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Dead End

Dead End

He was walking his Dalmation near Deerfield Beach High School when his war started.

A car pulled beside him. Four youths with Creole lilts jumped out and came at him. Derick Strobridge had no time to think.

"I tried to fight my way out of the situation," says Strobridge, a big fellow with long dreads and a long, wispy beard growing from his chin. "They swung at me, and I swung back, because I didn't know what was happening. My dog attacked one of the guys. And then the cops came, and they threatened to shoot my dog.


Deerfield Beach

"After that, all my friends said, 'From this day forward, we aren't going to put up with this,'" Strobridge says. "And that's how I got jacked into it."

He knows there was only one reason the Haitian boys in that car chose him for a beating: He's African-American. And now, he had a reason to fight too. Strobridge, then a junior at Deerfield High, and his friends took revenge in the schoolyard.

"We found out who they were, and it was retaliation time," he says. "When we saw them, I said, 'Why did you jump me?' and we all started fighting. And it was back and forth like that for the whole year, again and again."

Strobridge knows that, like too many of his friends, he could have ended up in a casket if he kept at it. A chance encounter helped change all that and spurred him on to college and to the Job Corps. Now, at age 25, he's back on the Deerfield streets, only this time, he's trying to end the fighting.

Aligned with a local church, he's made it his full-time job, living at home and surviving on savings. The work is dangerous. Bullets are flying instead of fists. The culture clash between Haitians and African-Americans has escalated into a full-on street war.

Drive-bys are routine. Houses, cars — and young men — are being sprayed with gunfire on a weekly basis. The crackling of shots is most common between the two railroad tracks in central Deerfield, especially around the high school and Westside Park, where the battle has been going full-tilt.

Adding to the violence, helping it surge to never-before-seen levels, has been a bump in the drug trade, with loosely organized drug gangs aligned with both sides battling over turf.

But most of the violence seems to stem from simple schoolyard fights and grudges. The arguments may be petty, but the results are profound. Numerous youths have been shot during the past 28 months, with at least four killed. Strobridge has personally attended three of the funerals and saw one victim, a good friend, die in his doorway.

The bloodshed has come at a time when crime is on the rise in South Florida, especially north of Deerfield in Palm Beach County. Perhaps that's one reason the street war in this otherwise quiet seaside town of 70,000 has gone largely uncovered by the media.

Another obvious reason is that Deerfield officials have seemed loathe to speak of it until very recently, as if ignoring the violence might make it go away.

In the fall, the Broward Sheriff's Office, in what many residents complain was a belated response, began a crackdown in Deerfield that it calls "Operation Cease Fire." The effort, which shell-shocked residents say was sorely needed, has led to dozens of arrests and some cursory media attention.

But it hasn't stopped the shootings and killings. On January 4, a Haitian youth named Yndry Cadet became the latest victim of the gunfire, shot near the town's American Legion post. After being hit with bullets, he drove to a nearby home where he'd been staying, crashing into the backyard and dying on the steering wheel.

The ethnic battle that ensnared Cadet dates back decades. But its escalation from schoolyard squabbles to deadly street violence isn't hard to trace. It begins in 2004, with the bullet-ridden body of another boy.

It's one of those mythical stories that seems just as meaningful, maybe even more so, as if it never really happened. It goes that a Deerfield High student named Steven Jennings decided to make a statement on the day the school celebrated Haiti's Independence Day:

He burned the island nation's flag in the school's parking lot.

At that moment, a hardcore group of Haitians decided that Jennings would die. While the story floats through Deerfield, nobody could, or would, verify that the flag-burning actually took place. But there is no doubt Jennings was marked for death.

"It started ever since he was in middle school," recalls his mother, Pamela Hankerson, who works for the Postal Service. "I used to ask him why they were always fighting. He told me the Haitians would fight the Americans. Then he got to high school, and it still continued.

"I asked him, 'Why are you fighting?' Nobody knew."

She was asking an uneasy question with an uneasy answer. Almost invariably, each side blames the other for starting the violence, which erupted after nearly four decades of peaceful if not equal existence between the two groups.

