It's past noon and Sandra Lester is still in her pajamas, a hot pink robe wound around her boundless curves, her eyes glassy from a year of sleeplessness.
The crock-pot fills her dimly lit apartment with the smell of turkey as Lauryn Hill croons from a boombox. Nothing really matters at all, Sandra sings along.
The 31-year-old mother of four clutches a portrait of her daughters, rubbing her finger over the smiling face in the center. "2007 was a horrible, horrible year," she says.
Before Sandra can talk about the worst night of her life, she needs to hold back her tears with good memories. When her daughter Shawrica was a child, she couldn't dance. Instead, she would wiggle around like a trout flopping on a bank. "We called her Tuna," Lester says. "My dad named her that."
Though she raised Shawrica in some of Akron's toughest neighborhoods, where drug dealers rule the playgrounds and prostitutes dot the streets, her daughter never strayed. "I ran a dictatorship," says Mom.
Even at 18, Shawrica wasn't into boys. She was a good student and had a job at McDonald's in Merriman Valley. She was a churchgoing girl, thanks to her grandfather, a minister at Akron Bible Church. And though Shawrica was a beanstalk, her dream was to open a clothing store for plus-size women after graduating from Akron Digital Academy. "She knew how hard it was for me to find clothes," Sandra says. "And she just wanted a place where big women could go to feel good. That's how she was, always thinking of other people."
Sandra shakes her head before lighting a cigarette. "But now I'm left here to see how people don't care."
She was introduced to this notion on January 26, 2007. Sandra had just gotten out of night classes at the University of Akron, where she was studying sociology. Too tired to make dinner, she decided to pick up food at The Wing House. As she stood in line, her cell phone rang.
"Tuna's been ran over," said the caller before they were cut off.
Then came another call: "Tuna's been shot!" the caller screamed. "You gotta get to the hospital!"
Doctors delivered the horrible news as soon as she walked into the emergency room: Shawrica had been shot twice outside The Cage, a dance club for teens on Akron's east side. She was dead.
"I just fell to the floor," Sandra says. "I didn't even ask who did it. I didn't care. I just lost it. I was like a zombie."
A week later, more than 1,000 people attended Shawrica's funeral at Macedonia Baptist Church, three blocks from where she was killed. Many of them had never met Shawrica, only hearing of the tragedy through the news.
Young men sported fresh "R.I.P Shawrica" tattoos, while others wore T-shirts emblazoned with her image. They laid teddy bears and flowers at her coffin, offering Sandra their grief and condolences. "Tuna's death really opened a door for people," she says. "People realized we need to change. People went to counseling. They were getting tattoos. There were all these angry young men I had to speak to."
But that's when the sympathy ended.
More than 200 people were there the night Shawrica was murdered. Police are certain they know who did it. But thanks to threats from the gang responsible, nearly every witness has refused to testify.
It's called the no-snitching rule. And in the Manchester-Thornton neighborhood of Akron, it is the highest rule of law.
Sandra had never heard of The Cage before that night she crumpled in the hospital hallway. Neither had Akron police.
The club, housed on East Market Street, opened just three weeks earlier, thanks to James "Cage" Smith, who hoped to cash in on the city's lack of underage venues by offering a place for kids to mingle and dance, a place where they could feel like grown-ups.
Smith charged $10 a head and pulled in over 300 people on Friday nights, drawing bored teens from as far away as Bath. A sign on the now-shuttered door still reads, "If you leave The Cage, you must pay to re-enter."
Since he didn't serve alcohol, Smith didn't need any special permits or licenses. Nor was he required to hire security or even notify the city of the club's existence. It was, in effect, the ideal hangout for teenage gangbangers.
"There is no place where kids 14 or 15 can get in," says Akron Police Sergeant Mike Zimmerman, who runs the department's Gang Unit. "So places like this draw huge numbers, and it's the perfect gangster hangout, where they can mix in, meet up, and build a rep."
Sixteen-year-old Tyree Feaster was at The Cage with his crew that night. A high-school dropout who goes by the name Baby Chewz, Feaster had followed his brother Garrick's footsteps into the V-Not gang, which laid claim to Manchester-Thornton.
