Maybe it was the colour of the bandana they were wearing. Or the track suit they were sporting. Or the neighbourhood they were strolling through.
Perhaps it was the fact they made eye contact. Or avoided the steely glare of a stranger.
Whatever the case, several young Winnipeg men have lost their lives in recent years for simply being in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time.
It's a fact that should be triggering collective outrage and fear from all citizens. After all, what kind of civilized society tolerates law-abiding folk essentially being executed in public because of what they happen to be wearing or where they happen to be walking?
The most recent example is last week's unsolved daytime shooting slaying of 20-year-old Nigel Dixon. Police say the young man was confronted on Langside Street just after 4 p.m. and wrongly accused of being in a gang. He denied any affiliation -- only to be chased down and shot dead by the unknown attackers. A female friend who was with him at the time was also wounded by gunfire but is expected to survive.
Police Const. Jason Michalyshen said Tuesday that it's "baffling... that any human being would react in this fashion."
And yet recent history shows this type of scenario has played out many times before on the mean streets of Winnipeg. One case would be too many. But the Free Press has uncovered at least five other examples.
-- David Vincett, 20, was gunned down in what police believe was a case of both gang revenge and mistaken identity. Vincett did not belong to a gang but certainly knew members of some. He had lived in the West End until early September 2011, then moved with his family to the North End and was killed days later.
Vincett often wore a black and white bandana, likely to give the impression he was gang-affiliated. It may have got him killed. A 14-year-old boy has been charged with first-degree murder.
"It was just wrong place, wrong clothing, wrong time of night," the victim's tearful mother, Linda Kozlowski, told the Free Press. "(The bandana) was a protective thing to him. My son was shot and left to die, like a dog."
-- Joseph McLeod, 23, was stabbed in the heart by two teens on a Saturday afternoon in front of several children because he was wearing a white bandana. McLeod was walking down Ross Avenue near Isabel Street, minding his own business, when he was approached by the 14-year-old boys in May 2009. McLeod was wearing a white bandana, which led the accused to believe he might be affiliated with a rival gang.
"Who you reppin?" the youths asked. McLeod took off his bandana and told the truth -- he wasn't a part of any gang. The former Charleswood resident had recently moved to the neighbourhood and was working several part-time construction jobs. Friends say he wore "gangster-style" clothing to put up a false sense of bravado in a tough, gritty area.
One teen pulled a knife out of his pocket and jabbed McLeod twice in the chest before fleeing. McLeod collapsed in a pool of blood, gasping for air while the child witnesses screamed for help.
"This was a random, senseless and brutal crime that happened in broad daylight in the presence of young children," Crown attorney Jocelyn Ritchot later told court.
-- Anthony Woodhouse, 29, was killed in cold blood, a victim of mistaken identity. His final moments alive were in the arms of his hysterical mother.
Woodhouse was shot execution-style as he sat on the porch of a North End home in September 2007.
"Wrong place, wrong time. It's just completely tragic," Crown attorney Carla Dewar would later tell the Free Press. Police ultimately charged three Indian Posse gang members in 2009 with the killing. They had randomly approached Woodhouse on the street, asked him if he was "down with the IP" and then shot him point-blank in the head when he stated he was not.
-- Phil Haiart, 17, was walking through the West End in October 2005, when he got caught in the crossfire of an ongoing gang "turf" war. Haiart, the son of a city surgeon, was hit with a stray bullet and died. A gang member was convicted of second-degree murder. His killing left a substantial mark on the city, ripping apart the perception that innocent people are immune from the gang violence that has plagued the city in recent years. Mayor Sam Katz and then-police chief Jack Ewatski responded immediately, vowing to protect citizens from such random violence and announcing a "Clean Sweep" task force aimed at reducing street-level crime that continues to this day.
-- Joseph "Beeper" Spence was just 13 years old as he walked down a North End street in July 1995. A van pulled up beside him, filled with gang members who believed he was a rival based on the track suit he was wearing, which happened to be of similar colours as the Indian Posse. One of the occupants pulled out a shotgun, fired a single blast and killed the boy on the spot.
Beeper's slaying made headlines across Canada and sparked calls for tougher penalties for young offenders and tougher laws for gangs. The murder was also one of the first signs that Winnipeg had a major street-gang problem.
The young killers were eventually sentenced under controversial plea bargains.
It has now been 18 years since Beeper was killed. And the same ugly pattern continues to play out in the city, albeit to more muted headlines and seemingly far less public outrage and calls for change.
Surely the families of these innocent victims deserve more. Surely we as a society can do better.