For the past year, a family wracked by gun violence has been trying to escape a South Miami-Dade public housing project that has left them scarred. Finally, their cries for help may be answered, but at a cost too difficult to fathom — the death of a 2-year-old child.
When little Carnell Williams-Thomas was shot and killed while playing with his new scooter in front of his Arthur Mays Villas home last week, it was the third time a family member or close family friend had been shot or shot at in almost the exact same spot during the past 19 months.
Terrified, Carnell’s mother Dorothy Williams, said she had repeatedly contacted public housing advocates about relocating. The Williams family said they first were offered a second-floor apartment that they had to turn down because it was too difficult to navigate for Carnell’s older sister, who was in a wheelchair after being shot.
After that, nothing had been available.
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“We put in for an emergency transfer,” said Carnell’s grandmother Barbara Williams. “Didn’t happen. Nothing available.”
Now, with Carnell’s death, the family says they’ve been told that in a few weeks they can finally leave behind the home they’ve lived in for the past 16 years for a new, hopefully safer, place.
“You can’t even stand outside your house anymore,” said Carnell’s mother, Dorothy Williams.
Carnell, who would have been 3 in May, was shot and killed just after sunset on Dec. 15 while playing with friends and riding on his new toy scooter in a courtyard in front of his home at 21491 SW 114th Ct.
According to police, who said they have received some tips but have few answers, a stray bullet struck the child in the courtyard of the Goulds complex. His mother, nearby, rushed to her son’s side and began giving him CPR. It was too late.
The shooting has rocked a community that all-too-frequently is accustomed to gunfire. Impromptu shrines of teddy bears and plaques and put together by Carnell’s friends have popped up since his death. Police have gone door-to-door imploring residents to pass on information and handing out fliers with Carnell’s picture.
In it, the toddler is wearing a red and white sweatsuit with a red floppy hat. It’s Halloween. Surrounding him are bats and pumpkins. The child is grinning from ear to ear. A reward for the arrest and conviction of Carnell’s shooter has increased to $37,000.
His death was the latest at the Arthur Mays housing community, built in 1976 and named after a prominent black South Miami-Dade landowner who donated land for a school. The townhouse-style community — commonly called “Chocolate City” — is run by Miami-Dade’s Public Housing and Community Development, which administers federal funds for nearly 10,000 units.
The county has long struggled with security at the complex — security cameras are routinely inoperative or destroyed by drug dealers. The county is also being sued over the lack of security by the relatives of a man who was shot and killed there three years ago.
On Wednesday night, more than 100 people turned out for a vigil in front of Carnell’s home. Children held candles. Pastors led prayers. Long-time elected leaders demanded residents speak up.
And Carnell’s mother, Dorothy Williams, seated in the front row and being held tight by her mother, became overcome with grief and was escorted from the tender scene. Later, inside a clubhouse, Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss allowed people to share their feelings.
Some asked for more resources like money and affordable housing. Others argued that solving the child’s death had nothing to do with propping up the community — it simply came down to sharing what residents know with the police. The police suggested they were far from solving the crime.
On Thursday, the family spoke publicly for the first time, demanding residents speak up and the shooter come forward, and offering a glimpse into the tragedies that have pushed them to the point of wanting to leave the community.
“It’s been heartbreaking. It’s been hard, like a missing piece. That’s my little brother,” said Lashelle Williams, Carnell’s 29-year-old sister who was shot a year ago in almost the same spot where her brother lost his life.
It was a little after 8 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2016, when Lashelle Williams and two friends were standing in front of her home and someone from a parking lot across the courtyard opened fire. Williams, who was shot twice and left in critical condition, recovered, but spent months in a wheelchair. Witnesses told police they saw a white SUV leaving the parking lot. The shooter has never been captured.
Six months earlier, Shaithada Ladson, a friend who lives with the Williams family and whom the family considers a sister to Lashelle Williams and Carnell, was shot at almost the same spot.
According to police and Ladson — who was with the family when they spoke Thursday morning at police headquarters in Doral — a man named Jermaine Lee began arguing with Ladson, then pulled a gun. She ran. He chased her and fired several times. The bullets missed. He was captured and is now on trial for attempted murder.
As for Carnell’s killer, lead Miami-Dade Detective Michael Parmenter said that his office has received a few credible tips.
“The truth will be known at some point. The obvious thing is that Carnell wasn’t the target. There are people providing information at this point,” said the detective. Then speaking directly to the shooter, Parmenter said, “You’re better off coming to us, then us finding you.”