Thirty years before, the neighborhood had been home to a sturdy population of rubber workers. But over subsequent years, its once tidy homes were rendered a ghetto ruled by slumlords, who'll rent to anyone who can make the monthly payment.
For over a decade, V-Not — "Valley Niggas on Top" — had slung dope on its corners, taken over vacant homes as hangouts, and handed down beatings to those who spoke against them. To make sure residents remained in line, they'd make frequent visits to bus stops, intimidating the elderly into coughing up a "hood tax."
Like most gangs in the Rust Belt's smaller cities, Akron's aren't the kind of highly organized consortiums that have dominant leaders and complex drug networks. Instead, they're little more than loose-knit crews of knuckleheads — high-school dropouts beating defenseless drunks on their way home from the bar.
Still, their bullets hurt just as much as those in Philly or D.C. "A lot of people here think, 'This is Akron — we don't have a gang problem here,'" Zimmerman says. "Oh yes, we do. I deal with it."
Since 1999, when Ohio passed its anti-gang law, Akron has knocked out over 100 convictions for gang activity. Members are usually picked up for trafficking, break-ins, and assault, and V-Not dominates that list.
As 200 kids danced to Yung Joc and Juelz Santana at The Cage that night, Feaster and his crew surveyed the room for rivals — namely the Hilltoppers, who claim the string of barbershops, liquor stores, and barbecue joints along Copley Road as their home.
For months, the two groups had been feuding. They'd meet at parties and high-school basketball games to throw up gang signs, fight, and occasionally start shooting.
"They usually just shoot each other in the legs," Zimmerman says. "We don't know why they have a beef. They just do. It's a territory thing, most likely."
That night at The Cage, each gang made it clear through pubescent bravado that if the other didn't step off, there would be trouble. And there was.
As people began to throw punches, the room turned into chaos. The owners intervened and kicked everyone out.
Kids flooded into the parking lot. More fights erupted. As the Hilltoppers whaled on V-Not, Feaster and his guys knew it was time to make one thing clear — no one fucks with the Valley.
A V-Not associate would later testify that Feaster and at least two other V-Nots ran to the dumpster, where they'd hidden their guns. Shots rang out. Kids ran for cover.
After firing at least 15 rounds into the crowd, according to court records, Feaster and his guys ran across the street to the Board of Education parking lot. Among them was Earl Davis, a lanky 15-year-old, who seemed to equate blasting away at an innocent crowd with manhood. "You can't say I don't bust," Davis said before slipping his gun into his pants, according to court records.
As sirens wailed in the background, Davis' uncle Timmy arrived. He drove the boys back to Manchester Road, where they crashed at a V-Not hangout, playing video games before falling asleep.
Days later, Feaster got word that Shawrica Lester was dead. Two recklessly fired bullets had lodged in her back as she ran to her car. She died before she reached the hospital.
The news must have stung. Feaster knew Shawrica. The Lesters lived in the heart of V-Not territory. The two kids attended Buchtel High School together. The following week, he attended her funeral with other V-Not members.
Meanwhile, police collected bullet fragments from three different guns. They also tracked down dozens of kids who were in the crowd that night. "We jumped on this in the first 48 hours," says Detective Darrell Parnell. "At first, people were very emotional, and we got a flood of information."
Several witnesses saw Feaster firing into the crowd.
On the morning of February 11, police caught Feaster on Manchester Road after a brief foot chase. He was charged with murder, aggravated rioting, felonious assault, and participating in gang activity.
The following day, he appeared before Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio to deny all charges. "The Lester family has our deepest sympathies," said his lawyer, Jane DeLoach. "He's just sick to his stomach. He can't eat. He can't sleep. This whole thing has torn him up."
But his regret was short-lived. As prosecutors began to build their case, V-Not worked just as hard to dismantle it. Police still didn't have the murder weapons, the gang knew, so a case could be made only with solid witnesses.
