It started in March, when 15-year-old Joewaun Coles — known to family and friends as “Popcorn” — was gunned down in the courtyard of his apartment complex by a stray bullet police say was aimed at men nearby playing craps.
In September, 17-year-olds Maurice Harris and Randall Dwaine Robinson III were shot to death on the sidewalk, murders separated by 10 blocks and three days. Then in November, gunfire cut down Johnny Lubin Jr. on his way home from school.
Police say their deaths are unrelated, though they share a common thread: All four were students at Miami Northwestern Senior High in Liberty City.
Through November this year, 30 children and teenagers have been killed by gunfire in Miami-Dade County and more than twice that many have been shot. At Northwestern, the violence has stunned students and angered alumni who care deeply about a tradition-rich school that has long been a symbol of hope and pride in a struggling community. They have two questions: Why are their children being murdered and are police doing enough to stop it?
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Among those who want to know are the Mothers of Murdered Children, a support group started by local activist Tangela Sears, who lost her own son to gun violence. Neikole Hunt joined after her son Randall, who helped her around the house and had dreams of becoming an architect, became the third Northwestern victim.
Her body trembling, voice rising then quieting to a hush, Hunt poured her heart out at a meeting earlier this month. She said it took two weeks before a detective even contacted her about Randall’s death. The murder hasn’t been solved.
“All I know is I don’t have my child anymore,” she said during a meeting this month. “I’m angry, still.”
Police insist they devote the same resources to solve inner-city crime as they would in any another neighborhood. And they’ve upped their efforts as well, said Miami-Dade Police Maj. Hector Llevat. Local, state and federal law enforcement have created a task force that now shares information. Even the U.S. attorney’s office is involved, joining with Miami-Dade schools to train students as “Peace Ambassadors” who are engaged in social and civic projects.
“We cannot arrest and prosecute our way to safety in our communities,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said.
Llevat believes the task force is working. Witnesses have come forward, he said. In September, the task force arrested Everton Demetrius Ramsay, 19, while he sat in the passenger seat of a car in front of a home. Under the seat: A .38 special revolver they believe is linked to Maurice Harris’ death.
Ramsay was charged with carrying a concealed firearm and second-degree murder. A witness to the murder told police he overheard Ramsay asking Harris if they spent time together in jail, before Harris was killed.
And last week Miami-Dade detectives traveled to New York City to help U.S. marshals arrest 15-year-old Christopher Walker, charged in the October murder of South Dade High’s Noricia Talabert, a talented 17-year-old senior who had her sights set on attending the University of Central Florida. Christopher was charged with first-degree murder. Police said witnesses helped lead them to Christopher.
“By working together we work more quickly. It’s like a one-stop shop for street violence,” Llevat said.
Police believe the Northwestern killings are just a recent spike at a school that has seen its fair share of violence over the years. They blame small groups of kids, even cliques, that now resort to gunplay over differences as minor as perceived insults.
Despite the rash of shootings, leaders at Northwestern caution against linking the school to the violence that seems to be surrounding it.
“The students see Miami Northwestern as a safe haven for what’s going on in the community,” said Larry Howell, who teaches American government there.
Overall, crime statistics obtained from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner show the number of teens and children killed by gunfire in 2015 hasn’t changed much from previous years. This year, through the end of November, 30 children and teenagers have been shot dead. Last year, 38 children and teenagers were killed by bullets. In 2013, the number was 31.
But countywide, overall shootings of those 17 and under are up significantly, Miami-Dade Schools Police say. So far this year they say 60 children and teenagers have been shot, compared to 45 in 2014. The victims include two 1-year-olds, according to data collected by the school district.
“It’s not fair these kids are dying,” said Larry Williams, president of the Northwestern Alumni Association and a co-founder of Inner City Alumni for Responsible Education, or Icare. The group pushes for equal resources for inner-city schools and works to find employment opportunities for students.
“If one tourist is killed in Liberty City you’re going to see storm troopers jumping out,” Williams said.
Though the four deaths have focused community attention on Northwestern, the shootings extend far beyond school boundaries. The youngest killed this year was 10-year-old basketball-loving Marlon Eason, a student at Center of Life Academy Charter School near Allapattah who was shot in the head in front of his home in March by a stray bullet as he tried to retrieve his basketball. Police linked Marlon’s death to another killing that happened an hour earlier and about a mile away, that of Booker T. Washington High School student Richard Hallman, 16.
