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Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder

Corey Graham Jr. walked into a Belle Glade grocery store at 6:30 a.m. on the second day of the new year to commit what should have been an ordinary crime.

Graham was 19, fresh out of high school, and built like the offensive lineman he had been at Glades Central. With his broad shoulders and long dreads, Graham carried an ungainly 260 pounds and was far too tall to blend into the grocery aisles. A hooded sweatshirt hid his hair, and a blue-and-white bandanna covered his nose and mouth.

He pointed a revolver at the store clerk and barked at her to empty the cash register. "Right now!" She pulled out the cash drawer and set it on the counter. Done.

Except she was not alone. She wouldn't be, because the shop's owner was there 16 hours a day, watching over the store that had been in his family for seven decades. Trying to rob this shop, a landmark in a dirt-poor town on the western edge of Palm Beach County, could never be an ordinary crime.

The Alabama Georgia Grocery Store was named after the people who migrated south decades ago to work in Belle Glade's tomato and sugar cane fields. Much of the fieldwork has since dried up, able hands replaced by efficient machines. The Glades cities south of Lake Okeechobee now have a 40 percent unemployment rate. The area has become a place the rest of South Florida knows for its propensity to churn out NFL football stars and violent crime.

Graham was one of many kids who never made it as a football star. Now he was giving crime a try. But he badly miscalculated his chances.

When he fled the grocery that morning, the floor was stained with blood. Belle Glade was wracked with pain. Sins long ignored were now on display for the world to see: crushing poverty, hopelessness, racial tension, rising violence. The small, proud town was facing a crisis no one knew if it could handle.

On the 42-mile drive from West Palm Beach to Belle Glade, palm trees give way to plots of rich, brown soil interrupted by shoots of young green sugar cane. Clusters of corn stalks form straw-colored walls, blocking the view from the road.

Out here, the sky stretches to the end of the Earth. Farmers are burning cane after the winter harvest, and a plume of brown smoke rises from the fields like a twister on the horizon. In town, clouds of smoke from the burning crops mingle with the smell of manure. Visitors are greeted by the barbed-wire fence of the Palm Beach County Jail and the Glades Work Camp. There's a handful of old-fashioned farmhouses and then the arched, faded sign: "Welcome to Belle Glade. Her soil is her fortune."

The enormous, white, wooden frame of the Community United Methodist Church takes up the length of a city block at the intersection of Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Next comes a tiny Dixie Fried Chicken restaurant, a liquor store, a humble, block-lettered sign for Brown's Take Out Home Cooking. Aluminum foil covers the windows of apartment buildings, and swarms of men wander the streets in the middle of the afternoon.

The drab gray of the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store is easy to miss. In the lot behind the store, a group of men gathers around card tables with buckets of beer, eating peanuts and swapping gossip to pass the time. A rooster pecks the ground behind them. A stray cat climbs over a discarded couch. "The jobs 'round here ain't enough for the people in this town," says Calvin Leggett, a man with torn work pants and dirt ingrained in his hands. "That's why we sit up under the trees and drink beer."

This town was built to support sugar and tomato plantations. Today, it's home to an uneasy mix of wealthy farmers; a shrinking middle class of teachers, nurses, and fishermen; and people so poor that they can't scrape together $3 for a bus ride. Migrant workers come from Mexico and Haiti to pick tomatoes and plant sugar cane. They work for slave wages, live in squalid apartments, use buckets to catch rainwater when the utility bill gets too high. More than half of Belle Glade's population is black, and a third is Hispanic. Census data shows that wealth resides in the hands of a few landowners; 15 percent of the city's households earn more than $75,000 a year, while 43 percent earn less than $25,000.

Leggett has been in Belle Glade all his life, and now some flecks of gray sprinkle his goatee. During the growing season, he used to cut cane and drive tractors through the sugar fields. That changed in the mid-'90s, with a wave of public outcry and lawsuits over the treatment of farm workers hunched over in the muck, whacking at cane stalks with machetes. Local growers responded by replacing most of their laborers with machines. Leggett still spends long hours in the packinghouse when the corn comes in. But when the harvest ends, so do paychecks. He now works as a plumber when he can.

Belle Glade's plight is similar to America in 1933, the worst point of the Great Depression. A staggering 33 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, which is a yearly income of about $22,000 for a family of four. By contrast, 18 percent of people in West Palm Beach live below the poverty level. In August 2009, Palm Beach County planners produced a report declaring an economic crisis in Belle Glade and neighboring towns South Bay and Pahokee. With an estimated unemployment rate of 40 percent, the report claims that the Glades region has "no visible means of support."

