When Arthur Shot Margaret

A true story of violence, forgiveness, and what it’s like to be suspended in the limbo of redemption.

The epic proportions of the shooting that links them forever has morphed their names into one: ArthurandMargaret. This is how they’ve come to be known at schools, community centers, and stop-the-violence meetings in beleaguered neighborhoods across the city. They are a dark, intriguing Sonny-&-Cher act with a relationship that leaves dangling more questions than it answers. Like: What’s the lesson in their tragedy? What’s the shelf-life on forgiveness? And what of redemption? When she shows up, will she spread herself equitably? The answers are in the living and in the telling.

Arthur, the shooter, lives one way and tells the story another. Margaret, the survivor, lives and tells quite differently. This much is true: Arthur Phelps, a former pimp, drug dealer, heroin and crack addict, and two-time felon, was already high on August 11, 1991, when he went to the West End apartment of his son, Mark, then a 28-year-old drug dealer, to buy crack. “If I wasn’t using, it would’ve never happened.” That’s the way Arthur tells it, regret heavy in his voice.

Margaret was Mark’s 19-year-old lover, locked in a tempestuous, liquored-up mess of an affair. There was an argument—one of many. But on this night Arthur got in the middle of it with a gun. Margaret was drunk and doesn’t recall every detail—if toxic drunkenness has any virtue, it is the blotting of the memory—but Arthur says she had a knife. There was a single shot. The bullet sliced through the left side of Margaret’s neck, shattered her spine, and left her, two days before her 20th birthday, a quadriplegic.

Arthur was never charged with the shooting. There are no police reports, no buried news items—no traditional documentation of that violent night. There are only renderings, the piecemeal stories told by the survivors and those who know them. Everyone is dumbstruck by this story. Even, at times, Arthur himself. The violence is jarring enough. But most who hear it want to know one thing: How could she forgive him?

It is one of those oppressive, late-July Cincinnati days, so hot the heat seems to make a sound. Arthur and Margaret are due to speak at W.E.B. DuBois Academy on Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine before an assembly of 30 or so restless youngsters, the main attraction of Violence Prevention Week. Arthur and Margaret take their gun violence saga to schools like W.E.B. DuBois, camps, and organizations like the Youth Center in Mt. Auburn—anywhere teachers or administrators think the kids could stand to hear their sobering message.

Arthur arrives in his tricked-out black Mercedes-Benz sedan. The rims are gleaming and the vanity plates read HOLDON2. At 61, he is ruddy and tricked-out, too, in matching red shirt and shorts, a crisp Cincinnati Reds baseball cap cocked at a jaunty angle, a pair of spankin’ white Air Jordans, and white ankle socks. A gold link chain hangs on the outside of his shirt and he’s wearing gold rings on his fingers and a stud in his left lobe.

Margaret, who is now 37, doesn’t drive. A Metro Access van drops her off blocks away on Findlay Street. Her hands look like Edward Scissorhands’; the fingers, spindly and atrophied, are barely functional. She rests her left hand on the joystick of her rugged yellow battery-powered wheelchair, gives it a push and whizzes down the sidewalk, popping wheelies when she hits curb cuts. Margaret doesn’t like speaking in front of people, but a lot rides on these kinds of public appearances. She could keep another kid from gun violence. She could alleviate the depression that has plagued her since the shooting. She could move ever closer to full forgiveness, whatever that looks like.

As I feed the meter, she pauses to wait for me. “Your family’s gonna be here?” I ask.

“Just my sister,” she says. 

Margaret is brown-skinned and gaunt, with impossibly high cheekbones and large, expressive eyes. She has an overbite she didn’t have before the shooting, the loss of muscle tone and fat having drawn the flesh on her face down and away from her mouth. She retains a wicked sense of humor, even though her bouts of depression often leave her surly and barely audible.

As Margaret wheels into the school’s cafeteria, Arthur is leaning against a table, surveying the room.

“Hey! Mr. Phelps!” a kid calls out.

