Final moments and nagging questions

Editor’s Note: After this story went to press, Metro Times learned that 35-year-old Keith Bender Jr. died at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit. The police believe that Bender was shot by Proof.

Detroit's hip-hop community is still holding its breath.

As details continue to emerge regarding the shooting outside a seedy nightclub that left 32-year-old rapper Proof dead and a 35-year-old Army vet critically wounded, the questions of how and why hang like a cloud over the city and its hip-hop community in particular.

Just as Detroit had begun shaking off its negative reputation and the hip-hop community was beginning to recover from the loss of famed producer James "Jay Dee" Yancey, the violent death of D12 superstar Proof has left a tremendous hole.

"Proof was the embodiment of Detroit hip hop," says DJ House Shoes, a friend of the rapper since 1993. "He carried us on his shoulder for the last 15 years. Shit's so fucked up [in Detroit] right now, I don't know if the hip-hop scene is really gon' recover from this one. Detroit was Proof's city, and now we're like a motherless child."

Proof, whose real name was Deshaun Holton, was an integral figure in Detroit's hip-hop community, and was a local celebrity aside from being best friends with rap superstar Eminem. On a national level, Proof seemed to play second fiddle to his longtime friend Eminem, but within Detroit hip-hop circles, the roles were seen the other way around. To many, Proof was the real star, the best battle rapper in Detroit's history.

Though some details are still sketchy or contested, police reports claim that Proof was involved in a verbal altercation over a game of pool around 4:30 a.m., inside the C.C.C. nightclub with 35-year-old Army veteran Keith Bender Jr. According to witnesses, Proof pulled out a handgun, pistol-whipped Bender in the face, and then shot him once through the head.

Police spokesperson James Tate says several witnesses claim that Proof then stood over Bender and prepared to shoot him once again, but was instead hit with a hail of bullets, at least twice in the torso, and once in the head.

Both men were privately transported to separate hospitals: Proof to Holy Cross Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival, and Bender to St. John Hospital where he remains in critical condition.

Both men attended Osborn High School on Detroit's east side, although it's not clear whether they knew each other before their fateful encounter on the morning of Tuesday, April 11. And some people within Proof's camp are wondering why he was at a nightclub with a reputation for trouble at 4:30 a.m. without any of his bodyguards.

Proof was seen at the Coliseum strip club on Eight Mile Road by friend and rapper Mu between midnight and 2 a.m., but his whereabouts are unknown between the time that bar closed and the time he was killed.

Mu says that Proof was in good spirits when the two parted ways outside of the strip club. He didn't recognize everyone that Proof was with, but commented that nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and that Proof was neither drunk nor apparently under the influence of any drugs.

"It was just a normal night," says Mu, who was formerly signed to Proof's Iron Fist record label. "We were laughing and talking about playing a game of basketball later on in the week. There was nothing abnormal about Proof that night, so when people called me a few hours later saying that P got murdered, I couldn't understand how any of that could have happened."

The man who turned himself in as the shooter and faced arraignment Saturday on weapons charges, 28-year-old Mario Etheridge, is a bouncer at the C.C.C. nightclub and claims he was only doing his job in preventing Proof from firing a second round at an unarmed Bender. Etheridge, who is also a cousin to Bender, was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and firing inside an occupied building.

However, the investigation of the shooting continued.

"After shooting Proof once, the situation should have been brought to a halt," says a Police Department source who asks not to be identified. "But Etheridge kept on firing — until Proof was dead. That's the only thing that we're still looking at."

Detroit Police Sgt. Timothy Firchau, of the homicide division, says that although witnesses were initially slow to step forward, authorities are now positive that Proof fired his weapon first, despite protests from Proof's attorney.

What happened was inevitable to some, unbelievable to others, troubling to all.

"I always knew something like this was going to happen with Proof," says Yvette Hinds outside of a tribute benefit for Proof at the Northern Lights Lounge on the night after the shooting. Hinds, who says she has known him for a few years, says, "He always had that short temper, and even though people don't like to admit it, a lot of us knew it was only a matter of time before it eventually caught up to him."

Yet fellow Detroit rapper Champtown, who had his own conflicts with Proof in the past, sees things differently. He emphasizes that he and Proof had patched up their differences.

"I don't have to go around with that on my conscience," Champtown says. "Dr. Dre didn't get that opportunity with Eazy-E, and sometimes men don't resolve their conflicts the right way. But Kid Rock brought us together last November at the State Theatre and it's been nothing but love ever since.

"Even when we were beefing, I never knew him to have a violent streak," Champtown continues. "The Proof I knew was a prankster. He would talk shit about anybody, but he wasn't a killer."

Others searched for meaning beyond the details of what happened.

Shawn "Origix" Featherston, of 89.3 WHFR, says he's known Proof for years as a genuinely humble person. He sees numerous contradictions in the way Proof died, but hopes his death will force rappers to rethink some of the content in their songs.

"I hope cats realize that their lyrics need to change," Featherston says. "For him to die like this, even though it wasn't hip hop-related, should make some people wake up regarding the lyrics they spit. This city doesn't need to lose any more rappers."

Longtime friend and manager Khalid el-Hakim is one of the many people close to Proof who say his actions last Tuesday morning were totally out of character.

But el-Hakim, from his vantage point, thinks the media is still missing a bigger picture.

"This is about how black men deal with conflict, that's the story that needs to be told," El-Hakim says. "This is happening in black communities all across the nation. Now that we have a platform to do it, that's what we should talk about. Gun violence. Otherwise, it really is just a senseless shooting."

Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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