WARNER ROBINS -- Shaland McConnell was supposed to return home to Modesto, Calif., on Friday. Instead, his family of friends was raising money to return his body to the West Coast.
He belongs here with us, said fiancee Dana Haskill, her sobs cutting through the phone. We cant just leave him over there.
Haskill and friends described McConnell as a spiritual, optimistic man despite a string of family deaths. All were surprised to hear he was one of the victims in a Houston County double homicide Aug. 19 and have organized fundraisers online and in the community. Haskill said McConnell was 32 when he died.
I didnt even know he was going to Georgia, said Sophia Garcia, a friend of McConnell. I want him to call me, so I can yell at him.
Police have not released any details about how McConnell and his friend Ruben Miranda, 32, wound up dead in a wooded area six miles away from the 100 block of Chadwick Road, where deputies discovered evidence of gunshots early Monday.
McConnell was outgoing, but he avoided dangerous or dramatic encounters, Garcia and Haskill said.
Haskill said he opted to watch her children on New Years Eve instead of going out because thats just how he was.
I know that when they went to that house, those people were no threat with him, Haskill said.
McConnell also refused to enter the Facebook world. Yet its been one of the main information sources his friends have used in his absence.
I can hear him every time I post a picture of him ... telling me, What are you doing? You know I dont like that Facebook, Garcia said. But he knows its because I miss him. Its for a good cause.
Haskill has used social media to circulate a memorial fund she set up this week on youcaring.com. She had no idea it would take off the way it has.
By Friday afternoon, the website had taken in $3,405 of the $10,000 goal she set to help bring McConnells body back to California. It had been shared 270 times on Facebook and tweeted eight.
Supporters have shared condolences, memories and gratitude for knowing McConnell.
I am devastated that I cant grow old with you and enjoy life with you any longer, wrote Carlos Bega, a self-described best friend who donated $1,000 to the fund along with his family.
Friends in San Jose, Calif., held a pizza fundraiser Thursday and a car wash Friday. Garcia said theyll continue to hold events until the goal is reached.
High school friends Garcia and Jenika Parashis said its a testament to how many people McConnell touched.
Once you were a part of his life, he always kept up with you, Parashis said. He always made you feel special.
But McConnells friends always felt he was the one they should look after since no family could do the job.
McConnell grew up in San Jose. His biological father left when he was a baby. His stepfather died while McConnell was in high school. In 2001, his mother died after a long bout with cancer. In 2010, his brother -- who never quite recovered from his mothers death -- died.
He was all alone, Parashis said. But thats not how he acted. You wouldnt know. He always had a smile.
McConnell was an artist in many ways, the women described. He wrote poems, was a popular break dancer and drew all the time. His tattoos, used to identify his body, were his own design.
Garcia recalled a spontaneous dance the 6-foot teen stopped her small car to do one day after school. Parashis, whose 4-week-old newborn McConnell was looking forward to meeting, recalled McConnells pride in winning a pageant when he was a baby.
He was always so proud of that, she said. He was always bragging about it.
Four years ago, McConnell and Haskill met. They moved to Modesto and began healing each other, she said. Haskill, 40, had been divorced and was going through the motions.
He would say, What are you doing? Whats the purpose of being here if youre not going to live life? Haskill said.
So, she did. The couple entered some ventures together, including promoting a health and wellness program, Body by Vi. They made a life for themselves, and two years ago, they committed to marry.
Still, McConnell hadnt found his purpose. After a family trip to visit Haskills daughter in Hawaii, he returned to the island alone to find his purpose.
He felt like he was spared for a reason, she said.
When McConnell returned, he traveled to Georgia and New Orleans with friends, including Miranda. They stopped off in California one more time and then returned to Georgia, so McConnell could help Miranda prepare to move back to San Jose. Authorities said McConnell and Mirandas last known residence was in Jonesboro.
Though they talked every morning, Haskill said she is holding on to a conversation from last week.
After all the soul searching, McConnell talked about realizing paradise wasnt a sunset in Hawaii or a scenic ocean view.
It doesnt matter where you are, ... if youre not with the people you love, youre not in paradise, Haskill recalled McConnell saying. I cant wait to come home to paradise.
Authorities have charged three men -- Thomas Andrew Kelley, 19, of Byron; Coleman Lawrence Crouch, 21, of Warner Robins; and Justice Bernard Evans, 20, of Macon -- with murder in McConnell and Mirandas deaths.
Amy Patricia Walker, 19, along with Crouch and Evans, was charged with tampering with evidence and concealing the death of a person.
Friends are waiting to hear why it happened and making plans for McConnells return.
Haskill said a wake for friends to say their goodbyes will be held, then hell be cremated and his ashes will be spread over the ocean in Santa Cruz County, Calif., like his mother and brother.
Though McConnell didnt make it back to the paradise he described, Garcia said she hopes he has gone to another.
Hes in a better place, she said. Hes with his family.
To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.