Remembering Preston Gamble: Six months after son’s death, a grieving mother shares her story

(Jeremy Garretson photo)

Six months after Riverhead High School student Preston Gamble, 15, was fatally shot in Calverton, his mother said this week in an interview that investigators have a suspect — and she recounted publicly for the first time her understanding of the events of April 12 that led to a deadly dispute that unfolded just steps from her front door. 

Despite the shooting having been witnessed by numerous teenagers in the neighborhood, including members of Preston’s own family, Chakara Jones said that the men involved in the dispute with her son were from out of town and none of the kids recognized them. She said that beyond basic descriptions, the witnesses, including Preston’s stepbrother, gave to police — the color of a car, a hairstyle, an age range — there wasn’t much else to say.

“With this case, you’ve got kids as witnesses, who had probably seen [the shooter] for a split second,” she said. “It’s not like they were regulars. It’s not like they’ve been around here for a couple months. They’d been around for a couple days.” 

Chakara Jones with a photo of her late son, Preston Gamble. (Jeremy Garretson photo)

Ms. Jones also readily acknowledged that the neighborhood kids at the Calverton Hills condominium complex, where she has lived and raised her children for more than a decade, are generally reluctant to work with law enforcement. 

“Even my son, I had to force him to sit down with me and make a statement,” she said. “He did not want to do it, but I’m like ‘You have to do it, for your brother.’ ” 

Preston’s step-brother and two other young witnesses declined to speak to The Riverhead News-Review. A fourth teenager, who arrived moments after the incident, also declined to discuss his recollections.

Ms. Jones stressed that she is appreciative of investigators’ efforts. 

She said the Suffolk County police detective assigned to her son’s case “is doing his job. But how long is the process?” she wondered. “That’s my only issue. I want to respect the investigation. I don’t want to see street justice. A lot of people loved Preston and he has a big fan base, his father has a big fan base. People are hurting. I’m barely pushing through,” she said. “But I have to survive.” 

Last spring was a challenging time for Preston, and for his mother. He’d been suspended from school in the fall of 2022 for what Ms. Jones described as “playfully harassing” a female student — but in the company of a friend with a knife.

In order to return to school this semester, he would have to pass all his classes remotely. Since the suspension, Ms. Jones had been homeschooling Preston and coordinating daily with a Riverhead High School teacher liaison.

“He wanted to go back to school. He wanted to pass so he could go back. Ms. [Brianne] Tully — she called every day. It was amazing. She would contact all his teachers to get his work and whatever, and would have [conference] calls with me, her and Preston.”

“He loved school,” she said. “He missed school. He was learning from his mistakes. We were on top of him. He was doing good.” 

Ms. Tully declined to comment for this story. 

Every weekday afternoon around 3:30, buses full of children return from school to the condominium complex. Preston would routinely finish his homeschool work and head off to meet his siblings and friends at a nearby school bus stop — waiting on the same patch of grass where he and other kids in the neighborhood had been hanging out for years, Ms. Jones said. 

She added that a mother and daughter, who had moved in only days earlier to the condominium adjacent to the patch of grass, had complained to the complex’s superintendent about the hang-out spot. 

Preston Gamble’s family continues to grieve their loss. (Jeremy Garretson photo)

The daughter’s boyfriend was among what Ms. Jones described a group of “grown men” who were involved in the dispute with her son. 

“From what I know, my son was standing on [the grass] where he always stands, and there was a guy — a man — being aggressive to my son and the other ones that were standing out there, so they had a little bit of words.”

She could hear the tumult from her second-floor window less than 200 feet away, and listened as “some grown-ups went out and diffused it.”

“After the grown-ups came and deescalated the situation, [and left], they started up with the kids again,” she said, urging them off the small patch of grass. Ms. Jones said one of the men fighting with her son apparently contacted someone nearby by phone, who arrived minutes later. 

“I look out my window and I see the kids all coming together and I’m like, ‘What?’ It sounded like they were fighting.”

She yelled out the window to her brother, who was outside: “I thought everything was okay, I thought it was over.”

“And then I heard a pop,” she said.

“This man came up the hill in [a black truck] and just shot,” she said, adding that her son “must have exchanged words [with the man in the truck], but when he pulled out a gun, the kids were scared. 

“From what I have heard he shot at the ground, not meaning to hit Preston, but why would you shoot at a kid anyway?“ she said. “This is a kid! These were grown men!”

Ms. Jones reiterated that this is what neighbors told her. 

“Why would you point a gun if you’re not meaning to shoot somebody? If you’re scaring [someone], shoot in the air … You could have hit your friend, but, no, you hit my son.” 

