CHEYENNE – Janelle Jones’ face lights up when she talks about her son.
On Nov. 4, Jones and her son, Makaili James Evans, called Mak, went out to dinner at Rib & Chop House in Cheyenne.
“(Mak) ordered this massive meal. They had this gentleman going around, and he was doing magic tricks, and he stopped at our table. He did a magic trick for both of us. And I just remember the look on (Mak’s) face, like, how did he do that?” Jones said. “And we both just started laughing, and I can still just vividly see that smile.
“He and I had so many memories like that,” Jones continued. “And I’m just so glad that we had some special times together – so many, too many to count.”
The next morning, 13-year-old Mak was struck and killed on his way to school while walking in a crosswalk near McCormick Junior High.
A 39-year-old woman named Kelly Lynn Gaskins was later charged with one count of vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor. She pleaded not guilty to the charge in Laramie County Circuit Court in late March.
A scheduling conference in the case is set for June 6. While she entered her plea of not guilty, Gaskins’ attorney told the court he did not expect the case to go to trial, meaning Gaskins may decide to change her plea.
Jones relishes scrolling through the endless photos and videos of her son stored on her phone – the selfies, the photos of them together, the ones that show him being the energetic, goofy kid she remembers.
Mak was a prankster, but never in a cruel way – he was kind and thoughtful. He was the type of kid who would ask his teachers what they ordered at Starbucks and bring them drinks in the morning. Once, he approached a girl who was crying, and even though he didn’t know her well, he put his arm around her and offered to walk her to class.
“They’re wonderful,” Jones said of the photos and videos of her son. “All I have left.”
But Jones has something else, too: the organization she started earlier this year in her son’s honor, ForMak, which aims to improve crosswalk safety in Cheyenne and raise awareness of distracted driving.
The idea that became ForMak came to her during one of many sleepless nights, she said. She would repeat that day over and over again in her head, wondering if she, as Mak’s mother, could have done something differently – something that would have prevented the tragedy.
Eventually, she realized she couldn’t have done anything differently. But she still needed to take action.
“I needed to find some purpose, something to make it (so) that his death would not be for nothing,” Jones said in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “He was such an inspiring human anyway – I mean, I’m not saying that just because he was my son. He was just an inspiration and such a friend and a loving human.”
Jones, alongside the other ForMak board members, are planning a 5K fun run/walk for Saturday, June 4, beginning at Lions Park. They want to make it an annual event, in conjunction with other fundraisers they plan to put on throughout the year.
The nine-member volunteer board is entirely women, all with experience Jones said has been vital to creating and running ForMak. Among them is Vice President Lisa Radcliffe, Jones’ best friend. Jones said she, Mak and Radcliffe did everything together, and that Mak would only ditch them if his beloved older brother, Kaiser Cunningham, asked to hang out.
The response from the community to ForMak has been “overwhelming,” Jones said. The organization, in the process of applying for 501©3 status, has an extensive list of sponsors, from local credit unions to auto body shops to individual residents and families.
Local food truck Yerbellies BBQ, for example, created “Loaded Mak and Cheeze” – a play on one of Mak’s many nicknames, his mom said. Yerbellies said it was donating a portion of profits from the menu item’s sale to ForMak.
As of mid-April, the organization has raised about $55,000, Jones said – a combination of donations and small fundraisers.
The money the nonprofit raises will go toward helping the city of Cheyenne and Laramie County School District 1 fund citywide audits of school routes for pedestrians, conduct needed safety upgrades for crossings, and improve safety education in schools and for the public, Jones said.
Just three days after Mak was hit and killed in the crosswalk near McCormick, two juvenile pedestrians were struck by a vehicle at an intersection near East High School. They suffered minor injuries, according to the Cheyenne Police Department.
The driver in that case remained on the scene and was cited for failure to yield, CPD spokesperson Alex Farkas said in February.