The planners pointed to a few bright spots on the horizon: A planned "inland port" distribution center, where freight from the coastal shipping industry would be sorted and routed on land; a new Glades Utility Authority; a new public hospital; and a canal dredging project to support the marine industry. But three years later, even these few economic advances have floundered. The inland port plan is on hold, the utility is on the brink of bankruptcy, the hospital loses $10 million a year, and the canal has not been dredged. In some ways, things have gotten worse. The state-run Glades Correctional Institution closed last year, shedding 300 vital jobs. Packinghouses have disappeared too.

In other words, the community is still in crisis, says Karis Engle, executive director of the nonprofit Glades Initiative. Her organization focuses on helping people get Medicaid, food stamps, rent assistance, and other health and human services. But she admits any real improvement is tied to jobs.

"Jobs are part of having a healthy community," she says. "We've got a long way to go."

Then there's the violence. While the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office says overall crime in Belle Glade has decreased since 2009, the number of homicides has tripled.

In 2009, there were three murders; the next year, there were four. In 2011, the total ballooned to nine. By comparison, the City of West Palm Beach, with a population about six times larger than Belle Glade's, had 19 murders in 2010. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Belle Glade's crime rate per 100,000 people was 9,389 in 2010, compared to 5,700 for West Palm.

In a country town of five-and-half square miles and just 17,700 people, every death leaves a mark. When someone gets shot, people are loath to tell the cops what they know. The distrust of law enforcement goes back decades. Right or wrong, there's a widespread perception that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office doesn't do enough to keep people safe — especially if the people dying are black.

"To me, it feel like they don't give a damn," Leggett says.

The Alabama Georgia Grocery Store has been on this stretch of road since the 1940s, before it was called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Some old-timers remember the store as a wooden shack. Now it's gray and blue paint over concrete, with old-fashioned block lettering on one side advertising "money orders, lottery, FPL payment." Inside, its shelves are stocked with country staples: white bread, cereal, boiled peanuts, ribbons of ground red meat in the display case.

Owner Jimmy McMillan, the 49-year-old great-grandson of the store's founder, worked hard to make sure things ran smoothly. As a white businessman in a black neighborhood, he hired black employees and kept them on for decades. He got to know customers' parents and grandparents, helped them out when times were tough. A champion bass fisherman, he would sometimes give customers his catch of the day. He was in the store the morning of January 2, when Graham tried to rob the clerk, Barbara Treadway, who happened to be McMillan's mother-in-law.

McMillan reached for something behind the counter. Graham spotted him and trained his gun on him. He tossed over a plastic bag and ordered McMillan to fill it with cash.

McMillan was not a man to back down from a fight. Sure, he let loyal customers buy groceries on credit and sometimes gave them food. He handed out turkeys at Thanksgiving and every Christmas tossed cases of beer to the men who hung out behind the store. But he was not timid — not even when threatened with a deadly weapon.

He emptied the cash register as told. Then, according to police, McMillan reached for Graham's gun. The teenager jumped back. He squeezed the trigger.

The bullet struck McMillan in the right shoulder. He collapsed to the ground. At 6:35 a.m., the sheriff's substation in Belle Glade called 911 to report the shooting. An emergency helicopter whisked McMillan to Delray Medical Center, where he died from his injuries.

Graham ran out of the store, the plastic bag of cash in hand.

Over the next several days, Belle Glade erupted in mourning. McMillan's longtime customers, most of them black, brought flowers and wrote messages on a makeshift memorial outside the grocery store. Hundreds of people attended McMillan's funeral. There were prayer walks and tearful, televised pleas from the McMillan family.

"We call for an end to this violence," the Rev. Robert Rease implored at one vigil.

Newspaper reporters and television crews trooped out to Belle Glade day after day, portraying McMillan as a hero in a broken town. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw offered a $25,000 reward for information that led to an arrest — more than twice the amount his office offered to find a serial rapist that has been terrorizing women for three years. The money stirred long-pent-up frustration with the cops. Many people in the community suspected the sheriff was eager to solve the case because McMillan was white and well-known. Two other, lesser-known clerks had been killed in recent years — one of them just blocks from the Alabama Georgia Grocery — and their cases remain unsolved. There was a reward of just $1,000 offered to find the killer of Carl "Jeff" Edwards in 2007, and the same amount was offered when Ali Kassem Ballout was shot in 2010.

