Thursday, January 21, 2010

Beeper Spence


So often the faces of people who have been victims of crime fade away with every new and tragic story that replaces theirs. There isn't enough room in our minds to remember the countless victims of crime and violence. Yet, for some reason or other, certain stories just stick with you.

When I was 15 or 16, I remember the story of a boy who was fatally shot while walking in his north end neighbourhood late one night. The kid's name was Joseph Spence, but everybody called him Beeper. His story always seemed to stick with me, carrying a great deal of significance, even though I didn't know him.

Perhaps this was because of the tragic circumstances of his death; or perhaps it's because he was so close to my age. I don't know.

Beeper was gunned down by a group of teenagers who claimed to have mistaken him for a rival gang member. His killers, who were just kids themselves, were out hunting for revenge that night in July of 1995. Tragically, Beeper Spence was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and died as a result of a gang retaliation that had absolutely nothing to do with him.

After his murder, Beeper Spence became the poster child for lost innocence, and victims of gang violence. Images of the smiling 13-year old were splashed all over the news, and a media frenzy erupted over the tragic circumstances of his death.

I got to meet Beeper's mom Nancy the other day; she is a soft spoken women, who devotes her time to her other two children, her four grandchildren, and to the memory of her late son by managing the Beeper Spence Community Centre on Robinson Street in the north end.

Nancy Flett was a doting mother to her only son and two daughters. She was the mother who volunteered with her son's baseball league, and made sure that her kids never had holes in their socks. She taught her boy, who had just started his first paying job with the Boys and Girls Club, how to be responsible and to take care of himself.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned about Nancy was contrary to the impression I initially had about her when I read her son's story in numerous articles, is that she was and still is a good mom. I made the unfair assumption that she had somehow neglected her boy, since he was out in the wee hours of the morning at such a young and vulnerable age. I'm not sure if my assumption was the result of my own close mindedness, or if it was a failure on the part of the media to report that aspect - why Beeper was out that late - in the countless articles written about him. It never made sense to me, but I never questioned it, and only assumed the worst. After speaking to her, however, Nancy told the story about the night she lost her son, and she blatantly said that she would have never let 13-year old Beeper wander around at that time of night.

In fact, Nancy didn't know her son was out, wandering around in the north end at 2 a.m. on the night he was killed. She hesitantly let him sleep out, after talking to the other parent to ensure that her boy was going to be kept inside after dark. They were just going to order pizza and watch movies, she was told. Beeper would be fine.

She trusted the fact that Beeper would be taken care of.

For Nancy, life changed dramatically after Beeper was killed. The death of her oldest child 15 years ago sent her into a deep depression that left her broken and full of despair. Even after years of healing, her loss still stings as though it just happened. Her eyes still well up with tears when she speaks about the little boy with the big heart, who wanted to help kids when he grew up. During those conversations, she gets this far away look in her eyes, where you know that she isn't even speaking to you anymore, rather she is revisiting her boy in the depths of her memory; a place that he will always be.

The days before his death still play over in her head; that summer was the summer that Beeper was well on his way to becoming a young man. With his first job under his belt, doing what he loved to be doing, life looked so good for Beeper Spence.

"He wanted to spend his first paycheque on a stereo," she said. "I told him that I wanted him to buy himself some socks and underwear with some of that money, and that after he bought what he needed, he could buy the stereo if he had enough left over."

Nancy wanted to teach her boy how to be responsible and how to take care of himself. She told him that he needed to check his drawers to make sure he had enough socks and underwear before he spent his hard earned money on a stereo, and Beeper complied. They agreed that he would have enough to buy the stereo, and Nancy even took him to the store to look at it before he got paid.

"It was the biggest stereo they had," she said with a reflective smile on her face.

Tragically, Beeper Spence died before he ever received his first paycheque.

"The Boys and Girls Club gave me his cheque after he died, and I went out and I bought the stereo he wanted for his sisters," said Nancy, noting that the rest of his hard earned money went towards his headstone.

This is not how Nancy Flett imagined it would be. Before he was killed, Nancy's biggest concern for Beeper was that he would fall off his skateboard, or that he would hurt himself while he was doing typical 13-year old boy stuff, not that he would be gunned down in cold blood by a van full of gang members.

He deserved better than that.

In the years following Beeper's murder, the road to recovery for Nancy has been a long and painful one. That night will never go away. She is forced to remain knowledgeable about her son's killers, who have all spent the last 15 years passing through the revolving door of the criminal justice system, and who had no remorse for the little boy that they killed.

She is still Beeper Spence's mom; death didn't take that away from her. However, instead of spending the last decade and a half watching her son grow, she has spent it ensuring that he will not be forgotten.

She has found strength in her daughters, and in traditional Aboriginal healing practices. And her advocacy efforts, geared at helping other youth from a similar fate, are what keeps her going.

I never thought I'd meet Beeper Spence's mom, cause back then we lived on opposite ends of the world. Yet, meeting her was a profound experience for me. Her bravery, and her passion to do her boy right is truly inspiring. The love that she still carries for Beeper is evident, and just as she was lucky to have him, he was also lucky to have her.


  1. This was very nice Shelley! Nice write up.

  2. hey shell,
    i am actually reading "an inner city girl like me"and there is a character very much like beeper in there, his name is jeremiah and he gets shot very very young.
    i remember the media blitz about beeper. i remember pictures, and the all the spoken and unspoken things the media and public were saying about "the little native kid out in the middle of the night".
    and i dont know mike mcintyre except by reputation, but his articles havent always struck ,me as senstive as this one does.
    thanks for reposting it.
    thanks mike for being sensitive.
    and most of all, thanks to nancy, who in her loss has helped the rest of us gain. it is much the osborne family, who, through their loss, have helped the rest of us to gain.

  3. Thanks Shirley! -- Although, Mike didn't write the article, I did.

    I just gave credit to Mike for the photo that I ripped from his page!

  4. Great work often comes from tragedy.... Thank you Nancy for tirelessly giving back to the community and for not letting your grief destroy you. and thank you Shelley for reminding us of price Beeper Spence paid and the committment of Nancy Flett to ensure his death was not in vain!

  5. It's still hard to read about his death to this day. We were the same age & it hurts to think where he could've been today. So much promise. I read the same book & instantly started crying when they made the reference to Beeper aka Jerimiah. My cousin also knew him and named her first born son after him. He will never be forgotten.
    My condolences to Nancy who has made a tireless effort for community action in The Developments and the North End.
    There is an annual family fun day in his memory held every year around the time of his death. This year it will be held @ the Friendship Center on Dufferin & Robinson July 15, 2011 1-4pm. Everyone is welcome to attend.