“Hey, man, how you doin’?” Arthur says in his half-Southern, half-O.G. drawl. Everywhere he goes he’s known from the deeds of his two prevailing personas: Arthur the Street Hustler and Arthur the Street Savior. People mostly know Margaret as half of ArthurandMargaret; otherwise, she just gets stared at.

Arthur is a street worker for the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). He works at the street level with youths to steer them away from gun violence and toward jobs, counseling, and sobriety. He and Margaret are volunteers for CeaseFire Cincinnati, the Avondale-based anti–gun violence group. Through CeaseFire they participate in “responses,” the post-shooting mobilizations in hot-spot neighborhoods like Avondale and Walnut Hills where they hand out anti–gun violence literature, water bottles, and red rubber bracelets emblazoned with the phrase “Stop the Shooting.”

Arthur walks over, sits down next to Margaret, and talks softly to her as they wait for their “scared straight” moment. A banner just above their heads reads “Violence Preventio.” No ‘n.’ As if on cue, K-Drama, a young, talented faith-based rapper working with CeaseFire, takes center stage to get the assembly started.

“You ever have that one dude or that one person think they hard because they can cap the best?” K-Drama asks rhetorically. “Don’t point! Don’t point!”

It’s too late. Kids point at one another.

“What makes you hard is when you don’t want to make that right decision, but yet you still do,” he says. “Like doing your homework instead of playing Xbox.” He then launches into “Man of Steel,” his self-penned rap espousing the virtues of making the “right” choices in life. “I won’t take the easy way/ I’m a man of steel,” goes the chorus.

Most girls happily sing along. None of the boys do. Mute, stone-faced, looking bored or embarrassed, many of them have folded their arms across their pre-pubescent chests. K-Drama works up a sweat and after several minutes he introduces Arthur and Margaret.

Margaret goes first. She doesn’t wheel herself closer to the kids; she hangs back and speaks steadily, in a quiet monotone. “When I grew up, life wasn’t so perfect,” she begins. “We all gotta listen to our parents. Everything they tell us is right. It may not seem like it at the time.”

Her narrative is full of gaps. She tells the kids that at 18 she wanted to live on her own, against her parents’ wishes. Then she skips forward two years to the fateful August night. “I was underage drinking and having a party and that’s what put me in the chair,” she says. “After the party, I wanted to see my boyfriend. I always carried a weapon. I was arguing with my boyfriend who, at the time, was selling drugs and he always carried a gun. We argued and he put the gun down but I still had the knife.”

The kids listen quietly, stare blankly.

“Next thing you know, we’re chasing each other, somebody came around the corner, and the gun went off. It was just two days before my 20th birthday and that bullet stopped me from walking. By the grace of God, I came through. I had to learn to talk over again, how to dress myself. I have to get somebody else to do my hair.”

Margaret crystallizes the incident and its aftermath so dispassionately it sounds diminishing, anti-climactic, soft-focus. She concentrates more on the negative effects of binge drinking than on the actual shooting. (“Drinking will destroy your brain and your body…”). It’s as though she’s telling herself—and us—that if she hadn’t been so drunk, such an out-of-control, drama-seeking missile, that she wouldn’t be in that chair today. 

Then, without warning: “That person who came around the corner was this man sitting beside me and this story has never really come out before, but I forgave him and that’s why we’re sitting here together.”

Someone gasps. A kid’s voice softly rises—Aaaaaw—the way kids do when they’re roughhousing and someone breaks a lamp.

“There ain’t no call for guns, knives, alcohol, or nothing,” Margaret adds. “And so now, I’d like to introduce Arthur.”

Margaret is the opening act for her shooter. Rough, but true.

“It’s never easy to tell this story,” Arthur begins quietly. “When this happened I was selling drugs. I was living by the streets and I assumed I was gonna die by the streets.” His voice builds, like a black Baptist preacher’s. “The night this happened I was going down to buy drugs from my son. I was chasing them around. When he put down the gun, I picked it up. And when she turned around, I thought she was coming after me. So I shot her.” Pause. “You can’t take ‘Oops’ back.”

