Issues & Ideas

July 12, 2008

Overtown grandmother haunted by loved one's violent death

When she hears gunshots, Eleanor Wilson gets on the phone. She calls each one of her family members. She doesn't stop until everyone responds.

When she hears gunshots, Eleanor Wilson gets on the phone.

She calls each one of her family members. She doesn't stop until everyone responds.

''Whoever I know is out, I call to make sure they're OK,'' she said.

Wilson, 54, heard gunshots on July 16, 2007, when Gerald ''Junky Jit'' Johnson was gunned down a few blocks from her apartment in broad daylight -- but she thought it was fireworks left over from the Fourth of July.

So she didn't call Johnson, the boy she'd taken in more than a decade ago, the boy she had raised as her own. The boy who -- despite her efforts to put him on the right road -- turned to drug-dealing.

And now he's gone.

Before his death, Wilson was resolute about staying in her hometown neighborhood, Overtown. A second-generation resident, she watched her children play, attend school and go to church. She suffered a heart attack, which forced her to quit work, and lived on disability income that rarely stretched through a month. But it was OK because they had each other.

Now she wants to leave. But bad credit and few housing options leave her with no choices, she said.

''You're stuck in the middle,'' she said. ``I know with God all things are possible. You accept things and do a whole lot of praying.''

The neighborhood is far different from when Wilson grew up, and even from when she raised her three children.

Johnson came to live with her as a teenager. He was the best friend of her son, Jermaine. The two were born nine days apart.

Wilson demanded good behavior. Everyone had to be at church, no exceptions, no excuses. As the boys grew older, she warned them to stay away from drugs.

''Just because this is Overtown and they say this is the ghetto, you don't have to live like that,'' she said.

Junky and Jermaine didn't listen. Sometimes Wilson left church early to search for them. She pulled them from the drug holes and ordered them home. She threw away crack cocaine she found in the house.

''I tried to save them, but that wasn't in my power,'' she said.

Jermaine died in a 2001 car accident. It was devastating, but Wilson says God showed him ''grace and mercy'' -- he didn't die in gunfire.

Junky became a dealer.

His girlfriend, Ashley Walden, didn't approve of his choice, but she says she understood it. It's hard for a black man with a record -- he had been convicted of cocaine possession in 2004 -- to get a steady job, she said.

He was 29 when he was shot -- multiple times, in the head and upper torso, as he was placing a call on a pay phone in front of an Overtown convenience store.

After a search spanning several months, Miami-Dade police arrested and charged Ricky Ryland, 26, with first-degree murder in the slaying.

Afterward, Walden left Overtown for a quiet neighborhood north of Liberty City. She took two of their three children with her.

The eldest, Gerald Jr., 7, stayed with Wilson.

A year after his death, T-shirts, fliers and posters memorializing Johnson and others who have died in gun violence still hang on fences, lampposts and on power lines as a type of tribute.

Wilson's mood remains dimmed. She allows Gerald Jr. to play outdoors, as long as he stays within sight. That's it.

Not too long ago, Gerald Jr. told his mother he believes he ''will be killed just like his father.'' She doesn't know why he would say that.

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