Haitian immigrants, though, were generally treated like second-class citizens for decades, longtime residents say. American schoolkids would belittle Haitians with cruel rumors and use the term Haitian as a cutdown.

"People joked about them eating cats when I was a kid, you know, all kinds of stereotypes that didn't make sense," says Wayne Adams, an African-American community activist who lives on a particularly violent street. "It was typical kids' stereotypes. But it escalated with this new generation."

The prevailing wisdom is that the intensity of the conflict increased as first-generation Haitian-Americans — the sons and daughters of the immigrants who moved into the area in the 1960s — began to come of age.

An African-American student at Deerfield High, too scared for his name to be published, declares of the Haitians: "They think they can take over the school. They say, 'We rule America. '"

"For some reason, Americans always picked on us," counters a 24-year-old Haitian-American, who also refused to give his name. (The fear appears to be well-founded in his case — the house he lives in has been shot up with gunfire on numerous occasions.)

"At the elementary school, they used to have a 'Haitian Day' where they would beat up Haitians. But we decided we weren't going to take it anymore. We turned the table."

Jennings found himself on the wrong side of that table. He kept getting into fights with Haitians until he was expelled from Deerfield High. Then he drifted, his mother says, not sure of where he wanted to take his life, which she says held great promise.

Strobridge agrees. He knew Jennings well, and he says that while his friend was drawn to the streets, he was no hardened criminal. When Strobridge was struggling mightily with his worst subject, algebra, at Florida Atlantic University, Jennings would come to his house to help him.

The high school dropout tutored a college student.

"He would have been a leader," Strobridge says.

But it wasn't until Jennings got a wake-up call that he began to think about his future. It came in the form of seven bullets ripping through his body.

On the afternoon of February 29, 2004, Jennings, then 18 years old, was on his way to a friend's house to get a ride home. While he walked on a neighborhood street, a dark-green Buick pulled up next to him and two boys that he recognized from Deerfield High jumped out.

One had a fire extinguisher in his hand and struck Jennings in the head with it, knocking him down. The other started firing his gun and didn't stop until Jennings was shot in the chest, arms, and legs.

A bloody Jennings played dead until the attackers fled in the car. Then, half-delirious and bleeding from his wounds, he somehow made it three blocks to his friend's door.

Before he collapsed, he told a witness, "Haitian-boy Watson shot me!"

His mother says he had to be revived at Broward General Medical Center, narrowly escaping death. The next day, BSO detectives tried to question him. He couldn't speak, but Jennings managed to write down two names with a pencil: "Watson" and "Gee."

The detectives took the names to Deerfield Beach High School resource officer Butch Santy, who recognized them. "Watson," he said, was 19-year-old Prophilis Watson, believed to be the 250-pound suspect who fired the shots. "Gee" he knew to be Guy Mortimer, an 18-year-old accused of wielding the fire extinguisher. Jennings, with a nurse present to care for him, identified them in a photo lineup from his hospital bed.

Both teens had been expelled from the high school for fighting. Now they were both booked into jail on charges of attempted first-degree murder.

Jennings recovered fully from his wounds. It was a near-miraculous escape, but he couldn't rest easy. He knew he was still in danger.

"He told me that people were following him," his mother says. "And the court case with the two boys who shot him just kept getting prolonged. After eight months, he never did give a deposition."

But during that time, his life changed dramatically. It began with the first major positive step he really ever took in his young life, enrolling in the Youth Automotive Training Center, founded for underprivileged youths by billionaire auto dealer and Deerfield resident James Moran.

There, school officials say, he was a promising and dutiful student. "It looked like he really wanted to do the right thing," school director Terry Routley says.

Barbara Brown, a tutor at the center, remembers being struck by his presence, his handsome face, the intelligence in his eyes, and the unruly short dreads that grew from his head like a spider plant.

But he was gone before she ever had a chance to speak to him. On October 24, 2004, Jennings walked out of the Abco food market near Dixie Highway and Tenth Street — where the owners still remember "Stevie" as a good customer. When he got to the sidewalk about 6:45 p.m. on that Sunday, a car pulled up and assailants opened fire.

Minutes later, bystanders nearby flagged down a deputy. By the time the deputy got there, Steven Jennings was dead on the street, less than 100 yards from the Abco door.

