He was a cute kid with fuzzy blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a wide smile.
Ryan Hacke was 14 months old when a 22-year-old man opened fire outside a gas station not far from the Hacke’s home in Pittsburgh. A stray 9-millimeter bullet struck Ryan in the left eye, as he sat in the backseat of his father’s car. He died days later on Jan. 13, 1997.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s one of the few vivid memories I have of my brother,” said Matthew Hacke, GSB ’16, who was three years old and sitting in the car beside Ryan at the time of the shooting.
“I remember seeing these bright flashes of light, which was obviously the gun going off, and I remember my dad screaming hysterically,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Why is my dad screaming? These are just fireworks.’”
Then, one of the nine bullets that were fired pierced the car’s windshield and Ryan, who was strapped into his car-seat, “made a strange noise — like he was gasping for air,” Hacke recalled.
Vaughn Mathis of Wilkinson, Penn. was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — the softest degree of the homicide charges he faced — because he claimed he fired his semi-automatic handgun in the air with the intention of rattling armed adversaries that were in the area. In September of 1997, he was sentenced to spend between 6.5 and 13 years in prison.
But at the time of the shooting, Mathis was awaiting trial on felony charges in connection to the beating and rape of a 54-year-old woman, investigators said. In fact, Mathis had a criminal record spanning back to when he was 16 years old. His time in prison was increased to between 17.5 and 43 years.
Now, 17 years later, Matthew Hacke is preparing to join his family on Feb. 18 and approach the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole to ask that Mathis be denied early release.
“He’s devastated my life and my family’s life,” Hacke said. “I want to make sure that he stays in jail to serve out his full sentence.”
As of Tuesday night, more than 6,000 people had signed an online petition, which the Hacke family developed, urging state officials to deny Mathis parole. Additionally, the Facebook page “Justice for Ryan Hacke” has gone viral around Fordham’s campus and far beyond. Thousands of people had learned of Ryan’s story and were contributing messages of sadness and support to his family.
“I signed and shared and encouraged anyone I know to also do the same,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page Tuesday afternoon. “I will do anything and all I can to help stop this animal from getting out of jail as he should never get out.”
“Mathis must serve his full term,” another woman wrote. “Please sign the petition and please share and show your support for the Hacke family.”
Bobbi Lynn of Perryopolis, Penn. was working in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh when Ryan was brought in.
“I will never forget this day,” she wrote on Facebook. “His family is always in my prayers.”
Mathis is scheduled to be interviewed for parole in March, according to a spokeswoman for the Board of Probation and Parole. If granted parole, he could be out of jail on July 23.
Along with a steady stream of friendly emails that have recently gathered in his email inbox, Matthew Hacke says he is grateful for the support he has been shown at Rose Hill. “Even my R.A. in my dorm found out,” he said. “Everyone’s been very supportive.”
Hacke says he has been in and out of counseling to help him navigate survivor’s guilt — ugly manifestations of anxiety and depression stemming from his brother’s death — and thinks back to his childhood, summing it up simply as, “a blur.”
“I didn’t have a typical childhood because there were many days that were filled with grief over the loss of my brother,” he said. “It was just a hard time for me growing up.”
In fact, there were mornings when Hacke would wake up in tears, thinking: “If only I was a little bit older, I could have understood and maybe I could have done something.”
Still, his personality around campus may best be described as bubbly.
“Matt is a really genuine and giving person,” said Allie Glembocki, FCRH ’16. “His excitable energy always inspires people around him.
Monica Cruz, FCRH ’16, agreed, adding: “It’s rare for Matt not to have a smile on his face.”
“He’s one of the nicest guys,” said Dan Stracquadanio, FCRH ’15. “Always a smiling face on campus.”
So, it is perhaps natural that Hacke remains optimistic about the work that has come about from his brother’s death.
“My therapy has been helping my mom – writing letters and meeting with people,” he said. “I think telling Ryan’s story is my way of dealing with the grief I have.”
His mother, Mary Beth, began advocating for reducing gun violence in 2000 when she spoke in front of thousands of people impacted by gun violence during the One Million Moms March in Washington, D.C.
Since then, Hacke has joined his mother by getting involved with CeaseFirePA and Mayors Against Illegal Guns — two well-known advocacy groups that promote the reduction of gun violence — as well as speaking to politicians at rallies about shaping legislative change.
Their efforts to reduce gun violence seemed to peak last February when they met Michelle Obama in the White House, and told the First Lady about Ryan’s story.
Families of the young children and adults who had been killed in Newtown, Conn. and Aurora, Colo. were also present at the event. “When you lose someone to gun violence, it’s just devastating and you really form a community with people who have lost other people to gun violence,” Hacke said.“It was an incredible experience,” Hacke said of meeting Obama. “It was moving, but it was also very sad, too.”
After seeing the support he has received over the past few days, Hacke says he may seriously consider starting a club on campus dedicated to raising awareness about gun violence. He has not contacted administrators at Fordham, though Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, has previously expressed support for stricter gun control laws.
“A national conversation on gun safety is overdue,” McShane told The Fordham Ram last January. “At Fordham specifically, if we are to take seriously our commitment to the culture of life, then we cannot ignore the lethal scourge of gun violence on our streets, on our college campuses and even in our elementary school classrooms.”
At home, Hacke stands as the lasting conduit between Ryan and his two younger siblings, Tyler and Sarah. They never got a chance to meet Ryan.
“I think it’s good that I keep talking about this issue and my mom keeps talking about this issue because my brother can’t talk about this issue,” Hacke said. “He’s dead. He didn’t get to live his life.”
Katie Meyer contributed reporting.