‘She was robbed of her life’: 16-year-old Claudia Quaatey dreamed of becoming a nurse before she was fatally shot in New York City

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series profiling American youth killed this year by guns, a leading cause of death of children in the US. Read more about the project here.

At just 14 years old, Claudia Quaatey decided to run her own hair braiding business from her New York home as she prepared to support herself through nursing school.

“She wanted to go to Howard University. Claudia had her life all planned out,” her mother, Marian Abbey, said. “Out of all the children, she knew what she was going to do tomorrow.”

Claudia showed strong dedication to her future that belied her age.

She had turned her basement in Jamaica, Queens, into a designated hair braiding area to accommodate the slew of clients who sought her dexterous craft. It got to a point where her parents had to step in and limit the time she spent on her side hustle to help her maintain school priorities.

While still a sophomore in high school, she was already saving for a car for her planned move to Washington, DC, where she dreamed of attending the renowned historically Black university.

“I would never change anything about Claudia,” Abbey said. “Claudia was not perfect, but Claudia was exactly what I prayed for.”

Claudia Quaatey and her mother, Marian Abbey. - Courtesy Marian Abbey
Claudia Quaatey and her mother, Marian Abbey. - Courtesy Marian Abbey

But Claudia will never see Howard University’s campus, or become a nurse, or buy her first car, or realize her dreams of giving back to her parents’ native country of Ghana.

On the evening of May 10, the 16-year-old was shot in the head in the Queens neighborhood of St. Albans, the New York Police Department said. Claudia was shot once while sitting in the back seat of a car, a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told CNN.

Her mother later told CNN that Claudia had plans to braid a friend’s hair that evening. Instead, Claudia died in a hospital a day later, according to police.

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Police say one of three unidentified people wearing face masks and hooded sweatshirts fired at the teen before fleeing the crime scene on foot. Roughly a month after the shooting, the NYPD released on social media a surveillance video of the trio as they walked on a sidewalk, asking for the public’s help with any tips. The post offered a reward of up to $10,000 for information. So far, no arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, the law enforcement official told CNN.

Claudia was one of more than 1,300 children and teenagers killed by a firearm so far in 2023 in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In the United States, guns became the leading cause of children’s deaths in 2020, federal data shows.

Meanwhile, Claudia’s father still is struggling to wrap his head around his daughter’s death and what he described as senseless gun violence.

“I keep thinking this is like a bad dream, but this is like beyond torture,” Albert Quaatey said. “Every day, I get up empty. … There’s not a single day I don’t cry.”

Her father daydreams about seeing her bright smile as she would wave goodbye before leaving home.

“She’s always smiling. That’s one thing about her,” he said. “She had a whole future, and she has been deprived of life.”

‘She was robbed of her life’

Claudia dreamed of becoming a nurse and wanted to continue giving back to her family's home country of Ghana. - Courtesy Marian Abbey
Claudia dreamed of becoming a nurse and wanted to continue giving back to her family's home country of Ghana. - Courtesy Marian Abbey

Born to Christian Ghanian parents in New York City, Claudia grew up to be the kind of person who was empathetic and caring. She also showed a desire to help people; it’s why she wanted to be a nurse.

She visited her parents’ West African homeland often and would donate clothes and shoes to children there and help feed them.

“Any time she saw somebody that didn’t have what she had, she would try to give them some,” her mother, Abbey, said.

Claudia’s relatives and friends in Ghana pointed out that when they saw Americans visiting the country, they wouldn’t mingle with Ghanian kids, thinking they’re better than them, her mother said. But not Claudia.

“Claudia gets down and dirty with them,” her mother said, adding she would often give away her own possessions.

And she was also a positive influence on those closest to her, especially her best friend, Keon Anderson.

“She kept me on track with school,” Keon said told CNN. “She would take away my phone and tell me to focus.”

Keon and Claudia met freshman year in math class at Queens High School of Teaching. They instantly clicked, and by the following year, they had most of their classes together. Their favorite class was English, taught by their favorite teacher with whom they would occasionally spend their lunch period.

They commuted to school together because they lived only a few blocks apart, spent hours on FaceTime watching the show “You,” and of course, there were always jokes.

This year, instead of meeting with Claudia to go to school together, Keon begins his day by spending a few minutes each morning praying for his best friend.

He looks on a small at-home memorial placed on a windowsill: a picture of her smiling flanked by a white candle and a crystal-like ornament in the shape of an angel encompassing an indigo-colored rose.

A small heart-shaped glass sculpture beside her photo has this inscription:

Those we love don’t go away

They walk beside us every day

An at-home memorial for Claudia Quaatey at her best friend's home in Queens, New York.  - Courtesy Roberta Anderson
An at-home memorial for Claudia Quaatey at her best friend's home in Queens, New York. - Courtesy Roberta Anderson

Keon, 16, misses conversations with Claudia, their jokes and the memes they sent each other. And not a day has gone by without thinking about her.

“She was robbed of her life,” he said. “She didn’t deserve (that) to happen to her.”

Keon first saw the news of a 16-year-old girl getting shot on May 10, but she wasn’t identified, he said. The following day while on his way to school, his mom called him and told him to come back home. When he returned, his mom told him Claudia had died.

“It was shocking to me. I was just crying,” Keon told CNN.

As he grieves, Keon has been receiving therapy at school, which he says has been helping him cope.

Roberta Anderson, Keon’s mom, told CNN she initially considered transferring him out of concerns the memories would be too difficult for him handle, but the mental and emotional support system the school is providing has made a tremendous difference for him.

“As parents, we look at the school as an external family. And during this time, they showed me and other parents that they are not considered external family; they are considered your family. And the children in their schools are their children,” Anderson said.

“They’ve given more love and attention to the situation than I’ve ever, ever, ever could have imagined.”

Read other profiles of children who have died from gunfire

‘She was a nurturer’

In the short 16 years she lived, Claudia morphed herself into someone who made people laugh with her witty sense of humor – but she also took planning for her future seriously.

“She was a nurturer. Her heart was definitely in the field where she would be caring for people, and that’s exactly what she wanted to do,” Anderson said of Claudia. “She loved helping people.”

And she came from a hard-working family who also helped people: Her father is a construction worker, and her mother is a medical assistant.

Claudia enjoyed playing basketball and running her own hair braiding business. - Courtesy Marian Abbey
Claudia enjoyed playing basketball and running her own hair braiding business. - Courtesy Marian Abbey

In addition to her parents, she lived with her four brothers, who praised her resolve in a written tribute.

“She never shied away from expressing her feelings and always fostered a sense of collaboration in us. Watching her speak her mind at such a young age gave us courage and helped keep us grounded,” they wrote. “It must have been difficult living in a household dominated by males, but you never let it affect you. You didn’t allow anyone to diminish your brilliance, and we will strive to do the same.”

Claudia’s family and loved ones know nothing will bring her back. But justice might offer them a sense of closure to a senseless crime.

“At least whoever did it is not gonna just be walking free while she is 6 feet under,” her mother said of catching her killer. “Claudia’s soul is not gonna rest in peace until everyone has answered.”

CNN’s Mark Morales contributed to this report.

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