In Kennedy's name, memory
By John Joyce
Published in News on January 5, 2014 1:50 AM
Kimberly Best weeps as she listens to Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge.
Her tears fall faster and harder as he recites the details of her son's last days.
She leans her head against her own mother, Janice Robinson, as she hears how 16-year-old Kennedy McLaurin died on Sept. 9, 2012.
Delbridge is reading from a statement given by Kevin Smith, one of the four defendants arraigned on murder charges in Wayne County Superior Court -- a condition of his plea deal.
The scene is Bain Street. A car is approached by four young men.
The teenager is forced into the car, injured inside the car, driven away in the car.
"He lay face down; the boy wasn't talking at all," Delbridge says, reading a direct quote from Smith's statement to police.
He is beaten with shovels by two of the men and then thrown in a hole.
They throw dirt on him.
They bury him.
They cover up the hole.
Kimberly Best continues to weep.
Hearing the words doesn't bring closure. And it won't bring "Lil Ken" back.
She will have to bear the burden of sitting through the trials of the other three defendants, just as she had to endure the recounting of the crime.
It won't be easy, but it is what she must do.
That, and make sure her son is not forgotten.
Ms. Best has never been to a criminal trial before. She did not know what to expect.
"I didn't think the statement would be read that day. I knew about the plea, but I didn't expect to hear the statements until the actual trial," she said.
Kevin Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping and could potentially be sentenced to 60 years in prison for his role in the crime. As part of his plea agreement, Smith will have to testify against each of his co-defendants and then be sentenced by Judge Arnold O. Jones with what Smith hopes will be some degree of leniency based on his cooperation.
Ms. Best said she was told by the D.A.'s office two other defendants, Jerome Jillah Butts, 21, and Curtis Omar Ethridge, 20, were expected to enter into plea agreements, too, meaning all three would together testify against the remaining defendant, Leonard Eugene Joyner, 23.
Instead, all three pleaded not guilty.
Butts and Ethridge, according to a source speaking on the condition of anonymity, are still expected to enter into agreements with the state.
"There are still a lot of things, there were a lot of details (Smith) didn't give. He could only speak to what he saw. I'm waiting to hear what (Butts and Ethridge) have to say," Mrs. Best said.
She doesn't know if there will ever be an end -- a time when she can forget or be at peace with how Kennedy died or the fact that she was not there.
"I kind of want to know what my son's last words were. What was going through their heads as they were doing this to him," Ms. Best said.
No trial date has been set. It will be at that trial, certainly if Butts and Ethridge end up testifying, that she will likely hear directly from the mouths of the only people who can tell her, just what it is she needs to know.
"They are the only ones who can tell me, for my son to go out alone in such a horrible way, what was he saying to them. What was going through his head while they were doing this to him, and why they decided to take his life."
Since Kennedy's death, Mrs. Best has a mission -- to prevent more children from meeting the fate of her 16-year-old.
The Kennedy F. McLaurin Jr. Leadership and Youth Development Program is giving new life to the hopes and dreams of some of Goldsboro's youths.
"We promote self-esteem and self-sufficiency in our youths in the most positive manner," reads the program's brochure.
Mrs. Best knows just how important that is -- and the consequences of what happens when children seek that approval elsewhere.
"Part of the reason my son is dead, the danger he got involved in, is the older kids and their negative influence on the younger kids," she said.
She is aware, too, of the tragedy of the fact that those who are accused of killing her son are still children themselves.
"I just want to provide an outlet, an alternative for the kids to do something positive," Ms. Best said.
To a child who lives in any of the low-income housing projects in Goldsboro, or the areas surrounding them, options can seem limited, she added.
"Sell drugs. Use drugs. Join the gangs," Ms. Best said.
So she founded the program in her son's name to show young people they are capable of more.
Ministers, two licensed psychologists and several college students volunteer with the program to offer guidance, mentoring, tutoring and friendship to the youths who are involved.
One program participant, Ms. Best's niece, Latifah Jackson, has since graduated from Goldsboro High School and joined the Army.
She is currently in Advanced Infantry Training, learning the ins and outs of her new career as a unit supply specialist.
"My Aunt Kim took me under her wing during the toughest times. She pushed me harder (and) supported me through the last three months of my senior year," Ms. Jackson said.
She said the program inspired her to be successful and to overcome obstacles a young woman faces.
"For me, it pushes me harder to believe I can achieve (when) someone believes I can't," she said.
Ms. Jackson's brother, Tory Jackson, is now working with Ms. Best to complete his senior project.
He is a senior at Goldsboro High School and without Ms. Best's guidance, he would probably still be in the streets, he said.
That is where his friends still are.
"The ones I was hanging with before, we kind of went our separate ways. The only time I see them now is in school... when they come to school."
The importance of having a mentor is not lost on Jackson.
"It is very helpful to have a mentor making sure you do the things you know you need to do. It helps having their oppinion and knowing they are there to help, to keep you focused," he said.
The program, now comprised of two high school seniors and four elementary school students, raises funds for college scholarships for those seeking higher education and for resources geared toward instilling that ambition in younger children.
But more so than money, the program needs volunteers, Ms. Best said.
"We're doing a lot with the kids now, tutoring, helping with senior projects and homework," she said.
Some children need more -- counseling, self-esteem support, resume and job interviewing skills -- and that means the more volunteers and adult mentors, the better.
Ms. Best has been in contact with and works with Goldsboro and Eastern Wayne high schools so far, but plans to meet with officials at other area schools in the future.
"We need the guidance counselors. We're getting referrals from some of them," she said.
The program also needs drug and alcohol counselors and victims' advocates.
Mrs. Best said many of the children in this community see and are even involved in incidents and experiences at a very young age that can be traumatic.
"They need help dealing with that," she said, adding that without intervention, many of the at-risk kids she sees and hears of will succumb to the street life and be taken by it the way her son was.
"Marijuana, it's not harmless. You can't just try it. These guys, the ones in their early 20s, are out here with the pills, selling it, mixing it with the marijuana," she said.
But the program does not seek to impact only the children.
Mrs. Best would like other parents to be involved and to be more aware of what their children are doing.
"There are signs, signs so subtle you can miss it," she said.
Drawing symbols on paper or using hand signs, having lists of contacts in their cell phones using only nicknames and parents who do not know with whom their children are associating are all reasons for concern.
Mrs. Best said she wishes more parents were aware of the danger.
And that makes her think back herself to before her son chose the wrong path, before he made the choice that ended his life.
"Ken was too trusting. He trusted the wrong people," she said. "Because of what happened to him, I want younger people to be more aware. You can stand up and say 'no.' Don't be afraid to walk away."