Miami coping with a spate of shootings of young people

Published 7:32 pm Friday, August 11, 2006

Black ribbons draped three chairs at one Miami Gardens high school’s May graduation, holding places for three students slain since classes started nine months earlier.

In June, the father of one of the victims took a slice of ice cream cake to his son’s grave for his 18th birthday, watching it melt and saying a few words before leaving. This week, students at Miami Central High School walked through the school’s hallways wearing T-shirts picturing a student killed at a weekend party.

The scenes are just some of the after-affects of a recent spate of homicides involving young victims in and around Miami. Since January, the Miami-Dade County and Miami police departments have seen a number of cases involving victims in their late teens and early twenties, including at least 15 cases identified by Miami-Dade.

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In a few other cases, stray bullets have killed even younger victims, including a 9-year-old and an 18-month-old. Officials have said witnesses are reluctant to cooperate in many cases, and the incidents have deeply troubled community leaders and neighborhood families.

“I don’t remember anything like this,” said Miami-Dade police Capt. Alexander Casas of the recent rash of young homicide victims and lack of cooperation from residents.

A 16-year veteran who heads the homicide department, Casas said that the incidents have prompted some changes as well as a door-to-door search for information. Police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the county commissioners are offering a reward of up to $50,000 for information in the recent cases compared with the $1,000 usually offered for information leading to an arrest, Casas said.

Moreover, Miami-Dade and Miami police departments are working even more closely on the cases, some of which may be retaliatory shootings that cross borders, Casas said.

One of the ribbon-draped chairs at Miami Carol City Senior High School’s graduation was for Jeffrey Johnson’s son, Jeffrey Johnson Jr. The 17-year-old was an aspiring lawyer and would have graduated summa cum laude but was shot in May after a dispute over his and another person’s car. A suspect surrendered in the case.

Johnson’s father, who accepted his son’s diploma and celebrated his birthday with the graveside cake, said he has about 50 T-shirts with his son’s picture on them and wears one every day. It is something he plans to do for years.

“The first week everybody is so emotional, but after a week or two people forget and they go back to their normal routine. That’s one of the reasons I wear the T-shirt, because I never want to forget,” he said. “My routine is changed forever.”

Johnson said he has attended funerals and memorials for approximately half a dozen children after his son died and spoken with families who have lost children in the recent violence. It makes him want to do more to help.

“We share a bond. We have lost kids,” Johnson said. “People are dying constantly, still.”

Community and government leaders have also offered comfort and urged discussions on violence. County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who represents Miami Gardens, North Miami and Opa-locka, helped obtain $9 million in funding from The Children’s Trust to combat violence. The trust is funded by taxpayer dollars, and the money will paid over three years with a third of it going to the northern part of the county, Jordan said.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Urban League of Greater Miami will hold a discussion about the causes of violence, said president T. Willard Fair. It’s likely the same day as the funeral for one of the latest victims, Otissha Burnett, 17, who was fatally shot at a party last weekend in Miami Gardens and described as a talented artist and a budding fashion designer. No one has been arrested.

At a memorial for Burnett Wednesday at Miami Central High School, an auditorium full of students raised their hands when a minister asked “How many agree that the violence must stop?” and answered in a chorus of “Yes” when asked, “Are we fed up?” and “Are we tired of the violence?”

Principal Robin Atkins reminded students that once the day’s ceremonies were over and once the funeral is over that they have to make a real commitment to stopping violence.

Tenth grader Travaughn James said he knew Burnett was not the only one who had died recently and that he was worried about recent incidents.

“It worries me a lot. It could happen to anybody,” said James, 16.

Burnett’s aunt, Tatia Spencer, 40, who attended the memorial, said she did not have any answers for why so many young people have been killed, just questions.

“Where does it stop? With who does it stop?” she asked.

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