Shots Fired: Understanding Gun Violence in Mansfield

This is the third installment in a nine-part series focused on gun violence and possible ideas to address this issue in Mansfield. These stories will run on consecutive days starting Oct. 8 and running through Oct. 16. Links to earlier parts in the series may be found at the bottom of this piece.

MANSFIELD — Antonio Sanderfer Jr. had kind eyes and the type of soft smile that immediately put people at ease.

He was quiet and warm and a friend to most everyone he met.

A 2014 Mansfield Senior High School graduate, Sanderfer was found shot to death inside his Newman Street home in August of 2022.

He was 27 years old, the victim of a spate of gun-violence crimes that has shaken the city over the past 20 months.

Mansfield police investigated six homicides in 2022. So far in 2023, there have been eight homicides. A vast majority of the victims, Sanderfer included, have been young, Black men.

Sanderfer was more than a statistic, though. He was a son and a father, a brother and a nephew.

Those closest to him still struggle with his absence. It’s hard to make sense of a senseless tragedy.

“When you bury a brother,” lifelong friend Malon Samuel said, “that wound never heals.”

‘A Gentle Soul’

The son of Antonio Sanderfer Sr. and Tesheeka Thompson, Antonio was a natural athlete.

He played basketball and football while attending the now-closed Carpenter Elementary School and was a member of the Lil Tygers, an AAU basketball program headquartered at The Friendly House on the city’s north side.

It was on the football field where Sanderfer distinguished himself.

He caught the eye of Mansfield Senior coach Chioke Bradley when he was still in middle school, helping the Tygers win conference championships in seventh and eighth grades.

“‘Tone’ jumped on the scene at an early age. We knew we had something special,” Bradley said. “He was a quiet kid, but he was a leader. He would do whatever he could to help his teammates.

“He was one of the guys in that class who really helped establish a family atmosphere.”

A defensive end, Sanderfer quickly made his mark at the varsity level. He had 41 tackles as a sophomore in 2011, including 20 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. 

The following year Sanderfer made 67 stops, 23 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, earning a spot on the Division II All-Ohio third team.

The Tygers won a share of the Ohio Cardinal Conference championship, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and setting the table for one of the greatest seasons — individually for Sanderfer and collectively — in program history.

The 2013 Tygers went undefeated during the regular season and Sanderfer was selected the Ohio Cardinal Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year, an award he shared with Ashland’s Ty Green. Sanderfer recorded 86 tackles, including a stunning 38 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks.

“When we were seniors, they made him a stand-up defensive end and he was just different,” said classmate and longtime friend Jalen Reese, a three-year starter at quarterback for the Tygers before playing collegiately at the University of Toledo. “You just couldn’t block him.

“He was a very soft-spoken, funny guy. He loved to play football and he loved to be around his brothers. He was someone you wanted to be around. I was proud to call him my friend.”

Sanderfer was selected the Northwest District Lineman of the Year in Division II and earned a coveted spot on the All-Ohio first team. The Tygers hosted and hammered Licking Heights 24-0 in a first-round playoff game — at the time just the second postseason victory in program history and the first since 2000.

What’s more, Sanderfer was selected to Mansfield Senior’s Homecoming Court earlier that season — a testament to his popularity among his classmates. 

“‘Tone’ was one of the best to ever do it,” Bradley said. “Beyond the football piece, he was just a great kid. He was a wonderful football talent, but an even better person. 

“He had a gentle soul.”

A Mother’s Worst Nightmare

There isn’t a day that goes by that Tesheeka Thompson doesn’t think of her youngest son.

She has only her memories to sustain her, but sees Antonio’s welcoming eyes and easy smile in his daughter, Nina.

Alexis Sanderfer

“She looks exactly like her dad. She is a doll baby,” a proud Thompson said as she scrolled through photos of her 8-year-old granddaughter, showing off the most recent image of Nina.

“He was with her daily. She was his everything.”

After graduating from high school, Sanderfer worked as a correctional officer in Ohio’s prison system and went to work for his father’s Alabama-based cable company.

He and his older brother, Tracario Martin, had recently gone into business for themselves.

“He and his brother were starting a trucking company. He probably had the LLC for maybe a month before this happened,” his mother said, her voice beginning to crack.

Even as his work schedule became more hectic, Sanderfer made it a point to stay in contact with his mother and sister, Alexis.

Until he didn’t. When text messages went unanswered, his family began to worry.

“We hadn’t heard from him and we talked daily. I had texted him and he didn’t text me back and I thought that was kind of weird,” his mother said as she brushed away tears. “I went to the house and his car was there and I just knew something wasn’t right.”

