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One Year Later, New Orleans Grieves for Artists

Still from "Bohemian Town" by Helen Hill.
Still from "Bohemian Town" by Helen Hill.
One Year Later, New Orleans Grieves for Artists

During the holiday season last year in New Orleans, the news each day was of murder. Six people were killed in one day, 12 in one week. A Times-Picayune headline read: "Killings Bring the City to Its Bloodied Knees."

Two of those murdered drew special attention: a musician and a filmmaker. They seemed to come from separate worlds: Dinerral Shavers, 25, was black, from the Lower Ninth Ward, and didn't finish college. Helen Hill, 36, white, grew up in South Carolina and went to Harvard.

But their stories were entwined with the New Orleans struggle. They loved the city for its spirit; they cherished the chance to inspire youngsters. They both died of gunshot wounds. Shavers was shot the Thursday after Christmas; Hill the following Thursday.


Shavers played snare drums in the Hot 8 Brass Band, which had already lost two members to violence. The band's tuba player, Bennie Pete, says that he cries when he's onstage and thinks of Shavers.

"I cry a lot. When we're up there performing, the lights are on and people think we're sweating, but I be broke down," Pete says.

You will hear this in New Orleans: "If a kid has a horn in his hand, he won't have a gun."

That's why Shavers started up a second band. He was a substitute teacher at downtown L.E. Rabouin High School. The school didn't have a band of any kind, and he argued his way into taking it on. No pay, on his lunch hour and after school.

"Mardi Gras is a very important part of every high school, and he brought this hope," says his sister, Nakita Shavers. "After he signed up those first 80 kids, the behavior got better, the attendance got better. Those kids trusted him."


Shavers' band marched for Mardi Gras this year, but he wasn't there to lead them.

Helen Hill

Helen Hill loved funky dresses, wild hats, music and a vegan lifestyle. She found a kindred soul in Paul Gailiunas, from Canada. They met as Harvard students and visited New Orleans as friends in 1991. Ten years later, they left Halifax, Nova Scotia, for New Orleans for good. Hill had become a filmmaker, crafting short animated features. Gailiunas was a family physician, working in clinics.

"We always tried to find an alternative community to be part of wherever we lived," Gailiunas says. Their last home was in the Marigny, a neighborhood next to the French Quarter. They would walk in parades with their young son, Francis Pop, and a pet pig named Rosie.

Hill was killed by an armed man who entered their home in the early morning. Gailiunas, who had shielded their son, was also shot; his wounds were not life-threatening.

Gailiunas and Hill had spent the year after Katrina in Hill's hometown, Columbia, S.C. They had agreed to go back to New Orleans, and both were excited by the challenge the storm had brought: They would build communities, break down racial and economic barriers in a city they found exciting and beautiful.

But in his medical work, Gailiunas had seen a more dangerous side to the place, devastated by poverty and drugs.

"I was exposed to, on a regular basis, patients who were admitted to the hospital, leaving on their own accord, going to the corner to get their fix and then coming back — just outrageous things like that happening all the time," he says.

Is This City Now Too Dangerous?

After the Shavers and Hill murders, a question rose in the air and stayed there: "Is this city now too dangerous?"

"There was an impulse that said if you leave, it's sort of like that notion of 'then all the terrorists win,'" says Rene Broussard, Hill's friend. "It's like this one a**hole with a gun is able to destroy everything that was good. And if all the artists leave, then the city doesn't have any hope."

"I'd love to live in New York, but if I stay here, then we could create New Orleans to be the new New York," says Christoff Anderson, 15, was one of Hill's film students at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

The New Orleans police say the Helen Hill case is an open investigation. A $15,000 reward offer, raised from private sources and family, still stands. A suspect in the Dinerral Shavers murder is now in jail, with a trial set for late January.

Many in New Orleans have a favorite musical memory of these two artists. The Hot 8 Brass Band came to Marigny to walk through the streets in a jazz funeral parade. They played and sang "I'll Fly Away" for Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers.

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