Kamarjay Shaw ‘loved hard’ and ‘had the heart of a lion,’ parents of slain Lawrence teen say

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Fearless and big-hearted are how family members of a Lawrence teenager recently shot and killed remember him. Kamarjay Shaw’s parents, siblings, cousins and loved ones said they won’t quit until he gets justice.

“He had a smile as big as this world,” Kamarjay’s mother, Barbara Shaw, said. “If he loved you, he loved you with all his heart. He loved hard.”

Kamarjay, 14, was shot on Saturday, March 18 near 13th Street and Maple Lane in Lawrence. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he died.

When thinking of Kamarjay, Barbara smiled and recalled one of her proudest moments as a mom: when Kamarjay saved his cousin’s life last year. He had his mom and an EMT on the phone with him while he performed CPR, which Barbara said she had previously taught him. Though Barbara said she had never heard her son sound so hysterical, his efforts paid off because his cousin, who’s now 23 years old, survived.

“That night, he saved a life — like it just shocked me,” Barbara said. “I was so proud of my boy.”

Kamarjay was born on June 28, 2008 and raised in Lawrence, attending Quail Run and Deerfield elementary schools and then Liberty Memorial Central Middle School before his freshman year of high school.

Though he could show out on the basketball court, football was the sport for Kamarjay, and he played since kindergarten or first grade, his family said. He was a talented football player, well versed in every position on the field, according to Barbara. Barbara said he had attended Lawrence High School this year during the fall and loved playing football there. He was attending the Detention Day School program this semester, but Barbara said she had planned on enrolling him back into Lawrence Public Schools for fall 2023.

Kamarjay’s father, LaTouche Shaw, said Kamarjay was an intelligent kid who could recite famous quotes, talk about historical Black figures and was a mathematician. At one point, Kamarjay wanted to be a math teacher, LaTouche said. Later on, he considered becoming a barber just like his dad, and he would bring his friends to go hang out at Watson’s Barbershop. He’d been waiting until he turned 16 to start working toward his barber license.

LaTouche knew whatever Kamarjay chose as his career path, he was going to make a positive impact on the world around him because he’d already done so at age 14.

“You could tell that he was going to move people,” LaTouche said. “He was gonna do something great, and he still did. His purpose has been served, whether we like it or not. He had a fearlessness about him. He had the heart of a lion and the soul of a soldier.”

Kamarjay enjoyed being active and was also a proficient swimmer. He loved being in the water and could “swim like a shark,” Barbara said.

“He was at the pool every day,” Kamarjay’s cousin Cassandra Kennedy said, laughing. “I would always see him walking to the pool, walking to the pool, walking to the pool.”

Kamarjay wasn’t afraid to jump into the deep end, and that applied to life, too. He wasn’t afraid of anything, his family said. He had always been a daredevil, accepting any challenge that his siblings, cousins or friends would throw his way. One time he was dared to drink dirty water, and he took the challenge, no questions asked.

Besides his big heart, Kamarjay’s family loved his contagious laugh and sense of humor. LaTouche said he will never forget this one time when he told Kamarjay, who was around 2 or 3 years old at the time, to go find his shoes. Kamarjay proceeded to walk into his room, calling out for his shoes, saying “Shoes? Shoes? Where are you, shoes?” LaTouche couldn’t hold his laughter in. He said in that very moment, he could see qualities in his son that would continue to flourish as he grew up, such as intelligence because he was thinking outside the box, humor and charisma.

“There was a little joke there, but there was a little intelligence,” LaTouche said. “He had a little slyness to him. I read all of that in that moment.”

Barbara said when she lost Kamarjay, she lost her twin. LaTouche spoke about the power of a mother’s love and said Barbara is “an amazing woman, and they took her baby away.” Now their family is left to pick up the pieces, which has been an hour-by-hour process for them.

“The 14 years that I had are blessed,” Barbara said. “I wouldn’t ask for no better kid, no other kid. I’m a hurt mama, but I’m a proud mama, too.”

Kamarjay is survived by his parents, brothers Kobe Shaw and Chrision Wilburn, sister Isabella Shaw, aunts Natasha Kennedy, Cherry Bolden and Natasha Hooks, uncle Joe Hooks, cousins Tommie Whitfield, Cassandra Kennedy and Jayquanna Mcbride, first cousin once removed Latisha Thomas, and many more family members and friends.

His family has organized an online GoFundMe page to raise funds for his funeral costs. As of Friday evening, the fundraiser had reached more than $17,000 of an updated $20,000 goal. Barbara said she was incredibly thankful for the community support. 

‘Justice for KJ’

A Lawrence 17-year-old has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting case. Prosecutors have filed a motion to charge the teen as an adult, and the defense plans to argue he was acting in self-defense. On Tuesday, the teen pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. He remains in custody of the Douglas County Juvenile Detention Center, where he’s been since he turned himself in after police put out information saying they were looking for him on Sunday. 

Lawrence police have released little information to the public about the shooting, and no details were discussed in court. Kamarjay’s family members said they have been trying to piece together what happened while receiving different, and sometimes conflicting, versions of the story. 

Barbara said that on Wednesday, she saw video footage for the first time that shows Kamarjay in the street running away when he was shot. Details of how the events unfolded are still unclear.

Barbara said Kamarjay and a group of boys had been feuding with each other for “a couple years,” and that they had been in fights with each other before. Barbara is not completely sure what the cause of the dispute was. Though Kamarjay was close with his mom, she said he only told her so much.

Kamarjay’s family members said they were angry and disheartened to see an article published on Tuesday by the Lawrence Journal-World. By word count, 41.5% of the article — written after a court hearing for the alleged shooter — is dedicated to public record information from juvenile court cases filed against Kamarjay. 

The family said the article perpetuates stereotypes and paints a picture of Kamarjay that suggests he deserved to get shot. 

“I just want my son’s side to be heard,” Barbara said. “I don’t appreciate the way the Journal-World [reported about] my son. Yes, he had ongoing cases — he sure did — but he wasn’t found guilty of any of them.” 

LaTouche said though Kamarjay made mistakes, he was not given a fair shake by law enforcement and court officials amid those charges. But LaTouche said Kamarjay was not defined by the mistakes he made, nor was he defined by what he was up against.

“In the adolescent stage, you’re still learning,” LaTouche said. “I don’t appreciate the people slamming my son. Some of us are fortunate to make it out of our adolescence unscathed. Some of our mistakes, they go unseen, but some of our mistakes are played out in front of the world. Does that make a teenager a bad kid? No.”

Barbara discussed the racism she has witnessed and experienced in Lawrence firsthand throughout her almost 43 years living here. She feels Lawrence’s subtle racism is almost worse than more overt racism.

Kamarjay’s family is connected to a well-known police brutality case in Lawrence. This July will mark 53 years since Lawrence police officer William Garrett in 1970 shot 19-year-old Rick “Tiger” Dowdell in the back, killing him. Garrett was never charged in the case, and ultimately no one was held accountable for Tiger’s murder.

Rick “Tiger” Dowdell

Stephen Dowdell, Kamarjay’s grandfather, was Tiger’s brother, making Tiger Kamarjay’s great uncle. History has now repeated itself in the worst way for this family, and the parallels between the teens’ deaths haunt them.

Latisha Thomas, Barbara’s first cousin, said she recalls the pain her family felt when her uncle Tiger was killed and how they relentlessly advocated for justice. She said they are prepared to also fight for Kamarjay, who his loved ones often called “KJ.”

“We are still a very strong family. We are still very strong individuals,” Thomas said. “… Kamarjay deserves justice. Kamarjay was shot … in the back. Lawrence, Kansas, I’m not gonna say that they owe the Dowdells, but they owe us as far as giving our family justice and giving us what we deserve. It is ‘#JusticeforKJ.’ That’s it. That’s all.”

Kennedy agreed with the need for reconciliation, saying, “They owe us that.” 

As they mourn the loss of Kamarjay and remember who they knew him to be, family members are standing together every step of the way. 

Barbara said she is struggling to trust the system because history has shown her that she can’t, but that will not stop her from doing everything possible to ensure those responsible for her son’s death are held entirely accountable.

“I will climb whatever mountain that I have to climb to get my son justice,” Barbara said.

“And we’re gonna climb with her,” Kennedy added.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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