Members began hanging "Stop Snitching" T-shirts on street signs. They jumped on MySpace, sending out messages that anyone caught helping the police would be killed. They even knocked on Sandra Lester's door, requesting a donation for Feaster's defense fund.
One by one, witnesses fell silent. "A lot of people probably thought, 'Well, if they killed Tuna, why couldn't they come after me?'" says Sandra Lester.
Detective Parnell expected such obstacles. During his decade in homicide, he's seen the power of Akron's no-snitching law.
Just two days after Shawrica was murdered, the body of 48-year-old Smitty Prince was found in an alley. He'd been shot at a party in front of "numerous people," who believed he was a police informant, according to court records. Twenty-four-year-old Jeremiah Rowe was charged with the murder. But when the case went to court, the key witness against him refused to testify. The murder charge was dropped, and Rowe was sentenced to five years for illegal possession of a weapon.
In November, Rexford Oliver was shot outside the B&J Lounge, the site of three homicides in the past two years. After receiving a tip, police picked up 21-year-old Brandon Travis. But witnesses have been reluctant to come forward.
"People will initially talk," Parnell says, "until they realize that those involved are close to family members. Akron is a small place . . . This is not a random thing. It happens often. The no-snitching rule is taught every day, even by parents. They fear for their children's safety. They'll tell them not to say anything, knowing that these gangs will jump on sons, cousins, brothers."
In 2005, Christopher Harris, a 23-year-old college student, was killed in a shopping-center parking lot after getting caught in crossfire caused by a beef over a woman. Witnesses refused to come forward after being threatened by friends of his killer, 19-year-old Anthony Norman.
"His people were walking around in 'Free Norman' T-shirts," says Lieutenant David Whiddon. "We were only able to prosecute that case because we found video footage of the incident."
Unfortunately, there was no tape of Shawrica Lester's murder. Though Feaster acknowledged firing a weapon that night, the gun he turned over to police naturally didn't match the bullets found in Shawrica's body.
By March, V-Not's drumbeat of threats forced police to move Sandra Lester to a new residence. But the offensive had been successful. Of the dozens of initial witnesses, only two were now willing to testify. Judge Teodosio restricted access to Feaster's hearings. She also refused to reveal the witnesses' names to Feaster's lawyer.
"This was definitely the worst case of witness intimidation I've ever seen," Parnell says.
But when Feaster finally appeared in court on April 18, the witnesses were absent. Scared for their lives, both skipped town. V-Not had gotten to them. "These gangs have a very good network of communication," Parnell says.
Prosecutors were forced to offer Feaster a plea. In exchange for testimony against other V-Not suspects, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Judge Teodosio suspended a 13-year adult sentence. Instead, Feaster would serve only four years in juvenile detention, unless he committed another felony during incarceration.
When the verdict was announced, Sandra Lester fled the courtroom in tears.
By May, Summit County had charged five more V-Not members with Shawrica's death, including 15-year-old Earl Davis, 16-year-old Lloyd Burnside, and 17-year-old Ricardo Travis. Eyewitnesses identified the three as shooters outside The Cage that night.
It was devastating news for Sandra. After all, her children had grown up with the boys.
Sandra's oldest daughter, Kenya, was once such good friends with Travis that she referred to him as her cousin. He was a quiet kid, obsessed with basketball and football. After Kenya changed schools, she didn't see Travis for several years. Then one day she ran into him in the street. She hardly recognized him, his lanky frame enveloped in designer XXL clothing. "He was completely changed," Kenya says. "His attitude, his style. He'd just started running with the wrong kids. The streets got him."
The same went for Burnside. Sandra had lived close to his mother, Jennifer. He'd always been a focused and obedient child. When Sandra heard he was hanging around the V-Nots, she was shocked. "It just wasn't him," she says. "He was a star athlete. He had promise."
But the most painful part was the arrest of Earl Davis. Sandra had grown up with his father, Earl Sr. They'd known each other since fourth grade, and she'd become close friends with his wife, Misty Rogers. When the family discovered that Davis was hanging out with V-Not members, they tried to send him to relatives out of state. But it was no use.