Shell casings found at both crime scenes matched. Police believe Richard’s friends, out for revenge, fired at a vehicle in front of Marlon’s home and that a bullet missed its mark, killing the youngster instead. Two teens were later arrested for Marlon’s death. Khalib Newkirk, 15, who goes by the street name “K-Hound,” was charged with second-degree murder. His friend Ernest Rowell, 18, who is also known as “Woo,” faces a first-degree murder charge.
The shootings have also taken a toll on students in the south end of Miami-Dade County. In November, gunfire took Noricia’s life, a straight A student at South Dade Senior High School with aspirations to attend the University of Central Florida and become a beautician.
Noricia had just finished dinner at Applebee’s in Homestead and was giving two friends a short ride home from a corner grocery when semi-automatic gunfire from an AK-47 ripped into her car, taking her life. Her friends were injured, but survived.
“It’s like a dream. I’m hoping I can close my eyes and my baby comes back,” said Noricia’s mom, Regina Talabert.
Family friend and pastor Christopher Coppolo said Noricia’s death tore into his soul.
“This whole thing has made me repent as a Christian and as a pastor,” Coppolo said. “People like me read about it and say, ‘Isn’t this a terrible thing in the black community.’ But then it happens to this young girl who’s been attending my church for years, then this is not a black problem. It’s a criminal problem. This is our problem.”
An avid user of social media, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has written multiple messages admonishing those who take young lives. At a recent rally to announce a partnership with the U.S. attorney’s office, he called it “the scourge of our time.”
“We know what must be done. We must remove guns from the streets of Miami. We must create employment opportunities for the older and the younger, kids and adults. We must increase programs before school and after school,” the superintendent said.
The calls to do little to salve Neikole Hunt’s wounds. It won’t bring back her son Randall. In mid-December, Hunt took part in a gathering of Mothers of Murdered Children, the group created by Sears, an anti-violence activist who lost her own son to gunfire earlier this year.
Sears formed the group about six months ago with the aim of helping mothers, who have long felt ignored, get a response from investigators and prosecutors. The mothers — some who said they haven’t heard from investigators in years — met with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and acting Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez just before Thanksgiving at North Dade’s New Birth Baptist Church.
“There’s a disconnect between parents and detectives,” Sears said.
In 2013, Mayzell Douglas’ son Johnny Douglas was shot in the head. He lived. Three weeks ago, Douglas’ 19-year-old daughter Alexus Victoria Douglas was leaving a friend’s home in Allapattah and was shot dead on the sidewalk out front. The shooter hasn’t been caught.
“It’s hard when a parent has to bury their own child. When you have to go to a funeral home and look at your child,” Douglas said. “Time heals all wounds. But this wound here, it will never close.”
Since the November meeting, several of the mothers said they’ve been contacted by law enforcement. Hunt, the mother of Northwestern student Randall, said she received a call recently.
“They really didn't have any information,’’ she said. “But it's so important to make it feel like someone cares.”
Rundle said so far this year there have been 252 contact shootings in just the Liberty City area, with arrests only in about 5 percent of the cases. She said some mothers feel ignored because police departments have cut back on victim advocates.
“I completely understand their sense of isolation,” she said, adding that many cases aren’t being solved because of the retirement of seasoned detectives.
The state attorney said to stop the shootings, police and prosecutors need to focus on a series of different tactics that include community policing, getting guns off the street and convincing scared witnesses to come forward.
Retired Miami-Dade firefighter William D.C. Clark, a 1974 Central High School graduate and another co-founder of Icare, believes the violence is a direct result of poverty and the stripping of extracurricular activities at public schools because of budget cuts.
Clark said it leaves kids — many who would be playing music, acting or taking part in any of the other arts — wandering about with little do once school is over.
“Poverty has taken its toll on our community. The violence in our community is a direct reaction to the lack of resources in the community. Resources have been taken away at every level,” he said. “To these young men out there doing all the killing, ‘we love you.’ We’re trying to give you a second chance. But you keep killing and you’re going to be on your own.”