At 4:40am Monday morning, a South Tacoma homeowner and his wife were woken up to the sounds of dogs barking. In the past few weeks, they’d had previous attempted break ins. Back in March, less than a block away, Marvin Plunkett was shot and killed. This neighborhood is no stranger to violence. So when the homeowner went out to investigate the noises he heard in his garage, he was armed with a pistol. He’d already told his wife to call 9-1-1. He confronted the two burglars and held them at gunpoint. Then the two men decided to charge him. He reacted by firing his weapon. One of the burglars was 36-year-old Tony McDougald. After being shot, Tony managed to run away into the alley where he died. The other wounded burglar remained near the garage where the homeowner used a first aid kit until the police and ambulance arrived.
The death of Tony McDougald is the sixth Tacoma homicide in 2011 and the second death of a would-be burglar in the last seven weeks. As in the case of Jamarr Johnson, no charges will be filed against the homeowner. The message from Tacoma authorities is clear: If someone breaks in and you have a reasonable fear for your life, you can shoot them. I don’t entirely disagree. I would argue that it’s the South Tacoma Way. I don’t think that burglary should be punishable by death, but you break into MY house, it just might be.
I grew up a block away from this latest homicide of South 40th and Fawcett. It was and is a lower middle class neighborhood full of gravel alleys, detached garages, and dogs. Like other kids in that area, I went to Whitman Elementary School and Stewart Middle School. And it was at Stewart Middle School that I first met Tony McDougald.
It was only this morning that I learned that it was Tony who had been killed. I’m still processing it. I haven’t seen Tony in over twenty years. To be honest, I always assumed that he was in prison. It wasn’t that Tony was a bad kid. He just rarely, if ever, followed the rules. He was shorter than most of the other kids our age, but he made up for that with personality and attitude.
In middle school in 1989 Tony wore ripped jeans, metal band shirts, a jean jacket, and hair that would not have looked out of place in a Bon Jovi video. He was rock n roll at a time when I was just figuring out who I was. I don’t remember how we became friends. I remember that we had a lot of conversations about the crazy stuff that he’d do. There was one morning our English class was all supposed to meet for a field trip and everyone was there but Tony. Someone asked where Tony was and just then we saw him running down the sidewalk with a security guard chasing him. There was no doubt that he was a criminal. Even back then. That said, he was still my friend and he was great to talk to. He was smarter than anyone ever gave him credit for. Most teachers saw the rocker outfit and just assumed he was a dumbass.
I don’t know what happened to Tony between 1989 and last Monday morning. From what little I know, he likely didn’t change too much. He was probably a good friend to the people who knew him. He probably broke rules when he felt like it. And while he probably never expected to die of gunshot wounds in an alley after trying to burglarize a place, I don’t think it would have surprised him.
One thing I know that the homeowner could not have known is that Tony wouldn’t have hurt him. The Tony I knew wasn’t really a violent guy. Tony was likely just running towards the guy to get away. But there’s no way the homeowner would have known that. He reacted in the way most people would in that situation. It wasn’t a murder, but it was a tragedy.
Tony was the first person I ever met who lived by his own set of rules. And even at thirteen years old he knew that there were consequences for living that way, but being like everyone else wasn’t even a possibility for Tony. I’m not sure I’d be the same person I am today without having had Tony as a friend in middle school. He was my first brush with rebellion. In a world of copies, Tony was a true original. He may have been a criminal, but he wasn’t a bad guy.
Update: A memorial for friends and family of Tony McDougald is planned for Saturday, June 4 at 11 a.m. at Elk Plain Community Church (4115 224thStreet E, Spanaway). The public is welcome.