Tensions rose among family Monday in a DeKalb County courtroom as details emerged in the death of T'Rhigi "Ralo" Diggs, a 3-year-old who police say was shot dead on Easter by a middle school student.
The story was bizarre and maddening for the relatives crowded into the pews — for those who came to support the child who is dead, and for those who came on behalf of the child who stands accused of murder.
Detective Chris Tappan said T'Rhigi died because the teen was shooting a handgun at people who'd assaulted him with paintballs. It happened amid a surge of paintball attacks around metro Atlanta in recent months. Atlanta rapper 21 Savage popularized the trend by posting a video online encouraging people to leave their bullets behind and instead use paintballs, the detective said.
The message, seemingly intended to curb violence, had the opposite effect on April 1.
A few carloads of pranksters unleashed a load of paint on the Texaco station on Bouldercrest Road, near Eastland Road. Several people were hit, including 15-year-old Christopher Cullins, the detective testified.
Cullins, who is charged as an adult, was at the Texaco, along with his sister, his mother and his cousin.
After getting pelted, Cullins grabbed a real handgun from his cousin’s car and fired toward the cars that had been shooting the paintballs, the suspect later told police.
He missed, but the bullet instead struck the SUV T’Rhigi’s mother was driving on Eastland Road. The bullet went into the backseat and hit the boy, who was asleep in his carseat, Tappan said.
Blood poured from his chest and he began to cry.
Meanwhile, Cullins and his family left the station, the detective said. It isn’t clear whether they knew at the time that the child had been shot.
The toddler’s mother, Rashonda Craig, 26, pulled over and saw the blood. T’Rhigi, who would always say “Momma” when he was in pain, only wailed until he stopped breathing.
The detective said Cullins’ sister encouraged him to surrender, but he resisted. She decided to tell police what happened.
She said she heard her brother scream, “I don’t give a (expletive),” while firing the gun.
Officers went to Sylvan Hills Middle School in Atlanta and arrested him 10 days after the shooting. He agreed to speak to investigators.
“He said shooting the child was a mistake,” Tappan testified. “He said he fired at the people with the paintball guns.”
Those people still haven't been identified. Because of the huge number involved in the trend, and the fact that the gas station's security camera didn't capture the cars, police have virtually "no way" of finding out who they were, Tappan said.
Police have said 21 Savage personally had nothing to do with the case, but, oddly, it happens that he is a friend of T’Rhigi’s family. He came by the house to comfort the boy’s mother, who had no other children, and he paid for the funeral.
Rashonda Craig and other relatives of the toddler were still mourning Monday. Several wore white T-shirts that said “rest in peace” with a picture of T’Rhigi wearing a black fedora.
They wiped tears during the testimony and, after Judge Claire Jason found probable cause for the state to continue with the case against Cullins, they rose and filed out of the courtroom. One of them, a woman, kept calling out about the suspect dying in jail.
One of Cullins’ sisters shouted back profanity before turning to her brother and yelling, “I love you, boy!”
Deputies had the suspect’s family stay inside the building while the victim’s family left to avoid confrontation.
For T’Rhigi’s mother, the hearing had been both painful and helpful. Craig felt somehow better to learn what caused her child’s death, though peace seems far off.
“It feels like I’m just lost right now,” she said.
Cullins’ mother, Tacco Cullins, who sat giving a bottle to bouncing baby on her knee, declined to comment.