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In Tampa graveyard, young man grieves for other young men and vows: 'No more funerals.'

TAMPA — The lanky young man pauses to right an upturned vase of flowers as he makes his way through a groomed landscape in Rest Haven Memorial Park.

He carries a Bible, tucked under his arm. Sometimes he brings dollar store flowers.

This is where Clarence Jones comes each week to visit his friends, eight in all, to make sense of why their lives ended so soon.

Guys like Willie Cherry III, Dale Matthews, Kwane Doster, Tyrie Gunn — all shot in the past five years, all dead by age 21.

"Hey there cousin," he says to a mammoth piece of granite adorned with white flowers. He hangs his head, "Dang, daddy."

He plants a knee on the stone and taps on a round picture of a young man wearing sunglasses: Slow-talking Sheldon. Won't-hurt-a-fly Sheldon. It hurts so bad," he says.

He pulls out his cell phone.

"Hi Auntie, it's me Clarence. I'm out here at Sheldon's grave. I like that picture you put up. I was in the club with him that night."

In January, a bullet fragment found its way into Sheldon Underwood's heart as he stood on his east Tampa balcony.

He was 19, a year younger than Jones. They had been in a band together. Now Jones DJs at parties without his cousin.

Further into the graveyard, he stands over polished glass pebbles and river rocks circling the grave of "C.J." Mills. They had played together in a Boys & Girls Club. C.J. was 17, a high school football star, when he was gunned down in the front yard of his home.

He walks a few rows over to Levi Dixon Jr.'s grave. He and Levi had started a band together while at Blake High School: Top Prospects.

"Now that boy could sing some gospel," Jones says over Levi's tear-shaped tombstone. "Hey, homeboy, I thought we were going to make it."

The music ended for the 17-year-old last summer when someone shot him as he sat on a friend's West Tampa couch.

Jones hums a hymn over the grave.

"When I die, I want people to spend some time with me," he says.

Jones jolts from his reverie as he spots a burst of red roses nearby. He left them on Mother's Day, for his grandma.

He busies himself wiping the glass vase and tidying grass strewn flowers. There's no money for a gravestone, not yet.

His grandmother, Elmire Williams, had 13 kids and more than 70 grandchildren before she died in 2005. Jones was about 20th, the first to graduate high school. He was born in her Central Park Village apartment, not waiting for a ride to a hospital.

Two tattooed tears run from his right eye. One for his grandma. One for friends murdered. The tattoos on his arms and hands say "Central Park" and "Brick City," as the village is known on the street where Jones remembers kids standing on corners shooting guns into the air. He's terrified of guns.

But he knew how to stand up for himself and his friends. He was kicked out of Middleton High School at 15 after a fight.

At Blake High, things turned around. He was senior adviser for the student government association and a mentor for younger boys.

Don't be in the wrong place, he told them. A bullet has no eyes.

"You live by the gun, you die by the gun."

Maybe the message isn't getting through, though.

Gun violence became real for Jones six years ago when his uncle James Bass was killed in Ybor City at age 26. They had shared a bedroom in the village.

Now Jones is mixing CDs and picking up DJ gigs for money. He lives with his aunt in a public housing complex in east Tampa. He wants to be the best thing to come out of the neighborhood.

"I'm going to be up and out of here," he says.

But how?

Maybe get into a community college some time soon, he says. Maybe major in business administration.

"I'll come back and show my support, open a mentor program in Central Park."

Perhaps he'll tell the kids of his own crimes as a cautionary tale — that he was arrested twice last year on marijuana charges, including possession and intent to sell.

He offers no excuses.

"I believe God sat me down in jail to give me time to make a plan," he says. "I ain't going to any more funerals."

He planned a march in June for change in his neighborhood, but the event was rained out. He wants to keep the community's history alive.

In the cemetery, he passes cedar trees and trimmed shrubs and rows of polished stones dotted with dollar-store flowers.

Torrie McDuffie was like a little brother, Jones says at the south row.

A 16-year-old Blake junior, Torrie became another innocent bystander two years ago as a gunman fired into a crowd of teens outside his home near Palm River.

Jones kisses a faded picture on his gravestone.

"I'm here. I'm here, I'm here," he soothes, and brushes mowed grass from gray granite.

"You gonna save a spot for me? I'll be up there soon," he says. "When my work is done, I'll be there."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

In Tampa graveyard, young man grieves for other young men and vows: 'No more funerals.' 08/15/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 9:26am]
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