South Florida

One year later, the pain of a son lost to gun violence remains raw

Every night before Santonio Carter goes to sleep, he looks at photos of his son in his football uniform, watches videos of him dancing with joyful energy and tries to remember all the fun he had with his boy, down to the late-night IHOP runs and races home from school.

When he closes his eyes he hopes to see King, who was killed by a stray bullet while playing outside his Northwest Miami-Dade apartment on a weekend afternoon a year ago Monday.

It never happens.

“I hear his voice but he won’t come to me in a dream,” said Carter, who has thrown himself into a campaign against the gun violence that took his only son at the age of 6. “He comes to everybody else. Just come to me man, please. He won’t come.”

The Feb. 20 death of King — who dreamed of playing pro football and becoming an FBI agent — sparked community marches and pledges from political and civic groups to stem gun violence that has killed or wounded hundreds of kids and teens over the past decade. All the words, including his own to assorted community groups, haven’t eased the raw pain he still shares with King’s mother, Monica. On Monday, they plan to commemorate his death by leading a walk from a gas station in Liberty City, decorated with a mural of King, to Charles Hadley Park.

READ MORE: A year after young King’s death, toll from gun violence continues

Some days, Carter, 30, doesn’t want to get out of bed. His son was the “ boss,” and his day revolved around picking King up from school, taking him to the park and just being a “dad.”

Now, he tries to fill that missing hole in life by reaching out to others. When he’s not working — he runs a company that prints T-shirts and other material and is a popular South Florida rap artist — he volunteers to help children like his son. He goes to schools and churches, donates school uniforms and gives out food and school supplies with money from his own pocket. It’s part of Save Our Kings, an anti-violence campaign the couple developed to channel their grief into something good.

And there is always time set aside to visit King. At his graveside, he carries on a conversation with his son.

“I can hear him saying, ‘Dad, are you going to cry?’ ” he said. “It’s surreal sometimes.”

He would give anything, he says, to go back to the day before King was killed and change fate.

“No medicine or money can heal the dead,” he said, shaking his head. “If I woke up every morning to a trillion dollars and a million dollars worth of medicine, the pain will still be there, the frustration will be there and the hurt.”

Grave site a ‘new home’

Monica Carter also spends so much time — several days a week — at King’s grave that she calls it her “new home.”

“It’s the only place I can see him,” she said. “This is where I be. Sitting here crying. I wish I could just give him a hug and hold him so tight.”

In the year since she lost her son, she says she has found strength she didn’t know she had. “People tell me all the time they don’t know how I do it. But I need to be strong for everyone else.”

For the first three weeks, all she did was cry. Then she realized she had to try to pull herself together. But she still finds herself asking why. Besides King, she has two teens and Santonio Carter has a teenage daughter from a previous relationship. She worked hard, made sure her kids were fed and always told them to strive for better.

The night before the shooting, she made King, a first-grader at Van E. Blanton Elementary, pepper steak, white rice, string beans and dinner rolls. The next morning, before she went to work, she whispered to him, “I love you.’’

Everyday words. The last they would share.

“We did everything right,” she said. “We took care of our kids. He had everything he wanted.”

The day life changed

The day King was shot, Santonio Carter was inside their apartment in Blue Lake Village — known as Colors — at Northwest 103rd Lane and 12th Avenue, printing a shirt for a client.

King asked him for money to buy something from “the candy lady” in the complex — King loved Extreme Airheads and hot chips. Carter handed over three dollar bills and King took off. Minutes later, Carter heard shots, leapt up and sprinted down the stairs, screaming King’s name.

“I found him on the side of the apartment with the $3 in his hand,” he said. “His red Pumas in the air, the Polo shirt with the white shorts he had on and his eyes open. I would pay someone if they could fade that image.”

King lay bleeding near the complex clubhouse, a single bullet wound in his chest. Carter had experienced the horror before. In 2003, he found his own little brother, Javon, then 14, also with a bullet in the chest. His brother held a joystick he was taking to a friend’s house for a sleepover he would never make.

King, who was given the middle name Javon in honor of a lost brother, is now buried next to his namesake.

“You would think I’d be crazy by now,” Carter said.

Monica Carter, meanwhile, was working as a cashier at Joe’s Stone Crab, the famed Miami Beach restaurant. She was in the middle of a tourist-season lunch-hour rush when her now husband called. King had been shot. She had no idea what awaited her as she rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital. She prayed her son was just grazed by the bullet.

