Police believe boy, 10, gunned down in Overtown, was not intended target

Elizabeth Ruffin (center in gray top), the mother of Marlon Eason, the 10-year-old boy who was shot to death in front of his home Tuesday night, was surrounded by friends and family Wednesday night.
Elizabeth Ruffin (center in gray top), the mother of Marlon Eason, the 10-year-old boy who was shot to death in front of his home Tuesday night, was surrounded by friends and family Wednesday night. The Miami Herald

Marlon Eason had just returned from a visit to Target with his family Tuesday night and was bouncing a basketball on the front walk outside his home when a bullet struck him in the head and killed him. Police don’t believe the 10-year-old charter school student and Pop Warner football champ was the intended target.

The early-evening shooting of the young child in a tree-lined section of Overtown and just down the street from Dunbar Elementary School angered neighbors who quickly gathered, and stunned the police. When the gunfire erupted people scattered in all directions from around the home at 1975 NW Fourth Ct. One girl fell and injured her leg, thinking she’d been shot.

Family members said the shooting happened while Marlon’s mother, sister and 3-year-old nephew were sitting outside on the front porch of the yellow two-story home with its small wrap-around railing. On Wednesday morning two empty pizza boxes sat on the porch next to a basketball net. Small candles were lit on the walk in front of the home next to a toppled small plant.

Marlon’s uncle said his nephew died on the small walkway in front of the home that leads to a pair of steps going up to the porch and the home’s front door.

“I was up in my room and heard five or six shots, then I heard my mom and aunt start screaming,” said Marlon’s uncle, Richard Ruffin. “I saw him lying on the floor outside. I tried talking to him but he was unresponsive.”

The family is planning a funeral for April 4, though where and when hasn’t been decided.

“My baby is going to be buried on Easter,” Elizabeth Ruffin said tearfully while surrounded by loved ones Wednesday everning on her front porch, where about 50 friends and family members had gathered after dark to offer their support and light candles.

Ruffin said her son was shot as he chased a basketball from the porch.

“They came to my house and killed my baby,” she said. Ruffin was led away from the vigil weeping. She could be heard sobbing inside the house.

“I want my baby!” she cried.

Marlon’s death marked a particularly bloody day in Miami that shattered several weeks of relative quiet.

Only 15 blocks away and less than two hours earlier in Allapattah, two 16-year-old teenage boys were hit by gunfire. One died, the other is expected to recover. Police said the dead teen is Richard Hallman, a football player and student at Booker T. Washington High School. His friend was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Richard was a cousin of University of Florida quarterback Treon Harris, who expressed his emotions on Twitter with these words: “Didn’t drop a tear in so long,” “Praying for my lil cousin man,” and “Never thought I could hurt this bad.”

The deaths of Marlon and Richard at nearly the same time caused a small commotion Tuesday night at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where both bodies were transported. At one point friends and family of Richard rushed the ambulance that was carrying Marlon, and police had to intervene to hold back the crowd.

Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers has offered a $3,000 reward for information leading to arrests in both deaths.

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said he has directed his staff to “do all that is necessary” to solve the crimes, but that police still need the help of anyone who has any information.

“There are people out there who know what happened at these two locations and we need that information,” Llanes said. “Children should be allowed to play and simply be children without fear of death or injury.”

The deaths galvanized community and religious leaders, who plan to meet with Llanes at Overtown’s St. Agnes Episcopal Church, 1750 NW Third Ave., at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and will walk door to door through the neighborhood seeking information on the shootings. Residents are invited to walk, too.

Wednesday, police were still trying to determine whether the shootings, which took place while most kids were out of school on spring break, were somehow related.

They originally worked under the theory that the two shootings were somehow connected because of their proximity and the time. Though they haven’t yet ruled that possibility out, it’s looking less likely, a source familiar with the investigation said. They also were looking into whether Marlon was the casualty of a stray bullet targeted at a car that had been driving up and down Northwest Fourth Court in front of the home.

“This is uncommon that in the time span of an hour and a half, we’ve had [three] individuals shot, and they are all juveniles, so this is of major concern to us,” Miami police Sgt. Freddie Cruz told Miami Herald news partner CBS 4.

In fact, nearly simultaneous inner-city shootings have become all too common in Miami.

In January three separate shootings, all within 14 hours and a mile of each other, left two men dead, another seriously injured, and a teenage girl and a woman with minor injuries. In one of the incidents someone drove up to two brothers outside their Liberty Square home and opened fire, killing one of them and injuring two women. As police were investigating that crime scene, they were forced to rush to another one when another man was chased, shot and killed in an alley less than a mile away. Police haven’t determined whether those shootings were related.

Ruffin described his nephew as a “very sweet, naive little boy” — a neighborhood kid who belonged to everyone. Active in sports, Marlon was a recent member of the Mighty Mites division champion Overtown Tornadoes of the Greater Miami South Florida Pop Warner football league. He also played basketball for the Miami Police Department’s Police Athletic League. He attended Center of Life Academy Charter School just three blocks from his home.

Facing the media early Wednesday, Ruffin, a second-grade English teacher at Jessie J. McCrary Elementary, urged the shooter to turn himself in. He said Marlon’s life was taken as he was bouncing a basketball in front of what should have been the safety net of his home.

“This was an innocent 10-year-old child,” he said. “In this neighborhood it’s [gunfire] always in the back of your head. You just pray it doesn’t happen.”

Ben Hanks, a former University of Florida football player who now manages Gibson Park and is the commissioner of Marlon’s football league, knows the family. He called Marlon quiet and respectful and said that as an only child he got all he could possibly need from his mother.

“There was no need for him to go into the streets and do something crazy,” said Hanks.

Marlon’s family was paid a visit Tuesday by longtime friend Sheila McNeil, an Overtown mother who lost her son Travis McNeil four years ago after he was ordered to stop driving by Miami police officer Reynaldo Goyos, who shot and killed McNeil as he sat unarmed in his car.

Sheila McNeil said she grew up with Marlon’s grandmother, Dorothy Ruffin, in the nearby Rainbow Village projects. On Tuesday, she offered comfort to Ruffin and Marlon’s mom, Elizabeth Ruffin. Soon, she said, she will offer perspective to the grieving mom.

“I really need to talk to her. I haven’t had a chance to hold her and really let her know I know how she feels,” McNeil said. “I can share. It’s like I lost my son all over again. All the emotions came back. I couldn’t stop crying.”

Marlon lived in the Villas of St. Agnes, one of the largest single-family home developments in Overtown. It’s a community of 80 three- and four-bedroom, pastel Bahamian-style houses with wraparound porches and patches of grass in the front yards. The development was built in 2006 with local tax dollars.

Tuesday’s shootings didn’t go unnoticed by Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools, who used social media to express his outrage — and link it to a legislative gun bill filed in Tallahassee.

“Innocence of our community is being stolen one murderous bullet at a time,” he posted on Twitter. “Four children shot within two hours during spring break #Miami.”

Moments later the superintendent added: “Ironic that as 4 children are shot in Miami's streets, in Tallahassee debate centers around introducing guns into schools to protect kids.”