Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on violence in Durham in 2017.
A 7-year-old who liked to play with toy cars.
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An 86-year-old great grandmother with a sweet tooth.
And a grandfather who never came home from the store.
Twenty-eight people were killed in Durham County in 2017, all but one of the killings involving guns. Four of the cases were deemed self-defense, and two were fatal shootings by law enforcement.
Each left behind grieving families and friends.
Children buried parents and grandparents. Felix Morales, 35, left behind five children, including a 4-month-old, and an adoring church family who learned from his love of helping people. Bernabe Dubon left behind 12 grandchildren.
Beyond the relatives and friends affected are those who make their living investigating and cleaning up after murders in the city, including officers who miss family birthdays and other events to investigate the city’s move violent crimes.’
“We meet them on the worst day of their lives and stay connected to them throughout the case. I personally have failed at trying to hold back tears while watching a mother’s reaction to hearing about the loss of her son,” said Cpl. M. E. Richards, who has served both as an investigator and a supervisor in the homicide unit. “Although we sacrifice our personal lives when doing this job, the most rewarding thing in the world is telling the family that we have solved their loved one’s murder.”
Here are stories about three murders in Durham, compiled through interviews, a court hearing and public records.
Esther Mae Leak
The man motioning for James Leak to stop near the corner of Fayetteville Street and Linwood Avenue looked familiar, so Leak decided to pull over.
Leak quickly realized he didn’t know the man, but saw someone in need.
“He was reaching out,” Leak, 52, said. “He wanted to talk with someone.”
It was 11 p.m., but Leak brought him to his home that he shared with his mother, 86-year-old Esther Mae Leak, the oldest person killed in Durham in 2017.
Leak, a mother of six, grandmother of 15 and great grandmother of 24, loved working in the garden and sitting on the front porch. She had a sweet tooth for peppermint candy and cake, which earned her the nickname “Snack.”
Esther Mae Leak grew up in Red Springs in Robeson County, according to her obituary. She had just moved to Durham to live with her son in February.
James Leak brought the man to his home, and spoke with him for about two hours. They watched part of the 1997 horror movie “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” Leak said. Leak, who once struggled with addiction but has been clean for 17 years, said he wanted to help the man.
“A way of living is giving back to the community and other people,” Leak said.
During the conversation, a friend called James Leak and said he was coming over. After Leak got off the phone, the man he brought home pulled out a gun and asked for his car keys.
“At first, I didn’t (give them to him) because I thought it was a play gun,” he said.
The man fire two or three shots. Leak gave the man the keys to his Chevrolet Cruze, and the man started to run toward the front door. Leak ran behind him to close the front door. The man turned around and started shooting again.
Esther Mae Leak, who was asleep in the backroom, called out.
The man ran back to her room and started shooting again, James Leak said.
“Then he flew out the door,” Leak said.
Esther Mae Leak said she felt a burning, and James Leak looked down and saw blood in her lap.
James Leak panicked, he said. He ran to dial 911, but started hyperventilating. Blood was flowing from his neck. He later found out he had been shot in his jaw.
James Leak remembers being taken to the hospital, and a doctor telling him his mother was asking about him.
The following day around 1 p.m. officers spotted the stolen Chevrolet Cruze at Angier Avenue and Plum Street, but the driver sped away.
After several minutes, the driver lost control of the car on Dearborn Drive and crashed into a tree. The car caught fire.
The driver, Jemar Sherray Beulah Jr., 20, of Durham, was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Two female passengers were in the vehicle.
Beulah was arrested on a variety of charges, including robbery and assault.
He was charged with murder after Esther Mae Leak died April 2.
“The holidays without my mom, it is hurting,” James Leak said.
On June 11, Bernabe Dubon left for the store and never returned.
Police found the 62-year-old shot later that morning near the intersection of Fidelity Drive and Rainer Street near Weldon Village and Wheels Fun park.
“Bystanders, officers and EMS tried to save him, but he was dying when they arrived,” Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn said during a bond hearing for Kenneth Gibbs, one of three people charged in Dubon’s death.
