“I’m a mother without a child, now what are you gonna do about it?” Karen Frye Cobb asked herself these words as she began to mourn the sudden death of her only son. On September 6, 2008, her son Kyle Ellis, 24, and his friend Cabretti Wheeler, 21, were brutally murdered in St. Petersburg, Florida. The two were up and coming rappers. One night, while working late at the recording studio, “Dat’s Right Audio,” gunmen entered and fatally shot them at point blank range. There was no motive other than “wanting to kill someone that night,” says Cobb. A third victim, who lived upstairs in a loft apartment, also was shot five times, and somehow managed to survive the attack. He had come down to the studio after hearing what he thought were fireworks. He was pistol whipped by a gunman, then shot five times. After playing dead, he was able to make it out of the studio in time to call 911 and to see the getaway car and later was able to identify the suspects. After the incident, however, he went into hiding for fear the killers would come back to “finish the job.”
Kyle, a 2001 William Fleming High School graduate, was Cobb’s only child. Now, she clings to his daughter, which is all she has left of him. Her granddaughter was only two at the time of Kyle’s death. As a caregiver for her mother and father, Cobb had no time to allow herself to mourn Kyle’s sudden death, as she had to be strong to take care of family. That is why she moved to St. Petersburg in the first place. Wheeler’s mother, Lisa Wheeler-Brown, however, was headed into a downward spiral following her son’s murder. She began to drink daily and wound up in the hospital. While there, she had a vision of her son. In the vision, Wheeler encouraged his mom to take care of herself. After that, she made a promise to avenge his death by finding their killers. Wheeler-Brown sought out on her own investigation and took to the streets asking anyone questions that would help her find the killers. However, during this time a “no snitching” epidemic was providing many roadblocks. Nevertheless, Wheeler-Brown remained determined and refused to give up. She joined forces with investigators and worked with them until the killers were found and brought to justice. The victim who survived was stumbled upon and anonymously testified and identified the man who assaulted and shot him – 24- year-old Jerry Tyrone Jones. In 2013, Jones was convicted of murder in the first degree in the deaths of both Ellis and Wheeler and also was convicted of attempted murder of the third victim. He received three life sentences for the charges. Jones refused to “snitch” on the others involved and actually confessed to the killings to a fellow inmate during the time of the trial, solidifying his guilt. Jones will never be free again.
In 2011, Cobb’s father passed away. A year later she decided to take a vacation to regroup and allow herself the time she needed to grieve and heal from all the losses she had experienced – her mother in 2004, son 2008 and father in 2011. She didn’t come out of the house much for a couple years. The death of a close friend in 2014 led her back to the Roanoke area where she decided to stay. During this time, she sought to rediscover her purpose after losing her son. “You’re never really the same,” she says. She read books, watched a lot of news and became disturbed particularly by all the gun violence across the country. In the meantime, her best friend, Wheeler-Brown was still speaking out about gun violence and had become a St. Petersburg City Councilwoman. She invited Cobb to attend a vigil at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after the school shooting where Wheeler-Brown was asked to be one of the key speakers. During her speech, Wheeler-Brown asked Cobb to stand with her on stage as she spoke about their sons. Cobb was beyond inspired that day, so much so that, Cobb calls Wheeler-Brown her hero. Others also inspired her, including representatives with an organization called Mom’s Demand Action (MDA) who also spoke at the event.
When Cobb returned to Roanoke, she learned that the son of another close friend also had been killed from gun violence. Cobb’s anger grew immensely. “I’d had enough! I couldn’t sit back and watch anymore,” says Cobb. She decided to let her anger fuel her motivation and she immediately contacted the woman with Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense in America that she had heard speak in Florida. “I jumped right in,” she says. She began the extensive training provided by the organization that was necessary to get involved and her life got busy quick. Cobb now heads the MDA’s Roanoke Chapter, which happens to be the only one in Virginia.
MDA’s goal is to put an end to gun violence across the nation. It was organized in 2012 by Shannon Watts in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The organization works in teams within all 50 states on local, state and national levels to demand action from legislators related to gun violence by creating common-sense gun reforms. Contrary to popular belief, MDA does not oppose the Second Amendment; the organization supports it with common-sense solutions to gun safety. The group works hard providing gun safety education and lobbying for legislators who will push for stronger gun laws. The organization’s overall goal is to stop senseless gun violence and to ensure safety for children and families nationwide.
Locally, Cobb works with the Roanoke Police Department and many other civic organizations and community leaders to promote the education of gun laws and safety to save lives. She meets consistently with local area community leaders to brainstorm ideas and keep the issue of gun violence at the forefront so that community officials do not lose sight of the growing issue of gun violence in Roanoke. “It is something that must be addressed,” she says. Cobb also started a blog to raise awareness, called A Mother’s Perspective, where she shares and promotes for justice and awareness to current social issues. Cobb also can be heard every Sunday night on Focused Radio (Facebook) where she does a segment dedicated to eradicating gun violence. Cobb says she is overwhelmed by the immense support from the community and is thankful for the community leaders. Her focus right now is on God, family and community and she hopes to retire in the near future and place all of her focus on community outreach and advocacy full time. Cobb considers all the work that she does for MDA a part of her healing process. “Every day, I get up and I ask my son, Kyle, what would you have me do today?” – Karen Frye Cobb.