Connie Mansfield's only son had lived through a mother's worst nightmare: war. As a petty officer third class, Harold J. Mansfield had worked as an air traffic controller on the USS Saratoga during Operation Desert Storm. He had helped fighter and bomber pilots carry out their missions. He had served his country. And he had returned safely. So on a recent Friday afternoon, Mrs. Mansfield had no reason to feel fear when the phone rang or to suspect any problem when the caller turned out to be the mother of her son's shipmate. She had heard from Harold just two days earlier.
But this call was to report her son's death. He had been shot in a parking lot in Neptune Beach, near where he was stationed in Jacksonville. Harold Mansfield was 22 years old and black. The man police are looking for as a suspect in the shooting is a member of a white supremacy group.
Mansfield's death has devastated his family and friends in his hometown, Oklahoma City.
Connie Mansfield misses his laughter. His fiancee, Lucretia Peterson, keeps expecting him to call. His 18-year-old sister, Shaunna, keeps saying that he did not deserve the kind of death he suffered. Fourth-grade students at Shidler Elementary School in Oklahoma City, who exchanged letters with Mansfield while he was aboard the USS Saratoga, are still crying and asking why.
Police investigators recreated the events of the murder this way: Mansfield was driving into a supermarket parking lot in Neptune Beach on May 17 when his car nearly collided with a car driven by a white man.
The man began yelling racial slurs at Mansfield, who drove off but returned later with a shipmate. Meanwhile, the white man had gone into the supermarket to purchase two six packs of beer and "announced his racist views all over the store," a cashier reported to the Florida Times-Union.
When Mansfield returned, he and the man got into a heated verbal confrontation. Mansfield grabbed a brick, according to one report, and the man pulled a gun. He shot Mansfield once in the chest. The man kept shooting, but Mansfield's black shipmate escaped unharmed. Both Mansfield and his friend were stationed at Mayport Naval Station where the Saratoga has been docked since the Persian Gulf mission.
Police say they believe the white man who shot Mansfield is George David Loeb, 34, a member of the Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group based in North Carolina. Loeb and his wife fled in their car after the shooting.
Neptune Beach Police Chief William Brandt says there is an arrest warrant out for Loeb and the FBI has joined the search, but as of Monday afternoon he had not been apprehended. A friend of Loeb's was arrested Sunday and charged with being an accessory after the fact for helping Loeb flee.
The Florida Star, a black-owned Jacksonville newspaper, is offering a reward of $1,000 for information leading to Loeb's arrest.
When Mrs. Mansfield got the phone call the day of the shooting, she was in shock. She remembers asking friends to go pick up Shaunna from an amusement park in Oklahoma City. And then reality began to set in.
With the death of her son, Mrs. Mansfield has had to bear the grief of a second death in her family in less than a year. Her husband, Harold, a service manager with Xerox Corp., died of lung cancer last June.
At his father's funeral, Mansfield told his mother not to worry, that he would take care of her. Now he's gone. Nearly eight months before her husband's death, Mrs. Mansfield, 43, had written her son a letter explaining that his father had cancer, and that it didn't look good. Mansfield called, and said he wanted to come home immediately. His father told him that he was going to lick the disease and to come for Thanksgiving. Other family members would be coming for a small reunion.
That Thanksgiving, Mansfield got to see his father. A couple of days later, he had to return to the Saratoga. Mansfield got to see his father again briefly on June 4 last year. His father died nine days later.
When war broke out in the Persian Gulf, Mrs. Mansfield and family friends wrote letters requesting that Mansfield be allowed to stay stateside because he was the only son in the family. When the Navy refused, Mrs. Mansfield told her son that she would be all right, and to go on and do his job.
Mansfield returned this March, and during these past couple of months, he and his mother talked often. Like his father, Mansfield was outgoing, jovial, and liked to tease.
"He told me, "You know I love and respect you, Mother, but I like calling you Connie,' " his mother said in a recent phone interview. "So whenever I picked up the telephone, I would hear his voice, "Hi, Connie!' "
A close friend of the family says Harold Mansfield was quite an athlete and played all sports. He particularly loved basketball. Because of his small stature _ 5 feet 10, 140 pounds _ he decided to play baseball in high school. He was a pitcher but also played short stop and right field.
Feeling he was not mature enough to handle the rigors of college after high school graduation, Mansfield decided to enlist in the Navy. But after basic training, he called his parents, laughing, to say that he wished he had gone to college.
That was his constant message to his sister: "Get a college education."
It was also his last message to the students at Shidler Elementary School, just before he left the party they had for him when he returned from the Persian Gulf. Mansfield wrote backward on a Plexiglas board _ a skill used on aircraft carriers to post information: "All of us can be heroes. All of us are No. 1. Continue with your education."
As an agent with State Farm Insurance, Mrs. Mansfield often talked with John Roberts, a white fourth-grade teacher at Shidler. Roberts had a counseling office in the same office complex. Together, Mrs. Mansfield, a former fifth-grade teacher, and Roberts decided on a project that would enhance his students' writing skills. Roberts' class adopted Mansfield and wrote to him aboard the Saratoga. The students placed a picture of Mansfield on the bulletin board with all of the letters that he sent. He also sent videotapes.
There were 350 red, white and blue balloons for his party on April 25, and the students filled 30 with confetti and placed them over the classroom door. Laughing, with fingers plugged in his ears, Mansfield stood at the door as the students burst all 30 over his head. Three and a half hours later, after dozens of hugs, he was able to slip away.
After the young man's death, Roberts took the suggestion of one of his students and allowed them to write letters expressing their grief and anger. Especially upsetting, Roberts said, is the fact that the suspect is an outspoken racist.
"I'm not dealing with this as well as the children," Roberts confesses. "I have become so angry. I'm really not thinking as a Christian. I want this man (who shot Mansfield) hurt in some way."
He said he wishes that the man "could have gone to Connie's house night after night as I did and watched her suffer. I wish he could have seen her draped over her son's coffin sobbing, "You're too young to go.' "
The 500 people who attended the funeral were devastated, Roberts said. The school, which takes in mostly African- and Hispanic-American students from kindergarten through fourth grade, is very close-knit, he said.
One of the children told Roberts that Mansfield's murderer "also killed a piece of us." Roberts reminded the child that "Harold had given a piece of himself to us. As long as we're alive, that memory and hope will be alive with us."
His students live in an area where there aren't many positive role models, Roberts says, and Mansfield fulfilled that role.
"Harold had gone to the Persian Gulf and risked his life so that (the murderer) could have the freedom to practice his belief that is unconscionable," he said. "That is the ultimate irony. When will it ever get to the point that we will accept people for who they are?"
Six shipmates from the USS Saratoga attended the funeral at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City where Mrs. Mansfield works with the youth, and sings in the choir. Five paid their own way. Some 300 attended a memorial service aboard the Saratoga.
Disgusted and angry, Mrs. Mansfield says she thinks Loeb shot her son and she wants him to go to court and receive his punishment. But she says God knows best.
"He has a plan. I've used my faith to deal with this. I told my daughter that it's just you and me now. If George Loeb is hiding, what kind of freedom does he have? He's really a prisoner, although he's not behind bars.
"The color of your skin shouldn't make a difference," Mrs. Mansfield says. "God put us on this Earth, and he loves everybody. I hope people will open their eyes and realize that we still have a way to go trying to get along in this country."