By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Toro visits the DJ booth to chat up his new album. People here know his name. "He was always dressed up fresh, shaking hands," says fellow rapper Willie Goldy Green. By 4 a.m., Toro is tired, so he and his friends head to the parking lot, climb back into the Escalade, and drive west toward home.
They make it a block before the pop-pop-pop of gunshots blasts into the predawn air. The shots come from a speeding silver Impala. One bullet strikes Toro in the head; another hits Venis, who loses control of the wheel and slams into the home of Elena Sebekos, the FIU student who's reading in bed.
Travell and Venis survive. But Toro dies instantly.
THE MORNING AFTER
Charlene awakes in the hospital with tubes down her throat and a TV newscast blaring. A well-groomed anchor is talking about "the White Room shooting" — two teenage girls have been attacked. She quickly turns it off.
Doctors enter and explain that her shoulder is fractured and that they might need to crack her ribs and remove her esophagus. So she spends days in ICU, doped up on morphine, alone at night with her thoughts. Doctors would dub her case "the miracle of the year" — the bullet somehow missed every vital organ — but her story doesn't have a fairy-tale ending. She will live with the hunk of metal lodged in her gut, like a constant intruder, for the rest of her life.
There will be physical therapy and months of nightmares. There will be trips to the ER, counseling sessions, and chronic chest pains.
Although cops have no leads, Charlene thinks the random act was a form of gang initiation. "We weren't these crazy club girls," she says. "We were sober, just talking." She hasn't been back since.
The fact that her shooter is walking free makes Charlene feel uneasy, and she guesses her chest pains are partly psychological. "It's weird," she says. "I keep thinking I'm going to see him again, that he's going to come find me... It's like we have a relationship: He will always be my shooter, and I will always be his victim."
A family friend is waiting for Darnell's mom in the parking lot outside Jackson Memorial Hospital. "Here's his stuff," she tells Vender, handing over her son's blue wristwatch. It's splattered with blood.
The friend doesn't say why she has it, and Vender is too shocked to ask. Right then, her cell phone rings. Darnell is not at the hospital, the caller tells her; he's at Studio A.
She rushes to the nightclub to find an ambulance, curtained off with white bed sheets, on a cigarette-dotted street. That's when she is told her son has "expired."
The next morning, she drives to the coroner's office, a towering concrete building, northwest of downtown Miami. A medical examiner slides open a metal refrigerator drawer and unzips a plastic body bag to reveal her oldest son, eyes closed. "I couldn't cope," she says. "I felt like I was going to lose my mind."
Today a seven-foot adhesive photo of Darnell is emblazoned on the front door of her Allapattah home. It reads, "RIP Darnell. You will never be forgotten." Inside, Vender speaks with poise and is dressed in a dark Miami-Dade Transit uniform. A big-screen TV flickers images of a sitcom as she rolls Darnell's wristwatch between her soft hands. It's still unclear why his friend was carrying it.
After her son's murder, Vender couldn't muster the strength to go to work for days. Letting go is still tough; she keeps his clothes in bags and a large photo of him on the living room table. One thing that might help her with closure: Cops have since charged a 24-year-old named Wilton Jackson with the murder. (The case is open.)
"I want him punished," she says matter-of-factly. "You killed my son and you can't even tell me why." She sighs and her voice softens. "I am still not registering that my baby is dead."
In front of her, on a short coffee table, rests the leaflet her family distributed at the funeral. There's a photo of Darnell, age 8, with a big toothy grin. It reads, "Sadness is a vein that runs through my heart/Pain remains while we're apart."
A week after Toro is gunned down, hundreds of mourners flock to Wright Funeral Home in Opa-locka. Friends wear custom-made "RIP Toro" T-shirts and drink from flasks in the parking lot, trading stories about the fabled MC. Toro's corpse is dressed head to toe in red as it lies in a casket.
"From the sheer number of people who showed up," record-label head Fentz says, "you would have thought he was a state representative. He was just hitting his stride."
Two years later, cops have no leads. Even close friends have no idea why he was killed.
On a recent Thursday, his grandma, Addie, is still in her pajamas at 3 p.m. The 76-year-old sits in her sparse living room, clutching a pencil-drawn portrait of the boy she raised. Her health has gone downhill since his murder; her hair is thinning, and one of the buttons is missing on her nightgown. Her words come out like maple syrup when she says, "I am still broken from it."