Ultimately, an anonymous tipster called in to suggest Graham was the shooter. Sheriff's deputies brought the teenager, who had no rap sheet, in for questioning. While he talked, they noticed tattoos on his hand that matched the shooter's. The ink spelled Errica, Graham's mother's name.

They got a search warrant to photograph Graham's body. This time, his parents accompanied him to the police station. His mom, Errica Hearns, lives five blocks from the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store. His dad, Corey Graham Sr., lives west of Riviera Beach but used to cheer for his son at football games and make sure he kept his grades up.

It was Graham's dad who finally coaxed a confession, according to the sheriff's office.

"Why did you do it?" Corey Graham Sr. asked his son.

"For the money," Graham replied.

"Why did you shoot the man?"

"He reached for the gun."

Bradshaw and State Attorney Michael McAuliffe held an 11 p.m. news conference January 7 to announce Graham's arrest on charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a firearm, and aggravated assault with a firearm. Both men wore tuxedos, having rushed over to the jail from a fundraiser on Palm Beach. Their slick hair and pressed white collars made them seem all the more removed from the Belle Glade residents who had helped them solve the crime.

"The cooperation from the community was essential," Bradshaw gushed.

"This could be a turning point for us in winning community support," McAuliffe said.

It sounded like wishful thinking.

Sherrie Dulany speaks with a Southern drawl, slow as honey and wide as the fields of cane. She grew up in Belle Glade and raced back after college, homesick for the town where neighbors stop to help when your car stalls and phone when they see your kid misbehaving.

When she takes her daughter to gymnastics classes in Wellington, the other parents gasp when she mentions she's from Belle Glade. "Aren't you terrified to live there?" they ask.

Dulany insists she is not. "I don't think people realize the amount of love and sense of community there is out here," she says. "There are just very warm and caring people."

Yet McMillan's death shook her. Here was a man, just eight years older than she, who tried to help the community — giving away the fish he caught, paying for a neighborhood kid to go on a field trip. If he could be gunned down, was anyone safe?

"Things seemed to be getting of out of hand for a while," she says. "I guess, to me, what happened with Jimmy was just the straw that broke the camel's back. It just seemed extremely senseless to me."

In the days after his death, Dulany started a Facebook page called Take Back Belle Glade/The Glades Communities. More than 620 people have joined it. She posts information about meetings and antiviolence rallies and uses the page to recruit members for a citizens police academy, designed to help educate residents about what the cops really do. She serves on a citizens advisory board, acting as a liaison between the police and the community, and recruits volunteers for a citizens observers patrol, which reports suspicious behavior on the streets to the cops.

A former city commissioner, Dulany knows residents don't think the cops burn enough shoe leather in Belle Glade. Some deputies are sent out to the western community as punishment; others realize that Belle Glade residents — including migrants and ex-felons — are not a voting bloc the sheriff courts.

"Bradshaw doesn't give a crap about the western communities," says Mark Dougan, a former sheriff's deputy who worked in Belle Glade before leaving the force in 2008.

Yet Dulany says the deputies are busier than they appear, working undercover, tracking gangs. "There's a lot of misconceptions out there in the community about what PBSO does," she says.

She and other residents point out that crime is not unique to Belle Glade. Sheriff's officials told Dulany there were more shootings in West Palm Beach than in her town. But Belle Glade's small size — and a per-capita crime rate that's dramatically higher than West Palm's — makes the violence feel more intimate.

"It doesn't make you feel any safer, but it does make you realize it's not an isolated problem," Dulany says.

Dulany knows that the roots of Belle Glade's problems run deep. She's an elementary-school special-ed teacher and tutors some of her students for years after they leave her classroom. One young black man ended up breaking her heart.

She tutored Leonard all through high school. He had emotional and behavioral problems, didn't trust white people or police officers. But he trusted Dulany, who is white. When he came to her house for tutoring, he brought her 3-year-old daughter cookies and candies. Dulany introduced him to a friend who was a sheriff's deputy. The man gave Leonard his personal phone number and told the teenager to call if he was in trouble.

But trouble came anyway. Leonard dropped out of high school. He got caught pawning jewelry that did not belong to him. "I wrote him a letter in jail every single day," Dulany says. He wrote back, "Ms. Dulany, I want to get out of here, and I want to be the person you believe I can be." Dulany starts to cry while recalling it.

A month after his arrest, Leonard was playing basketball in jail. He collapsed on the court. An enlarged heart, the sheriff's officials said.

Leonard's dad called Dulany with the news. Her student was dead. "It was very hard," she says.

