeing his sister scratch her leg would drive him crazy, he said. He made his mom close the blinds, because he hated to look outside, to a place he couldn’t get without help.
“I know we’re supposed to stay positive, like looking for a miracle,” he said. “I know life goes on. But I don’t want to live this life for the rest of my life. Sometimes I wish I had cancer or something, at least that way I could move around.”
I could tell from his voice that he was struggling, so I changed the subject. His bed faced the family’s television, and I could see that Netflix was queued up, so we started talking about TV shows.
He told me that he had binge-watched Orange Is The New Black, a drama/comedy hybrid show about a woman’s prison that can get quite raunchy. At mention of the show, Zondra threw her hands up in the air and laughed.
“I have to leave the room when he puts that on, I’m an old woman and very conservative,” she chuckled. “I can’t be seeing all that.”
Trey’s eyes lit up when I mentioned the NBA Finals, which started three days before he got home from the hospital and had ended right before my visit. His friends would come hang out for all the games, he said, and even though he was rooting for LeBron James (James’ Cavaliers fought valiantly, but lost the series 4-2 to Golden State,) it was nice to feel relatively normal for a time.
“But I know it won’t always be like that,” he told me. “People aren’t going to always want to come over here to hang out with me in this bed.”
I haven’t spoken with Zondra or Johnny yet, other than to text them last night to say how sorry I was for what happened.
I lost my brother in 2012 to suicide, so I know the pain and grief that comes with the sudden loss of a loved one. I know the conflicting sense of relief in knowing your struggling family member is now pain free. And I know the guilt that the latter emotion brings up inside you.
I hope they navigate those emotions well, because they’re complicated and agonizing. Trey’s journey on Earth may be over, but theirs isn’t.
When my brother died, I inherited some of his stuff. And that stuff sat in my apartment for weeks, untouched.
Every time I would look one of the boxes, filled with his books or movies, I would have this urge to get as far away from it as possible. The emotions were too strong.
But they were also mementos, and it felt wrong to get rid of them. I struggled for weeks before I finally donated everything.
I picture Johnny, now, taking apart that hospital bed in his living room, and it makes me sad.
If you have time, visit the Facebook page the Magness family set up following their son’s shooting and send some messages of support. I know they’ll need it.