A South Miami-Dade community is grieving as community leaders, exasperated residents and police search for answers in the death of a 2-year-old boy in the middle of the holiday season.
Carnelle Williams-Thomas was doing what countless children have done, playing and taking a carefree ride on a scooter in the courtyard of his family’s apartment complex. Neighbors said he was excited about learning how to a ride a bicycle as he played with other older kids in the Arthur Mays Villas public housing complex in Goulds.
On Friday night, before he could get any closer to learning how to ride, his life was taken by a stray bullet.
Elected officials, police and clergy gathered Saturday for a press conference at Goulds Park, across the street from the apartment complex. They made tearful, impassioned pleas to the community to provide information on the shooting.
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“All I could picture was the mind of that child. The hope he had for the future,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez. “What was going through his mind as he took his last breath? That’s all I kept thinking about.”
Community members who have seen similar shootings and felt the losses said residents have to put aside whatever relationships they have to identify the shooter and get justice for Carnelle.
“I’m so tired of going to funerals and helping families bury children in our community,” said J.L. Demps Jr., president of the Greater Goulds Optimist Club. “There are several people right now that you all know are nothing but problems in our community, and we’ve got to put these folks away.”
Miami-Dade responded to the scene at about 6:20 Friday and found Carnelle with a gunshot wound sitting with his mother, Dorothy Williams, in the courtyard. He was airlifted to Kendall Regional Medical Center, where he later died, police said.
A single bullet casing was found in the parking lot across from the courtyard where the child was sitting with his mother, according to sources. The incident happened near Southwest 215th Street and 114th Court, blocks away from U.S. 1 and Southland Mall, bustling with customers a little more than a week before Christmas.
After the shooting, police looked into the possibility of a domestic squabble within the child’s family, stressing it was only one of many theories investigators are exploring, sources told the Miami Herald on Saturday. Perez confirmed that he’s heard that theory and other speculation but said “we really don’t have many solid leads.”
Police have increased the normal $3,000 reward for information leading to an arrest to $23,000.
“The reward should not be the motivating factor, the motivating factor should be the last breath of that child while he laid on the ground,” Perez said.
The killing outraged police and the community, including Miami-Dade Public Schools’ Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. On Twitter, he wrote, “Tonight, a family was robbed of the chance to ever hold their baby again because of someone’s blatant disregard for human life. Any child falling victim to gun violence is a tragedy. But a toddler? When does it stop?”
Residents of the Arthur Mays complex and longtime natives of the Goulds area say these shootings are nothing new. They point to a lack of attention from the county and proper management of the housing complex.
Surveillance cameras sit above the apartment where Carnelle was shot and nearby. But residents of the area — commonly referred to as “Chocolate City” by the community — say that since the cameras were installed in 2011, they have often proved ineffective due to theft and sabotage.
Two neighbors, who didn’t want to be named, pointed to apartment after apartment where they can still see bullet holes in walls and where they can remember various people being shot. A Miami-Dade gun buyback poster sits near the courtyard where Carnelle was shot, but residents said they often don’t feel safe.
“I think the kids need counseling; they saw that baby get shot and fall down,” said one neighbor who wishes the complex could be gated off or have increased security. “The kids can’t even go to the playground.”
First opened in 1976, the Arthur Mays housing community, 11341 SW 216th St., was named after a prominent black South Miami-Dade landowner who donated land for a school.
In 2008, Miami-Dade police and residents formed Project RENEW — Resident Empowering Neighborhood Enforcement Walk — to inform Mays’ residents about crime and crime-stopping methods, along with putting a face to the local police force.
“In that complex, it’s truly the Wild West West,” said Miami lawyer Glen Goldberg, who is suing the county on behalf of the family of a man who was shot and killed at Arthur Mays three years ago.
At the time when Casanova Atwater was shot and killed in 2014, nobody was monitoring the cameras at night and most of them had been broken and vandalized.
“How many more shootings have to happen before the county steps in and puts a stop to it?” Greenberg said.
And despite all the gun violence they’ve seen in recent years, the neighbors say the loss of Carnelle stings so much more because of the timing.
“It’s no Christmas around here,” a neighbor said.
Randolph Brown, a South Dade native, said the issue is that police officers and politicians are reactive in these situations instead of putting preventative measures in place.
“Let’s get everybody out to talk like this before a child gets killed,” Brown said after the press conference.
Brown said that if a more affluent area had this history of crime or experienced an incident like Carnelle’s death, the response would have been swift and given higher priority by county and state officials.
“Let’s prioritize this community like you would in Pinecrest,” Brown said. “We have to get out of this attitude that this issue is in Goulds, it’s not where I stay.”
State Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Cutler Bay Democrat who helped organize Saturday’s press conference, said he recognizes the problem but said it isn’t the residents of the Mays complex.
“Usually the problem is not the people that live there, it’s the people who come in from the outside,” McGhee said.
This was the second stray bullet to claim a life in less than a week. On Dec. 9, 43-year-old Alicia Roundtree was driving home from a Miami Gardens Publix when she was hit by gunfire in what police are calling a random shooting. The shooter has yet to be identified.
In the past few years, a number of young children have been killed in Miami-Dade by stray bullets.
Last year, 6-year-old King Carter, a boy who loved football and Ninja Turtles, got caught in crossfire while playing in front of his Northwest Miami-Dade apartment. He had gone outside to buy candy.
Not long after, 8-year-old Jada Page was shot in the head in her front yard during a drive-by shooting after her first week of fourth grade. She and her father were about to go to the movies.
In 2015, a duel between teenagers killed Marlon Eason, with gunfire hitting the 10-year-old as he retrieved a basketball in front of his Overtown home.
In addition, two hours after Carnelle was shot Friday evening, a 17-year-old boy was shot and killed at the Trinidad Trailer Park in Northwest Miami-Dade. Police are searching for a subject who fled in a white vehicle.
Over the past 11 years, more than 300 children and teens have been killed by guns in Miami-Dade County. Some deaths were the result of domestic arguments. Other children were caught in the crossfire of gun battles between teens or gangs. In rarer instances, children playing with a gun accidentally pulled the trigger.
Miami Herald staff writers Monique O. Madan and David Ovalle contributed to this report.