The lost sons of Fort Myers: Police struggle for solutions amid record-high body count

Corey Perrine/Staff
Florine Powell speaks to the grave of her son, Cedric Robinson, July 23, 2012 at Fort Myers Cemetery. 'Look at this, would you just look at this?' Powell says. 'Look what they've done,' speaking about the liquor bottles Robinson's friends left as tokens of respect in his honor. However, Powell said that she understands why they are placed there. Powell admits she doesn't visit often because the pain is still overwhelming. This was the first time in several months since his death, June 6, 2011, that she visited. Robinson was 20. 'The last time I came out here was right after his anniversary. For his birthday, I couldn't get out of the car. I just drove by and I sat there and I just couldn't get out of the car. I've been out here maybe three times. I just can't.'

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Corey Perrine/Staff Florine Powell speaks to the grave of her son, Cedric Robinson, July 23, 2012 at Fort Myers Cemetery. "Look at this, would you just look at this?" Powell says. "Look what they've done," speaking about the liquor bottles Robinson's friends left as tokens of respect in his honor. However, Powell said that she understands why they are placed there. Powell admits she doesn't visit often because the pain is still overwhelming. This was the first time in several months since his death, June 6, 2011, that she visited. Robinson was 20. "The last time I came out here was right after his anniversary. For his birthday, I couldn't get out of the car. I just drove by and I sat there and I just couldn't get out of the car. I've been out here maybe three times. I just can't."

Chief Douglas Baker is the Fort Myers Police Chief.

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Chief Douglas Baker is the Fort Myers Police Chief.

— At Cedric Robinson’s gravesite, friends left two bottles of Ciroc, one bottle of cognac, four pots of fake flowers and a Florida Marlins hat embroidered with the message “RIP SUGA CED.” He was 20, death by bullets.

As he lie dying on the sidewalk of Clemente Park on June 6, 2011, the people who shot him took out cellphones and snapped pictures. They posted them on Facebook and forwarded them to friends.

The photos all but made it to his mother, Florine Powell, who refused to look when her daughter received them.

“That was the worst day of my life,” Powell says, “and I don’t ever want to live through it again.”

Last year, Robinson was one of 20 victims in a two-decade-high death toll. An equal number have died in 2012’s homicides, making it likely that by New Year’s Eve, both the victim count and the homicide rate will at the highest level in 20 years, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data that goes back to 1991.

Citing a lack of eyewitness cooperation, police have made arrests in only four of the cases. It’s a problem, but it’s not a new one.

“You can’t fight about what dead people had going on, because that’s not your battle,” says Florine Powell, a member of Mothers Against Murder, whose son was killed in 2011. “Your battle is stopping it.”

At a cemetery in east Fort Myers, Robinson is buried steps away from Tyrell Robertson, an 18-year-old who died nine years earlier after being shot by a friend who accused him of stealing an Xbox. That year, 2003, 12 people were killed in city limits.

A decade ago Doug Baker, then a Fort Myers police captain, complained of witness apathy to the city’s newspaper: “We’ve had several shootings recently and we’ve not had an abundance of people come forward to assist us.”

This year Baker, now the city’s police chief, doubled down: “From an investigation standpoint, it’s very frustrating. Mostly all of our homicides, we do have suspects identified, but it’s putting those pieces together.”

Baker began overseeing operations in the Dunbar area — ground zero for the city’s shootings — when it was annexed into the city limits nine years ago.

A historically African-American community, Dunbar sits in a zip code where 33 percent of people live below the poverty line. A one-bedroom, one-bath home in the area rents for $400 a month, water included.

Triggered by the area’s carnage, rappers and residents began calling their home “Lil’ Pakistan” years ago. Jontavius Carter, a 20-year-old who was fatally shot Sept. 30, called it “The Gunshine State.”

Police say the deaths are often retaliation for robberies or drug disputes, with one homicide sometimes ending in two or three others.

The spider web of revenge killings has created delicate and bizarre situations for the families left behind. At meetings of Mothers Against Murder, a member has occasionally found herself seated next to a woman whose son’s friend caused her own son’s death.

