Fox 5 Films: The life and death of Robert Peace

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In 1980, Robert Peace was born to a single mother in a rough area just outside Newark, New Jersey. In 1998, that brilliant young man defied the odds and started his freshman year at Yale University. In 2011--five weeks shy of his 31st birthday--he was shot and killed in a basement on Smith Street in Newark.

Just two years ago, Rob's Yale roommate Jeff Hobbs wrote an award-winning book about his friend: "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace."

This is their story.

"This is where Rob and I lived when we were randomly paired as roommates freshman year," Hobbs said. "We met right up here on the 4th floor on move in day. Guns N' Roses was playing out of somebody's window--'Sweet Child o' Mine.'"

Jeff Hobbs' story with Robert Peace began on Old Campus at Yale University in August of 1998. They were two very different young men; Hobbs from an upper middle class family in Delaware, Rob raised by his mother Jackie in South Orange, New Jersey. His father was in jail for murder.

It wasn't until Rob's funeral nearly 13 years later that Hobbs starting putting their story on paper.

"I set out just talking to 6 or 8 core family members and friends and everybody--Rob had a lot of friends," he said. "As all these stories came together it just seemed like there was some value, some positive value hopefully in telling the story of his life and his death."

"Robert DeShaun is his name. We always called him by his middle name," said Dante Peace, his uncle. "I remember the day that Shaun came home from the hospital back on June 25th, 1980, little bundle. My sister was very happy."

"Two or three years old, became very inquisitive about different things that I thought was ahead of his time," he added. "He would wait in the window for his dad on the weekends, when his father would come to take him out."

That all changed when Rob was 7 years old. His father arrested and jailed, accused of killing two of his female neighbors. His incarceration was a huge hole in Rob's life that he rarely spoke about.

"I had no idea how much in pain he was over his father and his father not being there," said Jason Delpeche, Rob's friend. "We always knew that his father was in prison. We weren't quite sure--not until we became adults--what exactly he was in prison for but we knew he just wasn't there."

Delpeche met Rob in the fourth grade. Their parents sent them to Catholic school so they could get a better education. Rob showed brilliance from a young age.

"We had like a circle of geeky, nerdy kids and everything like that but he was the one that kind of made it cool. He wasn't just like a book worm," Delpeche said. "He had a kind of swagger about him, he was really confident, and he had this broad smile. He was a humble person. I really don't think he realized how special, how important he really was."

Syreeta Tabarez, Rob's cousin, spoke on his behalf as well. "He was the one family member that would always be there," she said. "He was so smart. I'm three years older than him, and he is helping me with my math homework."

Robert Peace really came into his own--academically and athletically--at St. Benedict's Prep on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Newark where he started high school in 1994. St. Benedict's Prep is a unique high school of just over 500 young men largely serving Newark's minority community.

"A lot of single parent homes and then a percentage of the single parent homes the absent dad is incarcerated," said Father Edwin Leahy, the headmaster.

Father Leahy has been the headmaster since the 1970s, but the boys run the show here.

"It's high risk because when you put that kind of responsibility in the hands of kids who have partially developed brains, it doesn't always go smoothly," he said. "And therefore when there are mistakes, when it goes off the tracks, you have something really to discuss and debrief, and kids can learn from it."

Bruce Davis is the senior group leader at St. Benedict's. Robert Peace held the same role nearly 20 years ago.

"Rob was kind of the voice in the morning meeting that kind of commanded people's attention," Father Leahy said. He was also a key player on the varsity water polo team.

"It's pretty rare to have African American guys swimming," Father Leahy noted. "Playing water polo is really rare and he loved it and was good at it and had a good time doing it I think."

While he always excelled academically and athletically, Rob was wrestling with a lot of demons internally and numbing some of that pain smoking pot. His water polo coach--Glenn Cassidy-- confronted him about it. He is one of the few people with whom Rob spoke about his dad.

"All of a sudden out of nowhere he blew up at me and his response was 'I haven't had a father in my life for all these years. Why do I need one now,'" Cassidy said.

"It was a struggle for him. It was a struggle through school here, not academically but it was a struggle in other areas of his life that he was always battling, always battling these kind of demons so to speak that afflicted his heart and that continued at Yale," Father Leahy said.

Rob applied and was accepted to Yale. He was able to attend thanks to the generosity of Charles Cawley. Cawley, a St. Benedict's alumnus and founder of the bank MBNA, was so impressed with Rob's achievements he bankrolled his entire college education.

"Charlie was an enormous help to dozens and dozens of kids here, and Rob was certainly one of them," Father Leahy said.

At Yale Rob continued playing water polo and excelling academically. He became so passionate about the sciences that he took up one of Yale's most difficult majors.

