Miami-Dade County

Families of murder victims hold New Year’s vigil to remember loved ones

Rahkeen Brown, shown in the photograph on the candle, died in October 2015. His sister, Rontisha Brown, honors her brother at a candlelight vigil in Liberty City on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.
Rahkeen Brown, shown in the photograph on the candle, died in October 2015. His sister, Rontisha Brown, honors her brother at a candlelight vigil in Liberty City on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. For the Miami Herald

For the families of murder victims gathered at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday evening, New Year’s Day represented the passing of yet another year without their loved ones.

“It’s not a ceremonial day the way it is for most people,” said Tangela Sears, who founded a group called Florida Parents of Murdered Children after losing her son to gunfire. “It is very difficult every year that we close without our kids.”

Carrying signs and pictures of children slain by gun violence, the mourners came together to remember their loved ones and — in some cases — to call for the killers to be prosecuted.

“It has been 12 years and no justice,” said Tracy Brown, a mourner whose 23-year-old son, Luis Leon Jr., was shot in 2007 during a robbery. Brown said she was initially told that her son was killed while robbing someone else. Then, she was told that someone was robbing him. She still doesn’t know exactly what happened.

“It’s not getting any easier,” she said. “It’s getting worse every year.”

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Omorose Butler holds a picture of her son Mendell Butler-Lebel, who was an innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting on July 2, 2018. Butler-Lebel was 17 when he died. Maria Alejandra Cardona For the Miami Herald

Tawana Akins, whose 6-year-old nephew King Carter was shot in 2016, said that her family has lost five members to gun violence over the past two decades.

“Holidays are very stressful at this point and due to the gun violence it really divides the family unit,” she said.

Akins said that the killers have been brought to justice in three of the cases and that the alleged killer in one case recently went to trial. The family is still waiting for justice in a fifth killing, which happened last year. But Akins said that she believes the responsibility to solve murders doesn’t just fall on the police.

“There are things residents should be doing,” she said. “They need to speak up and say something.”

After praying at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, the families marched to a nearby park, where the victims’ mothers lit candles for their slain children.

Miami-Dade County has been plagued by gun violence impacting children and teenagers. In some cases, police have made arrests quickly. But in others, families wait years or never see the killers brought to justice.

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Mourners at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church remember loved ones lost to gun violence in Miami-Dade County. Maria Alejandra Cardona For the Miami Herald

Parents of Murdered Children has called on police and politicians to do more to make the community safer and solve the killings. The group holds weekly meetings to help grieving parents and to advocate for an end to gun violence. Tuesday night’s ceremony was the third annual event the group has organized on New Year’s Day.

Last month, Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez defended the work of local law enforcement. He said that police had made arrests in 75 percent of the 76 murders committed in the county in 2018 as of early December.

“You can’t convince a parent who has lost a child to gunfire that everything is being done until there is an arrest,” he said.

Between 2005 and 2016, more than 370 children and young people under the age of 20 were killed by gun violence in Miami-Dade County.

The deaths only tell part of the story, however. More than 500 teenagers and children survived crime-related shootings between 2005 and 2015, according to hospital data compiled by the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County and the Miami-Dade County Injury Surveillance System.

For Ora Austin, one of the mourners at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, this New Year’s Day was her first without her 29-year-old son, Thaddeus Biglow, who she said was killed last February while being robbed on his way to the store.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “I try to stay busy. Not that I’m forgetting about him or even want to forget about him. It helps me not to focus on the loss.”

Although the case is still open, Austin said that she’s “very optimistic” that the police will find her son’s killer. “I don’t blame him. I don’t hate him,” she said. “I just believe he has to take responsibility for his action.”

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