Gena James’ friends and family gathered to celebrate her 20th birthday much like they had in prior years — with cake and flowers, and singing family versions of traditional birthday songs.
This year, though, they observed the occasion at a cemetery, and James’ mother and father blew out the candles on a birthday cake their daughter would never see.
James was found dead last October in a West Little River field. The 19-year-old had been shot once in the head.
In what James’ mother, Sharon Riley, described as either “coincidence or fate,” the young woman’s 34-year-old boyfriend was charged with her murder Friday, on what would have been her birthday.
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On Saturday, Anton Hendricks, 34, was in court, two days after federal agents arrested him in Miami Beach, following a nine-month investigation. He has been charged with second-degree murder and is being held without bond.
During a brief appearance before Judge Steven Leifman at his bond hearing Saturday, Hendricks screamed that the second-degree murder charges were “bulls--t.”
“It’s not f-----g me,” Hendricks yelled via webcam. “I’m fighting for my g-----n life.”
Judge Leifman decided to hold Hendricks without bond.
The case against Hendricks is circumstantial. The October night before James was found dead, she talked to her sister multiple times, saying that Hendricks had left her somewhere and that he was going to return to pick her up, according to Riley.
Though Hendricks called James’ phone many times after her death, police later discovered that he had her phone with him while he made those calls. After James’ murder, Hendricks moved back to his Chicago home, staying with his mother.
Riley described her daughter as a “happy-go-lucky” young woman who had a way with people and an outsized sense of humor.
She graduated from high school in Atlanta with honors before moving to Miami to pursue a nursing degree and to live with her older sister. Though she was working as a nail technician at the time of her disappearance, James had dreamed of being a nurse ever since she was a child, her mother said, wanting to bring her ability to “lighten up and brighten up” the days of her friends and family to those who were in pain.
“She did not deserve this,” Riley said.
In the weeks preceding her murder, Riley said that her daughter told her she had been frightened by Hendricks’ behavior — which included repeatedly taking away James’ phone and playing with a gun around her. She had been trying to get away from him. James’ family had been making arrangements for her to return home at the time of her death.
James had a “spontaneous humor that she’d flick on like a light,” manifesting itself through funny faces and impressions of television characters that caused stomach ache-inducing laughter, Riley said. She was very family-oriented as well, her mother said, playing with her nieces and nephews and testing out new hairstyles and makeup with her five sisters.
Celebrating her daughter’s life with family and friends Friday brought her some comfort, even just for a short while, she said. Since her daughter’s death, “My heart has been ripped out of my chest,” Riley said.
“She had such a future,” Riley said. “She had a future.”