Edison - Liberty City

Decade after girl’s crossfire death, Miami, family — and gunman — reflect

As 18-year-old Catherine Jenkins playfully banters with her mom Sherrone on a warm Tuesday afternoon in their northwest Miami home, it’s like a vision of what could have been. She wants to know when dinner is coming, but Sherrone Lisa Jenkins is not cooking until later, so she tells her to grab some ice cream. Catherine is enjoying her last few weeks at home. She has just graduated from Miami Country Day School and is headed to college in the fall.

But her late sister, who was just a year older, never had this day. Sherdavia Jenkins would have been 19 this year, but her life was cut short by a bullet as she, Catherine, and their brother Daryel played outside on a sunny July day in 2006. A gunfight between two men shattered the afternoon with a spray of bullets. The children scattered but Sherdavia was shot in the neck, dying just inside her family’s apartment.

“I was basically her bodyguard,” Catherine says of Sherdavia’s short life. The younger sister would defend the timid, older one when she got picked on in school. But an 8-year-old bodyguard had no chance against a rash of bullets.

This Friday is the 10th anniversary of Sherdavia’s death, a loss that horrified the community and solidified her name as a rallying cry against the gun violence that has plagued Miami for decades.

The court cases for the two shooters, Damon Darling and Leroy Larose, also garnered attention near and far. The fatal bullet came from Darling’s AK-47, as confirmed by the medical examiner and ballistic experts. In his defense, he attempted to use Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, arguing that although he fired first, he did so only because Larose first aimed his .44 Magnum at him. The judge did not accept this argument. The jury ended up convicting him of manslaughter and related assault charges — less than a murder conviction, but enough to land him in prison for 50 years.

Larose, by contrast, pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree murder and testified against Darling in exchange for a seven-year sentence. He maintains to this day he was acting in self-defense and pulled his gun only after Darling started shooting, something the state attorney’s office also concluded.

“There were strike marks on trees, strike marks on facades of different apartments,” then-police spokesman Delrish Moss told the Associated Press, describing the chaotic aftermath. “It looks like over two dozen rounds were flying everywhere.”

Forever 9 years old

Now Sherrone, 47, must hold onto a version of her daughter frozen in time, forever stuck at nine years of age while the rest of her children grow into young adults. She has a large portrait of Sherdavia at 5 that she keeps in her house, and some of Sherdavia’s drawings of her favorite cartoon characters that are impressive for such a young artist.

“She was quiet, shy — she didn’t speak up,” she says when asked to describe her late child. “She scared easily.”

For those reasons, it was a rare occurrence that the little girl was even outside playing with her siblings on July 1, 2006.

Sherrone has tried to put the painful past behind her by not talking about it too much.

“I keep busy,” she says. “I'm a quiet person.” She says she has always kept to herself, but in the aftermath of her daughter’s loss, she is especially withdrawn.

However, when asked if she has any words for Darling and Larose, she is not at a loss for words.

“How could you?” she exclaims. “It was the middle of the day. What if that was your baby?”

Catherine, sitting on the couch next to her mother, says she also needed help from friends to keep from withdrawing into herself after the trauma of watching her sister die.

“I stayed to myself,” she says of the immediate aftermath. “I'm afraid something will happen to [people I meet] and I won't be able to be friends with them.”

She’s found healing in a supportive group of peers at school and in applying herself to her studies. Unlike most rising college freshmen, she knows what she wants to major in when she arrives on campus this fall: criminology, crime scene investigation, and creative writing.

“I just want justice for everyone,” she says. And for her, writing has provided an outlet. She can create whatever plotline she wants for her characters — although, she notes matter-of-factly, “not everything is a fairy tale ending.”

A gun ‘just in case’

Meanwhile, Leroy Larose is now back home following his release from prison in 2012. In a conversation with the Miami Herald (with his lawyer Yehuda Bruck on the line), Larose expresses a mix of sorrow and an insistence that his actions that day were in self-defense.

“That day was the worst day of my life,” he says. “I hate that they lost a child. If I could have took that bullet for her, I would without hesitating.”

He says he has not apologized to the Jenkins family in person only because he is at a loss for words.

“What can I say?” he asks rhetorically.

He maintains that despite some previous media reports, he did not know Damon Darling prior to that fateful day and that he was only in the area to purchase marijuana. He is adamant that despite taking the plea deal, he was only defending himself against an unexpected ambush. And he stresses a few times that the fatal bullet did not come from his gun, although at other times he acknowledges his participation: “Just by me being there, [someone] got hurt.”

So why carry a gun?

“To protect myself,” he says, adding that he had been grazed by a bullet a few weeks earlier by someone he says he also did not know. He went to the hospital for it but says the detective never arrived. He and his lawyer think both incidents were cases of mistaken identity.

