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A few minutes before 5 p.m. this past Sunday, a group of young men huddled in front of a one-story home on NW 71st Street. An orange banner with a handsome photo of a dead boy hung on the right side of the white iron door. A gold ribbon was tied at the top.
Then a Chevy Monte Carlo rolled down the street. An AK-47 popped from the window. Several rounds burst from the barrel, shattering glass and exploding into the legs and arms of five young men. The car sped off.
It was a skirmish in a war that has recently scalded an enclave around Northwestern High School in Liberty City. On January 23, at least two gunmen killed two teens and wounded seven at a street corner craps game, including Brandon Mills, the 16-year-old whose banner still hangs on his family's house on 71st Street. Three months later, on April 20, a drive-by wounded four more teenagers in front of the Pork 'n' Beans Projects a dozen blocks away.
Add up the three attacks, and the body count reads like a report from Fallujah or Kandahar: 16 wounded, two dead. Funny thing, though — at least 50 people witnessed the first shooting. Many more saw the second and third. A $20,000 reward has been offered. There have been billboards and door-to-door appeals, even an appearance by Rev. Al Sharpton in January. But nothing has pierced the silence. This past Monday, a frustrated prosecutor even blamed a story by CBS4 reporter Jim DeFede for the latest carnage.
"We're living in a cemetery and our kids have a cemetery attitude," says Renita "Biggie Mama" Holmes, standing outside the Mills home the morning after the latest assault. "They've learned that it's OK to be blighted, it's OK to have no respect for life because this is a lifeless community."
Derrick Gloster, who was killed along with Brandon Mills in January, provides a good place to start understanding this war. The 18-year-old was raised just five blocks from the corner where he died, in the home of his grandmother, Brenda Estinat. He also sometimes lived with his mom, Tangela Graham. The thin-framed teen, with a smooth face and a taste for hip-hop T-shirts and neon trainers, was a kind boy whose life went a little wrong, according to his grandma.
He attended Northwestern High but dropped out. He was working on a GED. Police records show he had been arrested 17 times in the past three years, mostly for misdemeanors including trespassing and gambling.
On January 13, prosecutors accused him of borrowing a $3,000 gold chain from his grandfather and giving it away to settle a debt. Ten days later, before he could face the charges in court, Gloster joined a group of more than 30 who gathered at NW 70th Street and 15th Avenue for a craps game. Many were students at Northwestern, just three blocks east. Across the street, dozens of neighbors socialized outside a dilapidated U-shaped, three-story apartment building painted 1970s burnt orange.
Suddenly a man approached and barked, "Get on the ground!" and then pulled out an AK-47, police records show. Some gamblers dropped to their stomachs and others fled into the night. Some stood stunned as 7.62mm rounds blasted from the snub nose.
Gloster, nicknamed "Termite" for his slight frame, crumpled to the asphalt, a slug buried in his head. As panicked bystanders sprinted north up 15th Avenue, more staccato bursts sounded as a second gunman fired. Mills — a tenth-grader at Northwestern and a defensive end on the Boys & Girls Clubs football team — died on the spot. He had been shot in the head. By the time the gunmen peeled off, 45 spent casings were smoking on the concrete and nine men and women lay bleeding. All but two were under 23 years old.
Three months later, on April 20, another group of teens was attacked a half-mile from the craps game massacre. Just after 10 p.m., a gold Nissan sedan with chrome rims rolled up outside the low-slung Pork 'n' Beans Projects on NW 62nd Terrace. Kedra Pratt, a 16-year-old, stared at the car with her friends — Haywood Hilton, 15; Rakeem Reed, 17; and Thomas Williams, 18.
Someone inside the Nissan began shooting. Seven or eight rounds hit the teens, and they collapsed to the ground. One bullet smacked Pratt in the stomach and exploded through her back. The kids flagged down a passing Crown Victoria, whose driver took them to Jackson Memorial Hospital. All four survived, including Pratt, who needed hours of intensive surgery. She told a local television station she had no idea why the group was targeted, saying, "The car just came by and started shooting."
Then, on April 23, DeFede — a former New Times and Miami Herald columnist — aired a five-minute report about the January attack that killed Mills and Gloster. The story claimed police had a solid lead: A few days before the shooting, Gloster had killed an aspiring rapper named Neo Brown in a botched robbery. Relying on anonymous interviews with a woman who claimed to have witnessed Brown's murder, DeFede reported that Brown's friends had fired on the craps game in revenge.
The piece featured an on-camera interview with Mills's mother, Lasonya, standing in front of her home on NW 71st Street, with the address clearly visible. Lasonya Mills criticized her neighbors for not helping the police. She predicted there would "be more shootings."
On Sunday, three days after the interview aired on local television, the Monte Carlo blasted Lasonya Mills's home with AK-47 rounds and wounded five of the kids hanging out in her driveway, including two of her sons: 24-year-old Alphonso Clark and 17-year-old Marquis Mills. Mike Alvin and Troy Jackson, both age 18, and 16-year-old Lamorris Moore were also hit. All survived.
Michael Von Zamft, a veteran Miami-Dade prosecutor working on the January case, lashed out at DeFede. "It is my personal opinion that this shooting was triggered by the DeFede piece," he told New Times. Von Zamft objected to the reporter's use of the anonymous source and criticized showing Lasonya Mills's face and address in the story. Asked about the comment, DeFede posted a web column that said, "the shooting may very well have been prompted by my story."
Now comes the hard part for law enforcement: solving all the shootings. Detectives have at least six cardboard boxes packed with leads, and they've traveled dozens of times outside Miami and Florida while pursuing the case. They have also executed at least one search warrant. But so far, nothing has borne fruit. Witness after witness has refused to talk.
Police have two theories. There's the one discussed by DeFede, that the attack was revenge. The other proposes something set off one of the gamblers at the craps game, maybe a rumor the dice were loaded.
Without more cooperation, though, police aren't likely to make much headway, says Von Zamft: "We're talking here about the community at large not wanting to be branded a snitch. People shouldn't want to watch people get shot and not help the police."
The Pork 'n' Beans shooting was probably unrelated. So far, police have no motive and no descriptions of the shooters.
Like dozens of others interviewed by police, Mills's cousin, Joey Butler, is hesitant to speak with reporters. "I don't know anything about what happened. I really can't say anything," he said the day after the latest shooting. "God is still on the throne and he's in control. That's all I know."