Strobridge got the call about Jennings' death in Atlanta, where he was on vacation. "I was shocked," he says. "I couldn't believe it."

The entire automotive training center fell into mourning. Brown, the tutor, happened to be taking an art class at the time. When she saw a school photo of the fallen student, she was inspired to mold the teen's face. It soon became, as she puts it, a "labor of love."

Brown, a white, middle-aged mother of two from affluent Parkland who'd only dabbled in clay in college, would spend six months on the bust. She toiled on the sculpture right there at the automotive school, not sure if she could pull it off. "It was kind of an out-of-body experience," she says. "I surprised myself."

Jennings' fellow students were fascinated by the work. They would touch it. Their eyes would get misty, even some who, like Brown, hadn't even met him. And they would still mourn, just as his friends and family had at the young man's packed funeral.

Strobridge attended the services. He remembers not only great sadness but another emotion in the room, a stronger one that seemed to burn in the tears dropping from reddened eyes.

"I felt anger," Strobridge remembers. "You could just feel it, especially from his friends."

The future was easy to predict at that funeral. The violence was only beginning.

Jennings' death jolted entire neighborhoods. Adams, who works for the City of Deerfield Beach, had already seen the problem blowing up on his street, which is generally in Haitian territory, south of SW Tenth Street. The murder only confirmed to him that the problem was getting out of hand.

"One night, the Haitians got so angry, they got in a caravan of cars, and they were hanging out the windows with sawed-off shotguns, Uzis, pistols," he says. "They were sitting out the door like you were in Somalia or something like that. That's when I knew we were in serious trouble.

"My street used to be the quietest street in the world. Now I have to go to my car with my gun in my hand, cocked and ready."

One neighbor of Adams' on SW Fifth Terrace is 20-year-old Kevin Artelus, a first-generation Haitian-American. In early 2005, a car rolled up on him and his friends as they hung out in front of his house.

A window came down, and a gun came out of it. The boys inside yelled, "Die! Die, fucking Haitians!"

Then the shots started ringing out. Artelus, believing he was about to die, ran as fast as he could to his backyard and leapt a fence. He wasn't hurt. But one of his friends took a bullet in the buttocks and had to be taken to the hospital. Ironically, the friend, Michael Hill, was an African-American.

Last week, Artelus stood outside his home near where the shooting took place. There's still crime-scene tape on a nearby sign from another shooting that occurred more recently. He points to the house next door.

"There's a bullet hole in that door, and the side window is boarded up because of another shooting," he says. "That house down there was all shot up a bunch of times. The stop sign down the street still has bullet holes in it. See that blue car? It has a bullet in it."

Adams looks at Artelus, whom he has known for many years and considers a friend. "I don't look at him as a Haitian," he says. "I look at him as another black American. I've seen him grow up."

But many factionalized youths didn't see it the same way, as Jennings' death underscored so dramatically. Adams has logged dozens of calls regarding gunfire on his street, and after Jennings was killed, he went to see then-Deerfield City Manager Larry Deetjen. He told him the city had to do something about the violence.

"Deetjen told me Steven Jennings was a bad guy and got what he deserved," Adams says. "I was shocked and really hurt by what he said that day."

Deetjen didn't return a call from New Times for comment.

It's a common complaint: The city isn't doing enough to confront the crisis.

"There doesn't seem to be any brouhaha at all over this, and I can't believe that," says Brown, the automotive training center tutor. "If these were Parkland kids, it would be talked about everywhere."

The implication is clear: Because this has been happening in a working-class black neighborhood, it has been all but ignored.

Deetjen lost his job at the city last year after he was accused, ironically, of throwing a racist tirade at an airport. But city officials still seem lost as to what to do.

"We are looking for answers," Commissioner Steve Gonot says. "It's not easy."

Commissioner Sylvia Poitier, the only black elected official in the town, is pushing a mentoring program, complete with government training for volunteers, called "Hug a Thug." The title alone has been met with such great skepticism that it seems doomed from the start. Strobridge, who often works with Poitier, laughs at the program's title but says it's still a step in the right direction.