"Earl's dad went to prison for drugs," Sandra says. "But he really is a good man. And I believe that if he was around, [Earl Jr.] wouldn't have gotten so deep into all this."
Davis' and Burnside's mothers were equally shocked by their sons' arrests and immediately came to their defense. "My son was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Jennifer Burnside. She claimed that Akron's perception of gangs was wrong, that "V-Not" and "Hilltopper" simply referred to one's neighborhood, not a criminal group.
Misty Rogers was more disingenuous, quickly falling into the default position of racism, claiming that police were willing to charge any black kid from the wrong neighborhood.
"She was talking all about how the system was Willie Lynch," Sandra says. "You want to talk about Willie Lynch? This has nothing to do with no racism. This is black-on-black crime, woman."
Sandra, like every mother in Manchester-Thornton, knew that the gangs were the real deal. And she understood the code they lived by. "My mom always says no snitching is for drugs," says Kenya Lester. "But for killing, there's no snitching. That's helping."
While prosecutors prepared for Davis, Burnside, and Travis' hearing, they encountered more roadblocks. Fearing a repeat of the Feaster trial, they asked Judge Teodosio to restrict the courtroom to family, clergy, and the media. But this time she said no. "There was no evidence that any threats were made to any witnesses," she wrote in her decision.
On June 29, the court swelled with V-Not members. "It was like a jungle in that courtroom," Sandra says. "They ran it, threatening people with gang signs. It was crazy. I'd never seen anything like it."
Only two witnesses willingly answered prosecutors' questions: Burnside and a cab driver who picked up some teens from The Cage after the shooting. "[Jennifer], she told her son to tell them everything," Sandra says. "And he did, because he listens to his mother."
Burnside said he was standing in the chaos of The Cage's parking lot when he saw two friends in a fight. He ran to help. That's when gunfire erupted. He looked over to see Feaster with his 9mm in the air.
Burnside and his friends ran for the Board of Education parking lot, just across the street. There, he saw four guys, including Davis, tuck their guns into their waistbands. "You can't say I don't bust," he heard Davis say. Then he saw them drive off. Still, Burnside never actually saw Davis fire his gun.
Among the less cooperative witnesses were two of Shawrica's friends. Both were there the night of the shooting. Both told the court they were testifying against their will.
Then came Feaster. Despite his cooperation agreement, he refused to answer questions. Three times he was asked to identify V-Not members. He simply rolled his eyes skyward, twisting in his seat with indifference.
The judge found him in contempt.
"He came in all cocky, saying he plead the fifth," Lester says. "And that was after he cried [during his sentencing], said he was sorry Shawrica died."
The following week, nine more witnesses took the stand, including Travis' girlfriend. Though she'd initially told police that she saw Travis shoot into the air, she now claimed he didn't have a gun that night. When asked why she changed her testimony, she asserted that police threatened to take away her baby when she was initially questioned.
It wasn't until the leaves turned red and gold that Teodosio finally made her decision. Burnside pleaded guilty to fighting and was placed on probation in exchange for his cooperation. Police weren't able to link him to V-Not.
Dominique Adams and DeMarco Deck, two other V-Nots who witnessed the shooting, pleaded guilty to being involved in gang activity and were also slapped with a year of probation. All three boys agreed to testify against remaining suspects.
Since Travis was now 18, Teodosio transferred his case to adult court. Davis, still 16, would remain in the juvenile system.
On October 22, Travis' trial got underway. But with no murder weapon and other witnesses refusing to talk or changing their stories, the case rested solely on Feaster.
He again refused to testify, his reluctance allowing Travis to walk. Judge Brenda Burnham Unruh found Feaster in contempt. He was sentenced to 16 years in adult prison for violating his plea agreement.
"Tyree [Feaster] didn't know any better," Sandra Lester says. "That's what the streets taught him. He did apologize to me. He said he was scared. But what's he scared of? He'd be better off talking than facing big Bruno in jail. A lot in jail are mad about Tuna."
