jkovac@macon.comJanuary 19, 2014 

The idea was to take in a city’s grief.

But what I remember most are the screams.

The wails.

From mothers, sisters, daughters of the dead.

Their loved ones had died violent deaths. Here they’d come to say their goodbyes, but for some all that came out were cries, dreadful sounds for awful ends.

val="pfirstli"/>Some of the first, in the form of piercing yowls, came on a cold Saturday in early March, in the moments before Shirley “ShellAnn” Green’s funeral.

The line to get inside Bethel Church of God on Jeffersonville Road stretched out the door. There was nowhere left to sit, but mourners still came, single file, past Green’s casket to line walls and squeeze in where they could.

The aqua-colored sanctuary was packed. For half an hour, people stood singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Little Light of Mine” while the procession kept coming.

There were easily 200 people inside when a woman’s high-pitched sorrow split the air for 15 seconds.

Mourners’ rhythmic voices and spirited claps seemed to ease the shock of staggering loss for the moment.

Green, 62, had died eight days earlier, on Feb. 22. Police said she’d been knocked unconscious at her house on Tuxedo Road, punched in the head and kicked in the stomach by her 22-year-old granddaughter.

Now it was the afternoon of March 2. That morning, I’d driven to Cordele for the funeral of a man named Kenneth Cray.

Cray, 50, raised in Crisp County, was allegedly shot dead by a woman he was visiting on Cedar Street in Macon the same day Green died.

Green and Cray were the city’s first and second homicide victims of 2013.

There was a reason I went to their funerals.

I had been writing about murder and crime off and on since coming to The Telegraph in 1991. I have often reported on the aftermath of violence, its impact on families, but I’ve rarely gone to funerals.

Last January, though, I decided that attending services for the slain might render a different perspective on violent death and its wake.

Most times I showed up unannounced. I sat in back and kept to myself. No, I wasn’t invited, but these were funerals. Who is?

On occasion, funeral directors recognized me from previous services and nodded.

I did my best to blend in and almost never took notes. I recorded some eulogies on my cellphone. I jotted details later.

Much of what I experienced was impossible to forget.

Like the time a preacher repeatedly called the deceased by the wrong name. Eventually, mourners spoke up, correcting him with the right name.

“That what y’all want me to call him?” the preacher asked.

“That’s his name!” a woman replied.

Or the day a minister waved a slain man’s despondent brother to the altar and implored him to accept Jesus.

Or the summer afternoon a pastor spoke the words no family wants to hear: “The undertakers may come now.”

My recollections became this story, a scrapbook of a year in the life of a city’s deaths; glimpses of lives cut short.

* * *

For the better part of a century, Macon has found itself in the cross hairs of violent crime.

The homicide rate here led the nation in the mid-1930s.

“Lawlessness is deplored,” a front-page headline declared in 1925.

“Sweeping criminal and social reform is urged for Macon,” blared another from 1937.

Religious leaders called for a “war on crime.”

Thirty-five people were killed here in 1945.

The bullets kept flying and the bad-news headlines kept coming.

“Ex-wife flees as Maconite opens fire with pistol in crowded café,” read one from 1948.

“Shooting climaxes row in Broadway barber shop,” said another from 1949.

Throats were cut, people were bludgeoned, babies were killed, children were shot.

Another “war on crime” was launched in 1969.

Still, more killings.

In the early ‘90s, the murder tally topped 40, but in recent decades the rate has been in decline.

Last year in the city of Macon, 16 were slain, three of them children ages 3, 7 and 9, victims of negligence, police said, left alone in a house that caught fire and burned while their mother was out.

Three-year-old Jakerie Reid died May 23 after his mother allegedly beat him when, as a neighbor who heard the beating told police, the boy refused to get dressed.

Of the 16 homicide victims, 14 were deemed victims of alleged murders.

Ten of the victims were 19 or younger. Six were 13 or younger.

One of the two violent deaths that don’t appear to have resulted from criminal acts involved Marquez Blount, 13, shot in the head in October when he and another boy were handling a pistol. Blount died the next day.

The other, authorities said, was 19-year-old Darius Washington, gunned down by a man he and his brother were robbing at a motel.

A woman at Washington’s funeral mistook me for a cop and asked if I was there to arrest his brother.

“Please don’t. Not here,” the woman told me. “The mother can’t handle it.”

* * *

Kenneth Russell “K.C.” Cray had been in the Air Force. After that he drove trucks for 20 years and earned a business degree. Lately he’d been a driver for a medical company. He lived in Warner Robins.

Cray, who had two sons and two daughters, liked playing guitar, grilling out and talking on the phone. His obituary said he enjoyed washing his cars.

