My name is Rod Williams. My auntie Jean calls me Man. It's a nickname, like Ms. Money and Tornado. Those are my sisters, Monica and Latoya. My dad goes by Hatchet because he used to shake one at people when he was mad.
I'm about five-foot-eight, 120 pounds. Football used to be my thing, but I haven't played the last two years. They put a big air conditioner in a chain-link box where I used to plant mangoes and collard greens in my dad's back yard. I still like to draw cartoons, go swimming at the beach, and watch movies. Chess is cool too, I guess. I play with my godmother whenever she comes by. For breakfast I like fruit punch, Garcia's sausage, and chicken noodle soup. I'm pretty much good to go every day with jeans, a sweater, and my Nike slides.
I go to Brownsville Middle School. Eighth grade kind of sucks, you know what I mean? I haven't been going lately. They sent a letter to my dad saying I missed a bunch of days. Thing is, I haven't been staying with my dad much, a couple days a month maybe. I stay at my friends' places mostly. This past week, I've been sleeping on the couch at Latoya's place. She's 21. I'll be fifteen next October.
Homicides are on the rise in cities across the nation, but few increases have been as dramatic as that in Miami-Dade County. After years of steady decline, the murder rate in Miami-Dade spiked 40 percent from 2005 to 2006, making it the bloodiest twelve-month stretch in almost a decade. Much of the carnage has been in cities and neighborhoods such as Miami Gardens, North Miami Beach, Opa-locka, and Little River. Most of the victims are young black men. Many are teenagers. Of last year's 260 murder victims, more than one third were under the age of 25; 41 were under the age of twenty, more than double the number of teenagers killed the previous year.
In one of the most dramatic slayings, nineteen-year-old Luckson Branel and his friends, Atron Kelly, age twenty, and Edwin Terma, age 21, died this past June when the van they were riding in was surrounded by masked gunmen and sprayed with bullets in Allapattah.
In October a seventeen-year-old Carol City High School dropout allegedly shot a popular shop teacher to death in Miami Gardens.
During a particularly violent few weeks this past December, seventeen-year-old Rachel Louis, an aspiring midwife, died after gunmen in a passing car showered her North Miami Beach home with at least 25 bullets. Days later another drive-by shooting claimed sixteen-year-old Myckenley "Mike" Barjon as he hung out with friends a block from his Miami Gardens home. Before Barjon's family had buried him, another sixteen-year-old, Volny Eugene, was left to die from gunshot wounds in Little River.
The new year brought another wild daylight ambush: Gunmen with assault rifles riddled an SUV with bullets, killing Sheena Pierre, age 21, and her boyfriend, Enel Jean, age 22. Jean's grandmother was severely wounded in the shooting.
Last month a seventeen-year-old was among four wounded and one dead after a shooting at a house next door to a child's birthday party in Little River.
Each time a young person is gunned down in Miami, Queen Brown feels her own wound torn open. Brown's 24-year-old son, Eviton, died this past October when the car he was sitting in was plastered with bullets. Eviton had been a star football player at Norland High School, and was a recent father and a member of 5000 Role Models of Excellence, a mentoring program for young black men. Brown thinks her son was mistaken for his cousin who, Brown believes, had criminal dealings. The case remains unsolved.
Instead of retreating into her grief, Brown started a radio program to raise awareness and encourage people to speak out about the rising tide of death. "If Lil' Kim can come out of the courthouse and say, 'Don't snitch,' I can come out of the funeral home and say, 'Tell it'." Every Sunday at noon, Brown's show, "What's Going On?", takes to the airwaves on WTPS-AM 1080. She encourages callers to think about both sides of the tragic equation: victim and killer. Prison isn't the only answer, she says: "We can't throw our kids away."
Brown would welcome the chance to meet her son's killer. "I'd ask him what made him feel his only choice was to kill," she says. She also wants to extend her hand to the killer's mother. "I feel at this point we both lost our sons. I know we're both crying at night."
