Monday, January 15, 1996
With shooting suspect in jail, teen feels free

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Derrell Pruett feels free because somebody else is behind bars.

William Cromwell, a 22-year-old resident of Westwood, was arrested Jan. 5 on a grocery list of changes. Among them: domestic violence, driving without a license, contempt of court, carrying a concealed weapon and probation violations. There's also a felonious assault charge for putting a bullet in a teen-ager's leg.

Derrell is that teen. Last summer, I wrote about the day he was shot, the damage to his leg and how one bullet has threatened his peace of mind as well as his dreams of playing basketball on his school team.

He had just finished a pick-up game of basketball not far from his Mount Airy home. As Derrell climbed into a van, a player from the losing team approached joined by a man with a gun who started firing. A 9mm slug ripped into the side of the van, passed through the teen's left leg and lodged in his right thigh.

That was July 3. Derrell's leg wounds healed in about a month. But his mental hurt took longer to fade.

Missed school

Suffering from delayed stress syndrome, common with gunshot victims, he was in and out of the hospital until mid-October. He missed most of the first two months of classes at Aiken High School, where he's a 10th-grader.

So much for his goal of being ''back to normal'' for the start of the 1995-96 school year.

So much for his years-long record of perfect attendance.

Derrell's record for being a good student athlete was also shattered by the shooting. Before he took that bullet in the leg, he had been a B-student and a starting guard on the school basketball team. As he sits by the trophies on display in his family's kitchen, he lowers his eyes and admits he's ''makin' Cs and Ds. I'm having trouble with Spanish and biology.''

And, he's not on the school team because of his grades and the shooting.

''He didn't feel comfortable being out there, being exposed,'' says his mother, Kim Pruett, ''as long as the guy who shot him was loose.''

William Cromwell won't be getting loose any time soon. He's being held without bond at the justice center. You don't receive a ''get out of jail'' card when you're charged with felonious assault and carrying a concealed weapon.

Derrell remembers the day he learned the gunman was under arrest. Between nervous bites of popcorn, he describes his feelings with one word:

''Freedom.''

He now feels free to come and go as a 16-year-old pleases. No more looking over his shoulder.

''I feel more comfortable when I'm outside with my friends.''

Those friends and his family helped Derrell throughout his ordeal. ''I've had lots of friends around. They've been good to me,'' he says. ''And, my mother and my grandmother have been babying me a little bit.''

Kim Pruett overhears this and stomps into the kitchen. Acting like she's mad, she raises her voice and asks: ''A little bit? Who got more Christmas presents than usual? Who's been hugged a lot? Who's still getting little presents all the time?''

Derrell grins and sheepishly says: ''Me.''

Older, wiser

For an instant, he looks like an innocent kid. Then, his grin fades and he looks more grown-up. Since the shooting, he's gained 9 pounds in weight and 2 inches in height. He's also gained a wary, adult look on his face that says he knows the dangers that lurk on the streets.

Sixteen-year-old kids should not have that look. They should not have to dread taking the witness stand in court and identifying a criminal with the words: ''He's the one who shot me.''

They should not have their eyes get moist when someone asks them if they have anything to say to William Cromwell.

''I want to ask him: 'Why?' '' Derrell says.

'' 'Why did you shoot me? Why did you put that bullet in my leg?' '' He reaches for another piece of popcorn. He bites down hard and chews fast.

Looking away, he whispers:

''I'm still mad at that guy.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.