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As murder trial begins, an aunt recalls the night a drive-by shooting killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton

“There’s a big emotional roller coaster right there. I forgive them … because I’m a Christian. My heart goes out to their families too, their mothers.” Shenita Williams, on how she’s not looking forward to reliving the night her niece, Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, was killed. The trial for three men accused in Paris’ death begins today.  At left, Williams is shown outside of her home Friday on Paris Avenue in St. Petersburg.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

“There’s a big emotional roller coaster right there. I forgive them … because I’m a Christian. My heart goes out to their families too, their mothers.” Shenita Williams, on how she’s not looking forward to reliving the night her niece, Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, was killed. The trial for three men accused in Paris’ death begins today. At left, Williams is shown outside of her home Friday on Paris Avenue in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — Shenita Williams always wanted to be surrounded by children. And early in the morning of April 5, 2009, she was.

Williams and her ex-husband had returned home from Red Lobster earlier in the evening, carrying a leftover box of shrimp trio. Now it was past midnight, and Williams, 42, was happily nestled in her Preston Avenue home, filled with nine people.

Her adult sons, Richard Junior and Keith Whitfield, were with her. So were two of her three granddaughters, ages 3 and 3 months. So was Richard's girlfriend and a male friend.

It was late, but almost everyone was awake — talking, playing video games, grabbing a snack.

Except one girl, Williams' 8-year-old niece, who slept in the front bedroom.

The girl named Paris.

• • •

The firestorm that erupted a few moments later still echoes in St. Petersburg.

A sleeping girl died. Neighbors rose in outrage. A city searched its soul about violence and why some people are unwilling to reach out to police. A wake and a march and a gun bounty program followed. The street was renamed Paris Avenue.

Now, 2½ years later, an important chapter remains. The trial of three men accused of Paris' murder begins today.

For Williams, the week will bring back a wave of emotion as she relives the night more than 50 bullets changed her life.

The entire city knows about this murder. But only she, and those who were with her, know what it was like to be inside the walls of that house when the windows started shattering.

• • •

Williams and her sister, Robin Whitehead, went to Osceola High in Seminole. Shenita was the quiet one; Robin was outgoing.

Williams didn't really like to go out, but Whitehead was always excited about the next weekend activity at Bartlett Park's community center in St. Petersburg. "Oh that girl loved to go to the teen dances," Williams recalled.

The girls shared a room growing up. They talked about having children someday and made a promise to each other: If anything ever happens to you, I'll raise your kids.

Whitehead dreamed of joining the military and eventually enlisted in the Air Force. She loved the new experiences, which included a tour in Europe. She visited France, and the capital city charmed her so much that she decided:

If I ever have a child, I'll name her Paris.

Williams stayed in St. Petersburg.

"My dream was working with kids,'' she said.

She had her two sons and started a day care in her house on Preston Avenue.

Whitehead, out of the Air Force, was temporarily living with Williams in 2001 when she had her daughter, Paris. But before Paris reached kindergarten, her mother died from a blood clot.

So Williams began raising Paris. Because of her new commitment, she closed her day care — although vestiges remained, such as the makeshift bulletin board that still waited for the latest "Parents News."

Williams mothered Paris closely. On the first day of kindergarten, she led Paris to the bus stop — but then followed in a car to make sure everything was all right. Paris noticed — and didn't like it.

"I'm a big girl!" she protested.

Paris loved coloring, reading, shrimp and fries, KitKat bars, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza. For her fifth birthday, she dressed as "Princess Paris" in a gown and crown and Cinderella shoes that Williams bought at Walmart.

She attended Imagine Charter School in St. Petersburg. In March and early April, she had read more than 1,000 pages of books during a book-a-thon.

It meant that soon she would get to have lunch with her principal.

• • •

After getting home from the Red Lobster that night, Williams had made up baby bottles for the 3-month-old, Richard's daughter.

Her ex-husband, Jeremia Joseph, was getting ready to leave, but Williams asked if he could stay a minute while she put one of the grandchildren to sleep. "So I laid across the bed and kind of dozed off," he said in an interview with lawyers for the court case.

Williams went to a back bedroom.

She had no idea what was brewing. A group of young men were fighting mad at some other young men who had threatened them, disrespected them, maybe even shot a gun in their direction, depending on who is telling the story.

One of the men they were mad at was Markeath Fielder, a longtime friend of Richard's and Keith's who had lived for years just around the corner. Fielder's nickname was "Monster," and he was on probation for burglary.

A warning had come to the house earlier in the evening.

Because of the simmering anger and a shooting at another house, Fielder called Richard and told him to move Paris to a different room, according to court records.

Williams said she never heard a warning and is skeptical one was ever given.

Early Sunday morning, Paris was sleeping in her room in the front of the house. Fielder had arrived and was starting to doze in the living room, where Richard's girlfriend, Daniedre Tigg, was reading a book.

• • •

About 2 a.m., Williams heard noises like firecrackers. Then, Tigg was screaming.

Everyone in the house, in a neighborhood where gunshots are not foreign, went on high alert.

In the front living room, Tigg and Fielder started crawling toward the bathroom. In a back bedroom, Richard scooped up his 3-month-old daughter and hit the floor. Williams' other son, Keith, also dropped to the floor.

The people inside did not see the shooters. But they heard the blasts from two AR-15 type assault rifles.

Bullets tore through windows and pierced walls, doors and mirrors. The whole house seemed to fill with smoke — possibly the sheer dust and debris kicked up by more than 50 rounds crashing into the home.

Williams thought: Where's my baby?

She rushed out of the back bedroom into a hallway.

Paris, she said, "was running to me. … She heard the noise and she jumped up. She was running to the back."

Horrified, she saw Paris collapse in the hallway. Blood pooled on the floor.

Neighbors began calling 911, and some came into the house.

"A little girl got shot, man, a baby got shot," one caller to 911 said.

"How old is this girl?" the 911 dispatcher asked.

"Eight years old."

Another neighbor, who came into the house and called 911, said "I don't know whether she's shot in the back or not, she's bleeding heavy. … The gunsmoke is still in here."

"It was a nightmare," Williams recalled recently. "Because you couldn't see anything, I only heard screaming. That night changed my life forever."

"I felt like I was in hell."

• • •

To this day, Williams can't remember what happened after she saw Paris collapse on the floor. But she can't forget the night either.

"I'm not as guilty as I was in the beginning," she said, struggling to explain her feelings.

She recalled her promise to her sister: If anything ever happens to you, I'll raise your kids. And now Paris was killed in her own home. Williams said she has got counseling and worked to understand it was not her fault.

She is not looking forward to reliving these feelings once the trial begins.

"There's a big emotional roller coaster right there." She said she believes the men who shot into her home deserve consequences, but she also said, "I forgive them … because I'm a Christian.

"My heart goes out to their families too, their mothers."

Williams, a Seventh-day Adventist, said to deal with her emotions, "I just pray." She often prays simply, Give me strength.

She has reopened her home day care and named it "Paris' Little Angels."

Williams said she still has not been ready to visit Paris' grave, next to Paris' mother at a cemetery in Tampa.

"I think," she said, "after the trial I can go."

Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

As murder trial begins, an aunt recalls the night a drive-by shooting killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton 11/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 18, 2011 5:26pm]

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