ST. PETERSBURG — The family friend banged on the door in the night, bearing bad news.
He told relatives of Jerome “Rome” Clark that Clark had been shot nearby, said Clark’s mother, Lorraine Gary. She ran to the scene, a vacant lot in the 1400 block of 34th Street S.
Gary recognized a dark-colored Chevy sedan that had crashed into a trailer on the property. It belonged to one of her daughters. She peered inside the windows, but she couldn’t tell if her son was inside, she said. There was too much blood.
She was so shocked she didn’t wonder how the family friend knew it was Clark. But on Friday, two days after the Feb. 10 shooting, it all came into sharp focus. The man police arrested was Andre Watkins, the friend who had first told them of the shooting, so close to Clark that they called one another cousin.
“He was right under us the whole time,” said Sabrina Ross, Gary’s mother and Clark’s grandmother.
“That took my soul,” Gary said.
Police arrested Watkins, 35, late Friday after a four-hour standoff with SWAT officers at the Bayway Inn, 4400 34th St. S. He faces two counts of first-degree murder, in the death of Clark and 27-year-old Larrisha Williams, who police also found inside the car. Clark had recently befriended Williams while working at Popeye’s, his family said.
The pair had met with Watkins “to conduct a possible drug transaction,” according to arrest reports. Watkins walked up to the car and shot Clark and Williams “numerous times,” the reports say. The car drove briefly away before crashing into a trailer. Watkins ran from the scene.
The shooting and arrest were the first flashpoints in a deadly week for St. Petersburg. On Tuesday, the SWAT team was called out again to a shooting at a home on Emerson Avenue S and found three people dead inside.
Police arrested Cornelius Whitfield, 31, wanted in another shooting this month that killed one man and seriously injured another. The victims in Tuesday’s shooting were Whitfield’s great-grandmother, grandmother and uncle.
Meantime, the families of Clark and Williams are grappling with their losses. Williams’ mother, Lasharntay Hollis, said Tuesday she didn’t know Watkins but was glad he was apprehended quickly. She declined to comment further, saying she was too distraught to talk about her daughter.
For Clark’s family, the pain comes with a twist of betrayal. The morning of the shooting, Watkins stuck around with the family, offering condolences. He hugged them and loaned Ross $10 for gas money. He checked in with them about the police investigation, how it was going, what detectives had told them. His intense interest seemed off to Gary but, in shock over her son’s death, she didn’t dwell on it.
When police released a grainy surveillance video clip of a person of interest, Gary, 39, thought it looked kind of like Watkins. She couldn’t be sure.
“I thought my mind was playing tricks on me,” she said.
Watkins stopped coming around after police released the photo, she said. Police learned he was staying at the Bayway, and Gary joined a crowd that gathered there to watch the standoff and arrest.
Gary said she doesn’t know why her son and Williams met up with Watkins that night. She didn’t know anything about the potential drug deal police described, she said. But regardless, she was confident her son would have helped Watkins if he had asked.
“My son was a giving person,” she said. “Whatever they had going on, he would have just gave it to him. I don’t know why he killed him.”
Watkins declined the Tampa Bay Times’ request to interview him at the Pinellas County jail, where he is in custody with no bail. His family members could not be reached for comment.
Clark grew up in St. Petersburg in a tightknit family, raised by his mother, aunt and grandmothers. At 12, his father was arrested on drug and weapons charges and eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. At a young age, Clark felt like he had to be the man of the house, his mother said.
But he also liked to have fun. He was the life of the party and loved to dance, his family said, even as a baby, his Pampers sliding down with each wiggle.
A couple years ago, he had his own child, Janova Clark. He missed the first year and a half of her life because he was in prison, serving two years on charges of attempted burglary and fleeing law enforcement, according to Florida Department of Corrections records.
He had gotten out in September and was trying to turn his life around, his family said. He landed two restaurant jobs and spent time with his daughter at parks or Chuck E. Cheese.
“He was trying to get himself on the right road,” said his aunt, Debbie Tumbling, 59.
Williams and Watkins had also been released from prison last year, Williams in October after an 18-month sentence for child neglect, Watkins in May after a 3-year sentence for felony battery and aggravated assault, according to state records. It was Watkins’ third time in state prison, following a 10-year sentence for armed robbery and cocaine sale and a one-year sentence for simple battery.
Clark’s family said they don’t know why Watkins, whom they knew as Dre, would hurt someone so close to him.
“It’s just turned into something I thought Dre would never become,” Ross said. “It’s a loss on both sides. But double for us, because we will never talk to Jerome again.”