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Unintended targets | Mother watches daughter's recovery from a distance

Jasmine Johnson, a Mizzou student, was studying inside her Alton home when she was struck by stray bullet

ALTON, Ill. — The last time Shawntaya Wagner saw her only daughter, blood was pouring from her mouth, her nose and her ears.

The night of April 8, the sound of gunshots startled Wagner from her sleep. She grabbed her 8-year-old son as he slept next to her. His big sister, Jasmine Kay Johnson, was home from college and staying in his room. 

Wagner rushed to Jasmine. At first, she worried her daughter could be having a seizure.

Unbeknownst to her, two stray bullets had pierced the exterior wall of the family’s Alton home. One of the bullets lodged in Wagner’s headboard. The other traveled through Wagner’s bedroom wall and struck her 22-year-old daughter in the head as she studied for her final work as a senior journalism major. The bullet remains lodged in her left cheek.

A police officer showed Wagner the hole in her wall. That’s when she realized her daughter had been shot, and that she and her son were just inches from where another bullet had ripped through their home.

This past week, Madison County prosecutor announced charges against two men for the shooting.

“I never wished death on anybody, no matter what the outcome would have been,” Wagner said. “That's just not my heart. But they definitely deserve to be punished and serve the time. But they actually almost took three lives. Most people don't even realize that.”

Credit: Jasmine Kay Johnson family
Jasmine Kay Johnson with her mom Shawntaya Wagner (left) and little brother RJ Cannon (center).

Wagner has only been able to see her daughter when she calls her from an iPad in her hospital bed at Barnes Jewish Hospital.

That’s because the hospital, like most across the country, are not allowing visitors to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Wagner said she spent hours in her car outside the hospital when her daughter was first admitted, not knowing if she would survive.

“She just wants me to hold her hand and just be next to her, which I want to, so it is hard,” she said. “You know, I try to stay as strong as I possibly can on the phone.

“I try to redirect her feelings or her anxiety or her sadness as much as I can. But a lot of times I'm crying when I'm off the phone. But I just try to stay as strong as I possibly can, because I know she needs that.”

Police said they believe the men accused of shooting Johnson are responsible for five shootings that happened in Alton between March 25 and April 8. Police said the men were firing at someone else in Johnson’s neighborhood and she, and her house, were unintended targets. More charges could be coming, police said.

News of their arrest is among the only things that have brought Jasmine Johnson and her family comfort in recent days. She cried at the news, her mother said, but they were happy tears.

“For me, it was more relief for Jasmine because whenever we would talk, she will always ask me who did this to her,” she said. “And, as a mother, it tore me up inside to be able to have to tell her, ‘I don't know. I don't know who did it. I don't know a name or anything.’”

Credit: Family of Jasmine Kay Johnson
Jasmine Kay Johnson

Wagner said her daughter’s prognosis is still unclear. She has been unable to move her extremities on the left side of her body since the shooting. Doctors have told her they do not know if she’ll regain that function. 

She's in for a long recovery.

“I could tell right away that she couldn’t move the left side of her body,” Wagner recalled.

She’s undergone at least four surgeries to address swelling in her brain – the most recent of which was on Monday to install a shunt. At one point, doctors released Johnson to a rehabilitation center, but, about two weeks ago, a fever returned and she’s been in the ICU ever since.

Wagner has shaved her own head in solidarity with her daughter, and said they share a special bond. She gave birth to her when she was only 16, but made it a point to finish high school and college despite being a young parent.

"She's only ever known me to be in school," Wagner said. "And I've always told her, 'If I can do this after having you, then you can do this.'" 

So far, she believes her daughter remembers that. 

“It makes me almost cry now because I could have lost her or still lost her in a way that she didn't even know who I was,” Wagner said. “But she remembers who I am and can talk to me. And she's still very ambitious, she still has her goals that she's still talking about.

“She still says things like, ‘Well, I don't want to be a burden to you. I just you know, I need a job.’”

She told her mother she knows what her first assignment as a journalist is going to be.

“That was one of the first things she said she wanted to do when she recovers is to come back and interview her nurses and doctors just to show our appreciation, how much they've been helping her throughout this entire thing,” Wagner said.

But life at home is forever altered.

Wagner said she doesn’t feel the same about the house where she, her mother, her son and her daughter have lived for the past 15 years. She hasn’t been able to sleep in her bedroom, and she wants to move, even though she said violence is uncommon on her block.

“It's been really hard for me,” she said. “I'm very scared at night. It's very terrifying for me.”

She said she’s hiring a professional company to come to her house to clean the remaining blood from the room where Jasmine was shot. She said one of her friends cleaned as much as they could – but the social distancing due to the virus outbreak is also keeping her friends away at the most difficult time in her life.

Several of them, including JiNai Reed-Ward organized an online fundraiser.

“Taya would never ask for help, but we know her house needs repairs after being shot at, and Jaz has an apartment in Columbia and now there’s medical bills,” Reed-Ward said. “We can’t be there to help her.

“And to stay strong for Jaz, she covers up a lot of it but she’s scared. She’s gone through a lot. Who saves the hero after the hero saves the world? Who’s going to save her after she saves Jaz?”

So far, people have donated $18,000 to Wagner.

Jasmine is worried about her mother, too.

“The last time we spoke, she was like, ‘How are you feeling? Mom, are you OK, though?’” Wagner said. “I'm like, ‘I'm fine. Baby as long as you're fine, I'm fine.’”

And when the video chat with her daughter ended, she let tears come to her eyes.

RELATED: Mizzou student shot while studying in Alton bedroom recovering, shooters charged

Credit: KSDK
Russell Bausily and Debonta Cotton were charged in connection with a number of shootings.

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