Code Red

For those left behind after the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Jaime Gough, the emotional lockdown lingers

The day after the murder, Kornbluth and other kids from the neighborhood walked over to the Goughs. Jaime's parents welcomed them. "His father, Jorge, stood in the driveway and gave us a speech about hope and about living life one day at a time, and about how to make it through — when he was the one who needed that speech," Kornbluth remembers.

Kathy Hernandez's final wish is that the two sets of parents — Gough and Hernandez — could sit down and talk to one another. Thus far lawyers have prevented such a dialogue.

Kyle Freeman, a seventh grade drama student at Southwood Middle School, portraying a student in Defining Code Red. The play is based on the 2004 murder of Southwood eighth grader Jaime Gough
Kyle Freeman, a seventh grade drama student at Southwood Middle School, portraying a student in Defining Code Red. The play is based on the 2004 murder of Southwood eighth grader Jaime Gough
Another scene from Defining Code Red
Another scene from Defining Code Red


Click the following links to view Michael Hernandez's journal entries: Excerpt one and Excerpt two

That day still haunts the teachers at Southwood. The school has always been one of Miami-Dade's best, an "A" school with a respected performing arts magnet program. The halls are lined with evidence of students' artistic achievements. Signs advertise a performance of The Little Princess. An afternoon announcement made over the public address system congratulates the Southwood chorus for winning an award.

Before, when teachers were asked where they worked, their response would always bring a positive reaction. Now people will pause, think a moment, and say, "Isn't that where that kid got killed?"

Some teachers are not shy about the fact that they began to despise the news media, slowly coming to loathe the sound of helicopters thudding overhead and anchormen standing on the sidewalk out front.

"They really invaded our privacy," said Thelma Connor-Miller, a social studies teacher who has been at Southwood for fourteen years. It was in Connor-Miller's class that Bob Lunior gave his substance abuse presentation the day of the murder. Connor-Miller is relieved that the school unlocked the bathroom again. "When it was closed it was a reminder. I'm glad it's open. It's a sign of healing," she says. When parents or new students ask her where the murder took place, she says she tells them it happened on the other side of the building.

For Lunior, who was in the bathroom that day, it took a long time to accept what he saw. "My philosophy of life is that it's all in God's plan. Certain things are just beyond our control, and we have to surrender to God's will." He pauses. "It would have been really difficult if I didn't have that process." In the summer of 2004, after all the students had gone home for vacation, he and another teacher walked the halls together. "I burned sage and she had holy water," he says. "We did our own ritual."

Today the door of the bathroom is locked before and after school. After the murder a student had etched a tiny RIP into the door with a paper clip. Now it has disappeared under a new coat of paint.

A Spotlight on Sorrow

A Southwood alum's play draws crowds — and a subpoena

The man sat in the back row, just another anonymous presence in a packed theater. The play was Defining Code Red, a fictional reconstruction of the events surrounding the murder at Southwood Middle School, which was shown for two weekends in February and March at the Riviera Theater in Coral Gables. Both shows sold out, even with additional seating.

Nobody had quite understood just how pervasively the murder of Jaime Gough had affected his community. The unexpected diversity and size of the audience proved that three years hadn't diminished a painful memory, even those who never knew the children involved.

The play's writer and director, Justin Koren, is a Southwood alum. He knew the man in the back row was there. He didn't tell his cast. They could have backed off certain aspects of their performance, or worried about causing offense. Koren had asked his costume designer, Ann Zabielinski, to keep an eye on the man from her perch in back of the theater, in case the show hit home too hard, or someone recognized the stranger and showed aggression toward him.

Nobody did. After a standing ovation, cast and crew took to the stage for a question and answer session. The audience lingered and the conversation was long. At the end, the man in back stood up and raised his hand. Koren selected him for the last question.

He had nothing to ask.

"I'm Michael Hernandez's dad," said Manny Hernandez. "I'd like to thank you all."

As Zabielinski describes it, Hernandez was enveloped in a massive group hug by the people surrounding him. "They were saying to him, 'Don't blame yourself,' and 'It's not your fault.' It was so emotional, so amazing to see," she remembers. For Koren, the director, it fulfilled his greatest goal: to get people to talk about what happened that day.

Koren looks much younger than his 24 years, and would not be out of place as a background dancer in a Justin Timberlake video. He wears mirrored Prada sunglasses, and his long blond hair is parted on the side and hangs over his face. He's a chatterbox with exaggerated expressions that range toward the theatrical.

He might seem like the last person you'd expect to draw 2000 people into a theater and making them cry — a crowd diverse in age, race, and social class that included four Miami-Dade mayors, county commissioners, school board members, and a congresswoman. But that's exactly what happened. Somehow Defining Code Red struck the right chord.

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