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."