Silence blanketed the corner of University of Virginia Grounds around the school’s chapel.
Some 500 people had gathered there to honor the memory of D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr., the football players shot and killed by a gunman on Grounds less than half a mile away exactly one year ago.
A mass of students, faculty, staff and community members stood in a broken circle on the fresh-fallen leaves around the chapel. Others watched on from the nearby Rotunda and across McCormick Road.
They kept a respectful distance as family and family, classmates and teammates of the slain slowly filtered into the chapel, a sandstone structure whose 19th-century Gothic Revival architecture stands in sharp contrast to Thomas Jefferson’s Neoclassical, red-brick Academical Village next door. Among the select few permitted to enter were UVa President Jim Ryan, football coach Tony Elliott, a number of his players and Happy Perry, the mother of D’Sean Perry.
The doors closed behind them at 12:54 p.m. A minute later, the crowd stood motionless, some in tears, as "Amazing Grace" rang from the carillon. The song was followed by three single chimes, one for each of the lives lost on Nov. 13, 2022.
Heads were bowed, silent prayers were made and tears fell to the ground as for nearly four minutes the crowd observed a moment of silence. Hundreds of people remained even 10 minutes after the bells had stopped ringing, still and silent.
Football coaches and players were not made available to the press. They had asked for space during “a day of reflection.”
But less than an hour before, one player did speak.
Will Bettridge, who wears No. 41 in honor of his late friend D’Sean Perry, addressed Happy Perry in the auditorium of Old Cabell Hall.
“Every day I am reminded,” Bettridge told the woman he calls a second mother. “But because of you and because of your fight, I keep going.”
Happy Perry embraced him before he walked off stage.
Bettridge was one of the closing speakers at a gathering Monday that centered survivors of gun violence. Hosted by the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the event was meant to help the UVa community heal.
“Today, we are not here to debate public policy,” Batten School Dean Ian Solomon told the audience, “but rather to share stories.”
That audience of some 100 people included Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Charlottesville as well as Cavaliers football player Mike Hollins, who was shot in the back during last year’s shooting but made a full recovery.
On stage were the loved ones of people lost to gun violence.
A’Dorian Murray-Thomas’ father was robbed and murdered two blocks from her New Jersey home. Kevin Parker survived the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. Denzel Brown founded an anti-gun violence organization in 2021 only to lose his younger brother to gun violence last year. Dr. Tracy Wells’ son was murdered by a friend at just 15 years old.
And next to them sat Happy Perry.
The group spoke of life after loss: the difficulties of doing even simple tasks, the importance of their faith and their mission to speak on behalf of those taken too soon.
“If you picture pain as a tunnel, you don’t get to go around it, you don’t get to go above it, you don’t get to go below it,” Parker told the crowd. “Walking through the tunnel is very hard, but it’s something that has to be done.”
The group shared their own experiences of walking through that tunnel. Wells said she had trouble going to the grocery store after losing her son nearly three years ago. Hearing the sound of a crying baby would make her faint, a subconscious reminder of the intimate moments she spent raising her infant son.
It was her first time speaking publicly about her loss, she said.
“Bear with me,” Wells told the crowd, clearly emotional. “I’m going to do the best that I can.”
Brown, who traveled to the event from Washington, D.C., said he was there to support those on stage. He easily could’ve been killed instead of his younger brother, he said. His own car had been struck by bullets, and he’d have been dead if he was in it at the time. He carries one of those bullets with him as a reminder of his close brush with death.
Murray-Thomas is in her 20s. She remarked that she is now older than the teenager who killed her father.
“How different his life would have looked if he had opted to pick up a book instead of a gun,” she said. “The truth is something died in him long before he pulled the trigger. And so no one can begin to understand the pain as precisely as anyone else is feeling it, especially when it comes to murder.”
They all stressed that the grieving process for each survivor is unique. Wells spoke of converting pain into purpose. Happy Perry said she’s had to find the strength to get up each morning and keep going.
Just as her son always kept her busy when he was young, she said he’s also keeping her busy now.
“Every day he gives me something else to do, and I’m going to get it done,” she said.
As the gathering came to an end, Brown told The Daily Progress his time in Charlottesville had been beautiful.
“Just being in a space where everything occurred, it’s given me a perspective on what it means to be in a community where families, mothers, close family members have been struck by grief and a traumatic event,” he said.
Everyone sitting beside him on stage were survivors in their own way, he said. To share stories with them was an opportunity to heal.
“It was integrating and invigorating,” Brown said. “It was kind of another source of life and inspiration. A source of radiance.”
Monday’s memorials and gatherings came as the public waits for the university to release an independent, external review of the shooting conducted at the order of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares. Miyares transmitted the report to UVa in October, but the university still has not made it public.
“University leadership is currently reviewing the report to ensure factual accuracy, as well as the report’s recommendations,” UVa said in a statement at the time. It claimed it would release the report in early November.
The independent review was meant to look into the order of events that led to the 2022 tragedy and examine any missed warning signs and how a student and the only suspect in the shooting, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., obtained an armory of weapons on a college campus that does not permit firearms.
Jones was on a chartered bus with Chandler, Davis and Perry the night of Nov. 13, 2022, on their way back from a field trip to Washington, D.C., with other classmates. Jones is accused of opening fire on those next to him once the bus had returned to Grounds. Chandler, Davis, and Perry were killed; Hollins and another student on board, Marlee Morgan, were injured. Jones reportedly fled the scene and was captured after a 12-hour manhunt.
He has been held at Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail since then and faces 13 charges, including aggravated murder, aggravated malicious wounding and using a firearm in commission of a felony. A single conviction of aggravated murder carries a life sentence in Virginia.
Both the attorney general and university officials have declined to share the review of the shooting, citing attorney-client privilege.
Regardless of whether the report absolves or damns the university, Monday offered an opportunity for the UVa community and survivors of gun violence to come together in united grief. For some, and perhaps especially for Happy Perry, it allowed a space to reflect on a loss that will take a long time to overcome.
“This has been rough. But with God all things are possible, and so I find my strength in knowing that I need to move forward. And the love and the legacy of D’Sean will move on and will grow,” Perry said on stage before taking a pause. “And I’m going to be OK.”