“Within our group, we’ve kind of got that, but we really want to keep peace, you know?” says the group’s founder, Denae Hendley, whose 13-year-old son Desmond was shot to death last year.

“You can’t fight about what dead people had going on, because that’s not your battle,” says Powell, another group member. “Your battle is stopping it.”

Though much smaller in population, Fort Myers’ homicide rate per capita nearly matched that of the nation's sixth-deadliest city, Baltimore, in 2011, with about 31 killings per 100,000 people. (Fort Myers only has a population of about 63,000.)

Preventing crimes of violence is difficult at best, Baker says.

“The culture of the city has to change,” he says. “Government doesn’t have the ability to do that. The police department doesn’t have the ability to do that. The only one that really has the ability to change the culture is the citizens, residents and business owners — on what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

The one left behind

Corey Perrine/Staff
Liquor bottles are seen placed by Cedric Robinson's friends July 23, 2012 at his graveside paying respect to his life. Robinson died from injuries sustained in a shooting at Clemente Park at Lee Memorial Hospital Monday, June 6, 2011 in Fort Myers. Robinson's killer was never arrested. Robinson was 20.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Liquor bottles are seen placed by Cedric Robinson's friends July 23, 2012 at his graveside paying respect to his life. Robinson died from injuries sustained in a shooting at Clemente Park at Lee Memorial Hospital Monday, June 6, 2011 in Fort Myers. Robinson's killer was never arrested. Robinson was 20.

On the day Cedric Robinson died, an officer a mile away arrived within a minute. In that time, his killers had run and no one seemed to be able to say what happened.

It was 7 p.m. Still light outside. Kids playing on the basketball court.

But this was Dunbar, a place where there can be three or five or 10 bystanders to a crime, and still no witnesses.

It is a place where, as they say, snitches get stitches.

The last time Florine Powell spoke with her son, it seemed he was both grown man and child. Robinson told her he needed to change his course, move away from Fort Myers and be a better father to his baby girl. He asked his mama if she could make him some macaroni and cheese next time he visited.

That was two days before the shooting.

More than a year later, the 20-year-old’s death remains unsolved. His mother doesn’t care to speculate on motive.

“I’m not trying to paint a picture that my son never made a mistake and he never did this and he never did that,” she says. “But I know his life was taken against his will. And that he didn’t cause that, his life to be taken like that.”

More than a year later, Powell can talk without crying. Featured in a police-produced YouTube video pleading viewers to come forward with tips, she has become an involuntary spokeswoman on the community’s violence.

“Whenever you see something that’s wrong,” Powell says, “correct it.”

She talks about her son’s death because she wants others to know that what happened to her should upset them, too.

She talks about it, she says, because when EMS arrived that day, Cedric Robinson still had a pulse. And if someone had cared enough to get him help, her son might have lived.

The inmate

Devon Gallagher, 19, shows the scar where a bullet entered his body June 2007 during an attempted robbery of the Neighborhood Discount Store on Ford Street in Fort Myers. Gallagher was 14 at the time when brother Damione Massey, 16, died at the scene, after the store manager fired back, wounding Gallagher. Gallagher is currently serving time at the DeSoto Annex in Arcadia on marijuana possession, a parole violation. He is expected to be released from state prison in 2017. He then faces 11 years in federal prison. Gallagher said his whole body froze after he was shot, 'I know I'm shot because I see all the blood out me. I said, 'Please, God, let me live.''

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Devon Gallagher, 19, shows the scar where a bullet entered his body June 2007 during an attempted robbery of the Neighborhood Discount Store on Ford Street in Fort Myers. Gallagher was 14 at the time when brother Damione Massey, 16, died at the scene, after the store manager fired back, wounding Gallagher. Gallagher is currently serving time at the DeSoto Annex in Arcadia on marijuana possession, a parole violation. He is expected to be released from state prison in 2017. He then faces 11 years in federal prison. Gallagher said his whole body froze after he was shot, "I know I'm shot because I see all the blood out me. I said, 'Please, God, let me live.'"