BSO, meanwhile, has beefed up enforcement with the "Cease Fire" operation. Although that may slow the violence, it won't, as Artelus points out, solve it. "What BSO needs to do is round up a group of people on both sides, put them in a room, and let them talk it out," he says. "We need people to come to a truce."

Jennings' mother says she hasn't seen much change.

"Everybody just lets this go on in Deerfield," Hankerson says. "So people think they can get away with it."

Her son's killers have gotten away with it so far. Nobody has been arrested in Jennings' murder, and the attempted-murder charges against Watson and Mortimer were dropped after his execution on the street. Hankerson says she took the stand at a court hearing, trying to represent her lost son, but both suspects were allowed to go free.

Then, on the night after Christmas in 2005, it happened again.

This time, it hit even closer to home for Strobridge. He was with longtime friend Ozell Jordan on that chilly evening at the Stanley Terrace Apartments on SW Second Street, across the street from Westside Park.

Not long after leaving the apartment about 9 p.m., he heard gunshots, by then a routine occurrence. Strobridge thought it might have been in celebration of the coming new year.

Then a young boy ran up and told him that somebody had been shot in the complex. Strobridge raced to Jordan's place, Apartment 64, to see his friend lying facedown in a puddle of blood. While others tended to the 24-year-old victim, Strobridge tried to comfort the mortally wounded man's mother, Linda, who was calling her son's name over and over again.

"Ozell was trying to talk, but he couldn't get any words out," Strobridge remembers.

Jordan was pronounced dead at the hospital less than an hour later.

"That's a night I'll never forget," he says. "I was praying for him until the paramedics got there."

The shooting remains a mystery. Strobridge says that, unlike Jennings, he didn't know Jordan to have any enemies. He wasn't violent or known to carry guns either. Records show, however, that he had been arrested on cocaine charges just six weeks before his slaying. The prevailing belief among those at Stanley Terrace Apartments is that a Haitian faction was involved in the murder, Strobridge says.

Whereas Jennings' funeral was marked by rage, Jordan's was dominated by sheer despair. "It was a very, very sad funeral," Strobridge says. "Everybody was confused and shocked. Of all people, why would it happen to a nice person like Ozell?

"I'm really tired of parents burying their kids."

Wayne Adams, who was born and raised in Deerfield, says shootings are so regular there now that he can sense when one is due. "You can feel it coming," he says. "It's about one a week, I'd say. Then somebody has to spray somebody's house or the park."

Law enforcement records support Adams' estimate. From the beginning of 2006 through the middle of this January, there were 101 shooting complaints, 45 of them confirmed.

Almost one a week on average. But in the summer, as South Florida baked under a sweltering sun, the number rose — and so did the human toll from the gunfire.

Take July 15, for example, when two Haitian teens tried to rob 19-year-old Clark Paul of his gold chain and car rims. The youths, identified in court records as 16-year-old Wesly Dorcelus and 19-year-old Willy Exume, both pulled guns. But it was Dorcelus who pulled the trigger as Paul tried to escape.

The bullets missed.

Fast-forward five weeks to August 21 at Westside Park. African-American teens Elvin Holmes and Kareem Moore were hanging out by the parking lot when a car pulled up. Holmes saw the visage of R.B. Wilkins, a youth of Haitian descent, in the passenger seat before Wilkins pulled a black T-shirt over his face.

Then Wilkins started firing a pistol, according to police reports.

Holmes got away unhurt, but 17-year-old Moore was hit in the back of his thigh. The bullet remains lodged in his leg to this day, says the boy's mother, Amy Butler.

She has never met Rozanne Owens, but the two have a lot in common. Both are worried sick about their sons' fascination with the mean streets of Deerfield. Both received a call with the heart-rending news that their sons had been shot. And both now cringe every time the phone rings and pray every time their sons leave the house.

On September 16, Owens' 17-year-old son, a first-generation Haitian-American named Jessy Ulcena, was shot in the back during a drive-by while hanging out a couple of blocks from their home. The bullet went through his guts, exiting his belly. Ulcena was airlifted to Broward General, where doctors saved his life.

Charged in the crime was an African-American teenager named Jarvis Hicks.