"I think there were only 20 or so people who majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry each year," Hobbs said.

Rob also turned his marijuana habit into a small business by selling out of his dorm room.

"There's no decisive moment or anything where you realize your roommate's dealing drugs," Hobbs said. "Again, it was casual. Just a lot of different people coming by to sit, hang out, and download their days."

That small community helped bridge the gap between the streets of Newark and Yale's castle-like campus.

"It's Hogwarts--I mean literally. You're walking up, there's a gargoyle on the rooftop," said Ernie Gonzalez, who met Rob at Yale. They grew up on opposite sides of Newark, and in college they bonded over the two worlds they both struggled to live in.

"You end up holding a lot of secrets and you're dying to get along with people," Gonzalez said. "How's Rob going to share the fact that his father is in prison? When people would say that they were going to go out, you wouldn't have the money. That's part of the reason you sold drugs, you know. It's because you got tired of not being able to go out."

But finances didn't keep Rob from making friends.

"Diverse friends: athletes, actors, hipsters, international students, people on the dining hall and maintenance staff," Hobbes said. "If he ever felt like he didn't belong or struggled with that you didn't see it. He certainly didn't struggle with the work."

Rob was tapped to be in Elihu, one of Yale's prestigious secret societies. But Gonzalez, now a psychiatrist, believes all of the networking and socializing kept Rob from dealing with the things that were troubling him.

"I think Rob felt like he had to live up to a certain standard and he had to be the strong guy. He had to be the popular guy," Gonzalez said. "And I think that lends itself to just not being able to admit that you have a problem or that you feel depressed or that you struggle with the fact that you can't see your dad or that you're dying to graduate so you can give your mom a better life."

After college Rob did go back to Newark, perhaps drawn by that need to give his mother a better life but he struggled to find his way. He returned to St. Benedict's to teach and coach water polo, working as a baggage handler at Newark Airport, even trying real estate but never giving up the drugs.

"I had three friends, Rob was just one of them, who were doing the drug game, and they were all having issues, just the market in Newark was bad," Gonzalez said. "The last time I even interacted with him was 'cause he needed money. And I gave it to him. I didn't give it to the other two guys but I gave it to him. He had the best head on his shoulders."

Gonzalez said it was the last time he spoke to Rob.

"I should've been a better friend. I should've been a better friend," he said. "I should've reached out to him, but I was trying to get my house in order. I was in residency at that point. I was in therapy trying to figure everything out. I wish I had reached out to him."

A short time later, Rob was killed in the basement of his friend's home.

That was May 18, 2011.

"He was over on Smith Street in the basement apartment and it was an apparent drug deal gone bad, and he was shot," Dante, Rob's uncle, said.

"I got up out the bed so I wouldn't wake up my husband and ran to the bathroom, I closed the door," Tabarez, his cousin, said. "She was hysterical, 'They shot him, they shot him' and 'Who?' 'Shaun, they shot Shaun. He's gone.'"

While the Peace family was stunned, many of Rob's friends and mentors were not.

"He got involved in this kind of numbing himself I think with the marijuana situation," Father Leahy said. "We'd talk about it. 'It's going to kill you, it's going to kill you, Rob.' It did."

Gonzalez was not surprised at all, either.

After Rob's death, Hobbs fielded a lot of tough questions about why he wrote the book.

"'How can you stand there and tell me there's a positive message in the story of a man who had so many gifts and was given so many gifts and died cause of some bad decisions?'" Hobbs said that people would say to him.

It is a tough question with a lot of different answers.

"From my perspective it's a teaching book, it is a teaching book," Dante said. "And I feel as though that we need to communicate more with our youth and to find out what's really going on with them,"

"Just to know, like, his story is getting out there," Delpeche said. "There are other Shauns in this city, in this county, that need that positive influence. That influence that can reach out to them and say 'Hey, you don't have to do that."

Tabarez hopes that it brings something positive out of a negative.

Cassidy said: "I'm thinking about what was Rob going through, what was Rob into that he shouldn't have been into--things like that. And should I have seen that somewhere? I can start to think about what am I seeing in other students that maybe I can recognize as being a similar type of trend."

Father Leahy describes it as a tragedy in the classic sense where you have an epic figure with this education whose life is cut short.

"Anytime somebody that age loses their life, it's tragic, but I guess what I'm saying is... I don't think Rob's tragedy is any greater than the tragedy of the unknown person who gets killed on 11th Street," Father Leahy said. "That's tragic as well."

"The point was to experience him, his friendship, and maybe hopefully be impacted," Hobbs said. "Everybody's life matters. Rob didn't need a book written about his life for his life to matter."