Thompson found her son in his upstairs bedroom. He had been shot multiple times, according to police reports.

Authorities declined to give more specific details about the case as it is an open investigation.

“It was a nightmare,” Thompson said.

More than a year has passed since Sanderfer’s death and his killer still walks the streets. The Newman Street home he lived in is abandoned now, the doors and first-floor windows boarded up.

Ivy clings to the white siding of the narrow two-story structure, which is further obscured by overgrown bushes and a sturdy silver maple tree in need of trimming.

“The investigation is ongoing and will remain ongoing. We have not had any new information in about two months,” Mansfield Police Department Sgt. Jered Kingsborough said.

“Whoever committed the crime is still out there and hopefully we will be able to put it all together.”

All Sanderfer’s family can do now is wait for a break in the investigation that may or may not come. As is often the case, police have been thwarted by a culture of silence as people with information are often scared to come forward.

“Somebody has got to know something,” Alexis Sanderfer said, “but nobody is talking.”

Kingsborough encouraged anyone with information to come forward.

“We often find there are many barriers between us and the public when it comes to these shootings and homicides,” Kingsborough said.

“Those barriers are there for all different reasons, but at the end of the day it does prohibit us from doing a full, clear, thorough investigation and bringing those people to justice.

“If people are not speaking to us, it makes our job a lot harder. Somebody knows something or has heard something that we are not privy to. We have to have that information to do our jobs effectively,” the sergeant said.

By telling her son’s story, Tesheeka Thompson hopes to interrupt the cycle of violence. No parent, she said, should have to bury a son or daughter.

“Speak up before it’s your child,” Thompson said. “That way it will never have to be your child.”

Thompson’s advice to parents is to be more involved in their children’s lives.

“As a mother, how do you not know if your children are skipping school? Or if your 14- or 15-year-old son has gotten his hands on a gun? I just can’t see it,” she said. “Be present for your children. Parents need to parent.”

Note: Anyone with information on Sanderfer’s death is asked to call Det. Larry Schacherer at 419-755-9766.

Malon Samuel and Jalen Reese

Lasting Legacy

Antonio Sanderfer’s picture hangs on the cafeteria wall inside Mansfield Senior High School, along with the photos of the school’s other All-Ohio honorees. Photos of Jalen Reese and Chioke Bradley adorn the same wall.

The images go largely unnoticed by the students who walk the halls.

“These kids today see the pictures and we tell them stories, but they don’t know how good of a player ‘Tone’ was and they don’t know how good of a person he was,” Reese said. “You start looking at old pictures and you try to explain to these kids that he was just here.

“You think to yourself that you could never lose a brother, but it happened.”

His former teammates have taken it upon themselves to preserve Sanderfer’s legacy. They hope his death will not have been in vain.

“Our class has a football scholarship and we re-named it the Antonio Sanderfer Football Scholarship,” Reese said. “It goes to a senior football player who is going to a career-tech school or pursuing a full secondary education.”

Both Samuel and Reese serve on Bradley’s varsity coaching staff. Like Bradley, they are mentors not just to the members of the football program, but to the city’s youth at large.

They hope to steer at-risk young people away from the violence that claimed the life of their friend.

Samuel, who played football at Bowling Green before graduating with a degree in criminal justice in 2018, is an advisor in Mansfield City Schools’ G.E.A.R. UP program.

The early intervention program was designed to provide support and resources to the district’s low-income students as they prepare for postsecondary education. 

“It’s part of the reason I moved back to Mansfield and took a job with the G.E.A.R UP program, to help our kids in Mansfield City Schools specifically,” Samuel said. “I try to let these kids know violence isn’t the answer.

“You don’t need to be in the streets smoking weed and drinking and getting into trouble. There’s got to be a better way.”

While there is no easy answer for the city’s gun-violence problem, men like Samuel and Reese hope to be part of the solution.

“Something has got to change. It can’t go on like this,” said Reese, a father of three who works in the insurance business. “My advice to these young kids is to communicate. Everyone has bad days and you’ve got to be able to share those feelings. Whether it’s with your parents or your friends, you’ve got to be able to talk to somebody about what’s going on. 

“You don’t have to do it by yourself.”

Samuel agreed.

“If you keep those feelings bottled up, sooner or later they’re going to explode. I tell kids all the time that 20 seconds can change your life for the next 20 years,” said Samuel, the father of a 1-year-old son. “A lot of us come from the struggle, but you’ve got to be bigger than the struggle.”

part 2 of series

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