Young shooting victim shows gains

But Dorchester boy’s ordeal still evident

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By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / August 3, 2011

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A.J. Towers can manage several wobbly steps, but he can’t quite walk on his own yet, and he tenses up around crowds and has nightmares. But the 4-year-old has come a long way since June 27, when he was shot in the back while playing at Harambee Park, the innocent victim of gang crossfire.

Yesterday, for the first time since his near-death experience, A.J. sat in on a press conference about his fight to live and his family’s ordeal. It was a reluctant appearance on the boy’s part, and he looked eager to get back on his feet, constantly wiggling his legs while sitting in a wheelchair.

As his mother sat at a table in the basement of the Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester and addressed the media, A.J. took sips from a frozen treat, played with a teddy bear, and reacted negatively, with a head shake, to his mother’s disclosure that he would begin physical training today.

A.J. returned home from Boston Medical Center a couple of days ago. Although he is doing well in many ways, the trauma has taken its toll.

“He doesn’t want to go to the park,’’ said his mother, Sharelle Turner, 32, of Dorchester.

A.J. was with his mother at the park when the shooting occurred. The energetic boy often played for hours at the expansive new playground. He was struck in the lower back.

A crowd, including many children, was also there but scattered when the shots rang out.

“He knows he was hurt at the park, but he doesn’t fully understand that he was shot,’’ Turner said. “He’s been himself but he doesn’t like the crowds, he doesn’t like a lot of people around. He’s been kind of mean towards new people, which is kind of understandable.’’

For days, A.J. was in intensive care at Boston Medical Center.

He was unresponsive and his body was swollen. His family feared that he would be paralyzed, but doctors soon determined that he didn’t suffer any such damage to his spinal column.

His mother said he has undergone two surgeries and is expected to face another operation soon.

Yesterday, A.J. displayed his progress in walking. After being coaxed out of the car by the Rev. William Dickerson, pastor of the church, A.J. planted his feet on the sidewalk and, with his mother supporting him, took several tentative steps before sitting in the wheelchair. Dickerson wiped tears from A.J.’s eyes.

Following the shooting, Harambee Park has become a focal point in an antiviolence campaign.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino banned the use of motorbikes in the park and residents and clergy held peace cookouts there, events aimed at reclaiming the spacious neighborhood park bordered by Blue Hill and Talbot avenues.

A.J.’s progress in the past month has been ahead of the timetable given by the doctors who treated him, his mother said.

“They didn’t expect him to be home this early,’’ Turner said. “He’s been doing good with his walking, has P.T. [physical therapy] tomorrow. Once he gets more into that, hopefully he won’t be in the wheelchair much longer.’’

“It’s been traumatic . . . what 4-year-old doesn’t want to go to the park?’’ said Turner. “But he’s back in his own environment now, and that has been motivating him. He has two dogs.’’ She said her son will probably be walking normally in time for the start of preschool in September.

When she was asked to recount what happened on June 27, tears welled up in Turner’s eyes and her hands began to shake. She declined to comment about the shooting and ended the press conference.

Police have not made arrests in the case, and are looking for two suspects who may have fired the shots, as well as two others who fled on a motorbike and may have been the intended targets.

Turner and her mother, Susan Turner, said the experience has made the family tighter, strengthened by the support of each other during such a terrible incident.

“I hope if anyone knows anything they would contact the police department,’’ said Turner. “The guy is still out there, still running around with a gun. Who is to say he’s [A.J.] not the last victim. Hopefully he will be caught. I was born and raised in this neighborhood, and this is the place that I really don’t want to be anymore. But where can you move; it’s everywhere.’’

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.