Arthur’s voice takes on a gruff tone. He shifts his attention to the boys in the audience, in particular a big kid sitting in the front row, arms folded across his chest. “I was noticing when [K-Drama] was singing none of y’all clapped, so I know what y’all into. I know y’all loners but you look up to him,” he says, pointing to the big kid. “I know that without even knowing y’all. Don’t be a follower, be a leader!”

The followers squirm, unaccustomed to being called out. The big kid stares at Arthur. “If y’all go out, we won’t have nothing to live for,” Arthur says. “This is where life begins.”

The End. The presentation is over so fast that the questions and responses that follow take longer than Arthur’s and Margaret’s monologues. The principal asks the students the obligatory What Did You Learn question. One answers in that innocent, Black-History-Month-Assembly style kids have when they know they’re supposed to come up with the big answer: “I learned that when you pull the trigger, it’ll change your life.” Then the adults chime in. 

“How could you possibly forgive someone who shot you?” asks Dr. Jennifer Williams. “How could you?” Williams is the executive director of Out of the Crossfire, a two-year-old survivors’ group operating out of University Hospital whose therapy sessions Margaret sporadically attends.

“After all you go through, all the hospital stays and surgery…” Margaret begins, then regroups. “You have no choice but to forgive. You’ll walk around with all that anger inside you and you might hurt somebody else. Or yourself.”

“So,” Williams asks, “you took a bad situation and made something good from it?”

“I tried to,” Margaret says. “My life was spared.”

“I’ve never been to a forum where a victim and a perpetrator spoke at the same time,” says Angela Pearl, who works with Lighthouse Youth Services. “For you all to be in this room today—I don’t think you young people realize. This is a person. Who. Shot. Another. Person. So this speaks volumes about forgiveness.” 

After a few minutes more, the assembly is over. The principal thanks CeaseFire Cincinnati and Arthur and Margaret for coming, then tells the kids to give them a round of applause. They do, and rambunctiously begin lining up to exit the cafeteria. As they file past Margaret, they try not to stare.

Outside W.E.B. DuBois, I walk with Margaret and her 39-year-old sister, Charlotte Long, back to Findlay and Elm streets to wait in the blazing sun for the Metro Access van. Charlotte, who is pushing her infant grandson in a stroller, speaks in a loud, raspy voice and cannot wait to talk about Arthur, the shooting, and the toll it has taken on Margaret and the Long family. “I just admire her for her courage and her strength to be able to tell the story,” Charlotte says. “When she first told us about her meeting with Arthur, I was confused, upset. [But] part of me was happy for my sister to do what she did, and that she could get some closure in her life. I don’t know if I could’ve.”

Margaret was watching the evening news on August 12, 2007, when she saw a story about CeaseFire. There was Arthur, the man who’d shot her, standing beside Cincinnati Chief of Police Tom Streicher, presenting himself as a reformed felon now working for peace. It was the first time she’d laid eyes on him since the shooting. “She was so upset,” Charlotte says.

Margaret felt betrayed, abandoned, and outraged, and she fought Arthur’s media attention with her own media blitz. She got in touch with Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Eileen Gray and called Channel 5 news to tell her story. But her boldest call was to a CeaseFire Cincinnati staff member, who in turn called Stan Ross, Arthur’s CIRV boss. She asked him: Do you know you have a shooter on your staff? That call led to a “reunion” meeting between Margaret and Arthur at the Avondale Pride Center on Burnet Avenue, where CeaseFire holds meetings. When news of the reunion between shooter and victim spread throughout CeaseFire, folks were excited: Here was the group’s dream of post-shooting forgiveness about to come to fruition. With Charlotte standing nearby, Margaret and Arthur first stared at one another and then embraced. Soon, everyone was weeping.

It was that reunion that spurred Margaret to become a CeaseFire volunteer. She wanted the public to see the face—her face, her body—of Arthur’s violent past. And she did it as a way to break her isolation; to step away from anger and bitterness and wrestle with the post-traumatic stress disorder that still dogs her. It hasn’t been so easy for her sister Charlotte, who has become the begrudging forgiver and family spokeswoman. “I hated him,” she says of Arthur as we walk to the Access stop. “I hated him for what he did to my sister. Brothers, uncles—family came from out of town and some of them wanted to retaliate when [Margaret] came out of intensive care [after the shooting]. She told them ‘No.’”

