At 13, Clayton Veninga was absolutely certain he would some day become a Green Bay Packer.
The astronomical odds against this happening never entered her son’s mind, said Angela Veninga. When he set his mind to something, the eighth-grader didn’t know doubt, his mom said. He lived for football and could play any position. His favorite player was Packer’s legendary quarterback Brett Favre.
Mom knew her son to be fearless and kind. He always looked out for his two sisters on the streets of their Granite City neighborhood. He hugged his mom every morning.
“He was a good kid,” Veninga said. His family called him “Bubba.”
Mom was a Dallas football fan. She had once lived in Texas and so she rooted for the Cowboys. But not to worry. The love between mother and son never withered on football Sundays, even when the two teams went head-to-head. On Monday, when Bubba got ready for school and Mom got ready for work, there was always that hug at the door.
That’s what happened the morning of May 3, 2013, a Friday. Clayton was looking forward to the weekend. But what happened that evening was so horrific that even three and a half years later, Angela Veninga cannot tell the story without crying.
She has been forced to relive it recently after attending the first-degree murder trial of LaRoyce McFadden, 21, who was found guilty Dec. 1 of killing Clayton. The trial in a Madison County courtroom took two days and the jurors returned their verdict after 30 minutes of deliberation.
On that May evening, just a few blocks from the Veninga home, an angry McFadden, then 17, found a .22-caliber revolver he had hidden at his home. It contained just two shells. To be certain it fired on the first trigger pull, he had to check the handgun’s cylinder to make sure the hammer would fall on a live round.
McFadden would later tell Granite City Detective Gary Brooks that he was seething with anger that evening because a 14-year-old boy on a porch at 2012 Cleveland Blvd., a few hundred feet from the Veninga residence, ordered him to “Get off the block.” A 23-year-old man and a woman were also on the porch — as was Clayton.
The 14-year-old boy taunted McFadden, according to the police report. The two had been in a fistfight several days earlier. McFadden told Detective Brooks that the people on the porch began “harassing and threatening him,” as he walked past the house on his way home.
Five or 10 minutes later, two shots were fired from across the street at the people on the porch.
He was a good kid. His family called him ‘Bubba.’
Angela Veninga, mother of murder victim
Angela Veninga was home but didn’t hear the gunfire. She said the first she became aware that something was wrong was when she heard shouting. She ran outside. She thinks she heard someone say, “Bubba’s been shot.” She glanced at the driveway and saw her son lying on his back, bleeding from his side. She ran to him and kneeled.
“I’m here. Mommy’s here. Please talk to me,” she remembered saying.
“His eyes just fluttered and that was it,” she said.
With her 15-year-old daughter, Holly, listening in silence, and reporters taking notes at her kitchen table in Fairmont City, Veninga haltingly continued. The EMTs arrived and told her to step away. Her son was placed on a gurney and loaded swiftly into an ambulance. She had had only seconds to whisper to him before he was taken away. What had she said? She said she must keep that secret.
Bleeding heavily from a single bullet wound, an ambulance rushed Clayton to the emergency room at Gateway Medical Center in Granite City.
When Angela Veninga arrived at the hospital, she was told she couldn’t see her son because medical personnel were trying to save his life. She said she had to find some way to let Bubba know his mother was there, if not at his side, as close as she could get.
“I was screaming and hollering through the hospital. I thought maybe he could hear my voice,” Veninga said.
Finally, after about an hour, she was told her son had been pronounced dead. Now she could see him. But even in death there were restrictions. She bent over to kiss him as he lay on a table, a mother’s last kiss.
“You can’t touch him,” a nurse told Veninga. Her son’s body was officially a crime scene. A mother’s kiss could foil the recovery of evidence. Veninga said she didn’t sleep for four days.
Efforts to reach McFadden’s mother were unsuccessful. A family member at a home in Granite City declined to give his name but said LaRoyce is his cousin and promised to provide a phone number for the mother.
“You’re gonna do a story how he (McFadden) was railroaded? OK,” the man said. He could not be reached later.
McFadden faces a mandatory sentence that will mean he could literally spend his life in state prison. On the conviction for first-degree murder he faces 20-60 years but is eligible for a 25-year enhancement that applies to adults who commit crimes in which firearms are used. Prosecutors have said they will try for the enhanced sentence, which is up to the judge. He will have to serve 100 percent of his sentence. A sentencing date has not been set.
During the trial, a video was shown of McFadden holding his right arm out straight and then lowering it until it was at about eye level, a demonstration given to Brooks, the police detective, who had asked how McFadden held the .22 revolver when he fired it. Court records show McFadden confessed to various scenarios but insisted he hadn’t intended to kill anyone.
Prosecutors argued, though, that McFadden did indeed intend to kill someone. After all, he had fired twice. One shot might have allowed for a defense that the shooting was accidental.
On the day of the verdict, State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said, “This was a senseless act of violence that ended in the worst way.” According to court testimony, LaRoyce and Clayton likely didn’t know each other.
This was a senseless act of violence that ended in the worst way.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons
Angela Veninga said two families faced tragedy because of what happened that day.
“It was a 17-year-old making stupid, stupid choices,” she said. “Two families lost a son. ... I don’t hate LaRoyce. I’m angry with him. I don’t think I could forgive him. But I don’t hate him. I don’t hate anybody.”
As for the swift verdict, Veninga said, “I didn’t feel any relief. I didn’t feel any closure.”
Inside her home, there is a “Bubba shrine.”
Angela Veninga showed visitors a living room wall above a fireplace dedicated to her son and his dream of playing professional football — a collection of photos, signed footballs, a large, framed portrait of Clayton, cards from distraught classmates and, in the center, a small stone vault that holds his ashes and is marked with lipstick: a mother’s last kiss.