By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Rodgrick Girtman is a handsome, cherub-faced kid with "Neisha" tattooed on the right side of his neck. It was a profession of love for his two infant sons' 19-year-old mother, Corneisha Miller. But Rodgrick wasn't the ideal boyfriend. On April 23 last year, he was arrested for allegedly punching her in the face. State prosecutors dropped the charge after Corneisha refused to cooperate.
Eleven months later, Rodgrick's temper apparently got the best of him again. On the morning of March 18, people in the neighborhood claimed they saw him brandishing a pistol. He said he was going to kill Corneisha, her family, and her friends.
Shortly before noon, a gunshot echoed through the couple's single-story beige house at Northwest 68th Street and 15th Avenue. Corneisha, Rodgrick, and their sons were in the bedroom.
The sound startled Corneisha's brother Marcus, who was standing on the front porch. He burst into the room. Rodgrick was kneeling next to Corneisha, holding a towel against her neck in an attempt to stop the blood gushing from a bullet hole in her throat.
Marcus grabbed the children and ran outside. He called 911. "The baby daddy shot my sister," he shouted.
Within minutes, Miami Police officers surrounded the home. The boys were taken to a neighbor's house. Paramedics transported their mother to Ryder Trauma Center, where she was pronounced dead.
In the bedroom, detectives quickly found a pistol that witnesses said belonged to Rodgrick. Later that day, he confessed and was charged with first-degree murder.
Corneisha, who was laid to rest this past March 27, was at least the ninth person killed since 2005 on a three-block stretch of NW 15th Avenue in Liberty City. All but one were under age 30. Four, including Corneisha, were teenagers.
But it's not just murder that defines the area. Outlaws of every stripe have turned up here. The John Doe Gang ran its vast crack and powder cocaine empire with murderous efficiency during the '90s. In a warehouse on the stretch, six accused terrorists allegedly plotted to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower. And just last year, two assault rifle-wielding attackers mowed down nine people, killing two teenagers.
The street is also home to some of the most established black-owned businesses in Miami and the oldest public housing project in Florida. Miami rappers Trick Daddy and Trina were born and raised on 15th Avenue. Music impresario Luther Campbell threw block parties here for decades, and local rappers such as Rick Ross and reality television shows have used the neighborhood as a backdrop.
Dwight Manley, who goes by the nickname Krow, has seen it all. The tall, lanky fellow moved to 15th Avenue from Brownsville as a kid 25 years ago. With a natty beard and long dreadlocks snaking down the back of his orange T-shirt, he sits on the first-floor step of a five-story apartment building at NW 70th Street and 15th Avenue reading the morning's Miami Herald. Two friends share a blunt nearby while teenage boys play in the desolate courtyard.
Though many residents in the neighborhood are suspicious of outsiders, Krow is at ease. In a casual, deep baritone, he talks about the writings of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. Then he nonchalantly recounts seeing at least 30 corpses since moving to 15th Avenue in 1985.
"The media and reality shows like The First 48 have helped make this place notorious," Krow says. "You go on Facebook or MySpace, and all people want to ask you about is 15th Avenue and its notoriety. But it ain't all ugly."
Across the street from the apartment building where Krow hangs out, a heavyset black man with a gray flattop sits on a stool behind the counter of Brewton's Market. Clarence Brewton has inhabited this spot since opening the place 37 years ago. Mr. C., as residents call him, is there every morning. His wife, Jacqueline, takes over the counter in the afternoon. The couple works seven days a week and splits 18-hour days. He's 65 years old. "I'm too old to go anywhere else," he jests. "I work a lot of long hours to make a small amount of money. But I like serving the community and the people. This is a place that will always be here."
Foot traffic is slow. Only three customers enter his store during a recent 45-minute span. A blind man comes in and pays for additional minutes on a prepaid cell phone. A hunched-over elderly man pushing a wheeled walker buys a carton of orange juice. Wearing an oversize T-shirt and spandex shorts, a woman with ample thighs purchases a couple of 16-ounce cans of beer for $1.50 a pop.
During long lulls, Clarence explains that 15th Avenue was alive with people back when he bought the store. Women would go to the Glamourama Beauty Salon down on 69th Street to get their hair done for $3. People would flock to see black entertainers at the Cotton Club on 68th Street. "We had a little bit of everything," he says. "There used to be a lot of jobs in the neighborhood. Not anymore."
The Claxton, Georgia native came to Miami in 1963. He soon landed a job as a maintenance worker at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. Three years later, he took a gig fixing car bumpers at an auto body shop near Overtown. Around the same time, he met Jacqueline, then a 17-year-old girl who lived with her family in a wood-frame house on 67th Street. The two fell in love and married in 1967.