As for the origins of the gun itself, Larose says he purchased it not long before the day of Sherdavia’s death with cash from someone he did not know personally in Liberty City.

He says staying away from that neighborhood despite feeling on edge about his own safety was not an option – although he no longer lived there, he had grown up there and that was his world. And so he walked around armed “just in case.”

“Nine times out of 10, a person is going to be a product of their environment,” he says. “It’s something you grow up seeing.” He says that he, too, has known people murdered by guns — it is common.

He was released in 2012 on probation, which has since been downgraded to administrative probation, meaning he cannot risk any kind of legal trouble. He says that now he tries to center his life on his own two children, his family, and his job. He does glazing work (putting windows on skyscrapers) full time.

He says these changes are inspired by his own thoughts about mortality. “I could have lost my life so easily that day,” he says, referring to bullets that grazed his forehead and arm.

He regularly posts on Facebook to a group called “Embracing Fatherhood,” with memes extolling the importance of a father being present in his child's life. But on his personal account, he also posts many images that seem to glorify street violence.

“Welcome to Dade County, Home of the Chopper,” reads one meme, using a common term for an assault weapon. When asked about these posts, he says he is simply reflecting what he sees around him.

“It's a fact. Most of the murders you see in Miami, what [kind of weapon] do you see?” he says.

While that may not be statistically true, for Sherdavia it was indeed this type of weapon that ended her life.

Sherdavia’s father, David Jenkins, is open about his struggles to piece together his life. (David and Sherrone divorced several months before Sherdavia’s death and conducted the interviews with the Herald separately.)

“I take it one day at a time,” he says. “I'm manic-depressive and I have PTSD [as a result]. I find it hard to concentrate a lot of the time. I used to blame myself, thinking I should have stayed home from work that day. But I’ve learned to cope with the fact that things happen for a reason.”

But still, human memory can be stubborn and cruel.

“When my phone rings, I’m thinking it’s [Sherrone] calling me to tell me something has happened to my daughter, because that’s how I found out,” he says. And when he goes Christmas shopping, he finds himself slipping back into old habits, buying matching presents for Catherine and Sherdavia like the old days.

He taps into a few forms of support — regular visits to a psychologist and a psychiatrist, medication, and the counsel of his pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church. He needs the help to steer away from drinking, something he admits he struggled with before Sherdavia’s death but that ballooned in the wake of tragedy.

Like Sherrone, he says he has not received an apology from either man.

“I think that's a good thing though,” he says. “I’d hate to lose my cool. ... I'm trying hard to forgive.”

He also launches without provocation into a note on gun control.

“[The shooter] can't even hit his target, the weapon is so powerful. ...Gun control should be in place. It’s easier for young people to get guns and drugs than an education.”

‘Defending himself’

Jonathan Meltz, defense attorney for Darling during the trial, stands by his client’s claims of self defense against an aggressive Larose, despite the failure of his attempted “stand your ground” defense.

“Nobody — prosecutor, defense — thought Damon tried to shoot Sherdavia or knew she was there,” he says. He calls her death one of the many “senseless deaths of these children caught in crossfire.”

When asked about what some might view as his client’s recklessness in having an assault weapon in a residential neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon, Meltz pushes back.

“That is not how the law looks at it,” he says, noting such weapons are legal to own. “People carry guns all the time. We don’t know the details of what [Darling] was going to do [before the shooting]. ... Larose had his gun and confronted Mr. Darling. He was defending himself.”

He points to Larose’s guilty plea to support his claim. Darling appealed his conviction in 2012 and lost.

Meltz says the issue of whether Darling purchased his gun legally, or the trace of its ownership, never came up during the court case or in conversations with his client.

Moving forward

A decade later, Sherrone Jenkins’ four remaining children have found a way to create a new future for themselves. In spite of the trauma of losing their sister, they have all matured into promise.

The oldest, Sheronda, recently graduated from Barry University and will be pursuing her master’s. Daryel, 24, is stationed in Japan with the Marines. Catherine, 18, just graduated from Miami Country Day School and will be going to college in the fall. David, 14, is in eighth grade at Young Men’s Preparatory Academy.

Sherdavia’s parents, meanwhile, have become more involved in anti-violence efforts. On Tuesday, Sherrone went to a meeting at State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office with about 40 other mothers who have lost children to guns. She speaks excitedly of meeting heavyweights of modern black activism, including Trayvon Martin’s mother. She says it is the first time she’s become involved in such a group.

And this Friday, a park named after Sherdavia will host an event to remember not only her, but the other young people killed by guns. An average of 30 children and teens in Miami-Dade are added to the list each year.

Remembering the many

Sherdavia Jenkins — and all children lost to gun violence in South Florida — will be remembered at a ceremony at 2 p.m. Friday. The event is at Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (Northwest 62nd Street) and 12th Avenue.