“There’s still people to this day that wanna get him and I say, ‘No,’” Margaret says. “He’ll have his time with God. Everybody has to have their time with God.”

Charlotte doesn’t necessarily want to retaliate in the biblical, eye-for-an-eye kind of way. It’s deeper for her. She wants Arthur to feel a modicum of the bone-deep anguish and pain her family has suffered. “His son [Mark] had an accident on a motorcycle shortly after her accident and, really, in my heart, I thought, ‘I hope his ass is crippled. I hope it fucks him up.’” For the first time her voice goes low. “I wanted his family to know what it feels like.”

It’s obvious how close the two sisters are. Charlotte took Margaret in after the shooting and cared for her while she re-learned how to speak and dress herself. The Longs call Margaret “Dee Dee.” “Dee Dee used to love to dance,” Charlotte says gleefully. “So for the first big time out after the accident, I took her to see some strippers.” She talks so loudly it’s like she’s making an announcement. “She had all kinds of things licked off her. They almost tipped the chair over and I was pushing them away! She said, ‘Mind your own business.’”

After 45 minutes, I leave the sisters and walk to my car on Central Parkway, then drive back down to Findlay and Elm to make sure Margaret has been picked up. As I pass the bus stop, she’s being loaded into the Access van. Arthur drove away in his Mercedes-Benz long ago.

Arthur Phelps was born in Cin­cin­nati and grew up to be a teenage thug and truck-stop pimp who sometimes followed the interstate to hustle in Tennessee, Florida, and back up to D.C., dragging his workhorse whore with him.

In 1969, he was six years into a 99-year sentence at Lebanon Correctional Institution—for “auto theft and some other stuff”—when a riot broke out. He was released early because he locked himself in his cell while his block erupted and burned. He was lucky again in 1976 when a 40- to 80-year bid in the London Correctional Institution for selling drugs was busted down to a six month- to five-year sentence. At the halfway mark he was released. “And I ain’t been back since,” he says.

Between prison stints, he made babies, 22 in all. Arthur was only 14 when he got Mark’s mother pregnant. She was 18. When she came to Arthur’s mother’s house demanding child support, the new grandmother reminded her that Arthur was a minor and that she could be charged with statutory rape. This is how Arthur got away with not paying child support for Mark. From then on it was a conveyor belt of women, drugs, ill-gotten money, and violence. Arthur still loves the streets—loves the rhythms of their percolating danger, loves being in them. Only now he’s traded in his heroin and crack addiction (he’s been clean and sober for 14 years) for an addiction to the cacophony of the streets, the strange sexiness of survival and the eerie hum that pervades a neighborhood after a shooting. Arthur has pledged his time to fight the violence, to try to eradicate it. But he still gets a jolt from the proximity.

This summer, at the CeaseFire response to the August 19 shooting of 24-year-old Richard Hale near Gilbert Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, Arthur was absolutely electric, relishing his role as a sort of bodyguard to the rag-tag group of volunteers who gathered to pray for peace. He nodded and spoke to the corner dwellers; he hung back, forming a one-man perimeter around the prayer group, keeping an eye out for their safety.

It is hard to gauge Arthur’s contrition when it comes to what he did to Margaret. I know how the shooting has wrecked her life. I saw it the day I attended an Out of the Crossfire support group session with her. Margaret lives by the numbers: August 11 is the anniversary of the shooting; August 12 marks the date she saw Arthur staring out at her from the TV; and August 13 is her birthday. The therapy session fell on her 37th birthday. It was obvious how having to relive and process the crushing weight of her fate in one three-day period bears down on Margaret’s spirit. She was physically ill—trembling, soaked in sweat, and dehydrated. Slumped in her wheelchair in a conference room behind the cafeteria in University Hospital with eight other group therapy members, she watched somberly as the rest gobbled down the fried chicken and cake Charlotte and her daughter, Johnniece, brought to share.