The prisoner sat in a cinder-block room with murals of palm trees that felt fraudulently cheery. He counted on fingers how old he’d be when they let him out.

Thirty-five.

Devon Gallagher is 19, serving his second stint in state prison, this time in Arcadia.

After the first time “I thought, I’m going to get out there, make money,” he says. In little more than a year, he was back behind bars on drug charges.

Gallagher was an eighth-grade robber and a preteen drug packager, helping his older brothers cut marijuana leaves into portions for them to sell.

Money was tight. His mom and his brother once lived in an old Pontiac when the family got kicked out of public housing in Dunbar. To make ends meet, she pulled long shifts at Walmart, leaving her children with free rein.

On a day in mid-June five years ago, Gallagher bought a Sprite and cased a convenience store at the corner of Ford and Dunbar streets in Fort Myers.

He wasn’t sold on the idea of robbing the place, but here he was with his 16-year-old brother in the Pontiac, putting a mask over his face. It was too late to say no.

“Cause you know,” he says, “I’m not going to let my brother do it alone.”

No more than three seconds after busting in the Neighborhood Discount Store, Damione Gallagher shot at the clerk, who fired back and struck both brothers. Damione dropped to the floor. Devon fell, then ran.

Damione died at the store. Devon was 14, facing charges of robbery and homicide — if someone dies while you’re committing a felony in Florida, you can be charged with murder no matter how far your finger was from the trigger.

He sits in prison now, serving a drug sentence twice as long as the murder sentence. His mother died of heart problems during his first stay. His other brother is in prison on drug charges in southern Georgia. His sister visits him when she can.

He faces 11 years in federal prison after they release him from Arcadia.

“I ain’t learning nothing here,” he says.

Wrapped across his arms like bandages are tattoos of local jingoism: FORT up one arm, MYERS up the other and area code 239 on top of it. But for reasons he can’t or won’t express, he won’t go back.

“I don’t want to stay in Fort Myers no more,” he says.

The one who got out

In a three-month period in 2011, bullets perforated two of Shanessa Stewart’s brothers, leaving two holes in her family and a still unknown number in their bodies.

Desmond Jones died first. He was 13 when they found him bleeding on a street a mile from his childhood home.

A historically African-American community, Dunbar sits in a zip code where 33 percent of people live below the poverty line. A one-bedroom, one-bath home in the area rents for $400 a month, water included.

A year later, his clothes still have spots of blood too deep to come out in the laundry. His mother says she misses his Kool-Aid smile.

Alonzo “Pop” Stewart went next. A decade removed from Des, he was 24 when he was shot in an apartment’s parking lot.

Family said he was a good guy, but not the type to sit back if threatened. Friends eulogized him in a YouTube rap song viewed fewer than 300 times.

Their sister Stewart is 19, a sophomore at the University of Florida. People sometimes ask her how she made it out of Dunbar when so many others don’t.

“It just happened,” she says. “My mom, she always pushed me, and having leaders and mentors, that helped a lot. I kept a good head on my shoulders.”

In Dunbar, she says, “people don’t cooperate with you.” They’d rather watch killers walk the street than get a reputation as a snitch. They don’t trust the police.

A product of a Fort Myers police-sponsored athletic league, she knows the officers are trying to engage the community, even if not everyone notices.

“I think they kind of waited too long, you know?” she says. “Now it’s everyone’s getting shot, but nobody knows who it is.”

After college, she’s considering a career in law enforcement. She likes to think she could change the community’s silence, but there are no easy answers.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says.

The healer

Corey Perrine/Staff
Pastor James C. Givens greets Annie Campbell after church Sept. 23, 2012 at Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Myers. 'I try to give sermons of hope and inspiration, stressing the importance of family. I go back to the basics. In the beginning, African American families didn't hve much, but we had each other,' Givens said.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Pastor James C. Givens greets Annie Campbell after church Sept. 23, 2012 at Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Myers. "I try to give sermons of hope and inspiration, stressing the importance of family. I go back to the basics. In the beginning, African American families didn't hve much, but we had each other," Givens said.