“When I walked in he was cold,” she said. “I kissed him on the forehead and closed his eyes.”

She and Carter dropped to their knees and prayed.

Trying to find a focus

In the first days after, Santonio Carter questioned everything he had done that day. If only he hadn’t been working on his T-shirt business. If only he had kept King home. If only he had done something different to change the million-to-one odds his boy would wind up in the path of a random bullet.

“This act of violence didn’t come at my house,” he said. “I am in the house doing a job for some T-shirts and three dudes out there fighting about a girl over a social media site and struck my son. I don’t know them. They didn’t know King.”

Police, after making arrests within days, said King had been caught by crossfire when three teens opened fire at a rival. Their feud started on Facebook, police said. The three — Tamar Teems, 16, Irwen Pressley, 17, and Leonard Adams, 18 — await trial, charged with second-degree murder.

The parents willfully chose to focus on their child, not the accused killers.

“Even if they give them dudes 100 years or they give them the electric chair, that don’t bring justice to our family,” Santonio Carter said. “My son still gonna be gone whatever the punishment these dudes get.”

After their son’s death, the couple forced themselves to go to rallies, marches and memorials. Carter said he has prayed that the politicians, preachers and law enforcement officials meant what they were saying about working in and with the community.

“They just good with the mouth,” he said. “They’ve got a gift of gab. Just to tell you something in front of the camera, then when they get out from in front of the camera, they don’t care.”

Burying their boy

Planning a funeral for a child is the nightmare of any parent. But the couple tried to create a memorial that their son would have smiled about, something that his friends and young football teammates would remember more than the casket, grief and grave.

“We know they were hurting,” he said.

So King’s cousins dressed as the Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon characters he loved and his teammates wore their yellow-and-black Warriors football jerseys. Flowers were arranged in the shape of footballs and a goal post stood near his tiny white casket at Opa-locka’s New Birth Baptist Church.

Grappling with loss, he also decided to follow through on something he had talked to King a lot about when he was alive — proposing to Monica. Wearing a white suit, he got down on one knee at King’s funeral and proposed to Monica, whom he had known since grade school.

“He always asked me when I was going to do it,” Carter said. “I know he was smiling.”

A bittersweet move

After the funeral, King’s newly married parents struggled to find a new normal. Everything reminded them of King.

“I don’t even like to be outside between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. because that’s the time kids get out of school and be walking home with their uniforms on,” Santonio Carter said.

They decided they could not stay where King had died. They moved to a gated community in Miramar.

Packing up her little boy’s clothes and toys was one of the hardest things Monica Carter said she ever had to do. All their son’s belongings went into storage bins, where everything that was part of him now sits stacked in the garage of their new home. There are still plenty of reminders on display, from King’s football trophies on a mantel to his photo painted on blinds in the kitchen.

They say it makes them happy to live in a place where they can watch children play outside without worry but the move has been bittersweet. They know their old neighborhood still has children who can get shot just by being in the wrong place.

“I like that kids can play with no fear, but I know it’s not like that everywhere,” he said.

For the Carters, grief resurfaces with every new victim. When Monica Carter heard about Jada Page, an 8-year-old killed on the porch of a Northwest Miami-Dade home in a drive-by, “You couldn’t pick me up from the floor. Another baby gone, for what?”

Both say the community needs to step up, take some blame and change.

“It’s a cycle,” she said. “Parents need to be parents. If kids don’t feel accepted and loved in their own house, they are gonna turn to the streets for love.”

Monica Carter also offered advice for other parents: “Don’t take your kids for granted.”

Santonio Carter stresses that “the code of the streets” needs to be broken when it comes to the kids. People need to step up and tell police if they know something and “leave retaliation to God.” That’s how King’s case was broken so quickly. Carter himself encouraged one of the eyewitnesses in the case to talk to detectives.

“They can call me the first snitch,” he said. “If they want to put a snitch in the book, put my face next to it. You have to stand for something or you will fall for anything.”

Fresh flowers for King

The Carters find some solace at the grave site.

His mother makes sure there are fresh flowers on his grave marker almost every day. And his favorite toys stand sentry — including those powerful, protective Ninja Turtles who, like King did, love pizza. Photos of the smiling boy are etched into the grave marker.

While Santonio Carter said he can barely sleep at night at home, at King’s grave site at the Caballero-Rivero North Dade cemetery near Opa-locka, he says he often drifts off. Being close to him brings him peace.

“Before I even know it, I am waking up four hours later at the graveyard.”

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