NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — Deja Taylor has been sentenced to 21 months in prison after previously pleading guilty to federal charges of using drugs while having a gun and lying about her drug use when purchasing the weapon.
On Jan. 6, 2023, Taylor’s 6-year-old son shot his teacher Abby Zwerner at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, using the mother’s gun.
Police say the boy fired one shot at Zwerner in her first-grade classroom. The bullet went through her hand and into her chest. She is still recovering from her injuries.
Zwerner addressed the court Wednesday with a prepared statement.
“He pointed the gun directly at me,” she said.
Zwerner described how she has had five surgeries, and the bullet fragments remain in her hand and chest. At the beginning of her recovery, her mother and sister had to bathe her because she could not shower on her own.
“This was a monstrous event,” Zwerner read from her statement. “I lost myself. I can’t teach again. I’ve lost my purpose. I love children, but now I’m afraid of a career with them.”
Zwerner said she has anxiety, PTSD and depression.
“I will fear forever crowded places and people with hands in their pockets thinking they may be hiding a gun, she said. “I have nightmares that involve gore, blood and death from shootings. I dream a day gone wrong where I am warning others about a shooting.”
In June, Taylor pleaded guilty to federal charges. She was charged with using drugs while having a gun, and lying about her drug use when purchasing the weapon.
An ATF investigator testified that law enforcement first knew about Taylor’s connection with marijuana began with a traffic stop two years before the Richneck shooting. During a Williamsburg traffic stop, police noticed marijuana edibles, a strong smell of marijuana in the car and other narcotics, and the boy was inside.
Taylor bought the 9 mm Taurus pistol July 19, 2022 at a York County, Virginia gun dealer. On the ATF form 4473 required with every purchase, she lied about whether she was using illegal drugs at the time.
According to testimony, Taylor used that gun to shoot at the boy’s father Malik Ellison in late December 2022, less than two weeks before her son used it to shoot Zwerner.
Taylor believed Ellison was cheating on her, and allegedly saw Ellison and the other woman in a rented U-Haul when she fired shots.
“The bullet is above my head,” Ellison texted to Taylor.
“I was aiming at the ho,” Taylor texted back. “You literally almost killed me,” Ellison responded.
Taylor’s grandfather Calvin J. Taylor said the couple’s relationship began when they met at an alternative high school in Newport News, and described it as “volatile.” Calvin Taylor has had legal custody of the boy, now 7, since shortly after the January school shooting. He said the boy is doing much better now and was even recently named student of the week.
Calvin said his granddaughter’s life has been marked by domestic abuse, drug abuse and her own choices.
Mr. Taylor said the gun was kept on a closet shelf in his home, and said the boy was able to use a stool to reach it. Although Child Protective Services called for his granddaughter to keep the gun in a locked box, the ATF investigator said the gun was never placed in it.
Taylor was barred from using drugs as part of her pre-trial bond agreement, but failed eight drug tests beginning June 13 through October 16.
Taylor’s attorney said that was the power of addiction.
“Mass incarceration is not the answer,” Gene Rossi said, and asked Judge Davis for probation only. “She is very remorseful and she’s filled with guilt. At no time did she intend or foresee the consequences of what she did.”
“This case cries out for incarceration,” Davis said just before sentence. “There’s a direct route from the day she purchased this gun and the day her son shot his teacher. Deja Taylor missed many off-ramp opportunities to prevent what happened (to Zwerner).”
Davis said the impacts of the shooting are far-reaching and said he received victim impact statements from parents of students who were in the same room or elsewhere in Richneck Elementary when the boy shot Zwerner.
“It’s a travesty that (Zwerner) has to suffer because of (Taylor’s) gun violations,” Davis said.
Taylor also pleaded guilty to state charges of child neglect. She has a court hearing in December on the state charges. Her sentence on that state charge, expected to be about six months, will be added to the 21 months of federal prison.