"Jessy couldn't eat for ten days," Owens says of the aftermath of the shooting. "They had a big surgery to repair his small intestine. They cut his chest open to his belly button, 25 stitches. Now if he eats too much — he's a good eater; he likes eating — he throws up everything."

So Owens, like Butler, knows the horror of having a son shot in the street all too well. And both abhor the violence. But the two moms couldn't be further apart on where they believe the trouble is rooted.

To explain what is happening, Owens recounts a time she was walking home from a Deerfield Beach High football game. She says a man told her she should hurry home.

"After the game, American people want to shoot Haitian people," he told her.

"Why?" she asked.

"I don't know. They just don't like us."

Owens expounds: "Haitian kids are stepkids of this country. That's the way the American kids treat them. They don't realize that the country belongs to us too, to me and to my kids. It's everybody's country."

Butler sounds the same way, only she blames the opposite side.

"The Haitians had him running home from school every day. Kareem would go to a friend's house by Deerfield High because them Haitians would be chasing them with guns. Then I would pick him up. And the school never does anything to stop it. They let the Haitians beat up our boys and then blame our boys for it."

Adding to the similarities, both Butler and Owens have taken their sons out of Deerfield High in an attempt to save their lives.

But that didn't keep Kareem from narrowly escaping another hail of bullets on September 23, the 20th birthday of his friend Elvin Holmes.

Holmes might have thought himself lucky to survive his teen years after getting away unscathed from the gunfire a month earlier at Westside Park. Strobridge, who knew Holmes well, says the boy, like so many youths in Deerfield, was aimed solely at the streets. He'd been busted on heroin charges in early 2006. But last fall, he enrolled at the Youth Automotive Training Center. Strobridge accompanied him to the school.

Holmes was following in Jennings' footsteps.

"He was running with the wrong groups of people," Strobridge says of Holmes. "But he was on track of getting his life together. He stopped smoking; he cut off his dreads. But you know, when you want to do right, it's hard when evil is all around."

Evil found Holmes while he was celebrating his 20 birthday at the La Quinta Inn on Hillsboro Boulevard. And it came in the form of the wrong set of hands gripping a .40-caliber pistol.

Again, Dorcelus, the boy accused in the July 15 shooting, was involved, according to deputies. And again, his older friend, Willy Exhume, was nearby, as were two more cohorts, identified as Herman Jean Jacques and Anderson Metarer. The quartet often hung around the motel with Manoucheka Elie, a cousin of Dorcelus' who was dating Exume and carrying his child, according to police reports.

Elie stayed in Room 133. Holmes and his friends were in Room 328. There was some arguing early in the night between the two groups. A witness later told deputies that while Holmes continued to celebrate, the four young Haitian men were on the third floor passing a .40-caliber handgun from one to the next. According to court records, they talked of killing the birthday boy.

A little after 2 a.m., after Kareem Moore had gone home, Holmes and another friend, Jermaine Paul, walked out of Room 328. That was when deputies say Dorcelus ambushed them with the .40-caliber.

Dorcelus fired at point-blank range, shooting Holmes in the stomach. When he tried to shoot Paul, the boy tried to block the bullet with his hand. It struck his thumb before piercing through the flesh of his left shoulder.

Holmes made it down to the first floor before collapsing on the concrete. He wouldn't survive the wound. Paul, meanwhile, was able to flag down security. While recuperating at the hospital, the younger boy told police that he — like so many other shooting victims — recognized the assailant from his days at Deerfield Beach High.

Exume, Jacques, and Metarer all had an alibi. While their friend was killing Holmes, they were eating at a nearby Denny's Restaurant. None of the three has been charged in the crime.

Dorcelus went on the lam and wasn't found until October 24, when U.S. marshals caught him hiding in a room he rented from a friend. He now sits in the Broward County Jail facing several charges, including second-degree murder.

When Barbara Brown, the tutor who sculpted Jennings' bust, heard about Holmes' shooting, she drove straight to the training center.

"We all cried," she says. "But there was a different feeling with Elvin than with Steven. Now I'm ticked off. This is a horrible problem, and there's not enough being done about it. This needs to be exposed. People need to know that these are not disposable lives."

Now she's dreaming up a way of memorializing Holmes.

