Shannon Cole got out of her car Thursday clutching the strings of five balloons. She carefully tied the white ribbons to a stop sign on the corner where her 19-year-old son died Monday night.
Then she walked across the street to her North Third Street apartment, opening the door for the first time in three days. A simple wooden cross was propped on the wall outside the door with “Nicholas Mills” written on it.
Mills, a curly-haired, fun-loving young man, was with a few friends in his home Monday evening. One friend, 17-year-old Antonio Acosta, held up a handgun, emptied the magazine and pointed it at Mills. Acosta thought it was empty, he would later tell police. But it wasn’t, and it discharged. Mills was hit in the upper chest, ran outside and collapsed across the street.
Police charged Acosta with third degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Cole said she believes what happened was a “careless accident.”
“He still knew as a 17-year-old that you don’t point a gun at someone,” she said.
“Now a life is gone, and not only a life, but his best friend’s, and so is his.”
Cole, 39, is no stranger to grief. She lost her husband, Mills’ stepfather, in November to cirrhosis.
The grief of losing her son, she said, is different.
‘Wasn’t supposed to be here’
Cole’s home had been an off-limits crime scene since Monday. Thursday afternoon, four cats darted around inside, eagerly feasting on cat food after days of company from detectives and lawyers.
Mills’ recent rescue, a gray cat named Ash, curled up next to Cole on a tan couch.
Acosta told police he pulled the handgun from in between the couch cushions. Officials haven’t said where the gun came from. But Cole insisted that they didn’t have any guns in the house and that someone must have brought it inside.
“There’s no gun in this house,” Cole said. “I lay on this couch. This is where I sleep ever since I lost my husband.”
Mills and Acosta were best friends, she said. But Acosta had been causing some trouble recently, and Cole told her son she didn’t want him around.
“He wasn’t supposed to be here,” Cole said.
Mills had his wisdom teeth removed earlier Monday. Cole took the day off to take care of him. Mills said he wanted chicken noodle soup, but Cole only had tomato. She decided to go to Walmart because she had a gift card. The one she prefers is in Shrewsbury, about 45 minutes away.
“I said, ‘Just behave,’ ” she said. “I say that every time I leave. ... It was my thing to say to him. And I told him I love him.”
Cole was at the store when she got the awful call that her son had been shot. The drive back felt like five hours, she said.
Known as ‘Mama Nick’
Cole’s mother, Kathy Jones, cried while talking about getting a call later that night about her grandson.
“He couldn’t do no wrong in my eyes. I couldn’t love him any more,” Jones, 61, said. “We’re numb.”
Jones lives in Bowie, Maryland, where Mills grew up. Mills went to Red Rock Job Corps in Scranton to study car body work. After he finished, about two years ago, he moved to live with his mom and stepfather in Columbia.
Mills, ever the outgoing one, made friends all over Columbia. After Cole’s husband died, she thought about moving, but her son wanted to stay. She’s been working two jobs to afford it.
“I was ‘Mama Nick,’ ” Cole said. “This is where everybody hung out.”
Even on Thursday, half a dozen of Mills’ friends and neighbors came to the house, some staying inside to hang out.
The support from the Columbia community has overwhelmed Cole and Jones. There’s been a vigil at the corner where Mills died every night since Monday.
“I’m in total awe. I want to move up here. That’s how amazed I am about the people reaching out,” Jones said.
At her home Thursday, Cole excused herself for a few minutes. A neighbor wanted to give her a hug.
She came back inside with a story. A man she didn’t know asked her if her son was the curly haired, tall kid.
“That’s my boy,” she told him.