KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Children lost to gang violence, young lives cut short as gunfire rings out, grieving families and a call to stop the violence.
The community has come together since the deaths of Zaevion Dobson in December and JaJuan Latham in April. The two deaths carry with them an echo, the legacy of a shooting in May 1996 which took the life of a little girl named Brittany Daniels.
The 5-year-old shot in the chest by a stray bullet on May 18, 1996. Brittney Daniels died in her mother’s arms.
“Some days I wake up and think this is a dream. You know, I’m going to wake up and everything’s going to be the same. It’s not, it’s real. It’s reality,” said the girl’s aunt, Nikki Daniels.
Knoxville Police Department said it was a gang that took an innocent life. Former Knoxville Police Chief Phil Kieth said violence was escalating between gangs and the shooting was about revenge. He said Brittney Daniels was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Investigators worked around the clock, as time passed a number of men were charged. The problem though, no one would say who pulled the trigger. Also, the community wasn’t forthcoming with what they saw so Knoxville police got creative.
“The investigators knew a number of the actors were out on either parole or probation or on a bond for another charge. If we weren’t making the case right away, we started ratcheting up the focus on those other cases,” said Keith.
At least seven men were arrested in connection to the case, including Michael Shawn Smith, Tyrone Tumlin, Melvin Eugene Davis, Jessie Rondale Bailey, Robert Deshawn Campbell, Steve Richey, and Edward Eugene Taylor. Some are still in prison because of other charges and Tennessee Department of Corrections said each is listed as “Security Threat Group,” which essentially means they have confirmed ties to gangs.
In the meantime playgrounds were quiet, students at Sam Hill Elementary were spending recess inside. Counselors were on hand too helping the little ones process and express their grief.
A new police precinct in Lonsdale was created, Knoxville Police Department’s gang task force was beefed up as well. The community began holding meetings as a way to find solutions ending the violence plaguing Lonsdale and Knoxville.
“You could see the results almost immediately. There was a calming effect,” said Keith.
However, 20 years later, the hurt still lingers. “We never got closure. We never got closure,” said Nikki Daniels.
“If that had been my daughter I would say no, justice wasn’t served. Was justice served to the degree we could serve it with the facts we had? Probably,” said Keith.
There’s peace where Brittany is buried, sadly next to her father Phillip who died a little more than a year later and her mom who passed from leukemia. This is where family is reminded how much they really miss a little girl who could brighten anyone’s day.
“I always think about her and wonder where would she be? What would she be doing,” asked Daniels.
Tragically, gang violence echoes 20 years later. It’s said bullets don’t have names, but two names Knoxville will always remember JaJuan Latham and Zaevion Dobson.
“It literally makes you go back to the day you went through it. And you literally mourn with the mothers, the fathers, and the family even though that’s not your family. It is your family because you know exactly how they feel. You know exactly how they hurt,” said Nikki Daniels.
The similarities in all three cases are haunting, though the most challenging for investigators right now is that few people are willing to be a witness.
“When a police officer gets there and they see a child that’s been shot, murdered, they can’t understand why doesn’t somebody come forward? There are 150 people here and surely someone has the courage to step up,” said Keith. He says to curb gang shootings, again, parents simply need to be involved.
GALLERY: Brittany Daniels
GALLERY: Brittany Daniels x
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“You can’t have and tolerate this kind of violence in any community and the community has got to help Chief Rausch and the officers,” said Keith. However, he admits there has been change.
In the last four months since Zaevion Dobson died, the community has started to talk about violence, has highlighted programs in the community and announced the opening of a “Change Center,” to help youth have something to do after school.
The Daniels family is asking for an end to the violence. They also hope Brittany Daniels’ death wasn’t in vain as history repeats itself.
“I just wanna see truly see and pray that it does change because it’s really not fair to any of us,” said Nikki Daniels.