ST. PETERSBURG — She drove down the blighted street, up to the house peppered with teddy bears and bullet holes.
She had to see it for herself.
Brandy McDermott had heard about the little girl gunned down in her home on Preston Avenue. The feelings — seething anger, paralyzing fear, clawing frustration — crashed back.
In 2007, her sister-in-law Mandy Sampson was found shot dead in an upstairs apartment just steps from the home where Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, 8, took three bullets in the back on April 5.
People loved Paris enough to break the code of silence, McDermott figures. She's glad police made arrests.
But as for her own family, for the two young sons Sampson left behind — she has no answers.
"The streets like to talk," she said. "People don't."
• • •
Mandy Sampson was murder No. 22 that year in the city.
There were no marches for peace or elegant narratives of her life. Her criminal past was published with an unflattering mug shot alongside a brief account of her death sprinkled with the word "drugs."
"It's like she's a forgotten girl now," said Brandy McDermott, 32.
Sampson came from a traumatic past, moving around foster homes and suffering filth and abuse, said her brother, Frank McDermott, who is married to Brandy. She never made it past middle school. She always seemed younger than her years.
They clung to each other. When he drove her crazy, she patted her braids with a flat palm and yelled, "Brudder!"
"She was like my best friend," said Frank, 31. "She helped me out so much.
At 13, she moved in with Frank and Brandy. She got in trouble through the years for theft and drug possession. She ran with bad crowds and got busted holding harder drugs for friends, her family said. She had jobs at Dunkin' Donuts and cleaning hotels.
She got pregnant in her 20s.
"I want to learn to be a good mother," she told her sister-in-law.
Sampson relished her role as homemaker at her brother's Harbordale home. She packed lunches with little notes and made beds so tight she could bounce a quarter off the sheets. She kept a clean house and shrieked at bugs. She never wanted to be buried, she said, because bugs were down there.
Two years after her first son was born, she had a second with the same man. She read to them, joined the PTA and walked them to the bus stop.
Her greatest dream was to grow old, to have a front porch and a rocker and grandchildren running on the lawn.
If you got that far, it meant you made it.
• • •
Sept. 19, 2007.
Mandy Sampson argued with her boyfriend outside the family home that morning. She had met the young man at her son's bus stop and had been dating him for a couple of months.
Brandy McDermott didn't approve.
"We wouldn't let him in our house," she said.
He was sketchy and sold drugs, she thought. Mixed in with bad people, Sampson could again find herself in handcuffs.
Later, Sampson called from Wal-Mart, where she was getting groceries. She had made up with her boyfriend and planned to make him dinner that night.
She tucked her boys into bed before heading to the apartment where her boyfriend stayed behind Preston Avenue. It was a well-known drug house, police said.
Someone fired several shots into the upstairs apartment from the ground below, according the family members.
The culprits likely used a handgun, said Maj. Mike Puetz, who believes Sampson probably was not the intended victim.
A single bullet hit Sampson in the upper body. She died at age 27.
Police called it a home invasion robbery but wouldn't offer many details because the case is still open.
"It's obvious the bullet was meant for him," McDermott said of the boyfriend. "She lost her life, and the person who took it is never going to be anything more than a punk."
Sampson's family wonders if the crews mired in the murder of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton might also be responsible for her death.
No one has been arrested in Sampson's murder, and a police spokesman said he wasn't aware of any connection between Paris' murder and any other unsolved cases.
The McDermotts know about street life, the alliances, the bad crowds. They see young boys indoctrinated into crime, young girls objectified. Frank McDermott has his own record involving drugs, but he says he's been to counseling and is clean now. Brandy McDermott has no record.
They don't let their kids wander beyond the play set Frank built inside their fence. Once, their daughter noticed a car tailing her as she walked to the bus. At 12, she was savvy enough to write down the plate number.
"Spend two hours in our neighborhood between nine and 11," said Brandy McDermott. "And just listen."
They had been saving money to move out of the neighborhood when Sampson died.
That money paid for her funeral.
• • •
The boys know their mom is gone.
Daeveon, 4, is satisfied with the thought that she's in heaven.
Treyvon, 6, is angry.
He thinks she left on purpose and never came back.
Brandy McDermott is determined to find answers. In a way, Sampson was like a child to her. The family has canvassed the streets, put out fliers, knocked on doors.
Frank McDermott worries that his wife's talking might make the family a target, especially as tensions rile in the rubble surrounding a child's murder.
But she can't keep quiet.
She carries a picture of Sampson, shows it to everyone and tells them what happened.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.