I stop by my dad's place after school sometimes. He lives in the Annie Coleman projects up on 63rd Street just a few blue buildings, two floors each, rusty screen doors, everything looks the same. There's a wire you gotta pull off the front gate and then put back on again every time you come in. Dad's apartment is pretty small, just dad's room, a living room with a saggy black couch and chair, and a kitchen with no space really.
I've got a PlayStation 2 there. I stay up late with my cousin Quitta that's short for Chiquitta, she lives there sometimes too playing Madden Football and Mortal Kombat, my favorite. Dad always comes out of his room and tells us to turn off the TV. We're supposed to be asleep, he says. So I pretend like I'm gonna crash on the inflatable mattress in the living room and then, when dad closes his door, I turn on the TV again.
My dad's name is Rod Robinson. He's 46. My mom, Geraldine Williams, would have been 46. She died on Mother's Day when I was seven. AIDS, they said, but I didn't really understand at the time. Anyway, Hatchet and Winnie (that's my mom's nickname) met when they were younger than me, at Dunbar Elementary in Overtown.
When my parents finally got together, they were living in some projects in Brownsville. Dad and mom never got married and my dad isn't on my birth certificate, but we were pretty much a family from what I can remember. We never really got settled anywhere, though. We had to move a lot, from Brownsville to Overtown to the Edison Courts in Little Haiti.
I guess my dad couldn't really take care of us after mom passed. He has gout and his knees are kind of in rough shape after all those years working in a warehouse and doing landscape work for the county. He's on disability now. So me, Monica, and Latoya went to live with Auntie Jean, my mother's big sister. Her place was at 77th Street and NW Third Avenue. She was like my mom.
Irma Williams, Rod's "Auntie Jean," is only 47 but her hollowed eyes are those of a worried grandmother. She wears her hair in dreadlocks up in a leopard-skin wrap, a stray braid or two hanging over her pierced eyebrow. Recently, sitting on a plastic-covered sofa at a friend's place in the Little River Terrace projects she spends the days there, the nights at a shelter downtown Williams dragged on a Bronco Menthol and held her chin in her bony hand. Black window blinds were drawn tight against the sun. Outside the cinder-block house, concrete steps lead to a concrete path which leads down to a concrete sidewalk. Across the street, a massive concrete wall a sound barrier for I-95 is the only view.
"He was the baby," Williams recalled of her years raising Rod. As a little boy, he would run to his aunt whenever his sisters were out to beat on him. He liked to curl up in bed with Williams. He cried easily. "He was spoiled," Williams said. "You couldn't beat him."
Williams worked hard during those years. Rod's father had given her custody but no child support. Her $450 weekly salary as a dialysis technician at Joe DiMaggio Memorial Hospital in Hollywood was too high to qualify for food stamps or federal housing aid. So she worked thirteen-hour days. "I was scratching by," she remembered. She took pride in being able to give Rod and his sisters relatively lavish gifts like bicycles for Christmas and birthdays.
Williams's old place a two-bedroom apartment at NE Third Avenue and 77th Street has metal bars over the windows; the front door and air conditioner hang out of the front wall. When Rod wasn't running around in the back yard, he was at Johnny Randle's house just around the corner. The walk there took him past rundown houses with cracked windows, cars parked on front lawns, and a rusty, disused swing set in someone's yard. The boys would play in Randle's yard, or sometimes, when more friends came, take their tackle football games to the lawn outside the Cathedral of St. Mary a few blocks west.
Rod's friend Javon Carter remembers those "street football" games. Carter lived across the street from Rod. The two met at Little River Elementary School when they were both six years old. They often sat around dreaming of the future, Carter said. "We gonna have a job, we gonna go to each others' houses, we gonna have fun," Carter recalled Rod saying. They'd live in big houses. Rod would drive a Chevy Impala or maybe a Camaro. Rod was smart; he'd be fine, Carter remembered thinking. "His report cards would always be better than mine."
