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Strength in Family

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Innocence did not tarry long, those days when Shawna Fleming rambled the neighborhood, picking fights and talking about someone's mama or other silliness soon forgotten.

By the time she was 16, Fleming had been dating the same boy for two years. She had seen drug deals go down. She was living with a cousin, and later with her sister, Leslie, who was just two years older. She had seen Leslie's black eyes and knew she was being beaten.

It wasn't long before Fleming became a mother and a woman tired of "the streets." Tired of tending to customers at Church's Chicken, "smelling that food every day all day long."

There had to be something more out there, Fleming thought. Last year, she enrolled in a program at Concorde Career Institute in Tampa that trains students to become medical assistants, people who answer the phones and sign in patients for doctors and dentists. She would graduate from Concorde, find work in an office, then go back to school for nursing in a few years.

But on March 14, she walked across the street, knocked on her sister's apartment door and everything changed. Leslie "Bay" Fleming lay dead on the floor.

It would be a while before Shawna Fleming's three nieces realized what was going on. Dezarae Butler, 3, was sleeping and Tequesha Butler, 5, was in the bedroom when Fleming discovered the body. Lashara Butler, 6, stepped over her mother and lifted up the pillow that shrouded her face. "I thought she was asleep," Lashara said.

The girls later went to the one-bedroom apartment in Queen Ann Apartments on Alpine Road where Fleming lives. They did not sleep in their bunk beds that night or peek around corners to find their mother in a game of hide-and-seek.

Bay had gone on to heaven, Fleming told them.

Never mind that Fleming already had one son of her own and was pregnant with her second. The girls would live with her now. That much had been decided even before Leslie's death.

"We always said if anything happened to her, I would take her kids," Fleming said. "And if anything happened to me, she would take care of mine."

That makes five kids. Lashara, Tequesha and Dezarae, plus Fleming's sons, Steve Shine, who will be 4 this week, and Stacy Shine, 4 months.

Fleming is 21.

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Police say Leslie Fleming, 23, was stabbed to death by Harry Lee Butler, 36, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her three daughters. Butler has pleaded innocent to first-degree murder and is being held without bail in Pinellas County Jail. He has a court date in January.

Butler had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence against Leslie on March 11. He posted $3,000 bail the next day and was released from jail. Three days after his arrest, Leslie's body was discovered.

The police jargon and the news accounts are not yet real to Fleming. "In my head, it's like she's just gone on a long vacation or whatever," Fleming said. "I don't think it's going to hit me until the trial."

Fleming's mother, 43-year-old Vivian Harris, said the same. "I haven't come to that stage yet where I can say, "Bye.' "

Leslie had gotten hooked up with Butler when she was 15 years old. Butler, a convicted drug dealer, was 13 years older and gave Leslie things she never had before: cars, nice outfits, spending change. In return, Fleming said, he took out patches of her hair and once tore off her fingernails. When relatives tried to step in, Leslie would tell them to butt out.

Harris said she tried to discourage the relationship, but feared that Leslie would just sneak to see Butler anyway. "Really, wasn't nothing I could do at that time."

After her daughter's death, Harris quit her job in an Albertsons deli and moved in with Fleming to help raise the kids. "My life has come to a complete halt," she said. "It's for my grandchildren, I've got to see them through."

Fleming's boyfriend and the father of her two sons, 19-year-old Steven Shine, lives here as well. He works in the kitchen at Sabal Palms nursing center and helps with the bills.

So, that makes an extended family of eight.

With a living room, a small side room, a bedroom, a bathroom and a slice of a kitchen, Fleming has to make do. At night, she spreads newspaper over the soiled brown carpet and lets the kids watch TV while they eat. They sleep on the floor in the living room, between two modest couches. Fleming moves the coffee table each night to make room for blankets and pillows. Fleming and Shine sleep in the bedroom with baby Stacy. Harris sleeps on the couch.

Fleming stashed the girls' clothes in some boxes and plastic Winn-Dixie bags, got a few extra cans of corn and beans, more chicken.

