Only yesterday, it seems, Pat Cotham helped Ralph Gettys land a job.
She wrote his resume. She taught him how to dress and how to shake hands and how to look potential employers straight in the eye. Then she drove him to interviews. And in July 2012, when Gettys landed work at a distribution center on Wilkinson Boulevard, the two celebrated like old friends.
Last week, and for one of the first times since that celebration, Cotham and Gettys found themselves in the same room again – a courtroom. Gettys was on trial, charged with first-degree murder; and Cotham, a Mecklenburg county commissioner, was hearing details of a life she never knew.
Six months after Gettys got his job, police charged him with the shooting death of Raymona Abraham.
Gettys’ trial on the first-degree murder charge opened last week. If convicted, the 34-year-old Charlotte man faces life in prison without parole.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Dean Loven said his client denied shooting anyone. But Gettys testified Monday that he shot Abraham in self-defense.
Cotham said the arrest of her former client at the Center for Community Transitions, a Charlotte nonprofit that helps those recently released from jail or prison prepare for productive lives, left her heartbroken and confused.
The Ralph Gettys she knew was not a violent man. She described him as gentle, respectful, quiet, though at times Gettys could be impatient with what he didn’t know or understand.
He had experience in maintenance and driving a forklift, and when he was younger Gettys had been promoted to head stocker at Linens ’n Things after only four months. But he also had a record, which included convictions for trafficking in cocaine and forgery. A few weeks before he began working with Cotham, Gettys had been arrested on a charge of simple assault.
As one of the center’s “employment advocates,” Cotham taught Gettys how to present and sell himself to others – what to say, how to answer questions about his arrests, and how on job interviews he should always wear clean, dark pants.
Above all else, she said, “You look people in the eyes and you say that you realize you made bad decisions and that you’ll never do it again.”
Cotham was a paid staff member at an agency that says it has kept hundreds of men and women from returning to jail.
When Gettys got his job, he was exuberant.
“He said, ‘Way to go, Ms. Pat. I did what you said and it worked!” Cotham recalled. “... He was trying to do what was right, but he felt that things were not always fair.”
She asked herself: What went wrong?
‘Breathe, baby, breathe’
Prosecutors in Gettys’ murder trial described a different man.
Gettys, they told the jury, was the bouncer at an illegal liquor house on B Avenue in west Charlotte. Here, the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Gettys was known as “Kool-Aid” at a place where people drank and drugged up and partied through the night.
Near closing time on the morning of Dec. 15, 2012, Assistant District Attorney Bill Bunting said, Gettys was at the center of an argument with two liquor house patrons that ignited into violence and gunfire. One of them was Raymona Abraham.
Angel Jenkins didn’t know Abraham. But they were part of a group that left the liquor house at the same time.
She was climbing into her cousin’s car when she heard gunshots. She said she jumped into the backseat and slammed the car door.
Seconds later, she said the door was ripped open, and Jenkins said she found herself looking at “a dude in a tan coat and black glasses,” the bouncer they called Kool-Aid.
“Get the f--- up out of here,” she said the man told her. Nobody in the car moved, though Jenkins testified that she raised her arms above her head. She said Kool-Aid was holding his front right pocket, as if he was carrying a gun.
B Avenue that night had long before turned rowdy. Jenkins said she had been partying on liquor, cocaine and other drugs for hours. When her stash ran out, she said, there was plenty more floating through the liquor house.
But after the confrontation in the car with the bouncer, Jenkins said, all she and her companions wanted to do was drive away. Their car pulled off.
Then, Jenkins testified, they saw the body.
It had been hidden by the parked cars until her cousin’s sedan left the curb. After the vehicle stopped, Jenkins said she ran back and knelt beside the bleeding man lying on his side in the street. She grabbed his hand.
“Breathe, baby, breathe,” she said she told him. “... And then he wasn’t breathing no more.”
Abraham was 21. Police say he died before dawn from several bullet wounds to his chest. During the trial, a photograph of his body appeared briefly on a courtroom monitor. It was covered by a bright yellow sheet.
Gettys testified Monday that the fatal argument broke out when he and his girlfriend were trying to park his car in front of the liquor house. A friend of Abraham’s said the car had bumped him and wanted $50 or he would call police, Gettys said.
Words went back and forth. Gettys said the two men threatened to kill him. He thought one or both were carrying guns.
According to testimony, neither was armed.
2 sons, 2 families
On Thursday, Cotham slipped into the courtroom around 4:15 p.m. Coincidentally, she picked a seat that fell midway between Gettys’ mother, Martha Gabriel, and the dead man’s father, Roosevelt Abraham.
Gabriel watched the trial two rows behind her son. When she entered or left the courtroom, she tapped the floor with a cane for the visually impaired and carried a Billy Graham book.
Roosevelt Abraham sat on the prosecution’s side of the aisle, part of more than two dozen family and friends who packed two rows of the courtroom.
Earlier in the day, the elder Abraham had described Raymona as a good son. Asked how he had ended up on B Avenue 18 months ago, the father shook his head. “He was 21. You know what I’m saying?”
Just after 5 p.m., Superior Court Judge Lucy Inman of Raleigh ended court for the day. Gettys rose and followed a sheriff’s deputy from the courtroom. He did not look at his mother or seem to notice Cotham. With a rueful smile, Cotham noticed that Gettys wore dark pants.
The two women left together. Cotham said they found a quiet spot in the lobby, clasped hands, and prayed – for Ralph, and the Abraham family that had lost a son.
Then, she said, they cried.