Before he quit playing football about two years ago, Rod used to tell his aunt he would go pro someday and buy her a new Lexus. "I would just say to him, 'Just buy me a Toyota'," Williams said, smiling faintly.
Because Williams worked such long hours, Rod's sister Latoya often took on the role of mother. She watched as her baby brother came to know the drug- and violence-ridden reality of the streets around him. "He got more mature, like he really understood what was happening," she said. By the time he was done with elementary school, Rod realized it was every man for himself.
On a recent weekday afternoon in Rod's old neighborhood, several people shrugged when asked if they had known the boy. Some said they were new to the area, or that they had only heard of Rod in the news. They didn't know what he looked like, where he had lived, what kind of kid he was. One teenage girl who declined to give her name said she had known Rod, but could say only, "He was a good kid." When a heavily tattooed teenage boy pulled up in a SUV with tinted windows, he ignored questions about Rod, turning up the volume on his stereo instead.
As he grew older, Rod toughened. He spent more time with the neighborhood boys, especially Johnny Randle. Rod and "J," two years his senior, would hang out even after Rod moved from the area to his brother's, and then his father's, and then his sister's place. He spent just about every weekend with J. According to J's mother, Felicia Archie, in recent months Rod regularly stayed overnight at the Randles' house.
The two were tight. "J was always looking out for Rod because he was older," Williams said. She couldn't have imagined what Randle would someday be accused of doing to Rod.
"He thought he had a friend," Rod's father would later say of his son and Randle. "God is your only friend."
Auntie Jean wasn't home much, and I started hanging out with Johnny Randle. His place is at 77th Street and NW Fourth Avenue, around the corner. Me and J had been knowing each other since we went to the same school Little River Elementary. We were always together. Even after I moved out of Auntie Jean's, I'd come back on weekends. Me and Monica and Latoya had to move out when Auntie Jean lost her job two years ago. She was on drugs, got taken in, a felony.
I lived with my stepbrother, Anthony, up in Pembroke Pines for a while. That's when Latoya got shot in the head around Auntie Jean's place. Wrong place at the wrong time, they said, but she was okay because the bullet went straight through, didn't hit anything real important, I guess.
Last summer I went back to live with my dad, but I was kind of splitting the time between his place and Latoya's place or actually her boyfriend's place a few blocks away. I guess I don't really have what you'd call a home.
Easy access to guns, especially in the wake of the 2004 expiration of a federal assault weapons ban, is widely blamed for the double-digit percentage increase in violent crime in cities across the country over the last two years. AK-47 machine guns, known as "choppers" or "sticks," have been showing up with more frequency in Miami-area killings.
Access to guns may not be the reason for the killings, but it makes tense situations combustible. "It's like putting more salt in the soup," said Delrish Moss, Miami City Police spokesman and former homicide detective. The factors that drive a teenager to shoot someone family breakdowns, gang rivalries (especially in the Haitian community), lack of community support systems and role models, a prevailing culture of violence, lack of opportunity, housing instability are not necessarily unique to poor neighborhoods, Moss said. The main difference is that guns are not as easy to find, not such ready options in more affluent neighborhoods yet.
While West Coast gangs such as the Bloods and Crips have been making inroads in Miami, many of the recent gang-related killings in areas such as Miami Gardens and Little River have been traced to Haitian gangs. With names like Zoe Pound, One Way, Uptown, Sesame Street, E-Unit, and Zombie Boys, they are ubiquitous in some neighborhoods. Their signs are subtle but clear tattoos and gang colors on bandanas, headbands, and wristbands.
Since emerging in the mid-Nineties, Haitian gangs in Miami have steadily grown in influence. But suggestions that the recent killings here are somehow linked to rising violence in Haiti are ill-founded, according to John Bryan Page, a University of Miami anthropologist and expert on Haitian gangs in Miami. In fact, Page argues, violence here feeds violence in Haiti by way of deported youth who bring American-style "quick, retributional violence" and violent popular culture back to their home country. "We've been exporting it," Page said.
The phenomenon is similar to one that swept Puerto Rico in the Sixties and Seventies, according to Page. As expatriates returned from drug-infested New York neighborhoods (especially the South Bronx), Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, went from being a relatively safe city to a hotbed of heroin-fueled violence. In both the case of Puerto Rico then and Haiti now, "practically all of (the violence) is learned and enacted here," Page said.
A gang is a family for kids who have none. It is protection, acceptance, and fame, said Lt. Willie Tagle of the Miami-Dade Schools Police. "When they posted that gang," Tagle said, referring to a recent gang killing news story, "the word around schools was, öI want to be a part of this gang because they're the baddest'." Children as young as eight years old have professed to be members of known violent gangs, Tagle said.
City of Miami police officer Harvey Nairn has seen Haitian gangs ebb and flow in his sixteen years on the beat in Little Haiti. A few years ago police cracked down on Zoe Pound, a gang that had been terrorizing Little Haiti for months with daylight execution-style shootings. The police sweeps worked, and drove Zoe Pound out of business, or so it seemed. Nairn recalled warning other county police departments to look out for members of Zoe Pound and other gangs, who might be shifting their focus northward from Little Haiti. "They just ignored it," Nairn said.
Now, he said, Zoe Pound is back in Little Haiti. Like other gangs, they run their drug-peddling business as efficiently as possible, using teenagers like Rod and J as street-level dealers, because they are more likely to receive light sentences if caught. "They target the young guys," Nairn said.
Much of the recent bloodshed on Miami's streets is likely a matter of tit for tat between gangs and other factions, he said. "We're very good at deploring the fact that kids get caught in the crossfire," Page said, "but we haven't gotten very good at going out to the kinfolk of the departed and saying, öDon't hit back'."
"It will get worse before it gets better," he added.
The recent killings go beyond gangs, drugs, family, race, or ethnicity, said Father Jean Ricot Gay, one of the few pastors at a North Miami antiviolence forum this past February. Inner city schools are "breeding grounds for all kinds of social ills," where kids graduate as "nonfunctional people," Gay inveighed. Without an education, there are no decent jobs to be had, he said. "If you are poor, you will get poorer, and that is sickening." Feeling powerless and "subhuman" can be enough to make some pick up a gun. "They can't express their frustration to those making decisions," he said. "That is a way to make themselves heard. It's a desperate way."
After a Liberty City march to deplore the murder wave this past February, Renita Holmes, Rod's godmother, wondered where it would all lead. "Nobody's speaking their language," she said of kids like Rod, J, and their friends. That's where the pushers push their way in, she said, giving a teenager like Rod a sense of identity and self-worth, however misdirected.
"Here go a gun," Holmes said, imitating a dealer recruiting a young charge. "Here's the dope. You're my man. I'm your daddy."
At my dad's place, a few times lately he asked me, "Do you do drugs?" And I'm like, "No. Why you asking me that?" He says, "I found this in your jeans." And he shows me one of my lighters. I say, "That's just a lighter. I mess around with it. I don't do drugs."
I got taken in last month, January 9. I wish it didn't go down like that. Got caught slingin' rock, some weed too. I was up on Miami Avenue near 76th Street, not too far from J's place. These two undercovers come up behind me as I'm waiting for the next deal. They say they saw me put a bag under the old house nearby. First time that ever happened to me. I don't want a problem, so I tell them what they want to know. I pull out the one blue bag from under the house. It's got 22 dime bags inside. Then they pat me down, pull the other bag out of my front pocket. That's got, like, 33 rocks. Crack cocaine, the cops write on their pad.
I don't know, maybe it was a mistake to tell them everything I did. Maybe I should have been smarter about it.
Anyway, I've been on probation since then, about a month. I'm not going to think about it today. It's Friday. My dad gave me $22 to go to the barber shop on Seventh Avenue up by 79th Street, the one by the liquor store, and to get some food later. But I'm headed to J's first.
On the way to J's house that day in early February, Rod probably walked past the Harvest House Outreach Center. It's just up the block from J's. On the side of the building, a run-down, little white house, there's a hand-painted sign. Two manacled hands with the word "Sin" written on them reach up to a cross that has "Jesus" written on it. A red lightning bolt from above breaks the chains. The outreach center's windows are broken, there's all kinds of trash strewn around, and little sign of life. Next door is the Outreach Mission Church of God in Christ. A sign on its fence proclaims, "He delivers from Homosexualty [sic], Prostitution, Lesbianism."
On both sides of J's house are boarded-up houses. Chickens poke along the side of the road and plastic bags hang like leaves in the trees. J's house looks empty too. Metal awnings cover its windows. There are a couple of old tires on the lawn.
What happened after Rod made his way into Randle's house is still under investigation. Randle, Quintin Barnett, and Aspen Thermilus, all age sixteen, and Keon Williams (no relation to Rod), age fourteen, told police differing stories. What does seem clear based on the investigation is that Barnett shot Rod point blank, although Barnett has claimed it was an accident. Leaving blood splotches along the way, the boys then dragged Rod's body to the back yard, where they covered it with a wood plank, according to police. They burned T-shirts they had used to try to clean up the blood and then, at nightfall, moved the body. Wheeling it in a residential trash bin, the boys made their way four blocks south to a Little Haiti furniture factory among several auto body shops. They heaved Rod's body, wrapped in plastic bags, into an industrial dumpster.
On February 9, trash haulers refused to empty the dumpster because of the stench coming from it. Thinking there was a dead animal inside, the furniture factory owner hired a local man to clean out the bin. The man found Rod's badly decomposed body a week after he had disappeared and four days before a scheduled court hearing on his January arrest. No one had reported him missing.
A local drug dealer's tip led detectives to Randle, Barnett, Thermilus, and Keon Williams. Detectives believe some of the boys were low-level peddlers, but it's unclear whether they were part of a larger gang.
Barnett is charged with Rod's murder. The other boys are charged with felony accessory to murder. Reached by phone, Randle's mother, Felicia Archie, spoke only briefly and did not return follow-up calls. No one came to the door at Barnett's house, nor at Keon Williams's house, on a recent weekday morning. Barnett's mother, Norma Barnett, didn't return calls. Keon Williams's mother, Patricia Williams, answered her phone, but would say only, "I don't want to talk to nobody about it." Thermilus's mother, Amelia Thermilus, answered the door at her Little Haiti house, but declined to speak about her son. She said she had not known Rod.
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An eighteen-year-old girl who lives near Randle and knows most of the boys involved questioned whether there was anything accidental about the killing. Based on what she had heard, the girl, who asked that her name be withheld, said it was likely Rod's friends had turned on him for cooperating with the police during his arrest, for being a snitch. "Because that's how it is around here," she said. "This is Haiti."
Television news cameras captured much of Rod's funeral at Hall Ferguson Hewitt Mortuary in Brownsville. There was no coffin, only a framed photograph of Rod on a table, something that irked Irma Williams and led to a verbal confrontation with the funeral home's director days later. Rod's sixteen-year-old sister, Monica, had been picked up on charges of battery against a pregnant teenager at her Broward County high school the day before, but made it to the funeral. She would later be found in violation of her probation terms for attending. His other sister, 21-year-old Latoya, was there with her boyfriend, who would be shot in the stomach during a robbery in Little Haiti less than a week later.
On a recent weekday morning someone who had read about Rod and had seen his baby face in the paper was looking for the site where the boy's body had been found. Asked for directions, a woman sitting quietly on a curb at first didn't recognize the name. Then it came to her. "You mean the boy in the garbage can?"