Assembled around the table were the walking wounded, some still bearing scars of the violence that brought them here. One woman had a patch over her left eye; a young man had a bulbous stitch-mark scar running the length of his right forearm; a man in a chef’s uniform spoke with the rasp of Miles Davis, his vocal chords damaged during multiple surgeries, the result of being shot as he returned to his College Hill home after work. Jennifer Williams passed around handouts spelling out the four stages of change—Comfort, Denial, Confusion, and Renewal. Margaret was quiet while the group discussed “comfort” and “denial,” but finally spoke up when Williams tackled “confusion.”

“The reason I wanted to have this birthday with y’all today is because I almost didn’t have this birthday because it happened 17 years and two days ago,” she said. “It just makes me not wanna be here ’cause it’s the same thing over and over again. But I know I can change my thinking. I’ll be going through the rest of my life dealing with this, but I can control it. This is always the hardest week to deal with.”

For all her subdued explanations, evasive recall, and self-recrimination about the shooting, what she told this group amounted to a lifetime of mental health work. She had momentarily wrested herself from the torrents of her very complicated interior life.

I needed to see how Arthur replays those same scenes.

We agree to meet at the Pride Center on Burnet Avenue, in the heart of the decaying south end of Avondale, after-hours on a late-August night. Arthur is ready to talk and doesn’t hesitate to take me back with him to that tragic evening 17 years ago. It was between 9 and 11 p.m., he tells me. August 11, 1991—a Friday. The old Lincoln Court apartments between Clark and Cutter Streets. “I was trying to purchase some drugs from my son…”

“Crack?” I ask.

“If I wasn’t using, it would’ve never happened…and this girl…”

 “Margaret?”

“…Yeah, Margaret…kept calling for him to come upstairs [to the apartment] and finally when she walked up to him she let her arm down…and the knife fell out her sleeve. She hit him in the right shoulder with the butcher knife but it bent and he stepped back, took the gun out his waist, and laid it on the ground. When he began to back up, I picked the gun up. I think it was a .45. She was chasing him with the knife across the parking lot, between cars. And I chased her until I got her attention.”

She turned, Arthur says, and was coming toward him, and that’s when he shot her. “My son came back and he picked Margaret up in his arms and was holding her,” Arthur says. “He said, ‘Pops, why you do that? Pops, you didn’t have to do that!’ I said, ‘It just went off!’”

Arthur got in his car and drove around the corner, found a police officer, and told him that he’d just shot a woman. He says the police searched the lot and found the knife. He was cuffed, put in the cruiser, arrested, and—astonishingly—released on bond. He says he never heard anything more from the police or any lawyers. Arthur is quiet and clear as he answers my rapid-fire questions. He leans forward, his head down, making sure he hears every word I say then looks me straight in the eye as he answers. He recounts the details with a detachment very similar to Margaret’s, as though he’s telling a violent fable handed down through his family—something that happened to someone else. When I ask why he never did hard time for the shooting, he seems astonished himself. He cannot explain it, except to say that the cops found Margaret’s knife. The inference is that he was defending himself against a drunken, knife-wielding madwoman heading straight for him. He still does not understand the law that saved him from another trip to prison. He thinks it was the grace of God, and his last chance to get his life right.

Arthur knows how the Longs and others feel about the fact he never went to prison for the shooting. He says that when Margaret called CeaseFire Cincinnati after seeing him on the news last year, it was a relief. “Our meeting place was right here at this door,” he says. “I gave her a hug.”

I decide to tackle the Mercedes. I want to tell him how disproportionately luxurious his mobility is compared to Margaret’s, but it turns out I don’t have to guilt him. The Benz is a gas-guzzling hooptie he bought from his son Mark for a few thousand dollars. Mark had just bought it from a drug dealer who was on his way to prison. And Mark is in prison now himself, doing four years for an old offense. Arthur jokes about how raggedy the car’s interior is from the dealer disemboweling it to make hiding places for his drug packages. (Later, Margaret tells me her own story about the Benz. “The one thing I asked him for he couldn’t do. I asked him for a ride and he ain’t have no gas. I said, ‘Shit, I can’t depend on this nigga.’ ”)

Charlotte Long believes Arthur changes his story every time he tells it. But by the time we leave the Pride Center together, I realize Arthur Phelps knows that no matter how he tells the story he’ll never be able to outrun it, never be able to do enough penance to satisfy those who think he got off easy. 

