Don't walk around after dark, friends warned me. Stay away from certain neighborhoods.
Outsiders who have not spent much time in Belle Glade have an image of the small, rural town that is full or fear. But I visited the city on the western edge of Palm Beach County several times to report this week's New Times cover story and never found it to be a frightening place. Most of the people I met were friendly and open, eager to counter negative impressions of their town.
Driving west from West Palm Beach on a rainy afternoon in February, I watched as the clouds cleared and the downpour subsided as palm trees gave way to sugar-cane fields along State Road 80.
One of my first stops was the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store, where owner Jimmy
McMillan was shot and killed on January 2. The shop is a humble, gray-and-blue concrete building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, selling country staples such as white bread and ground meat.
Men standing by their trucks in the parking lot stopped to chat. They explained that opinions were as plentiful as people in their town.
McMillan's father, Wilson, was working inside the store. A compact, wiry man with white hair and a soft voice, he was reluctant to talk at first. "I get too emotional," he said.
But then he followed me out to my car to discuss Jimmy -- a bass-fishing champion -- and the store, where Wilson McMillan has worked for more than 50 years. "You don't cheat people. You treat 'em right," he said of his family's success with the business.
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Betty Hardwick lives a couple of blocks from the store, on a street where apartment windows are covered in aluminum foil and grown men linger on balconies in the middle of the day. Her son, 20-year-old Johnathan Jones, has been charged as an "accessory after the fact" for the murder of McMillan, accused in a probable-cause affidavit of providing the gun that killed the shop owner.
Hardwick was standing in her driveway, getting ready to run some errands, when a stranger arrived, questioning her about her son.
"Come on in," she said, leading me past her cramped kitchen to a small, formal dining room. Hardwick, her daughter, and a friend sat and talked for more than an hour about Jones and what it was like to grow up and raise kids in Belle Glade.
When we finished, it was past 6 p.m. Hardwick offered to escort me to my car. She was worried for my safety. I thanked her but said it was no problem. I was not afraid.