NEW ORLEANS — One of the central figures in the 2007 Jena Six civil rights case never gave up pursuing his football career, even after his well-publicized run-ins with the law.
Mychal Bell, an 18-year-old high school running back, clung to the hope that he could earn a college football scholarship. Then came another legal scrape this Christmas Eve.
After news broke of his arrest on a shoplifting charge, Bell shot himself in the chest Monday with a .22-caliber handgun. He remained hospitalized Tuesday but police said his chest wound was not life-threatening.
"When it was broadcast that he was charged with shoplifting he just felt that the whole year had been wasted and that he had worked all of that time for nothing," said Louis Scott, who represented Bell in the case where Bell and five other black teenagers were charged in the 2006 beating of a white classmate.
Bell's grandmother, Rosie Simmons, and mother, Melissa Bell, told police that "Mychal had made comments over the past two days that, because of the current media attention he had because of the shoplifting arrest, he didn't feel like he could live anymore," Monroe Police Lt. Jeff Harris said, reading from a police report.
Bell and the other members of the "Jena Six" once faced attempted murder charges in the beating at Jena High School, in north central Louisiana's Lasalle Parish. The charges for all the defendants were eventually reduced. But the severity of the original charges brought widespread criticism and eventually led more than 20,000 people to converge in September 2007 on the tiny town of Jena for a major civil rights march.
After being sentenced to 18 months following his guilty plea to juvenile charges, Bell moved from Jena to Monroe, where he was in foster care. He was released from state supervision on Dec. 4, said Bill Furlow, a spokesman for Reed Walters, the district attorney for LaSalle Parish.
A football star at Jena High until the Barker beating, Bell had hoped to play for Monroe's Carroll High School, where he is on track to graduate in the spring. But the Louisiana High School Athletic Association wouldn't grant him a fifth year of eligibility to play. Bell had spent 10 months in prison awaiting trial after his 2006 arrest in the beating case.
"He had kept his grades up and he had worked out the whole year even though he couldn't play. He had dealt with the fact that the state athletic association would not let him play high school ball," Bell's lawyer, Louis Scott said Tuesday.
It was unclear whether his dreams of a college football career were realistic. According to Scott, family members believed Bell was having encouraging discussions with the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
The school's director of football operations, Peter Martin, said in an e-mail that the school had not evaluated Bell as a prospective student-athlete and would not speculate on his potential at the college level.
Police said Bell's Christmas Eve arrest came after he allegedly tried to steal several shirts and a pair of jeans from a department store and fled when a security guard and off-duty police officer tried to detain him. After they found him hiding under a car, Bell "swung his arms wildly" and one of his elbows struck the security guard with a glancing blow, according to a police report. He was freed on $1,300 bond.
Scott said he believed the arrest likely resulted from a misunderstanding.
"I would be very surprised if he was shoplifting," Scott said. "I had seen him working out every day even though he knew he wasn't going to be able to play high school football."
Monday's shooting was reported at 7:40 p.m. According to the police report, Bell was staying at his grandmother's home and his mother was visiting at the time. Melissa Bell told police she and Simmons heard a gunshot coming from Mychal's room. They found him on his bed, wounded in the chest. It was not clear Tuesday who owned the gun.