“It’s real simple,” Arthur says. “I feel like [Margaret] is genuine. She means what she’s saying. As far as her being bitter, I can’t answer that. I pour my heart out to her. I’ll be there for her, no matter what. As far as forgiving? I left it in God’s hands. I can’t change anything that happened. I can make it better than it was. That’s it in a nutshell. Ain’t no sense of me making it no long, drawn-out thing.”

The next afternoon I visit Margaret’s dingy apartment building in Roselawn. The hallways are standard low-income—cramped, with sallow lighting.

The space between the entrance and her door is so tight we can’t both be in the hallway together, so she maneuvers her wheelchair backward into the apartment while I wait. It’s two weeks after her birthday and the group session; she still looks a little fragile but not nearly as bad as she did then. The dreary weather outside matches the feeling inside. It is dark. The shades are drawn. She turns the TV on: All My Children.

It takes some time to draw her out but eventually Margaret warms to the subject, which today is: Where does she go now? Nursing a Mountain Dew, she tells me she’s been studying to get her GED and wants to get into photography.  Robert, a friend she’s known for 15 years, lives with her. She receives Social Security benefits, and on this day she’s pretty sure a check was just stolen from her unlocked mailbox. Unfazed, she makes a mental note to call the Social Security Administration.

She wants to get better at speaking publicly, and with Dr. Williams’s encouragement she has joined Toastmasters. She doesn’t attend individual therapy, she says, and then admits to attempting suicide after Mark’s motorcycle accident. “I drank some damned peroxide,” she says, mocking herself. “That shit ain’t gonna kill you. Mark’s mother got on my case. She said, ‘That nigga ain’t all that for you to be dyin’.’ I think I just wanted to be in the hospital with him.” Before his current prison sentence she and Mark spoke now and then, but not any more. “I think he couldn’t be around me because when he met me I was on my feet,” she says.

She had a hysterectomy after doctors discovered fibroids. She’s had surgeries to repair pinched nerves, her right leg (after she fell off the couch), and her stomach immediately after the shooting. She takes medication to increase her appetite and quell her muscle spasms, and she urinates via a tube running from her abdomen. There is no subject Margaret won’t broach. I ask her if she can have children and she tells me she could but is more concerned with having sex than having children. “That’s the first thing I told my momma. ‘To hell with the kids! So long as I can still do the do.’”

Her world stretches beyond the confines of her apartment, though. In April, Margaret went to Delaware, Ohio, to compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair Ohio and the chance to be a spokeswoman for the rights of the disabled. She lost to a woman from Dayton, but she wants to re-enter and win so she can use the title to spread the gospel about living through the shattered realities of gun violence. The thing that really gets Margaret excited is talking about skydiving. She did her first tandem jump with Skydive Greensburg in 2004 and has now jumped eight times. When she falls out of a plane above southern Indiana farmland, it’s the only time she forgets about her useless limbs and clunky wheelchair. Lately, she says, she’s been thinking about learning to fly a plane.

Someday she also hopes to write a book about the shooting. “It goes way deeper than this,” she says. But for now, she is tired of the scrutiny. She wants to get on with her life, once and for all, and to somehow break free of her prime identity: Arthur’s Shooting Victim. She wants to separate “Margaret” from “Arthurand” and yet still use her tale to reach more young people.

“Anything y’all think about me I’m-a blame it on Arthur. It’s his fault,” she says. She waits a perfect comedic beat, then smiles.

“Naah. It ain’t his fault,” she assures me. “He only pulled the trigger. Everything else is the way I am.”   

Originally published in the November 2008 issue.

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