Larry LaRue

One man’s story of surviving gang violence may help Hilltop kids find perspective

Irshad Altheimer insists his memories of growing up in Tacoma’s Hilltop are more positive than negative — amazing, since it almost killed him.

Seventeen years ago, on South 15th Street near Sprague Avenue, he was driving friends home from a movie when a gang member in a car following them opened up with a MAC 90 assault rifle.

Altheimer was hit three times, his best friend was killed and a third passenger was badly wounded.

Now 37 and a professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Altheimer will come home Saturday to speak at the Al Davies Boys & Girls Club.

“It’s just a few blocks from where the shooting happened,” he said.

Will the memories of that night be jarring?

“Every morning when I step out of the shower, I see the scars,” he said. “I don’t need to be home to be reminded.”

The events of May 24, 1997, are rarely far from his thoughts.

“We’d just gone to see ‘Scary Movie’ at a $1 theater on Sixth Avenue, and had dropped one girl off,” Altheimer said. “There were five of us in the car. We came to a stop sign, and a car stopped across from us.

“I turned and that car followed us.”

A man in that trailing car opened fire.

“You could hear bullets chewing up the metal of the car,” Altheimer said. “It happened so fast, yet it was like it was in slow motion. I only felt one shot — the one that hit me in the butt.”

The man with the gun fired again as the car pulled even with Altheimer’s. The gunman kept firing as his car passed and disappeared into the night.

All told, Altheimer’s car was struck by 24 shots. It crashed into a fence, and three passengers scrambled out of the passenger side.

Altheimer opened his door and turned to the back seat, where he saw his friend, Corey Pittman.

“I only saw him in silhouette, but I knew he was dead,” Altheimer said. “I was in survival mode. I don’t know that I had a thought process. I got shot, jumped out of the car and started running.”

The Lincoln High School graduate made it to a gas station, where he realized he was bleeding badly from wounds he hadn’t felt. One shot had struck him high on his right thigh and gone through his leg. A bullet fragment lodged in his right wrist.

He was airlifted to a Seattle hospital. His recovery took eight weeks.

The shooter, Kimonti Carter, and the driver, Terrance Powell, remain in prison for Pittman’s murder. Carter mistakenly thought Altheimer’s car was that of a rival gang member, according to court reports from the time.

“The tragedy of Corey’s death was that not many kids from this community are going to college, and that shooting snatched away some of the little hope we have,” Altheimer said. “And you can’t quantify the pain and loss for a mother.

“There’s a hole in people’s heart, and some can never recover.”

Altheimer and Pittman had been attending Alabama State University together. Altheimer returned to school after the shooting, then went to Washington State University for his master’s degree.

Altheimer also found Islam at WSU and became president of the Muslim Student Association. Today, he’s the faculty adviser to a similar group in Rochester.

Altheimer laughed when asked to talk about the most common misperception about Islam.

“When I was in grad school, I went to Ukraine in a student exchange program and was sharing a suite with a professor from Moldova,” he said. “We spent a lot of time together, and eventually talked about religion one night.

“The next morning, he woke up and asked me, ‘Do you have to kill me?’ ”

What he wants kids from the Hilltop to understand is that there are opportunities for them that many communities don’t have.

“The Tacoma schools function well,” Altheimer said. “When I was at Lincoln, there were gangs — but I took Advanced Placement classes. In some cities, that’s not available.”

Altheimer made it, and knows Pittman would have, too. Last month, he had a dream that reunited the friends.

“I had a dream he came to see me,” Altheimer said. “I always wanted to be a professor, Corey always wanted to be a lawyer.

“There was so much life wasted that night.”