"I'm trying to think of something to do with him," she says. "I don't know what it will be, but I want it to be more a social statement of what is going on."

Although both sides had been wildly shooting each other for months, only African-Americans had been killed. Three of them. It wasn't long before a boy on the other side would be added to that dark ledger.

At Mommy's house, there's a bunch of old carpet laid on the ground where the yard is supposed to be, and it leads to a rickety door. That's where she sits in her night dress, knit sweater, and flip-flops, all of them peach-colored.

Inside the old bungalow, she watches TV on a small set that has rabbit ears and a fuzzy picture. Two broken-down refrigerators, with old newspapers rolled up between them, sit next to her. Garden tools are stacked in one corner. On the floor are strewn all sorts of odd half-ruined objects — a rusted space heater, a blender, an old microwave with an iron on top.

Mommy, who came to America from Haiti 25 years ago and whose given name is Anna Marie Michaud, doesn't speak good English, but her eyes communicate well for her. There's a peacefulness about the 67-year-old woman that is endearing, a friendliness that is charming.

Watching her, it's difficult to believe that only a couple of weeks before, 18-year-old Yndry Cadet died of a gunshot wound in her backyard. Now the woman, who has eight grandchildren, is living alone again, without the stray boy whom she befriended and gave shelter.

On the dark and early Saturday morning of January 6, Michaud woke up to a racket outside her house and walked past the red, plastic-lined couch where Cadet usually slept in the backyard. There, she saw that his car had crashed into the back fence on her property.

When she saw the familiar old blue Buick, she yelled Cadet's name. "I see him, I look at him, I call him," she says. "He don't hear me."

He was gone.

Despite her young roommate's death, Michaud says she can still hear him asking, "Mommy, can I have something to eat?" She remembers the way he loved music, how he'd sit in his car for hours listening to songs when he wasn't at school or working at a nearby store. She tells of how polite he was, how quietly he would slip into her house at night and fall asleep on the small couch in the living room next to her collection of glass figurines.

And she knew he was grateful that she allowed him to sleep in her house. Michaud knew that because of his regular refrain: "Thank you, Mommy." A boy of Haitian descent whose parents live in the Bahamas, Cadet was homeless. He'd lived with an uncle in West Palm Beach but, for reasons Michaud never learned, left there and began living on the streets of Deerfield in the Buick.

It was to Michaud's house, the closest place Cadet had to a real home, where he tried to come after he'd been shot near the American Legion Hall on SW First Terrace.

"He come to the yard," says Michaud, who is retired after working for years as a housecleaner. "He couldn't make it."

Deputies haven't made an arrest — and have so little to go on that they have gone door to door passing out fliers and trying to drum up tips. It may be a mystery, but many in Deerfield who have been following the violence suspect that the African-Americans were getting payback for their lost brothers.

Michaud says she has no idea what happened. She just knows that she wishes Cadet hadn't been taken away from her. "He don't drink; he don't smoke," she says. "He a good boy. I miss him."

Cadet left little behind to remember him by. Deputies impounded his car and took his school duffle bag. All that is left, it seems, is a photograph taken this past Thanksgiving weekend. Wearing a white cap and a white shirt, he stands in front of "The Wall of Remembrance," a memorial project that he volunteered to help build. His hand is shaped in what looks like a gang sign, though law enforcement sources and residents say there isn't much organized gang activity in Deerfield, just loosely drawn together youths aligned with their ethnic group.

Among the names scrawled on the wall that day were those of Steven Jennings, Ozell Jordan, and Elvin Holmes. Next year, Cadet's name will surely join them.

The pastor's voice boomed in a meeting room at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church as about 30 men, most of them fellow ministers in Deerfield Beach, listened.

"We know we have a problem," bellowed the Rev. J.W. Ford, who called the meeting on a recent Saturday evening. "Our young people are out of control."

Later, he summed it up: "The enemy is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of our young men."

Ford conceded that there were some youths, the most hardcore of all, who couldn't be helped. "BSO is going to have to deal with them," he said.

But the church leaders in that room needed to mobilize, he said, starting with a focus on the schools. Not just Deerfield High, ground zero for the conflict, but the middle and elementary schools too.

