DADE CITY — Harleme Larry was surrounded by tragedy at age 3.
His mother, a prostitute addicted to crack, had been murdered by his stepfather. His biological father was in prison.
So the young boy known as Harley and his brothers moved in with their grandmother, joining a generation of kids who lost their parents to drugs or prison or simple neglect and ended up with their grandparents.
Grandmama, as they called her, had a steady job and a stable home. But the second round of motherhood was a hardship on an aging woman who had raised four children, and when the boys were entering adolescence, her health started failing.
Harley began getting in trouble — being disruptive in school, striking a teacher. Twice the courts sent him to diversion programs. When he came home, his family thought he was better in some ways, worse in others.
Then one night in July, deputies say, he killed a man.
Harley was all of 14, a decade removed from the first murder that shaped the direction of his young life.
Now he awaits trial on the second.
• • •
Theresa Vargas was found bludgeoned to death in an abandoned house on July 6, 1999. She and her husband, both addicted to crack cocaine, had fought over money and drugs. Their marriage had a long history of abuse, and that night Jeremy Vargas ended it, using a heavy metal audiotape player. She left behind her sons Tony Smith, Michael Larry and Harley, who had the same birthday as his mom.
Jeremy Vargas was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2002.
The father of the two younger boys, Michael Larry Sr., had been in and out of prison throughout their lives. The year of the murder trial, he went back on a 15-year sentence for robbery and uttering a forged instrument.
Lessie Bradberry — Grandmama — provided a counterweight to all that. She made a good wage driving a forklift for a Dade City canning company. She did shift work, sometimes overnight, often seven days a week. Her sister-in-law kept the boys after school when they were young.
Harley, she says, grew up angry that his mom wasn't around. And despite having little memory of her, he would say year after year how he missed her. Bradberry described him as quiet and polite, a child who always held open doors for his grandmother and most any older person.
In their hectic house, Bradberry cooked dinners and took the kids to her church and sat in the stands at football games, even though she didn't understand the rules or know the positions her grandsons played.
"When you done raised a set of kids and then you have to raise some more, that's very hard. I don't wish that on nobody," she said recently at her home on Oakview Circle.
"It wasn't them. It was not being used to having kids around."
• • •
Across the United States, nearly 3 million children are being raised by a grandparent, according to the Pew Research Center. In Florida, more than 250,000 children live with a grandparent, the AARP says. Many are poor. Most are women.
Carole Cox is a Fordham University professor who studies grandparents who are raising grandchildren and is the author of the book To Grandmother's House We Go and Stay: Perspectives on Custodial Grandparents.
She said most kids living with their grandparents landed there because of some trauma or tragedy — thus adding to the grandparents' daunting task.
"The kids have already come from a very troubled family, so they have more needs than the usual child. And there's grandma trying to do it all," Cox said.
The impact is felt not just by the children.
"It totally changes the grandparents' life. They can't see their friends so much. They can't go out on the weekend. They have to start supervising homework. One thing you always hear from grandparents: They never expected to be doing this. They never expected to be raising children again," Cox said, echoing Bradberry's own words.
Antonio Murray was 16 when, authorities said, he and a friend broke into a Lacoochee convenience store in 2008 and took jewelry, electronics, clothing and the store owner's semiautomatic handgun. Two Pasco deputies arrived at the store after the alarm went off. The two panicked teens fired at the window, searching for a way out, but struck one deputy in the chest. He was unhurt.
Murray, too, had been raised by his grandmother, along with his six siblings. She spoke at his sentencing earlier this year, after he pleaded no contest to attempted felony murder and armed burglary.
"He could do better than what he did," Frankie Berrian told the judge. "I'm sorry for the incident that happened to the police, and I'm glad he's well and fine. Basically I would like for him … to continue to help me with his sisters and brothers."
Murray was sentenced in May to 25 years in prison.
Two years ago, Bradberry suffered a series of strokes that left her unable to use her left side. Michael and Harley were just becoming teenagers.
Bradberry, now 57, couldn't be the force of discipline she once was.
"I think they felt like I couldn't chastise them like I used to — whoop their tail," she said. "I mostly could just talk, and talking don't do much."
But Michael, who is now almost 17, said he and his younger brother knew they needed to step up and would take turns helping their grandmother.
"He'd say 'I'll do today, you do tomorrow,'" Michael said.
Even so, it was another trauma.
"You've got two boys going through all of adolescence, dependent upon a grandmother who now has serious heath problems," Cox said. "So even that sense of security is sort of compromised."
• • •
Battery. Burglary. Petit theft. Criminal mischief. Loitering.
The requirements imposed on Harley by the courts as a juvenile offender, like keeping an 8 p.m. curfew and going to school every day without getting in trouble, are nearly all marked "unsuccessfully completed" in court papers.
Juvenile justice officials described him as a habitual truant who earned mostly Ds and Fs in school. His discipline history is eight pages long.
Just before 2 a.m. on July 10, four Hispanic men were walking after midnight through Tommytown, not far from Harley's house, when he approached them and demanded money, authorities say.
One gave him $4. Another refused to give him anything. Agustin Hernandez, records say, swung a beer bottle at Harley, who pulled a gun.
Hernandez died from a bullet to his side. He was 31, with a wife and two children.
A grand jury indicted Harley on a first-degree murder charge July 15, five days after Hernandez's death. He faces life in prison.
Bradberry is at a loss to explain it.
"I can't understand what happened to him," she said. "I know others could influence him. He could be easily influenced. He could be talked into things."
She attends every court hearing, though little has happened in the case, and visits him in jail.
"He's not scared," she said. "He's calm."
"Whether he's right or wrong, I'm (going to) be there," she added. "That's my child."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.