How to Avoid Becoming a Philly Crime Statistic

There's an important lesson in the murder of Mohan Varughese

The name Mohan Varughese might not sound familiar, but maybe you heard about his tragic story this week. On Monday, the 23-year-old was shot to death for his red Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle. It’s the kind of tale that’s easy to overlook—another petty squabble that turned violent on Philadelphia’s mean streets. But Varughese wasn’t a gangsta, wannabe or bona fide. He was an A student, just days away from graduation at Penn State Abington, who made one mistake that cost him his life. With a gun to his head, Varughese hesitated to hand over the keys to his bike. That resistance, slight as it was, apparently spooked the dirtbag who held him up, and a robbery turned into murder.

Varughese’s death made me think about what I would have done if that pistol was in my face. Over the years, I’ve found myself in a few hairy situations that didn’t seem so life-threatening when they happened. Sometimes I wonder if I was just lucky. A few years ago, I was watching a late-night talk show when I heard a commotion outside my street-level front window. I looked outside and saw my upstairs neighbor surrounded by three teenage males. My reaction was instinctual: I slammed my fist on the window and shouted a choice word or two. They fled. What I didn’t notice in that moment was the gun one of them was holding to my neighbor’s forehead. We were both fortunate that they ran instead of squeezing off a few rounds at both of us. But if I had to do it all over again, I’d make the same decisions. It was a not-very-calculated risk I’m glad I took.

Then there was the night I was running some groceries and laundry into my apartment from my car. On my small side street, it’s customary to throw your hazard lights on, do your business and get out fast. The guy who pulled up behind me in an SUV either didn’t get that memo or didn’t care. He laid on the horn. I should have ignored him. Instead, I offered a suggestion—feel free to back up and go around the block if you’re in a rush. More honking. It looked like a woman was riding shotgun, and in that split second, I figured this was some hothead husband, not a real threat. With my deliveries finished, I closed my trunk and stood by my car, for no reason other than to show him that his horn assault didn’t intimidate me. He opened his door and yelled something. I yelled back. It looked like the woman said something to him. I got in my car and drove off, slowly.

In that moment, I suspended the reality of urban life and acted emotionally. What if, instead of saying, “Honey, stop acting like a jerk,” the woman had turned to the driver and said, “Here’s your gun”? Even in the suburbs, challenging that guy was a stupid move on my part. But in Philadelphia, a mistake like that is even more likely to end with a chalk outline.

I hope that if I was in Varughese’s shoes, I’d give up those keys without a thought. Want my wallet, too? Take everything. I know I wouldn’t try to pull a Jack Bauer and disarm the guy. But I worry that I’d hesitate for just a second, like Varughese did. His death serves as another reminder that, for all our caution, the decisions we make in those perilous moments have life-changing results. Better to think now about Varughese and how to react in a situation like his than be unprepared when that gun is pointed at you.