Adams, the community activist who has been warning of the rise in crime since Jennings' murder, stood up.

"We've been on the front lines talking to the Haitian kids..., but I'm about to give up," he said. "I got guys on my street shooting AK-47s. I think this is a little over your head."

Strobridge, who knew the problem better than anyone in the room, stood up to talk.

"I came from that problem," he announced. "It's just passed down through the generations... We also have to deal with the ones on the street, and I'm going to be straight up: They're going to totally disregard what the elders say."

He said it will take other youths, people who truly understand the devastating changes that have occurred during the past few years, to make a real difference. "We just fought," he said. "Now they've got the guns and knives and everything else."

A church elder named Calvin Calcote took the podium and gave a passionate speech.

"It hurts to go to some of these funerals...," he said. "The killing's got to stop!"

Calcote said he was organizing men to march in the community, including Haitian ministers, who would walk side-by-side with them. His words pointed to the glaring absence of Haitian leaders in the room, underscoring the cultural divide.

"I don't care if they got guns," Calcote shouted. "Let them shoot. If I lose my life, I lose my life."

Ford declared that he wasn't sure the men in the room were really ready to tackle the problem. The meeting was a lot of talk with no clear ideas about what to do, others complained. Ford said they would need a top man if they would have any chance at all. He looked at Strobridge, whom he'd never met before that night.

"I'm appointing you as leader," the reverend said, before looking at the crowd. "All of you who accept him as leader, raise your hands."

Everyone in the room sent a palm toward the ceiling.

Westside Park is Strobridge's office, and he has two chief assistants, 19-year-old Jamar Stubbs, who is African-American, and Jonathan Dinu, who is Haitian-American.

Together, they are trying to end the war in Deerfield Beach.

They walk the park every day, talking to anyone who might need help. They write down names of kids and their teachers. They visit schools and play the role of advocate for the youths, who too often don't have any decent parental involvement in their lives.

And they preach, quite literally, against violence.

Walking around the park last week, Strobridge remarks on the fresh paint and nice landscaping. The park didn't always look good, he says, but the city fixed it up to try to make things better.

"You can change the landscape, and that's OK," he says. "But what you really have to do is make social change with the people. It has become a lifestyle, the fighting, the guns, the knives. That's what I'm trying to change."

The park is a nice place to work, but he wants a new office. Strobridge is now in negotiations with the managers of the Stanley Terrace Apartments, the site of his friend Jordan's murder, to open up shop in an abandoned building on the property where he can mentor youths.

He's also working with city officials on what he envisions will be a giant antiviolence rally at the park for spring break. Some of the men from the Bethlehem meeting are helping to plan it, which surprises him. "I honestly didn't think anything was going to come from that, but I guess I was wrong," he says happily.

"I want to call the rally 'Enough Is Enough.' Think about it — on spring break, we could get a lot of people to come out here. But it can't just be African-Americans. We need whites, Haitians, everybody. Everybody has to come together."

Strobridge says he never forgets that he could easily be on the other side, one of the confused and embattled, still swept up in a sea of mindless violence. He's been there. But one afternoon, an extraordinary thing happened to him to change everything.

It happened in English IV class, not long before graduation. The teacher broke up the students into groups for a project.

"I was trying to graduate, and the school was kicking everybody out for fighting, both Haitian and American," he remembers. "The group I was put in was split up between Haitians and Americans. And we didn't want to be tied up with Haitians, and Haitians didn't want to be tied up with us. The atmosphere was so thick with hatred, nobody said anything."

Across the table was a student named Jean-Paul Pierre, whom Strobridge had fought on a high school basketball court before. Pierre suddenly broke the silence.

"We ain't never going to be able to achieve anything in life if we keep fighting and tearing each other down," he said to no one in particular.

Those words hit Strobridge hard. He had no idea how much he wanted to hear them. "Yeah, man, you're right," he remembers saying at the table. "Our kids won't even be able to hang out. It's almost like we're practicing racism on ourselves."

Strobridge and Pierre, who would become friends and classmates at FAU, made a peace pact: "We said that from this day forward, we were going to edify one another instead of tearing each other down."

And Strobridge's war really did end on that day.

The work, though, had just begun.

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