Finally, it was Davis' turn to face the court. Burnside testified that he'd seen Davis with a gun, but never saw him fire. Without other witnesses, that wasn't good enough for the court.
On November 14, Judge Teodosio found Davis not guilty of all charges except aggravated rioting.
Lester was outraged. She's convinced Davis killed Shawrica. That's the word in Manchester-Thornton. "We know what's what on the street," she says. "I think Davis has no conscience. I think his mother threw the gun away. My friend. Ha. I told him he was going to hell in gasoline drawers."
As Davis celebrated with his family, the case seemed all but closed. All suspects, except for Feaster, were back on the street. The chance for new indictments appeared slim. "All you doing is sending a message to these kids that they can do whatever they want," Lester says. "These kids, they don't look at death like we used to. To them, Shawrica is just a number. Just part of the game. They may be kids, but they aren't normal kids."
On an unusually warm December day, Ozzy Wimberely, a dapper man in shiny loafers, cuts hair at Ray & Jim's Barber Shop on Copley Road, just around the corner from where Shawrica and Feaster attended high school.
Though Hilltopper territory, the street appears to be anything but a war zone. Kids ride bikes on the sidewalk, middle-aged men on cell phones hug carryout orders, and grandmas lug bags from the pharmacy.
If there is a fear of gangs at Ray & Jim's, it's a silent one. When asked about how they perceive snitching, one man zips his mouth shut. The rest stare into magazines or down at their trousers. Here, the rule is to simply mind your own business. "When it gets dark, we're all going in," Wimberely says with a laugh. "It doesn't really affect us. I haven't seen any of it."
As 16-year-old Jared Brown gets his hair cut, he shrugs off the thought of gang retaliation. "People might get scared," he says. "You know, getting shot or jumped. But it's not really all that. We just try and stay away from that stuff."
When Shawrica Lester is mentioned, a few men shake their heads. "One thing I read was that some of these witnesses, these kids threatened their families," says Rodney Decatur. "It's a security issue more than anything else. I'm not saying that I wouldn't snitch, but it would be something I'd have to think about."
Lester understands — to a point. "People justify it any way they can," Lester says. "They tell themselves that Tuna is dead, can't nothing bring her back, or that it's part of the game. I get it. But I'm asking those parents to put themselves in my shoes. It's all about not telling until it happens to you. Now, I'm telling. We got to get this badness out of here."
Since Shawrica's murder, Lester rarely leaves the house. She has a job waiting, but she isn't ready to return. She and daughter Kenya both dropped out of college. Lester is on medication, barely able to get a decent night's rest.
"I dream of her every night," she says. "God is my therapy. I know he has plans. And if you don't believe in God, then there's something called karma. And I believe those boys are gonna get what's coming to them. I'm mad at them, but I love them. I have to. That's what God wants."
As for the V-Nots, life goes on as usual. In September, DeMarco Deck was picked up for carrying a concealed weapon. He told Judge Unruh that he was carrying the gun because of death threats he'd received after testifying against Davis and Travis. He was given two more years of probation.
Even though Feaster has been locked up since his arrest, jail hasn't seemed to keep him out of trouble. He's been in two fistfights since his incarceration. Though he continues his high-school education in jail, he's failing all his classes. He has yet to be transferred to adult prison. Instead, he waits in Summit County Jail as his lawyer appeals his 16-year sentence. And it looks like the very threats that saved Davis from prison are now keeping him from returning to high school. Thanks to fear of retaliation, Superintendent Sylvester Small says that Davis will be placed in an alternative school. "We have a lot of concerned parents," Small says. "For his safety and the safety of other students, we'll wait for this thing to cool off before we integrate him back into the system."
Shawrica's case now sits on top of a big pile of unsolved homicides. Parnell is still investigating, but without cooperative witnesses, he knows it'll be tough.
"It's well known that if you talk, there are serious repercussions," the detective admits. "And not just from gangs, but anyone. These kids — if the police aren't in their neighborhoods, they don't fear them. And they definitely don't fear you. They only have fear if the police are right there with you. Now, you tell me — how are we gonna make that happen?"
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