At his funeral, someone spoke of a red Volkswagen he’d owned, how Cray would give anyone a lift. A woman recalled him as “suave, debonair.” She said he almost always wore crisp shirts.

As I would notice at many of the services, there was no mention of Cray’s slaying.

Though one speaker during the “reflections” portion of the ceremony, a part where people are invited to stand and share memories (“Limit Two Minutes Each, Please,” the program noted), said, “We don’t judge.”

I was alone in the balcony of Cordele First United Methodist Church.

Outside, a snow-white hearse and six matching Cadillac limos were lined up to carry Cray’s casket, his kin and others to nearby Bethel Cemetery.

The Rev. Jeff Wilson mentioned the bitterness of grieving, how answers are hard to come by.

“I know we’re dressed up and looking good right now, but everybody in here got an issue,” he said.

Wilson mopped his brow with a towel.

“I don’t care how many times you come through those doors,” he went on, “you ain’t perfect, baby.”

Wilson preached of wickedness and said this was no time to blame God.

“I’m finished now,” he said, “but I want to say to the family today, keep your eyes on Jesus. You just buried your mother, now you’re burying a brother, uncle, husband. Keep your eyes on Jesus. ... Keep on trusting him.”

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” played.

Cray’s casket was draped in an American flag.

* * *

Two hours later at Shirley Green’s funeral in east Macon, an overflow crowd sang hymns as her casket was sealed.

But it was soon reopened for one mourner. An older woman, perhaps a sister. Her shrieks echoed despair and heartbreak.

Gospel music soared: “Oh when the saints ... go marchin’ innnn. ... Oh when the saints ... go marchin’ in.”

Green grew up in Jones County. She got her high school diploma when she was in her late 30s, in 1988. She had five children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

She’d worked, among other places, at a chemical-products company and a family-care agency. At church, she taught Sunday School and led the drama team.

Her eulogist’s only mention of the circumstances of Green’s death came in a quick reference to “what happened.”

But, then, why bring it up? Most everyone there no doubt knew that one of her granddaughters, 22, was in jail, charged with murder.

A minister recalled how Green liked to say, “Pray for the children.”

A church lady, Sister Virginia, recalled how Green and her husband, Alfred, would follow her home from nighttime services in their car. They’d make sure she made it in and, toot-toot, honk their horn before easing on.

* * *

The “home going service” for Chassity Lester was April 11.

The 26-year-old single mother from south Houston County had been beaten and stabbed at a house in south Macon nine days earlier, her body dumped on the north side of Warner Robins, police said. The father of her little girl, Ky’lah, 3, turned himself in and was charged with Lester’s murder.

The funeral drew a full house to New Hope Baptist Church in Perry. A horse-drawn carriage from Angel Heights Funeral Service delivered her casket. Lester’s mother slow-walked in, sobbing.

A woman near me in the back row of the convention-hall-size sanctuary cried. I thought about Lester’s alleged killer, in jail, and whether he had any idea of the pain his apparent rage had inflicted.

There were hundreds on hand to bid farewell to the young woman many had known as “Chat.”

Her obituary, in a glossy, color brochure handed out at the door, said Lester’s daughter often told her, “I love you so much.”

“You know what, baby?” Lester would reply. “Mommy loves you back twice as much.”

“I know, Mommy,” Ky’lah said.

Lester, who’d worked for the USDA, was about to begin truck-driving school.

A relative stood at the funeral and said, “When I saw her it was love. When I saw her it was joy. When I saw her it was energy. ... Every time she saw me at Wal-Mart, she’d say, ‘Hey, auntie!’ ... I’d say, ‘Come over here and give me a hug,’ and she’d kiss me on both sides.”

* * *

Brandon “Fat Man” Jordan’s funeral was a week later.

As best authorities can tell, he died defending his older brother, Ty’rell.

A decade earlier, Ty’rell was charged with murder and jailed. The case ended in a mistrial, but before that Jordan had met with the dead man’s brother.

Jordan asked that he tell his associates, who like Ty’rell were also locked up, not to seek revenge on Ty’rell in the county jail.

But instead of hearing Jordan out, the dead man’s brother reportedly shot Jordan in the leg and shoulder.

On the night of April 9, there was a skirmish on Adams Avenue, just east of Pio Nono Avenue.

Jordan’s relatives say Jordan, 29, and Ty’rell, 31, were there, and that Jordan had tried to be an intermediary and calm things down.

Bullets flew.

Ty’rell was grazed and Jordan, seriously wounded, died a few days later.

His funeral was in the Bentley & Sons chapel on Montpelier Avenue, across from the old Colonial bakery.

Jordan, who’d once worked at Automotive Bath House, had four children. His mother, Pam Jordan, has been a cook and a server at Jeneane’s Café for more than 20 years.