Her sister had nicer things: bunk beds for the girls and bedroom furniture. There was no room for it here. Fleming put most of it in storage, but kept the girls' toys and bikes. There really wasn't much room for those either, but Fleming stacked the bikes behind the couch and neatly placed stuffed dolls and animals on top of tables and the couch as if they were part of the decor.

Tequesha says she likes her aunt, but doesn't want to live here. She points out she had her own bunk bed at her mom's house.

"It's so crowded in here, you can't help but to get frustrated," Fleming said.

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Fleming said she has gotten assistance since 1994 from Section 8, a federal subsidy program through the Clearwater Housing Authority. For rent, she paid 30 percent of her income, which at one point translated to about $14 from her welfare check. She quit her job working at Church's because of complications with her pregnancy, Fleming said.

The agency gave her a voucher to move out of her apartment and find a four-bedroom after Leslie's death. She could use it throughout the county, wherever a landlord would accept a Section 8 tenant.

Two problems: Fleming said there were few four-bedrooms available. And when she started looking for a three-bedroom or a house instead, landlords asked one question: "How many?"

Three adults. Five kids.

"Everybody says it's either too many people or too many kids," Fleming said.

Time ran out. Fleming's Section 8 voucher expired June 1, but the agency gave her an extension until Aug. 1. Fleming said she scoured classified ads and the phone book. There were times when she came close, but ultimately she had no luck.

Because she missed the expiration date, the agency dropped Fleming from the program and gave her Section 8 certificate to one of the other 700 people on the waiting list, said Deborah Vincent, executive director.

Her agency must adhere to the federal government's strict guidelines, Vincent said. "Rarely do we extend certificates," as they did with Fleming, she said. "This was an unusual situation, but it was one that had touched us."

However, Vincent oversees Clearwater's housing complex, Condon Gardens, and said she is willing to give Fleming a four-bedroom there.

Fleming says she cannot live in Condon Gardens because Butler, the man who is accused of killing her sister, has relatives living there and at some other low-income complexes in the area. Fleming wants to keep the girls away from them because there is some question as to whether Lashara is a witness to the killing.

On the night of the killing, Leslie had put the girls to bed, but Lashara told a Times reporter that she woke up briefly to her mother's screams. "I thought she was just playing," Lashara said, "I went back to sleep." It was unclear if she heard her father's voice.

Now that Fleming has been taken out of the program, she must pay full rent, $375. She has been using some of the $423 she gets each month in SSI payments for the girls to pay rent. She gets $165 from welfare for her two sons, which goes to other expenses, such as food and bills. She works seven days a week, at a credit card telemarketing firm and at an Alzheimer's center on weekends.

Vincent says Fleming has two options. She can have her name put back on the Section 8 list and look forward to a two-year wait. Or she can live in Condon Gardens.

Fleming says Condon Gardens is not an option. "I'm trying to get out of this environment."

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Last month, Fleming graduated from Concorde Career Institute and hopes to go back to school in a few years to get a nursing degree. Her mother's help with the kids has allowed Fleming to pursue her goals.

"If she wouldn't be here, I'd be in the dog hole right now."

She and Shine will get married someday, Fleming said, "I just don't know when."

He wants to go to a community college in Jacksonville. If he does go and he finds a place to live, "I'll let her (Fleming) come up there" along with the kids, Shine said. "You can't do nothing about the situation, so I accept them as mine."

Fleming has had temporary custody of the children since April. Butler, though, could challenge the petition, said Brenda Porter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families.

Little Dezarae still asks about her mother when she passes her old apartment on the way to the store. The girls have a constant reminder of their mother in the living room. Leslie's body was cremated and her ashes sit on a table by the window. Drawings, comic books and finger paintings from school surround the urn. The Bible sits on top, opened to Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

Tequesha sometimes kisses it when she gets home from school, "because I love her," she says.

Lashara draws pictures and picks up trinkets and offers them to her mother's memory. "She can see them," Lashara said. "She's up in heaven, she can see anything now."

Yet for them, too, a piece of innocence already has crept away. They talk of heaven and their mother's love, the day they found her "asleep."

In the eight months since her death, they have learned the truth.

What really happened to Leslie that night in March? Six-year-old Lashara looks away and answers, "She got murdered."