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Sons lost, pain lingers

They were more than just statistics, they were somebody's children.

At 3 years old, Breeshell Devine's son was gutsy. He wanted to go to his grandmama's, so he walked down the street and hailed a cab.

Denise Swisher's son filled her with pride. The teenager refused to let distractions of the street interfere with studies, earning a free ride to college.

Alicia Robert's son was 8 when he told her the football field would help him be a man. The undersized child pleaded with her to stop yelling at other players for tackling him.

Cynthia Woods' boy was the motivation she needed to finally get off crack.
Gunfire changed them all, turning mothers into mourners. They're not alone. Homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American males between ages 15 and 24.

In the last five years, St. Petersburg police have investigated dozens of homicides involving black men, many in neighborhoods such as Harbordale, Childs Park and Bethel Heights. In recent months, those communities have come out en masse to address the drug and gang violence. But after the rallies and protests there is quiet. And on Mother's Day that quiet can be astonishingly lonely for a woman who has lost a child.

The Protector

Breeshell Devine, 36

Devine found out she was pregnant at 15. Her mother told her she had options.

"I figured my mother never gave one of us up, or aborted one of us," Devine said. "I felt it was natural for me to have my baby."

When she gave birth to a boy, she thought he looked like "Jiminy Cricket" and "the most prettiest baby you'd ever want to lay your eyes on" all at the same time.

As a child, she was sexually abused by someone she knew. As a mother, she always strived to keep her son close.

She didn't like him going out with his friends, preferring to have the group hang out at her house, under her watchful eye.

"I felt like if I kept him up under me nothing would happen," Devine said. "He wouldn't have to be subjected to the torment I went through when I was a child."

But you can only keep children so close.

Michael "Mike-Mike" Smith died on May 12, 2006, after being shot in a parking lot near the Citrus Grove Apartments. He was 18. Police arrested a man in connection with his death.

The Cheerleader

Alicia Roberts, 38

She was 16 when the school nurse told her she was going to have a baby. Still a girl herself, she worried about how she would be able to raise a man.

"By the grace of God, I had a wonderful family that was always there for me," said Roberts. "I only stayed out of school 4 1/2 weeks."

The boy was 6 when his father was killed. Rebellion followed, that is, until football. He found confidence on the field, she said.

She remembers seeing him get tackled for the first time and yelling at the opposing team to get off her boy.

"He got up and was like, 'Man, Mom, go on home. I'm a man, I can handle it."

Roberts and her son had pillow fights. On Fridays they went to dinner or caught a movie.

But she never stopped him from taking another tackle.

Antonio "Pac-Man" Roberts died on May 23, 2005, after being shot multiple times in the parking lot of the Pinellas Point apartments. He was 20. His mom still doesn't understand why someone shot her boy. The case remains unsolved.

The Secret Keeper

Denise Swisher, 37

Denise Swisher was pregnant at 17, with her second child. She hid the pregnancy from her mother the entire nine months.

When the secret couldn't wait any longer, Swisher asked her sister to drive her to the hospital. They didn't make it. She gave birth in the back of a cramped 1987 Spectrum.

"I told my mother I was having gas pains," Swisher recalled. "She told everybody I had 8 pounds 4 ounces of gas."

She named her son after her grandfather. He was going to attend Bethune-Cookman College on a scholarship.

"One time he said, 'Why do you brag on me so much?' " she said. "And I said, 'because my children are all I have to be proud of.' "

When he went to college orientation, her son got in the middle of a green patch of grass, stretched open his hands and said, "I'm going to make this mine."

Forbes "P-Nut" Swisher's died on May 31, 2006, after taking a gunshot wound to the head after a fight between two groups. He was 18. He was supposed to start college that fall. The case remains unsolved.

The Survivor

Cynthia Woods, 45

The only thing she knew is that it would hurt. But she wasn't afraid.

At 14, Cynthia Woods endured 13 hours of labor before giving birth to a son.

"I never had a chance to be a child," said Woods. "I was always taking care of my siblings because my mom was an alcoholic, and she was never there."

Life took a toll on Woods, who turned to crack cocaine in 1985. But when she saw her son making some of the same wrong choices, she quit.

"I feel like if that wouldn't have happened to me, I could have been there more for him," she said. "Even though I've had some struggles on and off drugs in my life, I knew I had more to lose if I did it again."

Calvin "K-Swiss" Swain was shot multiple times in the parking lot of the Wildwood Recreation Center and died on April 22, 2005. He was 28. The case is still unsolved. On Friday, the mother of Swain's son, Angela Burgess, was shot to death at Lake Maggiore.

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at or (727)893-8828.

Sons lost, pain lingers 05/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 4:00pm]
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