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The first time I heard of Terrell Hunter, he was a success story—a 15-year-old from Southwest who had dropped more than 200 pounds and was learning to box at the YMCA. It was 2007, and I was a new writer at Washington City Paper, reporting at a conference on childhood obesity. After the talk, I cornered the woman who told Hunter’s story. I was short on ideas and here was an easy one to pitch my editors, an inspirational tale where things work out, the way they are supposed to.
But as anyone who spends much time reporting on children in trouble in Washington will tell you, things rarely work out the way they’re supposed to. They didn’t for Terrell Hunter. On Feb. 20, four years after I met him, Hunter died in his sleep at his grandmother’s house from complications of obesity. He was 19. He weighed 436 pounds. He had been in intensive care units of local hospitals three times in the previous year.
The news of Hunter’s passing wasn’t a surprise to me, and probably isn’t to anyone who read “The Battle Over Heavy-T,” the story that came out of the many months photographer Darrow Montgomery and I spent following him. It was not an inspirational tale.
Soon after the obesity conference, I met Hunter and he told me his story. Born and raised in the District, he rarely saw his father, who had been just 15 when Hunter was born. If Hunter was ever thin, he didn’t remember. By age 10, he weighed more than 200 pounds. Classmates at Bowen Elementary School ferried his food to the second floor because he couldn’t brave the stairs. By 13, he weighed more than 340 pounds, struggling with asthma and a heart like a senior citizen.
Yes, he had recently dropped 200 pounds; the weight had come off during his second stint at an inpatient weight-loss program in rural Virginia, where he’d been sent after having been declared a ward of the city following his near-death from heart failure. Since returning home, however, Hunter had gained most of it back. Worse yet, his mother had once again lost custody of him after social-services officials concluded she was unable or unwilling to hold the line on his weight. But this time, Hunter wasn’t going to foster care. He wasn’t going back to Virginia. Instead, he decided to run.
From spring, though summer, and into fall, Hunter ducked in and out of his mother’s home, hiding from police officers and Child and Family Services Agency workers, giving them the slip whenever they caught up with him. He dropped out of Woodrow Wilson Senior High School. He stopped going outside during the day. He gained weight.
Hunter got good at fooling the government workers paid to chase him. A smart-aleck kid too fat to run fast, he nonetheless regularly put them all “in a trick box,” as he put it. I thank him for letting City Paper tag along and tell his story. I wish it could have changed something.
There are a few things I won’t forget about Heavy-T. Like how the teen asked 30-year-old women for their phone numbers, but slept with his stuffed dog. Or the time he got caught, conned a social worker into taking him to McDonalds, and then slipped out the side door with a Big Mac and an Oreo McFlurry. I mainly remember the way the kid barely half my age never showed fear, even when the adults around him had caved in to it.
One afternoon, Montgomery, Hunter, and I were hanging out at Hunter’s mother’s house in Southwest when the police started hammering on the door. Montgomery and I panicked, jumped into a pantry closet and hid, two journalists on the wrong side of an episode of Cops. I remember Hunter looking at us, stone calm, as he rounded the corner and headed upstairs to find his shoes. Back downstairs, he put on his black Nike Air Max high tops, opened the back door, and slid out, running as hard as he could. As the cops kept banging, we stood in the closet shaking with fear, wondering what to do now, and how that kid kept it together.
Terrell Hunter is survived by his mother, Leslie Abbott; his father, Terrell Hunter Sr.; his stepfather, Bruce Wooten; sisters Sieda McCray and Jamika DeVaughn; a grandmother, Deborah Brown; and a grandfather, Charles Hunter. A wake will be held on March 5 at 10 am at Community of Hope at 905 Alabama Ave. SE, with a funeral immediately following.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery