During the party-filled week before graduation, Jeffrey Johnson Jr. kept a cap and gown neatly folded in the trunk of his burnt-orange Chevy Monte Carlo. The 17-year-old scholar, set to receive summa cum laude honors in the Carol City Senior High School class of 2006, had worked hard for both the robe and the car.
He'd been raised by a single dad who plied his kids with hundreds of dollars for good grades and a flashy used car at the end of every school year. As a sophomore, when classmates harbored dreams of ancient Corollas, Jeffrey Jr. tooled through Miami Gardens in a Lexus.
The kid didn't need graft. He was one of Carol City's most driven students, a luminary in a school plagued by an almost 50 percent dropout rate. Jeffrey was co-captain of the Law Magnet Program, an intern at Rep. Kendrick Meek's local office, and a talented guard on the Carol City Chiefs' basketball team before quitting to focus on a perfect GPA his senior year. Jeffrey won a Bright Futures scholarship and, with it, a free ride to St. Thomas University. He wanted to be the next Johnnie Cochran.
The cocky teen was popular with the girls but loyal to his friends. "He would introduce me to girls he was dating with: 'This is my sister,'" says Genevieve Carvil, a Law Magnet classmate who matched his enormous ambition. "'If you have a problem with me spending time with her, you can't be my girlfriend.'"
If Jeffrey had a flaw, it was this: He had no fear of the Fallujah-like streets of Northwest Dade. He cavorted freely through Opa-locka, Liberty City, and Overtown. He even turned down his dad's offer of $300 per week to party only in Miami Gardens.
So on the night of Saturday, May 20, 2006, four days before graduation, Jeffrey danced himself into a sweat during a packed party that spilled from a tiny pastel Liberty City house at 1752 NW 53rd St. A DJ was spinning bass-heavy rap for dozens of high-school-age kids.
Jeffrey's 2002 Monte Carlo — tricked-out with bat-wing doors, 24-inch rims, and the gaudy paint job — attracted attention as he and three friends headed out around 3 a.m. And when another partygoer pulled up in a similarly customized black-and-red Pontiac Grand Prix, the DJ sparked a competition.
The raucous teens cheered one car and then the other. Eventually they awarded Jeffrey the win — a rouge leather interior was the deciding factor. In response, the vanquished pulled a wad of bills from his jeans pocket. "Nigga, but I got money!" he taunted, according to witnesses.
Jeffrey popped the trunk and planted the white graduation cap on his head. Bursting with machismo, he climbed onto the roof of the Monte Carlo and incited, "I'm going to graduate! I'm going to be somebody. I'm going to outdo all you cats anyway."
When he returned to the pavement, his foe greeted him with a hard punch to the teeth. They fell to the ground, wrestling for control. Suddenly a 9mm gunshot rang out and the shocked crowd scattered.
By the time police arrived, Jeffrey was dead; the bullet had ripped through his back and pierced his heart.
After officers quickly took the Grand Prix owner into custody, he ratted on a crony, Antwan Grace. The next day, cops slapped the 22-year-old with Jeffrey's murder. He had already been convicted of robbing an elderly woman at gunpoint and was awaiting trial for new gun charges.
As text messages and phone calls circulated the news, Jeffrey's classmates were struck with a familiar grief. From Jeffrey's class of 500, three kids — none of them involved in gangs or the drug trade — had already been killed by gunfire in only a few months. Three more would die after graduation. Throughout Miami, people began to call it Carol City High's "cursed class of 2006."
But even as the school continues to grapple with new teenage murders and a teacher's near-fatal shooting, the legacy of 2006 is optimism. Jeffrey's older sister Jarrika collected his scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree from St. Thomas University just a few miles from the spot where her brother died. His best friend, Genevieve Carvil, will graduate from college in only three years and is on the fast track to clinching the courtroom success they had planned to experience together. "His dream came true," says Genevieve, who in Jeffrey's honor started a nonprofit that counsels needy high schoolers on their college applications. "But it came true in death."
When it opened in fall 1963, Carol City Senior High was a state-of-the-art facility, one of the first public schools in the state to boast air-conditioning. Its location, in a portion of unincorporated Northwest Dade County known as Carol City, was still dominated by farms. Nora Hernandez-Hendrix, a class of 1969 grad, describes an area that contrasts starkly with the barred-window environs of today. "It was a wonderful place to grow up," she recalls wistfully. "It was full of new developments that had until recently been cow pastures. The kids would get on their bikes and explore."
Within a few years, integration quotas were enforced and African-American students were bused to the high school from neighborhoods such as Bunche Park. A look through the orange-colored yearbooks from those early years displays an encouraging racial harmony: black and white students appear to mix easily, grinning together as they pose in cheerleading uniforms or at student government meetings.
But the place wasn't immune to the cultural turmoil of the time. "They could bus us in, but they couldn't force the races to mingle," says Robert, a black 1970 graduate who wouldn't give his last name for fear of ostracizing former classmates. "Most of those white kids hadn't had much experience with black people, and a lot of them didn't show much interest in giving us a chance."
The school was known for excellence both in the classroom and on the athletic field. In years before academic performance was distilled as statistic, glowing student testimonials and national contest winners told the story. Between 1974 and 1980, Carol City students won four prestigious National Merit Scholarships, including three National Achievement Scholarships, which are reserved for African-Americans. The state liked to herald the diverse school: On his first day as governor in 1979, Bob Graham taught a student government class there.
And Carol City athletes made the campus a magnet for big-time scouts. Top sports were wrestling and basketball. Then there was the Chiefs' marching band, which no longer gyrates to Jefferson Airplane but is still often referred to as the "soul" of Carol City High.
Eventually white flight transformed the surrounding neighborhoods, and with them the student demographic. Miami Gardens was seen by black middle-class families as an attractive refuge from the Third-World streets of Overtown and Liberty City. By the mid-'80s, more than three-quarters of the school was black. As the years passed, that proportion grew.
The athletic department maintained its fame for diligent coaching and talented kids. The Chiefs' strongest suit is football, and they won three state championships in that sport from 1996 to 2003. They've produced scads of college talent and more than a dozen big-league athletes in the three major sports, from University of Miami hero and NFL defensive tackle Lester Williams (class of 1978) to major-league outfielder Danny Tartabull (1980) to pro wide receiver sibling phenoms Santana and Sinorice Moss (1996 and 2001).
But Carol City's stellar academic reputation was less enduring. In 1981, the school was branded "deficient" after fewer than 70 percent of its students passed a basic skills achievement test. Then there were straight D ratings from 1998 through 2006. A John Hopkins study labeled the school a "dropout factory" for its 53 percent graduation rate. In 1986, ten faculty members, including three teachers, were busted for drug use or property theft.
Many students insist the stats don't tell the story. "Most of the teachers are really excellent and very caring," says Latoya Bentley, a 2006 graduate.
"It's a ghetto place," counters 20-year-old Robert Williams. He briefly attended Carol City before transferring to Miami Central High, another troubled school. "The building, the teachers, the kids — it's got this real ghetto atmosphere."
As Miami Gardens' property tax revenues plummeted to the third-lowest in the county, residents blamed the projects filling the neighborhood — and directly surrounding the school — for importing a culture of drugs and crime. The controversial stance was made official in 2007 when Mayor Shirley Gibson vowed her city would allow no more low-income housing developments.
Carol City High also draws students from Opa-locka, which in 2004 had the most violent crimes per capita of any city in the nation. A Miami Herald study showed the 33054 area — effectively Carol City High's student pool — to be the most dangerous zip code in the county for teenagers.
But in 2006, a familial closeness still defined the school. And Carol City High students — until they graduated or dropped out, at least — seemed safe from the violence that had gripped the surrounding area.
One glance at Paul Moore's classroom reveals he is a different type of teacher. Images of black heroes adorn the walls: Barack Obama, Malcolm X, and Rick Ross are tacked alongside clipped news articles about close-to-home subjects such as the Miami Edison in-school "riot" of 2007. On the whiteboard, written in Moore's neatly boxy script, is the dictum of the day: "The National Bureau of Economic Research and Young Jeezy agree: We're in a recession."
It's a reference to the title of the rapper's latest album. "I probably know more about hip-hop than the average white person," says Moore, a six-foot-five Massachusetts native and former union organizer. "If it's a piece of music that I know speaks to students, I'll make sure I familiarize myself with it."
In the 26 years he has taught social studies at Carol City High, his style has evolved to accommodate an intimacy with his pupils. He has eschewed textbooks in favor of daily personal essays. Class discussions are freewheeling and pertinent to his students' lives.
In this classroom — he taught three of the boys who would later be murdered — and around the school, Moore came to know the class of 2006. "There was something special about those students," the usually unsentimental teacher says. "There was a core of high achievers and ambitious kids."
But he noticed something else among his students as the class neared its final year: a morbid familiarity with the high-powered tools of violence. He recalls a Carol City teenager named Ashley telling him of the newest trend among her peers: posing with assault rifles and machine guns at house parties. He scrolled a few of his students' MySpace pages and was horrified by photos of boys nonchalantly hoisting the heavy weapons.
"It was around that time that this orgy of death began," he says. "We certainly never had any students killed — until all of a sudden, it was happening every other month."
November 29, 2005: Evan Page
Evan's mom, Rhonda, struggled with schizophrenia, and his father defied positive paternity tests. So the polite kid, something of a loner and driven by private ambitions, was raised by his grandmother, Luella. Mama, as the boy called the talkative, quick-to-confide older woman, raised her grandson from infanthood; his was the only young face in her barracks-like Miami Gardens retirement complex.
Luella, the mother of four girls, came to see him as the son she always wanted. She recalls a doting grandson who made her pancakes in the morning, taught her to drive, and accompanied her to church. "He was my grandson, he was my son, he was my little friend," Luella says. "I just miss him so much."
Evan was an above-average student, but he was more absorbed in his after-school pastime. On afternoons and weekends, he donned a gray cadet's uniform and participated in the Police Explorers program, a law enforcement training camp where he learned radio codes, rode with cops, and issued traffic citations.
At 9:45 on a Tuesday night in 2005, he was sitting in the passenger seat of a friend's car, waiting to place his order at the drive-thru window of a Miami Gardens Drive Checkers. A 20-something stick-up kid wearing a black T-shirt and brandishing a pistol ran up and demanded valuables, starting with the teenager's gold crucifix and a ring.
Instead, the Carol City student jumped from the car and tackled the thug by the legs. It was not a good choice. The robber shot Evan through the armpit three times, and he died at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
No witnesses came forward. The cops have not arrested a suspect. For weeks after the murder, Carol City high students wore "R.I.P. Evan" T-shirts.
Luella, though, has become obsessed with her grandson's death. On a recent gusty morning, she sits in a straight-back chair on her porch and shows a ragged, spiral-bound notebook packed with scrawled detectives' phone numbers and questionable leads.
There are clothing receipts, unsigned love letters, and photos of Evan with men she never met, all of them excavated from his bedroom. "I just think that if somebody could pay for this crime," Luella explains, "I could get a little peace."
She harbors a hateful suspicion of Joseph Guy, the 29-year-old man who was with Evan in the car that night. Though police insist Guy had nothing to do with the crime, she phones him often late at night. "I press *67 before I call him so he won't see it's me," she declares matter-of-factly. "I ask him: 'Are you ready to come clean? Are you ready to tell me what happened that Tuesday night?'"
Despite a segment on America's Most Wanted, Evan's case appears hopelessly cold. Evan's younger brother, Ronald, now a Miami Central High junior, is unequivocal when asked whether the police have been diligent in solving his brother's murder. "No," he says flatly. "Make sure you put an exclamation mark after that."
April 29, 2006: Sharika Wilson Lynch
That spring, 19-year-old Sharika was on hiatus from Carol City High for the first year of her baby girl Ahamani's life. "Oh, she was going back," assures Doris Lynch, the grandmother who raised her. "She had me to answer to otherwise."
Like Evan, Sharika had been dealt a bad hand. Her mother, Sarita, landed in prison for the first of three terms for cocaine possession when Sharika was still toddling. Her father, Daniel, a "woman-chaser," as his mother Doris puts it, had seven kids by different mothers and succumbed to AIDS when Sharika was 17. The slack was picked up by Doris, widow of one of Opa-locka's most successful African-American merchants and landowners.
In her second-floor room, the buoyant Sharika blasted D'Angelo and spent hours coordinating outfits that matched sneaker shoelaces, tank tops, and the dyed tips of audaciously coiffed hair. She reveled in her popularity with guys and wasn't unhappy when she became pregnant by a Carol City High boyfriend in January 2005. "She was a loving girl," Doris says. "She never caused me any problems."
After spending an entire Thursday lying in bed at her grandmother's house, stricken by a headache and stupored by court television, she headed to the corner store for milk and aspirin. "She wanted to get out of the house," Doris remembers. "She said, 'It's just down the street.'"
Her destination was the Imperial Market, a bulletproofed bunker of a corner store, once owned by her grandparents, in the heart of the Triangle, Opa-locka's most dangerous sector. The nine-block firefight-scoured war zone has been nearly abandoned by any enterprise without a malt liquor bottle or a pastor's name painted on it.
Sharika was on her way home when a car cruised by and gunfire exploded from it. The man in front of her, 31-year-old Antwan Jones, a convicted coke dealer and the likely target, was hit several times and killed.
One fatal bullet struck Sharika in the heart.
Today, Sarita has stepped up to take care of her orphaned granddaughter, a smart, talkative 4-year-old who replies casually that her mother is in "the sky." Sharika's old room was nailed shut after a termite attack, and her diaries, school papers, and Dwyane Wade posters are tucked into boxes in a garage.
The Imperial Market has closed, and despite the 60 to 70 potential witnesses, by a police spokesperson's estimation, cops again found little cooperation. "Oh, they saw who it is," Doris says. "They're just scared."
After Evan's and Sharika's murders, the grief was unnaturally muted at Carol City High. Even as county crisis counselors became campus fixtures, the school mood fell somewhere between dogged coping and outright denial. "It got to be very somber in the school," says social studies teacher Moore. "There was this great sense of communal shock."
May 21-26, 2006: Jeffrey Johnson Jr.
Jeffrey was not only a would-be Johnnie Cochran but also Carol City's most visible student and seemingly preordained for great success. His murder tore open the school's emotional wound. "That rocked everybody, because everybody knew Jeffrey," says his closest friend, Genevieve. "Boys that weren't doing so well looked up Jeffrey was not only a would-be Johnnie Cochran but also Carol City's most visible student and seemingly preordained for great success. His murder tore open the school's emotional wound. "That rocked everybody, because everybody knew Jeffrey," says his closest friend, Genevieve. "Boys that weren't doing so well looked up to him, because here was a cool kid that was accomplishing everything. Then to have him killed over a car was just devastating. Even teachers didn't know what to say."
Because of the timing, Jeffrey's memorial services and the class graduation seemed to merge into one weeklong ceremony, marked by emotion at once celebratory and funereal.
The Tuesday after the shooting, Miami-Dade County Auditorium was packed with an estimated 3,000 people, hundreds standing against the back walls. Fifty of Jeffrey Jr.'s family members had been given tickets and shuttled there on a bus provided by Kendrick Meek. Three seats were left unoccupied for Jeffrey, Sharika, and Evan.
Jeffrey Sr., who owns a carpet and window treatment business, donned his son's graduation robe and took his spot in the ceremony. He steadied Genevieve, who accepted her diploma in the spot in front of him. When Jeffrey Jr.'s name was announced, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation as his favorite song, "Chevy Ridin' High," by Carol City High alum Rick Ross, blasted over speakers.
"He worked his whole life to pick up his own diploma," Jeffrey Sr. says. "It was real hard for me to do it for him."
At the memorial in the school auditorium, an impassioned Moore made a speech that spoke to the hopelessness many of his students were feeling. "So, the body of a young man who thought he could make a difference lies before us today. Shall we add his name to the long and growing list of young people felled by senseless violence and be done with it?" he asked before urging the inverse: "Figure out who is pulling the strings in this hostile world you are being asked to live in... Then go pick a fight with injustice, poverty, racism, and war. If you do it from the heart, Jeffrey will be right there at your side."
October 29, 2006: Jennifer Branden
Not until arbitrary death continued to stalk the class of 2006 after graduation did the notion of a "curse" arise. In the fall, 18-year-old Jennifer was pummeled by a black Hummer H3 as she crossed the road on the downtrodden 2900 block of Opa-locka's NW 191st Street. The Carol City honor roll student, who was working at Denny's as she saved up for college, flew 250 feet and was killed. She had been absorbed in a cell phone conversation when the SUV hit, and the local pastor at the wheel was never charged.
January 4, 2007: Anthony Elias
The superstition was solidified when 17-year-old Anthony — or "Yellowman," as he was known for his mulatto complexion — followed his slain classmates. He had an unflappable persona that earned him comparisons to Snoop Dogg: personable, aloof, and effortless. "He was a cool, laid-back cat," says Tim Wilson, a 2006 senior who lived near Anthony's Miami Gardens home. He respected Anthony for working afternoons and weekends in a Florida Power & Light uniform, checking meters: "He was about his money."
"He was a very quiet, unpretentious, above-average student who made an effort to do what was right," says Eric Hafter, who taught Anthony American history. Other teachers knew him as silent but not sullen, a kid who slouched in his chair and simply observed but always had a correct answer or a witty riposte when called on. He was handsome, and says one teacher, "he always got a lot of attention from girls, and he just let it come to him."
On a clear, brisk Thursday, seven months after the 2006 graduation, Anthony Elias was in front of 23-year-old friend Andrew Allen's home, at 7501 Grandview Blvd. They were working on the engine of Andrew's car. A neighbor heard the squeal of tires and what she thought at first to be leftover New Year's fireworks. Then she stepped outside and saw the two bodies slumped on the curb.
Their murders remain unsolved. By student accounts, Anthony had no enemies.
May 23, 2008: Brian DuPree
The son of Charles DuPree, a security monitor at Carol City Middle and High schools, Brian had been known as the incessant comedian of his class. He was an irresistible kid who often had students, teachers, and his parents vacillating between urges to smack him and cry tears of laughter.
His favorite impression was of "Kiki," the high-pitched radio personality on 99 Jamz, and he wasn't afraid to bust it out during a quiet moment in social studies class. "Sometimes his shtick might get a little aggravating for the other students," says Moore, who co-taught Brian in a 150-student auditorium class. "But he would always be able to win them over."
Since their days at Carol City Middle, Brian had been inseparable from Tim Wilson, a hulking, 280-pound Chief defensive tackle and straight man to his antics. "We would go to the club, and I might get into an argument with someone," Tim says. "Brian would step in and tell me: 'Just chill. We just here for the girls.'"
At age 21, Brian led a life that was more complicated than it had been during those days as a pubescent class clown. He had a daughter, Tionne, 2 years old, by an ex-girlfriend, and another one on the way. "He had gotten serious after Tionne," Tim says. "He wasn't all about the partying anymore."
Near 4 a.m. that Saturday, he was sitting in the driver seat of the car of his newest girlfriend, Britney, outside his family's Miami Gardens home. This had been their custom for the past couple of weeks: talking, fooling around, smoking weed, and listening to music while Brian's family slept inside.
Charles heard the shots first, saw the sky momentarily light up through his bedroom window, and instantly thought of his son. "I ran out of the house because I knew Brian was sitting outside," he recalls. "I saw him sitting in the front seat with his eyes closed, so quiet like he was sleeping. I thought, Of course Brian would be sleeping with all this shooting going on. Then I saw a trickle of blood coming out of his ear."
In all, cops would say, the drive-by shooters, armed with a semiautomatic, had emptied 20 bullets into the car, two of which hit Brian.
Britney, who escaped unscathed, sobbed on the lawn. Charles cradled his son. Neighbors poked their heads out of doorways.
Again, nobody saw a thing — but informed rumors flew around the neighborhood.
One pegged the killer as a well-known neighborhood goon, a 21-year-old identical twin with a long and violent rap sheet. The motive: Brian had been seeing the thug's ex-girlfriend.
About two months later, that man was gunned down on the street. Now Brian's family is left to care for two children he left behind: Tionne and Brinyah, whom he never met and is now 6 weeks old.
Three days after the murder, Charles went back to work at Carol City Middle. But he won't step foot in the high school again. He can't bring himself to face Brian's friends.
December 4, 2008
Paul Moore is conductor-like behind his notes-cluttered classroom. He allows his students, as always, to steer discussion. And at 9:30 this Thursday morning, there might not be a more lively class in the county. It's packed with 35 seniors.
The conversation flies wildly from whether teachers should be able to paddle students, to the assertion that black kids are better behaved than white, eventually landing on the topic of the Columbine shootings. "We might bring guns to school, but at least we don't use them," Glendel Paul opines, which gets titters from the crowd.
"We've already done our killing," declares a girl wearing door-knocker earrings and her hair in elaborate waves. "The curse is over."
"How is it over?" another student demands, but the conversation quickly loses steam, and five minutes later, the kids are discussing the moral of urban teen flick ATL.
The two years separating these seniors and the class of 2006 have dulled their empathy. As the hour wraps up, class clown Glendel tells the story of how he survived an armed robbery at the Checkers where he works — the same place Evan was murdered — relating the tale with a slapstick humor unnatural to the topic. "I thought the dude was joking at first, so I started laughing," the burly young man recounts before lowering his tone to a stick-up kid's menace. "He goes, 'I ain't joking, son!' and puts the gun in my face, and I'm like, 'Oh!'"
The giddy students enjoy the story. For these Carol City kids, life is as precarious as ever, but there's no fear in this classroom.
If there is a curse, it seems it has a much wider breadth than one class. Carol City bloodshed has only gained speed since Jeffrey Johnson's class matriculated. Less than eight months after that graduation, on the night of December 20, 2006, junior Myckenley "Mike" Barjon was killed in a drive-by a block from his Miami Gardens home. Like Evan before him, he was a harmless kid with television-inspired dreams — he wanted to be a Navy SEAL — and his murder hasn't been solved.
On a Tuesday in November 2007, algebra teacher Sergio Miranda took a smoke break outside, across a chainlink fence from a neighboring housing project. A robber ran up to Miranda, a soft-spoken 43-year-old immigrant six years removed from the Cuban lottery, and shot him in the side in a bid for the teacher's wallet. As the kids watched on TV sets in locked-down classrooms, the cops tracked down Patrick Lively, an 18-year-old violent felon.
Fifteen months after the shooting, Miranda's legs heal in plastic sheaths as he rests at his home in Hialeah, earning two-thirds of his salary. "I want to go right back to teaching when I heal," he vows, but he'll find a more concealed spot to puff his Capri 120s.
Three days after this past Christmas, 15-year-old sophomore Zachary Mitchell was killed and his 17-year-old brother Deondre Bain wounded when they were hit by bullets in a drive-by in front of their Miami Gardens home. Although cops have yet to release many details, rumors say it might have been a payback shooting, with Deondre as the intended target.
Just down the block from the recently dedicated Jeffrey Lamar Johnson Jr. Boulevard, its slain namesake's Monte Carlo collects carburetor dust in his father's driveway. "I ain't ever going to sell it," Jeffrey Sr. says after lamenting the dent he put in its side. He drives it only to keep it running, and at annual Stop the Violence parades. "It just means everything to me."
Jeffrey Sr. has turned his home and wardrobe into a shrine. He has wallpapered his bedroom with school photos of his son from preschool to the year he died, and every day he wears a T-shirt with his son's photo on it: "I got about 50 of them." He wears Jeffrey Jr.'s chunky blue class ring on his finger. He has made his house an eyesore by slathering it with orange and gold — his son's favorite colors.
Jeffrey's sister, Jarrika, graduated in the top two percentile in her St. Thomas University class with his transferred scholarship. She's now at Florida A&M, studying for a doctorate in pharmacy. "That's the only thing that keeps me going," says Dad. "I used to live for Jeffrey's success. Now I live for Jarrika's."
The slain honor student's other "sister," Genevieve, has continued to overachieve. Armed with loads of college hours taken while still at Carol City, she'll receive her bachelor's in psychology, with minors in journalism and philosophy, from University of Miami this spring.
Then she'll attend UM for a law degree. She hopes to become a prosecutor. "Whenever I'm feeling lazy or defeated," she says, "I'll hear Jeffrey just poking me like he used to, saying, 'C'mon, sis, you slackin'."
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