Photography by Brian Moody
In 1995 Azim Khamisa’s only son, Tariq – a 20-year-old student – was shot and killed while delivering pizzas in San Diego. His killer, Tony Hicks, became the first 14-year-old to stand trial as an adult in the state of California. He received a 25-year prison sentence. Azim, alongside Tony’s grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix, now devotes much of his time to promoting the vision of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation – an organization committed to “stopping children from killing children”.
When I got the phone call saying that Tariq was dead I kind of left my body, because the pain was too much to bear. It was like a nuclear bomb going off inside my heart. There was no solace to be found in my mind and so, as a Sufi Muslim, I turned to my faith. For the next few weeks I survived through prayer and was quickly given the blessing of forgiveness, reaching the conclusion there were victims at both ends of the gun.
Tariq’s killer had the face of a child. He was 14 years old and belonged to a street gang called the Black Mob. His gang name was Bone.
In my faith, on the fortieth day after a death you are encouraged to channel your grief into good compassionate deeds: deeds which provide high octane fuel for the soul’s forward journey. Forty days is not a long time to grieve for a child, but one of my motivations for starting the Tariq Khamisa Foundation was to create spiritual currency for my son, as well as to give myself a sense of purpose.
Simultaneously, I reached out to Ples Felix, the grandfather and guardian of Tony Hicks. The first time I met Ples I told him that I felt no animosity towards his grandson. Ples was quick to take the offered hand of forgiveness. We’re very different: I wear a pin-striped suit, and he has hair down to his waist. But from the moment we met we have been like brothers.
We share a common purpose. We believe that in every crime there is an opportunity to improve society by learning how to prevent that crime from happening again. Tariq was a victim of Tony, but Tony was a victim of American society – and society is a mirror image of each and every one of us. What gives me hope is the fact that when Ples and I give talks in school, you can see the metamorphosis as the kids are moved by our story.
Five years after the tragedy I met Tony. It was a very healing time. I found him very likeable – well mannered and remorseful. I told him that when he got out of prison there would be a job waiting for him at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.
You do forgiveness for yourself, because it moves you on. The fact that it can also heal the perpetrator is the icing on the cake. Tony is studying in prison now, and I know we will save him. In return, Tony will go on to save thousands of other children. I have recently written a letter to our Governor to commute Tony’s sentence.
“Tony was angry: angry about abuse and abandonment, about living with a strict grandfather.”
Tony is my daughter’s only child. He grew up on the violent streets of south LA, and at eight years old witnessed the murder of his cousin. Seeing that he was becoming increasingly exposed to gang life, my daughter proposed that he come and live with me. I welcomed the opportunity to bring up Tony in San Diego as my own son. He had been living with me for five years before the tragedy occurred.
Things had started off okay, but by seventh grade Tony was hanging out with much older kids who were leading him astray. The night before the shooting I told him he wouldn’t be able to go out that weekend if he didn’t do his homework. The next day I found a note saying, “I’ve run away, love Tony”. My shotgun was also missing. Having reported Tony a runaway, I sat and watched a news report about a pizza delivery man who’d been shot and killed in North Park.
Two days later I traced Tony and alerted the Police. That afternoon I got a call from a homicide detective saying, “Mr. Felix, your grandson is no longer considered a runaway. He is now the prime suspect in a murder inquiry”. All the emotions hit me. I felt anger, shame and tremendous loss. I also felt guilt because I was Tony’s guardian and responsible for his behavior.
Tony was angry: angry about abuse and abandonment, about living with a strict grandfather. He had tried to medicate this anger with drugs and drink. Later he told me that on that fateful night he’d been hanging around with older gang members. When a pizza delivery man turned up and refused to hand over a pizza without payment, one of the older kids shouted, “Bust him, Bone,” and Tony pulled the trigger.
From the moment he was taken into custody to the day before he appeared for sentencing, Tony maintained a false bravado. But when he met with his attorney he was warned that, in light of the evidence, there’d be serious consequences if he pleaded ‘not guilty’.
It was then that I urged Tony to take responsibility for his actions; to minimize the pain and harm he’d done to the Khamisa family. He broke down and cried. “I’m so sorry, Daddy”, he sobbed. I held him and tried to console him. The next day everyone was expecting a plea of ‘not guilty”, but Tony gave a very remorseful and emotional speech in which he pleaded guilty and asked for Mr. Khamisa’s forgiveness.
When the three of us met in prison it was probably hardest for Azim. At the end, after Azim had left, Tony said, “That is a very special man. I shot and killed his one and only son and yet he can sit with me, encourage me, and then offer me a job”.