LARGO — The dispute between the young men from Largo and the young men from Clearwater has gone on for months, even years. It seems no one can explain how it started. Now, though, people say much of the animosity is over drugs, pride and territory.
A few weeks ago, word spread on Facebook that a group from Clearwater was throwing a birthday party in a Largo neighborhood on Friday.
Gregory Williams, a 19-year-old from Clearwater, was among those planning to attend. People who know him say members of the Largo clique made it known online that the partygoers from Clearwater were not welcome on their turf. Williams' family and friends asked him not to go.
"I don't know why it needs to be in Largo," his best friend, Angela Brandes, told him earlier this week. "It's a shooting waiting to happen."
On Friday, it happened. Up to three cars were used in what Pinellas sheriff's investigators are calling a drive-by shooting that left Williams dead.
"This is senseless," his mother, Dee Williams, said Saturday in the living room of her home. Family photos decorated each wall and nearly every shelf. Her cloudy eyes wandered the carpet.
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Williams grew up just 6 miles north of where he was shot.
At Clearwater High School, his parents say, he made As and Bs. He was quiet, but popular and handsome.
"A tall drink of water," his mother said. "He had eyelashes that women would die for."
At 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds, he starred on the football team. He wanted to earn an athletic scholarship and study engineering at Virginia Tech or Texas A&M.
During his sophomore year, though, he suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his career. Rapping became his passion, but without football, he lost focus.
Williams got into a fight his senior year. He transferred to Dunedin High School, where he graduated in 2011.
After hearing someone wanted to kill him because of the fight, his family says, he bought a gun. He was arrested twice last year on charges of carrying a concealed firearm. He received a year-long sentence, which included four months in prison.
On Sept. 21, his family says, he got out and returned home determined to fix his life. He moved in with his mother and began applying for jobs. He wanted to attend St. Petersburg College and become a chef like his father, Greg. He had started cooking again, mostly for the family: pancakes, fried chicken and his specialty, spaghetti.
"He was doing better," his mother said. "He got his head straight."
Three weeks ago, Williams got more good news: He was going to be a father.
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Williams, his parents said, was not in a gang and never had been. After leaving prison, he hung out with the same friends he had since middle school. Still, he knew firsthand of the dispute between Clearwater and Largo.
His brother, Major Marchman, 24, said Williams got into a fight just a week ago with a man from Largo named "Shaq." Williams hurt his foot. Marchman wasn't sure what sparked the brawl but believed it was related to the territorial dispute.
Still, his family says, he didn't go to the party looking for trouble.
On Friday, Williams and two of his friends stopped at In the Cut barbershop before the night out. His uncle, Christopher Anderson, 35, cut their hair.
When Anderson heard the party's location, he didn't understand.
"Largo?" he said. "Aren't Largo and Clearwater beefing?"
"We're not part of that," Williams told him.
His mother didn't know of the trouble in Largo or the supposed threats being posted on Facebook. Her son, she said, was just excited. He hadn't been to a party since he left prison. At home, he complained that the day seemed like it would never end. He wanted night to come.
He took a nap, then a shower. His mother teased him, like she often did, about how much toothpaste he used. He dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and Nikes.
He told her he wasn't coming home that night.
"Mom," he said on his way out, "I'm gone."
Brandes would have gone with him that night, but she had to work. She texted him at 10:30 p.m.: "I'm going to pray for you."
Minutes later, Williams arrived at 12078 134th Place N. Rap music pulsed through the mostly teenage crowd of about 30. He walked up the driveway, past a table of chicken wings and meatballs and into the white and orange cinderblock house. He spoke to the birthday boy, who was turning 20. He walked back to the end of the driveway.
Neighbors heard yelling, then a storm of gunfire. Rubber squealed against the road. People screamed. They ran. Williams collapsed next to the house. His blood pooled atop the concrete.
Though dozens of rounds were fired, Williams was the only person hit. His family thinks he was just a bystander, but they're not sure.
"I just think he was in the wrong place," his mother said. "I could be wrong. I don't know."
Times researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected]