In the gymnasium of Poughkeepsie High School on March 14, students gathered in the bleachers, heads bowed, faces creased with pain. Sitting courtside, members of the varsity basketball team wiped their eyes and hid their faces in t-shirts. Missing was one of their teammates, Caval Haylett Jr., #5.
Five days earlier, in a different gym three miles away, Haylett had donned his white Poughkeepsie Pioneers jersey and black prescription goggles for the last game of his high school career. He had been one of three seniors chosen to represent his team in the county’s annual all-star game. Primarily symbolic, it was a chance for athletes who had been competing against each other all season to come together, enjoy themselves, and go easy on defense. But Haylett played like it mattered: During his 20 minutes on the court, he scored 21 points. Jim Santoro, the coach hosting the game, remembers watching Haylett make a silky layup. “It was a quick first step, he got inside the paint and he just floated it up,” he tells The Trace.
At halftime, each player lined up to receive an award. As Santoro handed the 18-year-old his all-county trophy, a heavy glass column engraved with his name and topped with a frosted basketball, Haylett was beaming. “He was, like, in heaven.”
Haylett’s Twitter bio read “Basketball is Life,” and he was humbly flourishing at both. “He was extremely talented,” says Omer Gil, the team’s assistant coach. “There wasn’t a weakness to his game.” He was a popular kid, loved for his dry sense of humor. (“Who Know How To Cut A Pineapple?” read one of his typical emoji-adorned social media posts.) In school, he’d made honor roll, and had just a couple final credits to check off. In a district where the high school graduation rate has hovered just above 50 percent, “he was not going to be that statistic,” says Gil. The day following the senior all-star game, Haylett was planning to meet with his coach to fill out college financial aid forms — several Division III and junior colleges had expressed interest in him.
But tonight was about celebrating the sport he loved. Haylett came home clutching his trophy, his high spirits infectious. “He was just so happy,” says Quandesha Johnson, Haylett’s older sister. “Talking about how many points he scored, talking about how they can’t handle him on the court.” He dropped off his basketball gear, sent out a tweet, and went out to meet up with friends.
Just before 10 p.m., Haylett was standing with a group of people on Winnikee Avenue when shots rang out. He was struck once in the head. He died the following afternoon in a hospital bed.
Haylett’s murder marked Poughkeepsie’s first fatal shooting of 2016. Last year, the city had two gun homicides. Despite a downturn in violent crime over the past decade, some residents say parts of the city remain haunted by gun violence. “It’s a problem,” says Xenia Wilson, a high school friend of Haylett’s. “During my middle school years, there wasn’t as much violence and hate in Poughkeepsie. You could walk the streets and you wouldn’t feel threatened by everything that’s around you. You wouldn’t feel like you have to look over your shoulder every two seconds.” In one three-week period last summer, Poughkeepsie recorded six shootings.
Police have released few details in the investigation, but do not believe Haylett was the intended target. Another victim, an 18-year-old who has not been identified, was also shot about a block away. He was treated for a gunshot wound to the arm and released.
On the morning of March 15, the day after the school’s memorial service in the gym, hundreds packed into Beth-El Church of God in Christ for Haylett’s funeral. Outside, lines of mourners wrapped around the block, waiting for a chance to squeeze in and pay their respects. As services wrapped up, young athletes across the Hudson Valley were pushing on with their seasons. Basketball and softball and lacrosse players showed up to practice armed with markers. On helmets and athletic tape, inside hat brims and bare wrists, in solidarity and sorrow, they drew the number 5.