As friends and family wandered in, the Rev. Charles Jones said, “At times like these there is only one doctor, and that’s Dr. Jesus.”

Later, Jordan’s fiancée, LaShonda Williams, said he was kind and had “changed my whole life around.”

“I know it’s a lot of people here that he ain’t seen in a long time,” she said, “and y’all know what he’s saying right now: ‘What’s up, my boyyys?’

“He loved his children. Not one day went by he wasn’t with his children.”

Williams choked up.

“I’m stuck with a little girl right here that don’t know nobody but me and Fat Man. She hasn’t seen Fat Man in a couple of days. But we all right. God got us.”

She cried as she headed back to her pew.

“God wouldn’t give you tears if you didn’t need ’em,” the Rev. Jones said.

Then prophetess Jeanese Crowell was in the pulpit.

“God took Fat Man and he used him,” she said.

Crowell recalled that Jordan had been shot years earlier.

“But they couldn’t kill him. ... That means that life and death is not in the hands of man,” she said.

Before long she called on Ty’rell.

“I want Fat Man’s brother to stand up right now,” she said. “Would you come here?”

As he stood before her, Crowell said, “There is nothing that you could have done to stop this day. Nothing. Because guess what? We all have an appointed time. ... Don’t you understand? ... God always had a ram in the bush to stand in front of you.”

She gazed out over the congregation of mourners, over Ty’rell.

“I’m gonna try to watch this baby,” she said, “because God is gonna do a great work with him.”

Crowell asked Ty’rell to give himself to the Lord, to accept Christ: “Do you believe?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

* * *

John James Johnson III was shot while sitting in a car April 21, in a wee-hours-of-Sunday-morning confrontation on Forsyth Avenue. He died days later. He was 18.

Johnson, a father of two, had been arrested the previous fall, charged with loitering, theft and participating in gang activity. Two men said to be from a rival gang, the East Macon Family, were charged with his murder.

On April 27 at his funeral, there was a crowd at True Faith Church of God in Christ on Jeffersonville Road. A line of cars 25 long waited to pull into the parking lot.

Inside, a preacher said Johnson’s mother had requested “an upbeat service.”

A man who’d known Johnson held a microphone and recalled having, in spring 2011, arranged for Johnson to go away to school in Missouri, to live with a family in the city of Joplin. For whatever reason, Johnson didn’t go. That May a catastrophic twister struck Joplin, killing a son in the very house where Johnson was to stay.

Now Johnson was dead.

“If you live by fighting, you will die by fighting,” preacher Evans Brown said. “Put up your swords.”

Brown went on.

“God, you were there that Sunday morning. And the decision was made by you, not by the one that had the gun. You made the decision,” Brown said. “Father, who can understand? Who can know your mind? But I know one thing, God. ... You love us.”

Before funeral directors unveiled “our latest presentation,” a memorial blanket with a huge picture of Johnson stitched into it, a man from the funeral home spoke of the “cowardly act” that cost Johnson his life.

“This is time out!” the man said.

People clapped and he continued.

“Now, you people ... if there is a message that little John is sending, I don’t care how good you think you look, or what kind of clothes you got on, little John is saying, ‘It’s time out!’”

* * *

Harold Kelly Greene’s funeral was a couple of hours later, a short drive east at Swift Creek United Methodist Church.

The small sanctuary at Shady Rest Road and U.S. 80. was plenty large enough for the 50 or so who came.

Greene, 57, was beaten and kicked unconscious by a Lizella man April 4, police said. Greene, who lived at the Dempsey Apartments on Cherry Street, was found lying along nearby Poplar Street. He died a couple of weeks later.

Over the years, Greene had worked construction, framing houses.

Someone at the funeral said it seemed Greene was always “trying to find his way. He had problems, just like we all do. But he was a good friend of mine.”

A friend said, “I knew him since he was born” and joked how “the boy never wore clothes till he went to school. He was in his diapers, and when he got out of diapers he was just in his drawers.”

A friend said, “He didn’t know when to stop talking sometimes.”

That drew a few laughs.

“Somebody here knows him,” the friend went on. “I’d tell him, ‘You got to shut up.’ And I reckon that’s all I got to say about that.”

Recorded hymns played, “Peace in the Valley” among them, but no one much sang.

A week later, one of Greene’s sisters sent me an email. She’d heard I was at the funeral and wanted to know if I knew anything about his death. I didn’t, just that there’d been an arrest. She said she looked forward to reading my story.

“My main description of this,” she wrote, “is just ‘senseless!’”

* * *

Gunfire outside downtown’s Zodiac Lounge on July 5 wounded three and left 17-year-old Jamonni Bland dead.