Last year, seven pedestrians, including Mak, were killed after being struck by vehicles in Cheyenne, according to CPD data. This was an increase from two fatalities each year in 2020, 2019 and 2018. In 2017, four pedestrians were killed.
While there was an increase in fatal incidents in 2021, they were “not isolated to one area, and the circumstances vary greatly,” Farkas wrote in an email Friday.
There haven’t been any pedestrian fatalities in Cheyenne so far this year.
Improving crosswalk safetyCrosswalk improvements are expensive. Things like pedestrian-activated rapid flashers can cost about $30,000 per crosswalk, and overhead HAWK (high intensity activated crosswalk) signals may total up to $150,000, City Engineer Tom Cobb said. And these prices don’t include long-term maintenance costs necessary for upkeep.
ForMak, the city and LCSD1 are currently working together to fund an audit, the purpose of which is to find out what areas of the city are most in need of crosswalk upgrades. In addition to the crossings, the audit would take a “holistic view” of the area, Cobb said – how a pedestrian would navigate from a neighborhood to a school.
The audit will also provide information for much-needed updates to Cheyenne’s Safe Routes to School Plan. The plan was last updated in 2010.
The city engineer estimated the audit would cost somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000.
And while the city is applying for grants, Cobb said the city and ForMak, with help from the school district, may be able to fund it without grant money.
“I had gone to (Cobb), just initially thinking about getting a light for that one crosswalk, but then to learn that there are so many other areas in our community that need that – it became a broader picture for me, because it’s not just my kid that this had happened to, and I’m not just trying to keep those kids at McCormick safe, but I want those necessary changes made throughout our community so that nobody has to experience this,” Jones said.
ForMak doesn’t have a monetary goal, Jones said, because upgrading the city’s crosswalks is such a big, expensive project – one that could cost millions of dollars over the course of many years.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee also has made crosswalk safety a priority for its discussions about the interim, which begins this summer and concludes at the beginning of next year’s legislative session.
“This topic is in response to an accident involving a student within a crosswalk,” a Wyoming Legislative Service Office memorandum said. “The committee will explore current prohibitions and penalties related to crosswalks (particularly those within or adjacent to school zones) and evaluate solutions to help prevent future accidents and tragedies.”
“We’re seeing an increase in that type of activity across the state, and so there’s also a request from our constituents to review that particular topic,” committee co-chair Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said at a recent meeting of the Legislature’s Management Council.
Nethercott also said that “enhancing the need for perhaps criminal sanctions associated with hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk or pedestrians, in general” would be discussed by the committee, according to previous reporting.
Jones told the WTE she hoped to make vehicular homicide a felony, and that she was working with members of the Legislature to try to make that happen.
“I’m advocating for pedestrians and bicyclists, that if you hit somebody and you are distracted driving (and) they are on a crosswalk or (in) a place of safety, that it is going to come with more serious consequences,” she said.
Gaskins, the driver who allegedly killed Mak, told law enforcement she had not seen the teenager as he was crossing the street, as it was dark, and she was looking at and talking to her passenger at the time of the collision, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in the case.
The affidavit said Mak was legally crossing Western Hills Boulevard. The crosswalk was marked, coated in white reflective paint and lit by nearby streetlights. Three vehicles driving westbound on the street were stopped for the teen and waiting for him to cross.
Jones declined to talk about the criminal case resulting from her son’s death. Even so, she extended grace to the woman accused of hitting and killing her son.
“All the way around, it was a tragedy,” she said. “Good people make mistakes, too, and I wouldn’t wish anybody to go through either side of this. … I think that if any of us could go back to that morning, we would have done a lot of things differently.”
About four months after the incident, Jones said she’s learned that grief is “kind of a lonely path.” But she said she’s found “a lot of solace and comfort” in creating and running the ForMak nonprofit.
“I never thought I would find myself on the path of being an advocate for something,” she said. “But now, I am more passionate about it than ever.”