Dubon, who was born in Honduras, had lived in the U.S. for 18 years. He was working as a carpenter. He had four children and 12 grandchildren, and was living with his daughter in Durham.
Besides Gibbs, 22, police charged Khalil Knight, 23, and Monet Wise, 23, with murder.
Gibbs, a Jordan High graduate, had fought with his parents over his drug use and has been in and out of rehab, said John Griffin, his attorney. According to records, he has been convicted of misdemeanor larceny three times and obtaining property by false pretenses since 2015.
Knight has April convictions of felonies possession of stolen goods and speeding to eluding arrest. In 2015, he was convicted of larceny and simple assault, both misdemeanors.
Wise told investigators the three had met the day before the killing and drove around all day and all night and got high, Montgomery-Blinn said.
“They planned to rob a Hispanic person in order to get gas money and for other things,” Montgomery-Blinn said.
According to a witness and surveillance camera, a person who matches Knight’s description got out of the front passenger seat, ran through a yard toward Dubon, and then cut back through three minutes later.
Wise told investigators she didn’t think he had to shoot Dubon, Montgomery-Blinn said.
“The victim had a piece of wood that was found at the scene to defend himself, but Knight could have gotten back in the car,” Montgomery-Blinn said.
“Once Knight did get back in the car, he directed Gibbs to get them out of the East and to stay out of the East, which Gibbs did,” Montgomery-Blinn said.
Griffin said when the three were initially driving around it was Wise, who was Knight’s girlfriend, who said, “We need money, and we should do a lick.”
“After she said that, she said Khalil said ‘yes, we should go do a robbery. I know where some Hispanics are in Durham,’” Griffin said, but added, “I am not sure she is absolutely truthful about what she is saying.”
Officers pulled over the car later that day near Duke Regional Hospital.
“When officers got everyone out of the vehicle, unspent shell casings fell out of Knight’s pocket,” Montgomery-Blinn said. They also found a bag containing more of those bullets and a gun under the seat.
“When police apprehended them, Knight confessed,” she said.
When Dubon didn’t come home, the family got worried and called police.
“They learned that their father and grandfather had been killed on his way to the store,” Montgomery-Blinn said. “That he had been robbed and killed.”
Every time Lisa Gerald asked her grandson Kamari Munerlyn what he wanted for Christmas or birthdays, the 7-year-old would say “more cars.”
But on June 4, the first-grader at Eastway Elementary School died during a drive-by shooting.
The hurt was fresh in November, when Kamari would have turned 8, and then this Christmas with no one to send Hot Wheels to, said Gerald, who lives in Phoenix.
“We are sad all over again,” she said.
The day he died Kamari had been swimming at an apartment complex pool.
Kamari, his mother April Parker, her boyfriend, three other adults and four other kids piled into a gray Honda SUV and headed to Parker’s brother’s home to grill hotdogs, Parker said in an interview.
They noticed another vehicle following them on Hillandale Road. It followed them for two minutes, and they were trying to lose it, Parker said.
When they started to turn, shots rang out.
One of the SUV’s tires was punctured by a bullet, and the driver pulled over. The Honda stopped in the parking lot of the Tokyo Express on Guess Road.
Parker was in the second row of seats, and Kamari was in the third back row.
“He said, ‘Mom, I think I am shot,” Parker said. She saw blood gushing out of her son.
Parker called 911, crying, screaming.
“He’s not waking up!”
“We know exactly who did it,” another woman told the dispatcher. “We know exactly where he live at.”
Police officers responded to the shooting call at 4:59 p.m. and a police officer performed CPR until an ambulance arrived.
Kamari was the only one injured. EMS workers took him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Parker, who was 26, has said she had been the target of three other shootings, including one in which she was shot, since 2016. Parker also said her boyfriend might have been the target of the shooting.
Devon Maurice Fowler, 28, was arrested and charged a couple of days later with murder and felony conspiracy. He remains in jail.
Kamari’s father Theo Munerlyn moved from Durham to Phoenix recently, Gerald said. She’s trying to get him into counseling because she is worried about him.
“It is just really difficult trying to adjust,” Gerald said.