Bland’s slaying was one of 2013’s most widely covered local homicides.

In the end, nine people were arrested.

Bland’s funeral would have been my seventh, but I was out of town.

Instead, I went to a memorial march for him on the evening of July 11. It was drizzling rain. Mourners huddled in a covered parking area beneath the motel next door to where Bland was fatally shot.

Maybe 100 people came, many teens or younger. A little boy in a “Star Wars” T-shirt clutched a ribbon tied to a blue balloon.

Bland’s mother told news crews that he’d liked music, basketball, that he was a regular kid.

Two cops in a squad car were stationed across the street on the other side of Broadway.

The Rev. Roland Stroud from Bentley & Sons Funeral Home decried the evils of violence.

Dressed in a black suit, he held forth for half an hour.

“If you wanna get in a gang,” Stroud said, “I got a good gang for you. It’s called J-E-S-U-S.”

He led a prayer: “Put down the guns and pick up the Bible.”

Stroud, 65, grew up in the heart of Unionville and saw “a lot of my homeboys get knocked out.”

“But when everything starts going down,” he said, “you realize they don’t have your back. ... You’re too smart, you’re too beautiful, you’re too wise to fall into that trap. Stay in the books. Educate yourself. ... A little child can pick up a gun and kill. That don’t make you a man.”

He reminded those listening that he worked at a funeral home, that he and his co-workers were “the ones who see you first” when death comes calling.

Bland’s mother, Jackie Sanders, said, “Jamonni still lives in all y’all. Go on and do what he can’t. Pursue your dreams.”

* * *

I could not have felt like more of an interloper than I did at Steven Johnson’s Aug. 10 funeral.

Damascus CME Church in Lizella was jammed when two women, close family members no doubt, trudged in crying.

“No, no, no, God!” one moaned.

For more than 10 minutes, their wails and sobs washed over the room.

Piano music didn’t soothe the sound of their ache.

“God shall wipe away all the tears from the eyes,” a preacher said. “And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying.”

I bowed my head, shut my eyes.

Johnson, 35, a father of nine, had been shot four times and killed Aug. 4 in a domestic dispute at a funeral wake on Frederica Place in southwest Macon.

His obit said he graduated from Crawford County High School and “worked many jobs helping people. ... He gained many friends along the way.”

“Oh, God,” another pastor said, “we need not tell you why we assemble. You already know.”

* * *

Darius Antwan “Dee” Washington was shot and killed Sept. 30 by a man he and his brother held up at the Scottish Inn on the city’s west side, authorities said.

Ten days later at the 19-year-old’s funeral, his mother’s cries were heartbreaking. She appeared to faint twice and had to be carried out of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

When friends and family talked about Washington, a church member, an older man, said, “Maybe the Lord will shine on us and stop this from happening in our family. A lot of people don’t realize God work in mysterious ways.”

A woman who works at the church spoke next and remembered recently going through some church photographs. There was a picture of Washington being saved at the altar.

“The one thing he did that God gets the glory for is that he did accept Jesus Christ,” the woman said.

In eulogizing Washington, pastor Leon Ward spoke of “Dee’s demise” and said, “We need to have a wake-up call.”

* * *

The lights were low inside World of Faith Ministry on Hartley Bridge Road.

Sixteen-year-old Alyssa Jackson, shot in the back, the unintended target of an apparent drive-by shooting on Unionville’s Cedar Avenue Nov. 21, was about to be remembered as a bright, feisty soul.

It was Nov. 30, a Saturday, and the church was full. It would be the last of the funerals for the city’s slain of 2013.

Among the more than 400 mourners, a high school girl near me sat crying. A friend hugged her and rubbed her back, but the tears flowed.

Young dancers performed and then a woman got up and said it was time to stop the killing, “this ugly stuff.”

“I’m tired of ‘rest in peace,’” she said. “I want to live in peace.”

Jackson’s father, Sebastian, went to the pulpit and delivered a speech not many grieving parents could. He said he had been at a loss for words.

“My baby,” he said, “her name was written in gold. ... Unreplaceable. ... Oh, God. ... I love my baby. ... I feel terrible. ... I cannot fathom how my baby’s mother feels after carrying her all that time.”

He said Alyssa’s mom “ate 17 pizzas a day” when she was pregnant, but said he’d been the one who’d had indigestion.

He described Alyssa and her sisters, Kiani and Myah, as his three “rascals.”

In my notepad I scribbled one word about him: incredible.

The father’s talk was the most heartfelt remembrance I’d heard all year.

Now he was done.

“When I leave here, I’m not gonna cry,” he said. “Enough of the sadness. I know you’re gonna miss my baby. How couldn’t you?”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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