“This Thanksgiving, this Christmas will be very hard for some of the families, because their child will not be with them,” says Rev. James Givens. “And when they sit at the table to have dinner, their sons will not be there.”

Seven days before Desmond Jones was shot and killed, the 13-year-old promised the Rev. James Givens he would do better.

Desmond had been acting out, having recently transferred schools because of behavioral problems. His mother wanted him to sit down with the preacher.

But a week later, the 13-year-old sneaked out of the house. He was pronounced dead at 3:38 a.m., a single bullet to the head.

“It’s sad because, somewhere, it said to me that I failed him,” says Givens, a preacher at Mount Olive, an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dunbar.

Givens wonders if he had said something else — used a different verse, gave some other advice — if Desmond would still be alive.

“It’s a possibility,” he says.

The preacher moved to Fort Myers in December 2010, largely unaware of the community’s challenges. In that time, he has eulogized a half-dozen young men lost to street violence. He is preparing for a tough winter.

“This Thanksgiving, this Christmas will be very hard for some of the families, because their child will not be with them,” he says. “And when they sit at the table to have dinner, their sons will not be there.”

He has thought at length about the plight of the young black man, particularly the one without a father.

“Everything starts at home, good or bad,” the pastor says. “If they had a positive role model in the family or in the home, I believe things would be better.”

As leader of Mount Olive, he does what he can. He hugs young churchgoers, prays about being a role model and solicits young men to his Visible Dads program, which hopes to “reverse the trend of fatherlessness in Fort Myers.”

He asks God to give him the wisdom to lead this community and the heart to help move it in the right direction.

“All of these tragedies bring about togetherness in the members of the Dunbar community,” he says. “Change will come.”

The protester

Corey Perrine/Staff
Latravia Baker, 21, from left, holds up a sign July 20, 2012, outside the Lee County Justice Center Complex while daughter, Sonya Williams, 3, holds on to mom and cousin Tymaria Williams, 8, helps protest in Fort Myers. Da'Wuan Williams, 22, was was stabbed after an altercation June 13, 2012 in Pine Manor community. The Williams family seeks justice since no one has been charged in connection with his death. Baker, the mother of Da'Wuan's children, and girlfriend of three years, helps with protesting when she can. 'When it happened, I cried, I just thought about my kids,' Baker said. 'No one could treat his kids like their dad.'

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Corey Perrine/Staff Latravia Baker, 21, from left, holds up a sign July 20, 2012, outside the Lee County Justice Center Complex while daughter, Sonya Williams, 3, holds on to mom and cousin Tymaria Williams, 8, helps protest in Fort Myers. Da'Wuan Williams, 22, was was stabbed after an altercation June 13, 2012 in Pine Manor community. The Williams family seeks justice since no one has been charged in connection with his death. Baker, the mother of Da'Wuan's children, and girlfriend of three years, helps with protesting when she can. "When it happened, I cried, I just thought about my kids," Baker said. "No one could treat his kids like their dad."

Dead for 18 weeks, Da’wuan Williams sits atop his grandmother’s television set in a black urn the size of a Big Gulp.

“I hug it every day,” Jacqueline Addison-Casiano says. “I kiss the top of my grandson’s urn with his ashes in it.”

Every day in the month after her grandson was stabbed to death, she headed to the Lee County courthouse to ask for his killer’s arrest. She held signs from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

??THUG?? I THINK NOT!! SON FATHER BROTHER

Casiano doesn’t protest blindly; she knows her grandson was behaving badly when he died June 13 at age 22. Even by her account, Williams was beating his girlfriend — or ex-girlfriend, depending on who tells the story — when the woman’s brother intervened. Williams was stabbed in the chest and died later that day at the hospital, according to his family.

The case, likely to bring up questions of justifiable homicide, will be turned over to the State Attorney’s Office for review when the investigation is completed.

In stories about Da’wuan posted online, strangers called him a hoodlum, a deadbeat, street varmin and an animal.

“People want to call him a thug, you know? My grandson was no thug. He was a troubled young man who hadn’t found himself,” she says. “And unfortunately for him, he ended up being influenced by other troubled young men.”

And where others saw a black face and a criminal record, his grandmother saw a future.

“We tell them, listen, the streets got two places for you: death or jail,” she says. “And I came from being a crackhead on those streets and turned my life around and ended up in college and ended up at a law firm and ended up working there for 14 years before this stupid economy went to hell and took my life from me.

“So yeah. So society wants to come along and they want to say, they want to label these young people, these young boys and girls out there, thugs and hoodlums and whatever it is. Like they are totally lost and there is no hope for them. Bull crap! There’s still hope. And we have to keep telling them, ‘You are somebody.’”

Casiano’s daily protest at the courthouse was meant to garner signatures for a petition asking authorities to make an arrest. So far, she’s solicited eight pages of handwritten signatures and 66 online.

Each day, she logs onto Facebook and sends a request for signatures to 16 people, the maximum allowed. She thought by doing this she’d have 100 names by now, but it’s coming along slower than she’d anticipated.

People don’t always respond.

The game changer

Corey Perrine/Staff
Officer Yvettea Dominique of the Fort Myers Police Department hi-fives children at the end of a presentation on safety and passing out Popsicles Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 at the STARS Complex in Fort Myers, Fla. Dominique says it's important to connect with the children at a young age to set them on the right foot and to foster a positive relationship between community and law enforcement.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Officer Yvettea Dominique of the Fort Myers Police Department hi-fives children at the end of a presentation on safety and passing out Popsicles Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 at the STARS Complex in Fort Myers, Fla. Dominique says it's important to connect with the children at a young age to set them on the right foot and to foster a positive relationship between community and law enforcement.

On a hot August afternoon, Yvetta Dominique walked into the Fort Myers STARS complex for at-risk youth with a blue cooler in tow.

A community policing officer, her job is to embed herself in the Dunbar community, get to know the people who live there and establish trust with them.

She has been asked, essentially, to help change the way people think about police.

Dominique knew she wanted to be a cop at 7. Her dad’s co-worker was in Immokalee depositing two bags, one with cash and one with receipts, when he was mugged and killed.

But the guy took the wrong bag. Her dad’s friend died for a centless robbery.

“I remember telling him I’m going to be a police officer so I can put those bad people away,” Dominique says.

As she and Officer Ray Beiner walk into the gymnasium, a girl at the summer camp whispers to a counselor: “Are they going to take me to jail?”

“Why would they take you to jail?” the counselor says. “They’re your friend.”

While the officers hand out Popsicles, the campers ask about their weapons.

“It’s a gun,” Dominique says. “It’s not a toy. Understand?”

“Yes,” they all say.

After the kids eat, they hug Officer Dominique’s legs and ask with blue and red mouths if she’ll watch them dance, or chase each other around, or do handstands.

She smiles and tells a kid with a killer moonwalk that she knows his mom.

In the grand scheme of things, this might not seem like much. But Dominique hopes she can chip away at the wall of mistrust that for years has separated police and residents.

“At least with this generation, they’ll have an open mind,” she says. “I may not see the progression, but I’m hoping years and years later, we’ll be able to see that difference.”

The one in the crossfire

Corey Perrine/Staff
Yue Lin Guo sheds tears at Tung Hing Chinese Restaurant Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 in Fort Myers. Zhi Wei Huang, 23, Yue Lin Guo's son, was shot and robbed June 28, 2012, after delivering food to Westchase Apartment complex in Fort Myers. Zhi Wei Huang died at Lee Memorial Hospital that night. Eddie Leonard, 16, of Fort Myers and Dejeron Stewart, 17, of Lehigh Acres were arrested in connection to the shooting but a gran jury did not indict them due to lack of evidence.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Yue Lin Guo sheds tears at Tung Hing Chinese Restaurant Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 in Fort Myers. Zhi Wei Huang, 23, Yue Lin Guo's son, was shot and robbed June 28, 2012, after delivering food to Westchase Apartment complex in Fort Myers. Zhi Wei Huang died at Lee Memorial Hospital that night. Eddie Leonard, 16, of Fort Myers and Dejeron Stewart, 17, of Lehigh Acres were arrested in connection to the shooting but a gran jury did not indict them due to lack of evidence.

