'He Was The Laid-Back Child,' Family Remembers Jonathan Freeman, Fatally Shot Teen

Jan 23, 2019

A leader, an old soul and a “laid-back kid” are how Jonathan Freeman’s family remembers him. The 16-year-old was fatally shot at a friend’s house in Homewood earlier this month. 

Kelli Freeman with her nephew, Jonathan Freeman
Credit Kelli Freeman

“When they say it takes a village to raise a child, he had a village,” said Kelli Freeman, 39, Jonathan’s aunt on his father’s side. Maximilian Dennison, 36, agrees. He’s Jonathan’s uncle on his mother’s side. He said both families have deep Pittsburgh roots, and went to school together when they were growing up.

Jonathan Freeman was a strong learner; Dennison said his nephew was always on the honor roll, and was enrolled in AP and advanced math courses at Taylor Allderdice High School. Last summer, Jonathan participated in a coding program run by Dennison.

Freeman said Jonathan’s mother is an educator, and was an advocate for her son’s academic success.

“He was just a good worker,” said Dennison. “He put his head down and got to work.”

And that focus translated into his personal interests as well.

Dennison said Jonathan often wanted to talk about sports and music. “He was a true student, he would study all the different genres of music,” Dennison said. Jonathan was interested in everything from Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to Nas and Ice Cube. Many mornings he would get out of the shower singing his favorite song “Foolish” by the singer Ashanti.

Jonathan Freeman’s favorite basketball player was Kawhi Leonard.

“What always struck me about him was he always had statistics to back up his arguments, so he might say Magic Johnson was better than Lebron James,” but when Dennison would disagree, “he would be like ‘no Magic Johnson had three triple doubles and 42 rebounds,’ and he was just that type of kid to always do his research.”

Most recently Jonathan was teaching himself Japanese and becoming interested in Anime.

Max Dennison and Kelli Freeman at Freeman's home.
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA

As part of his mourning process, Dennison went through old text messages and discovered a lot of food requests from his nephew. “Hey Uncle Max, can we get pizza tonight?” “Hey Uncle Max, what do you think about Five Guys?”

Aunt Kelli Freeman remembers late-night calls asking for a ride to Sheetz, even though she lived on the other side of town.

“He was the laid-back child,” said Kelli Freeman. “He was the one that I would not mind having around. If I might have come from having a real busy day I can count on Jonathan to just sit back and just chill out.”

She said her nephew was respectful and well behaved, which she attributes to his upbringing.

Dennison said Jonathan was somewhat reserved with his emotions. Rather than talking back, he might go for a walk. “If he’s really upset with you he might give you some distance, might not pick up the phone on that first ring. He’s not really a confrontational kid,” said Dennison. He said he never saw Jonathan fight, even when he’d play video games with his little brother Christopher. “You know how brothers argue, but Jon was just like laughing at him.”

Kelli Freeman said she witnessed Jonathan’s maturity and control over his emotions two years ago when his great-grandma died. His father was devastated to lose his grandma, and Jonathan stayed by his side holding his hand while they sat in the funeral home. “Jonathan was just real strong for his father at that moment in time,” said Freeman.

“I always told him to stay out of trouble and out of the news,” she said. Black men are disproportionately impacted by gun violence in Pittsburgh and Freeman said she never thought her nephew would be on the other side of a news story.

Freeman’s family describes the fatal shooting as a case of being at the “wrong place at the wrong time.” No arrests have been made in the killing.

Jonathan Freeman, his younger cousin, and his aunt Kelli.
Credit Kelli Freeman

Kelli Freeman said her nephew’s parents have “been robbed of their first born, graduation, college moments, my brother has been robbed of his legacy to carry on the Freeman name. It’s just so unfair.”

“I’m sure once the funeral is over and everyone has a chance to really get their feelings out, we’ll return to the questions of why? What happened?” said Dennison. But for now, he said both families are focused on supporting each other.

Freeman’s aunt and uncle both said they have been flooded with messages from friends, family and acquaintances since the shooting.

“So many people reached out and we appreciated the condolences and the prayers. But it’s one month from now, two months from now, birthdays, Christmas, holidays; that continued support and circle of love and comfort is going to be needed. It’s incredibly rough right now, but it doesn’t stop really,” said Dennison. “Even if you don’t know what to say, sometimes just sitting with the person is enough, just to let them know you care, you’re around.”

Kelli Freeman said she is encouraging members of her family to seek mental health services and counseling.

“I just want people to know, don’t ever think that you’re exempt from this,” said Freeman. “I remember growing up and my mom and them saying ‘stay out of the streets, stay away from this, this is trouble,’ and it’s just overall in general as you look at the news, you can be anywhere…we see gun violence happen in churches, happen in schools, malls… and I can promise you, I would have never thought it would have happened to us.”