Ms. Jones, a single mother of six, said that when she heard the gunshot she initially froze, before a panic rose up inside her and she came rushing down the stairs, only to be met by family members and neighbors with terrible news. 

Preston had been shot. Ms. Jones’ brother and others rushed Preston to Peconic Bay Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. 

“This is not something that just happened,” she stressed, calling the fact that kids congregate on that spot daily “an everyday freaking routine. 

“We’ve been living here for years. All summer, that’s where all the kids hang out,” she said. “And then all of the sudden these bastards come around here and now it’s an issue? And nobody’s allowed in that area?” 

Her description of the incident appears consistent with the only public comment investigators have made to date about the case. 

Suffolk County Police Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, head of the homicide unit, said shortly after the shooting that it began as a fistfight. 

“The dispute erupted into gunfire and a teenage boy was killed, ” he said.

Ms. Jones said the men fled, and that a couple of days after her son’s shooting, the mother and daughter who were living in the condominium in question abruptly moved out. 

“I don’t know nothing about them,” she said. “I don’t know who they are. My landlord doesn’t even know who they are.”

Ms. Jones said she spoke several weeks ago with the Suffolk County police detective assigned to her son’s case — as she does about once a month — and he confirmed to her that investigators have zeroed in on a suspect.

“He said he knows who the suspect is. It’s just the process. Last time I talked to him he said he was waiting on DNA.” 

She said that during this conversation, the detective told her he had been temporarily reassigned to the sprawling Gilgo Beach murder investigation involving suspected serial killer Rex Heuermann, but was now back on the Gamble investigation.

A Suffolk County Police spokesperson declined to comment on Ms. Jones’ account of the circumstances of the shooting or on the status of the investigation, noting that the department does “not comment on suspects in any investigation.” 

Ms. Jones, a home health care aide, said she only calls the detective “on my day off, because I get very bad anxiety, and I don’t want to get myself worked up and have to go to work that way.” 

Without going into detail, Ms. Jones assured a reporter that she knows who shot her son, and said the man lives in another part of Suffolk County. 

“I just want this guy caught,” she said. “That’s my main thing. I have hope … I definitely have hope, but I know it’s a process.” 

Sitting at her dining room table on Monday afternoon, Ms. Jones reflected on the past six months.

“It’s been like hell,” she said. “It’s been empty. We miss him. It’s different around here now … Of all my kids he was the quietest, but his presence is not here and it’s a difference. We miss his smile. We miss his laughter.”

She paused to wipe a tear from her cheek.

“There’s certain stuff that I can’t buy in the store anymore.

“I cook all the time — but he didn’t like my cooking — so he’d cook, like, Hot Pockets and Jamaican beef patties — stuff you cook easily. Certain snacks I don’t buy because it makes me think of him.”

Ms. Jones said Preston was a middle child and had it tough growing up.

“He was different. He had a kind of a rough life because his dad has been incarcerated basically all of [Preston’s] life, so he really didn’t get to have a bond with him,” she said, referring to her former partner, Charles Gamble, who Ms. Jones said is serving time on drug and gang related charges.

“That’s why he is my special kid: everything he was going through, he never exploded. Other kids would be irate in the streets, not listening …but he wasn’t that kid. He held it in. But I could tell that my son was hurting. It was an outlet for him to be out with his friends. This was not ‘on the streets,’” she said. “It was only Calverton.”

She said Preston’s death has deeply affected her five other children. 

“Everybody has mood swings,” she said, especially Preston’s stepbrother, who witnessed the shooting. 

“He was right there when it happened, so he’s the most problematic person I got now in the house — lashing out at his brothers and sisters over little things, over them eating his snacks. Cussing at his sisters over snacks. He was never like that,” she said. 

She paused to take a drag of her cigarette. 

“We’re all going through it,” she concluded.

Cherish Broyles, 15, had been dating Preston for eight months before his death.

“It wasn’t just like, he was my boyfriend,” she said. “He was like my best friend.” 

She’d been on the phone with him a half-hour before the shooting, and when she couldn’t reach him later that day, she left messages on his friends’ phones, and eventually one called back.

“When I got that call, I just sat down,” Cherish said. Then she and her mother rushed to the hospital.

These days, she said, she still has conversations with Preston. 

“I see it as — he is with me, but just not visible. I have full blown conversations, talking to him,” the William Floyd High School student said. 

Asked how often, she replied, “Every day.” 

After his death, Preston’s friends and family devised a metaphor to help define his brief but colorful life. On a website dedicated to his memory, loved ones compare him to the light of the sun. 

“Remembering Preston Charles Gamble: Sunrise June 30, 2007 – Sunset April 12, 2023.”

Anyone with information on this ongoing investigation is urged to call the Crime Stoppers anonymous tip line at 1-800-220-TIPS.