“I miss him every second, every morning, every day,” says Yue Lin Guo, whose son was gunned down while delivering food for his family's Chinese restaurant.

When his mother thinks of what she left unsaid to her son, she shakes her head and stares at the table inside an empty Chinese restaurant on Fowler Street.

“Too many things,” she says softly.

After someone heard gunfire June 28, police found Zhi Wei Huang dying at an apartment complex a mile and a half from the restaurant.

They performed CPR, but he didn’t make it. He was 23, on a routine delivery.

“I miss him every second, every morning, every day,” his mother says.

When Huang moved to Fort Myers from China three years ago with his family, he quit school to work at his parents’ restaurant, even though he’d rather have gone to college. For three years, he worked at Tung Hing seven days a week.

In that time, he took off once, around Thanksgiving, driving seven hours each way to see his girlfriend in Georgia. He planned on marrying her next year.

Three days after the shooting, police arrested two boys, 16 and 17, in connection with the killing. But less than a month later, a Lee County grand jury said it would not indict the juveniles, citing a lack of forensic evidence or corroborating testimony.

In Florida, juveniles have a right to a speedy trial within 90 days of an arrest. Police say they have presented the case to the grand jury for a second time; it is pending review.

Back at the restaurant, Yue Lin Guo returns to work every day, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. She misses the way her son smiled and hugged her and said, “I love you, ma.”

But there are orders to take and food to prepare. She must go back behind the counter where he once stood.

“Without him,” she says, “there is no more love here.”

The end?

Corey Perrine/Staff
Wayne Blanks is comforted by family Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012 at Fort Myers Cemetery in Fort Myers, Fla. Family and friends came to honor the life of Damarquis Blanks who died of fatal gunshot wounds Sept. 13. at the 3400 block of Lantana Street. Police are still searching for a suspected killer. Blanks is the 17th homicide in Lee County this year. Moments later, Wayne would leave in tears saying, 'I can't do this, I can't do this,' while being held back but breaking free.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Wayne Blanks is comforted by family Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012 at Fort Myers Cemetery in Fort Myers, Fla. Family and friends came to honor the life of Damarquis Blanks who died of fatal gunshot wounds Sept. 13. at the 3400 block of Lantana Street. Police are still searching for a suspected killer. Blanks is the 17th homicide in Lee County this year. Moments later, Wayne would leave in tears saying, "I can't do this, I can't do this," while being held back but breaking free.

“We pray for the young man who is said to have done this terrible thing, and his family as well,” the reverend said. “Somehow we’ve got to find a way to end this senseless killing.”

They filed in the church through the back door, up the right-hand aisle and toward the casket.

A woman screamed upon seeing the young man inside. The choir sang louder.

I’m goin’ up yonder / I’m goin’ up yonder / I’m goin’ up yonder to be with my Lord

The woman continued wailing as the preacher began to speak. This was life without Damarquis Blanks.

“We pray for the young man who is said to have done this terrible thing, and his family as well,” the reverend said. “Somehow we’ve got to find a way to end this senseless killing.”

“Amen,” said someone else.

Blanks, 19, knew death. His mother passed when he was 9. At the house where he lived with his dad, his backyard touched a graveyard.

On Sept. 12, he was shot in the head and rushed to the hospital. His brain swelled. He didn’t speak.

“When I saw him,” his father, Wayne, says, “I knew it wasn’t good.”

Not two weeks before the shooting, the 19-year-old had said he didn’t want to live life on a machine, a burden to other people. On Sept. 13, his family made the decision, as his father says, to carry out his wish.

Police said the killing was not drug or gang related but didn’t elaborate. Wayne Blanks said his son got into a “scuffle” with another group about a basketball game maybe three months ago, although he can’t say for sure if that’s what started this.

“A life ain’t worth taking over that,” he said.

An hour and a half after his son’s funeral began, the preacher prayed for the family, that they would remember tears last for the night, but joy comes in the morning. The choir stood, the doors opened and six pallbearers rolled Damarquis Blanks down the aisle.

It was over, but it was barely just beginning.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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