Golden Valley’s A’Jahni Levias playing through pain of sister’s death

The family of A’Tierra Westbrook, including Golden Valley sophomore A’Jahni Levias, pose next to a framed picture of her in their Santa Clarita home. Westbrook was shot and killed near her Bay Area home in August 2015. (Back row from left to right: Tiffany Shields, Auveen Shields, Regina Shields-Hailey, A’Jahni Levias, Senika Shields-Levias. Front row from left to right : Auveen Shields and Paula Shields). Austin Dave/The Signal.

The No. 21 didn’t end up on the back of Golden Valley sophomore A’Jahni Levias’ jersey by chance.

Sure, it’s safe to assume a player making the jump from JV to varsity as an underclassman may have just been given a number in correspondence to the jersey that fit him.

That certainly wasn’t the case.

The number symbolizes a tragedy that no teenager or family should ever have to come to grips with. It also serves as the motivation behind a chubby eighth-grader waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to morph himself into a 6-foot-4 powerhouse on the Grizzlies’ varsity squad on his way to earning a college scholarship.

At 21 years old, Levias’ sister, A’Tierra Westbrook, was shot and killed while on her way to work as an admissions representative at Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center in the Bay Area on August 3, 2015.

“When I have that number on my back, I know I need to honor her and work hard just like she did,” A’Jahni said.

Westbrook and A’Jahni’s mother, Senika Shields-Levias, elected to move the family to Santa Clarita just three months after the shooting.

“I felt like to think clearly, I needed to remove myself from the situation,” Senika said. “I realized you can’t heal in an environment that caused you so much sickness.”

Joining them were Senika’s youngest sister, Tiffany Shields, and their mother Paula Shields. The middle of the three daughters, Regina Shields-Hailey, already lived in the area.

The tight-knit family acknowledges time will never really heal all the wounds from this tragedy.

But they’re hopeful for their new life in a new town.

And much of that hope stems from watching A’Jahni’s transformation on the hardwood and what’s to come of his future.

The shooting

Senika was a nurse at the same hospital in Richmond that Westbrook worked at, located in the East Bay just outside of Oakland.

Senika wasn’t at work that morning because she didn’t renew her tuberculosis test before the family embarked on a cruise to Mexico a week prior, and had to cancel the shift to take care of the clearance.

While on her way to the hospital to take care of the test, her husband and A’Jahni’s father, Amonte Levias, got a call from a friend saying Westbrook’s home in Vallejo was roped off.

After placing a call to the hospital at 11 a.m. and finding out that Westbrook had not shown up for her scheduled 8 a.m. shift, Senika began to worry.

“For her to be that late to her shift, I knew it was bad,” Senika said.

With A’Jahni and Tiffany’s children, Aubuany and Auveen in the back seat, Senika sped back toward Vallejo to find the hose roped off and Westbrook’s car crashed into a pole.

“Our worst nightmare had come true,” Senika said.

Senika acknowledged the East Bay’s reputation for a high crime rate, but Westbrook was a cheerleader and honor student at Vallejo High School – a superb role model for A’Jahni and the rest of the family.

It didn’t take long after the unthinkable tragedy for Senika to spring into action. With the help of her sisters and mother, she started the “Justice For A’Ti” foundation to find the killers.

“It’s weird, when something like this happens to you, you want to jump into action almost immediately,” Senika said. “And you don’t even think about yourself or your own well-being. You just want to make sure your child isn’t forgotten and that you get justice for them.”

Shortly after starting the foundation, they packed up and moved to Southern California.

“At first I didn’t really want to move because I didn’t want to meet new people,” said A’Jahni, who was starting eighth grade at the time of the move. “I felt like we had a good life out there until that happened. My family wanted us to be safe.”

Justice for A’Ti

Thirteen months after Westbrook’s death, Isaiah “Bucky” McClain, was arrested on suspicion of shooting Westbrook in her car. Authorities believe Westbrook was the unintended target of an ongoing dispute.

A few months later, Richard E. Hill was arrested on suspicion of driving the getaway car. Both were arrested in September 2016.

Senika lauded the Solano County Sheriff Department’s ability to track down the suspects. But there likely wouldn’t have been an arrest if not for a large-scale social media campaign led by Senika, Regina and Tiffany.

“It was many sleepless night, many tears, many hours on the internet,” Senika said. “ … Every waking hour that wasn’t spent taking care of our kids, we spent on finding the killers.”

Senika described the initial phone call in which she was informed of McClain’s arrest as bittersweet.

Senika Shields-Levias and A’Jahni Levias look at a poster filled with pictures of A’Tierra Westbrook, which was made for a rally to help locate the suspects behind an August 2015 shooting which resulted in her death. Austin Dave/The Signal.

“It made me feel like ‘OK, they’re going to pay for ruining my life like this and hurting my kid,’” Senika said. “They killed my daughter and she can’t feel anything else. But they hurt my son, too. They hurt my entire family. They violated us in the worst way possible.

A’Jahni began to grow closer to his sister, who was seven years older than him, as he grew in age. They bonded over their love of shoes and Westbrook was constantly in his ear when he was forcing teachers to call home because he was acting out as a sixth-grader.

