Marcos Bretón

The grieving mother who refuses to hate the teenager accused of killing her son

Nicole Clavo last week at her home in Elk Grove.
Nicole Clavo last week at her home in Elk Grove.

The bravest person I’ve met in the last year does not feel anger toward the young man accused of killing her son.

Nicole Clavo told me this over coffee on a recent afternoon, and I studied her expression for the slightest hint of conflicting emotions. There were none, and after a short period of time, I had to look away from her serene gaze because I don’t have Clavo’s capacity for forgiveness and I couldn’t pretend that I did.

Churchgoing people would say that in her grief, Clavo, 43, is living the Gospel of Christian theology that speaks to a shared love of humanity between people, no matter the circumstances.

It’s easy to speak words of deliverance and sacrifice found in Scripture. It’s much harder to actually live by them when fate has tested your faith in the most profound way possible.

On Nov. 13, 2015, Clavo’s son Jaulon – who went by the nickname “JJ” – was shot at the busy intersection of Silver Eagle Road and Mabel Street in North Sacramento.

JJ, 17, was a football player at Grant High School. Hours before a game, he and four friends had piled into JJ’s Chevy Malibu to grab a quick bite to eat at a nearby Popeye’s chicken restaurant. They were headed back to campus when a bullet hit JJ in the neck. His friends sped back to Grant, a place where they felt safe, to get help.

A school nurse attempted to revive the young man known for his engaging smile and sweet nature. As this was happening, Grant High community members reported JJ’s condition to his mother in real time over the telephone. Nicole was at home in Elk Grove. Her first thoughts were that she would comfort her son as soon as she met him at the hospital. Shortly after, however, she learned by phone that JJ had died. She arrived at the hospital in time to grieve and identify the body.

One moment, it was a Friday full of excitement. The Grant community was gathering for a favored late-fall ritual – a Grant playoff game. Though JJ lived outside the district boundaries, Nicole had allowed her son to attend Grant, in part, for its sense of community.

But that night, the community shifted its focus from the gridiron to a grieving mother struggling to make sense of the loss of her son. There would be no high school graduation for JJ, no college, no career, no marriage and no children – none of the milestones Nicole had envisioned for her son, a teen on the cusp of adulthood.

JJ was one of Nicole’s two children, and he was the man in her life. With the help of her parents, Nicole had worked to mold JJ, to help him become the responsible person her father, Dennis, had been for their family. Nicole never allowed herself to be that mother who looked the other way when her son went astray. She had known mothers who didn’t ask questions when their sons suddenly came into a lot of cash without having a job.

“You have to correct him, guide him, parent him,” Nicole said of engaging in those tough conversations.

She did all that and more for her son, and he was still taken from her.

Those of us who work in the media have known times when police officials quietly will tell us if the victim of a seemingly random street crime had committed acts that may have put him or her in harm’s way. This has not happened with JJ. It appears that he really was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It remains to be seen whether a trial for his killing will confirm rumors of a vendetta against one of the passengers in Clavo’s car. But a trial in the coming year will bring the horror of that day back to a mother who lived it and relived it many times since.

Keymontae Lindsey, 16, stands accused in the death of JJ Clavo. He was charged as an adult and faces charges including murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle and a gang enhancement in the Nov. 13 incident. He has pleaded not guilty.

On the day Lindsey was arraigned in February, Nicole embraced Lindsey’s mother. And since that day, she has embraced forgiveness. She wants a trial. She wants to know exactly what happened to her son in broad daylight on a busy street corner. She wants potential witnesses to speak up.

But anger toward Lindsey? No.

“Anger consumes you,” Nicole said. “It takes you to a dark, ugly place. If I allow myself to be angry at (Lindsey), I wouldn’t be able to open my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t want to enter that dark world.”

Nicole has been there before. She’s had a beloved man in her life taken from her by gun violence. In 1994, when she was 20 years old in the military, she planned to marry her high school sweetheart from her native San Diego. However, he was shot by a man trying to rob him.

“I was young, and I became very angry, very distant,” Nicole said. “I just shut down. I sulked. I felt sorry for myself. I questioned God, questioned my faith. I asked God, ‘Why would you do this?’ 

It took a long time for Nicole to live again. But she soon had her children. She’s a union negotiator and work brought her to Sacramento, a move she made with the help of her parents – the closest friends she has. She settled into the rhythms of her adopted city and built a family life based on joy and togetherness with her kids.

When the call came that her son had been shot, when she stood over his lifeless body, she questioned God again: “How many times am I supposed to experience this?”

“A mother is not supposed to bury her child,” she said. “But right then, I decided I was not going to lose myself again.”

Instead of retreating, Nicole has remained in the public eye. When the Grant community embraced her, she embraced back. She’s attended Grant games. She’s reached out to other mothers who’ve lost their sons by violence. She volunteers at juvenile hall, where she spends hours talking to kids who are incarcerated. She stays in contact with the young men who were with her son when he died, even if one or more of them may be concealing facts about the case out of fear.

“I love those young men,” she said. “I’m still very close to them.”

How can she not be angry? How can she maintain her faith after the senseless death of her son, a young man with so much promise and potential?

“Bad things happen, and there are some questions you can’t answer,” she said.

So she celebrates her son this Christmas Day as she did last Christmas Day – by trying to maintain a loving example even though he is no longer there to learn from it.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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