CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Sheri and Andrew Newton held hands and bowed their heads as they walked down the steps toward the University of Virginia’s football stadium, where hundreds of flower bouquets and handwritten notes had been laid near the north gate.
Ever since the scope of the tragedy that had befallen this campus became clear on Monday, this had become the place for the community to honor Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry, the three Virginia football players who were shot and killed Sunday night on a bus that had just returned from a class field trip to Washington, D.C.
Hour after hour in the frigid rain Tuesday, a steady stream of locals, students, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and people like the Newtons stopped by. Some brought more flowers; others came just to look and silently pay their respects.
The Newtons did not know the victims, yet they felt the tragedy deeply. They had driven in from Blacksburg to support their son, a member of the marching band who practiced every day in the shadow of the Culbreth Road parking garage where the tragedy occurred. On game days, they tailgated on the roof with other band parents. This Saturday, on Senior Day, they were going to do it one last time.
“It’s a happy place for us and it has been for four years,” Sheri said. “And to see it’s got tape around it, and people died there. It’s hard. It’s been rough.”
The process of recasting places and institutions that had been a source of joy into the context of unspeakable tragedy will take place for this community over the coming weeks and days, and it will not be easy.
At the center of it is a football team that lost three of its brothers and saw a fourth, Mike Hollins, undergo surgery Tuesday after wounds left him in critical condition.
In his first public appearance since the tragedy, Virginia’s first-year head coach, Tony Elliott, arrived at a news conference immediately after visiting Hollins’ family. He sat down with lips clenched, his eyes often looking into nothingness, his voice lowered to a whisper when he recalled the first team meeting Monday morning and how he had to explain what happened to a 9-year-old son who considers the players his friends.
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“My job is to lead in moments like this,” Elliott said. “I’ve had my moments where I’ve broken down, and I’ve even had those moments in front of the team. I think it’s important that we all grieve. These are outstanding young men that we don’t understand why they’re gone so early.”
That is the question we are always left with when senseless gun violence claims lives so cruelly, with nothing to warn or prepare us for the magnitude of the loss. But for now, there is even an extra layer of mystery and confusion on top of the sadness because of what we know — and what we don’t know — about the suspect who is allegedly responsible for these murders.
On Wednesday morning, 22-year-old Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. is scheduled to appear in court for the first time, facing three counts of second-degree murder, three counts of using a handgun in commission of a felony and two charges of malicious wounding, which accounts for the injuries to Hollins and a fifth victim who was reported to be in good condition.
We know that Jones was a student at Virginia and had spent that day on the field trip, opening fire after the bus arrived back in Charlottesville. We know that Jones had been on the radar of the school’s threat assessment team over a hazing investigation that was left unresolved and because of a misdemeanor concealed weapons violation in 2021.
We also know that Jones was briefly a walk-on for Virginia’s football team in 2018, which would naturally lead to questions about whether that had anything to do with his motive in targeting current football players. Was there a connection, a long-running conflict? Or was this simply a matter of an individual with a gun becoming unmoored from reality?
For now, trying to fill in those gaps only leads to innuendo. Carla Williams, Virginia’s athletics director, said her department had not dug into Jones’ background, and that she was unaware of any overlap or previous interaction with the players outside of the class they were in together.
“We have really focused on our players and their families,” Williams said. “It’s so shocking that you just want to love on our players, and so that’s where we’ve spent our energies, where we’ve spent our time, and I think that’s what we need to continue to do.”
Some questions about what motivated these violent acts may never be answered. Some will be part of the criminal investigation and revealed in the due course of time. But others, like how aggressively campus safety officials pursued potential red flags around Jones, demand explanation sooner rather than later.
“I think everyone is still in shock,” Elliott said. “Everyone is trying to process their emotions and figure out the proper way for them to grieve.”
Though classes and other athletic events were set to resume on campus Wednesday, Virginia had not yet determined whether its scheduled football game against Coastal Carolina this Saturday or its season finale against Virginia Tech on Nov. 26 would be played. The school seemingly wants input from players on how to best honor their fallen teammates before making that decision.
But there are also memorial services to attend, grieving families to console and plenty of hard days ahead that will strain their emotional capacities. It’s impossible to say where football fits appropriately into that mix, if at all.
“The guys are on the road to healing, but it’s going to take some time,” Elliott said. “And our approach is to keep them together as much as we possibly can to make sure we have eyes on them, because nothing can prepare you for this situation. We just want to be there to support the guys, so we are slowly trying to process. We’re trying to find the positive and keeping close range on each other so we can grieve together.”
The entire campus is grieving, too.
Though we often think of big-time college football as increasingly disconnected from the academic environment in which it exists, it would have been impossible to see any daylight between those entities here in the thousands of students who spread out Monday night over the central campus lawn for a candlelight vigil, or the steady stream of mourners who stopped by the stadium Tuesday.
Which brings us back to the Newtons, who had spent the previous evening feeding members of the drum line who had gathered to grieve, and had their eyes opened about the connectedness of this tragedy to so many other parts of campus life.
“They were all crying and saying we do what we do every week to support our football players,” Sheri Newton said. “And they don’t know what’s going to happen. This was Senior Weekend, and it was supposed to be a celebration of people who made it through four years here, and it’s just sad.
“We went back and forth on whether they should play the game, but it’s up to the team and the coach. There are two people that are still fighting for their lives. I really don’t know.”