“She was a pretty big role model to me,” A’Jahni said. “I knew I needed to step my game up to be more like her. There weren’t any more calls home after sixth grade.”

Regina, Tiffany and Paula balanced their own mourning process while trying to be there for Senika.

They referred to Regina as the “VP” because she was next in line to field media requests for the high-profile case when Senika wasn’t feeling up to it.

“Everybody brought a different element to the healing process,” Tiffany said. “When Senika and Regina weren’t able to speak to the media, it would fall on me.”

Families that had gone through similar tragedies complimented the group’s cohesiveness.

“I know that pushes A’Jahni and the other kids because they saw how hard we would fight for them,” Tiffany said. “The three kids were there for each other, too.”

Comfort on the hardwood

While the social media campaign was waged, A’Jahni was taken under the wing of former Golden Valley freshman coach Rodney Taylor.

Taylor could empathize with A’Jahni. His wife and 9-year-old daughter had been killed in a hit-and-run crash.

A’Jahni, who played on club teams in the Bay Area, took four months off from basketball after moving to Santa Clarita in order to support his mother.

He and Taylor quickly formed a bond, though, and the two worked out daily at the LA Fitness on Golden Valley Road, starting at 5 a.m. most mornings.

“I saw that he was committed to the game,” Taylor said. “You’d think with everything with he’s been through it’d be hard, but he’s a strong kid. I wanted to be that mentor for him and he knows he can call any time, any day.”

It wasn’t long before the husky eighth grader became a candidate to join the Grizzlies’ varsity squad. While Taylor was pushing him, A’Jahni leaned on other motivations as well.

“I know I have to go hard for my sister because that’s how she worked,” A’Jahni said. “She’d work late nights to handle her business. When I’m on the court, I know I need to work hard like that and handle my business.”

Though he started this season on JV, A’Jahni was quickly brought up to the varsity level and became a regular in the starting lineup. He averaged 12.4 points and 8.1 rebounds through 10 Foothill League games.

He credits Grizzlies teammates like Micah McLaurin for embracing him onto the team.

“I think his rise is not only a compliment to him but his support system as well,” said Golden Valley coach Larry Keys. “I think he used the tragedy to fuel his game.”

Senika allows A’Jahni to take days off from school when needed to cope with the tragedy and has informed some of his teachers of the situation.

Though he wears No. 21 to honor his sister, A’Jahni tries to focus strictly on basketball when on the court.

The family has admired the way he’s responded to Westbrook’s death.

“These kids were amazing,” Tiffany said, also referencing her two children.  “They seemed to find their own way and get out of the fog before we could.”

A’Jahni said his main objective throughout the process was to be strong for his mother. Whether he knew it or not, his dedication to basketball was doing just that.

“He could’ve gone down a dark path himself.” Senika said. “He has choices like we all do and sometimes teenagers don’t make the right choices, especially after suffering a tragedy like he has.”

Trying to move on

The two suspected killers have a preliminary hearing set in the Bay Area this August, around the three-year anniversary of the shooting. They’re expected to face trial before the end of the year.

The family began its Santa Clarita tenure in a townhouse but has since purchased a home.

That home was the scene for a surprise party for A’Jahni’s 16th birthday. The theme of the party was centered around shoes — the shared love with his sister.

“I was just smiling the whole time watching him walk in,” said Regina, who filmed a surprised A’Jahni strut through the front door. “I hadn’t seen everyone that happy in a long time.”

A’Jahni dedicates most of his free time to basketball but is also an avid video game fan, with NBA 2K amongst his favorites.

“It’s fun having practice and games,” A’Jahni said. “I’ll have something to do throughout the day and have my whole week scheduled.”

Senika now works as a realtor with Tiffany. The scenes that come with being a nurse began to take a toll following the shooting.

The family doesn’t have many pictures of Westbrook hanging around the home in order to keep away from constant reminders of the tragedy. They cling to a poster board filled with pictures of her that was made for a rally to help find the killers a few months after the shooting.

“I’m just now really being able to grieve because I’ve been trying to be their backbone,” Paula said. “It was just totally a headspin for all of us to uproot but we’ve decided this is where we want to be.”

Senika, Regina and Tiffany traveled to Spain last January to walk the Camino De Santiago and plan to do so again sometime in the next two years. Paula plans to join them this time.

“We had that moment where we didn’t know where we were walking but there was beauty in front of us and beauty behind us and we had to keep going,” Tiffany said.

A’Jahni, like the rest of the family, has been leaned on heavily to help get through the trying times. His first game at Golden Valley as a freshman, he drew wings with the No. 21 in between them on the back of his shoes. The sight brought the family to tears.

That was one of the few times the family cried while watching A’Jahni play.

They hope his career will continue to serve as a beacon of hope for a future that for them will forever be tied back to August 3, 2015.

“Just going to see his evolution in the game gave us something to get up and go outside for,” Tiffany said. “We were like him when we got here — we didn’t want to meet new people.

“We understand we’ll never get over this pain but we have to live in the now.”

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