There are so many other kids like Leonard. If Dulany's efforts can save just a few, she'll be happy. "If everyone can take on a child and be with them... hopefully, we'll have more of that," she says.

Before he walked into the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store on January 2, Corey Graham Jr. was one of those kids. When he was young, he lived with his mom in the Glades and visited his dad on weekends. An argument with his mom's boyfriend sent Corey to live with his dad when he was 15. Errica Hearns said she was tired of her son, according to court testimony from a later custody battle. "The child was disrespectful, and she could not have him in her home anymore," court documents indicate Hearns told Corey Graham Sr.

Corey's dad and grandmother live in a four-bedroom ranch house on a sprawling plot of land in the horse country west of Riviera Beach. Corey Graham Sr. worked in sanitation before he had a stroke in 2007. Grandma was an educator who had also worked with people on probation and parole. Her house seemed a different universe from Belle Glade. When Corey stayed with them, Dad and Grandma told the court, the teenager earned good grades at Glades Central, obeyed his curfew, and spent his free time at home reading, playing computer games, and talking to friends on the phone. He played football and ran track, with his dad cheering from the sidelines.

But when Corey was living with his mom, his grades would slip. Their relationship appeared to be tumultuous. In October 2009, when Corey was 16, he asked the judge if he could live with his dad and grandmother permanently. A few months later, before the request was granted, Corey had another fight with Hearns' boyfriend. Hearns locked the boy out of the house, barring him from getting his clothes inside. According to court documents, Hearns told Graham Sr. to take their son because "she didn't care anymore." (Hearns and Graham Sr. declined to comment for this article.) She never showed up for the next custody hearing.

Finally, when Corey was 17, his dad won primary custody. A year later, the teenager graduated high school. But there was no football scholarship waiting for him. Instead, he enrolled in Palm Beach State College and started staying with his mom in Belle Glade. Her apartment was a few blocks from the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store.

The City of Belle Glade has no movie theater, no mall, no skating rink. Aside from the football field, there are few options to keep kids off the streets.

On a recent weekday afternoon, clumps of teenagers gather on the sidewalk near the basketball court in Lakeshore Park. Trash litters the grass. Insects nip at ankles in the warm, swampy evening. "We'd rather be here than out there," one of the kids says, pointing over the apartment buildings toward Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Sitting nearby is Delvin Kyles, wearing a tight white T-shirt, diamond earring, and goatee. The Glades Central senior bristles at the notion that Belle Glade is nothing but football and crime. He points out that his school recently improved its state grade from a D to a B, for the first time in its history. "They think it's all about sports. But why can't we be doctors and lawyers?" he says, looking a stranger straight in the eye.

Five minutes away on the tiny Belle Glade campus of Palm Beach State College, a pair of cousins tries to prove the same point. Woody and Harvey Johnson sit outside laughing and studying at one of the tables that overlook the campus parking lot. Woody is 20, seeking a degree in criminal justice or business administration. Harvey, 21, wants to be a chemical engineer.

The cousins live at home, study, go to church, and don't have time for much else. They enrolled here because they couldn't afford other schools, but the community college's resources are scarce. Harvey is planning to transfer to a college on the coast next semester, but he worries about paying for the hourlong bus ride east.

"It's very limited options out here," Harvey admits.

Still, the cousins are looking at bright futures. Neither of them buys the argument that football is the only way out of the Glades, nor do they think crime — such as the shooting Corey Graham Jr. is accused of committing — is the only other option.

"Well, he made a decision," Woody says, staring straight ahead, his tone somber. "He had the power to change that around. Every man is held accountable for his actions."

In Belle Glade, there are many ways for a person to stray from the right path. Some stumble into trouble early and never find their way back again. Four days after Graham was arrested for the murder of Jimmy McMillan, prosecutors accused a second man of tampering with evidence, tampering with a witness, and serving as "an accessory after the fact" to the crime.

The suspect was 20-year-old Johnathan Jones, a man with a lengthy rap sheet who lives around the corner from the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store. When he was 14, he brought a weapon to school, was arrested for burglary three years later, then pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon in 2009. In October 2010, he was accused of murdering an 18-year-old in a drive-by shooting. He sat in jail until July 2011, when, according to the State Attorney's Office, a key witness refused to provide additional information to the cops and the charges were dropped. Jones had been home only five months when McMillan was killed.

His mom, Betty Hardwick, says she kept a watchful eye on Jones when he got out of jail. She urged him to get his GED and says he was taking welding classes at the West Technical Education Center before the center shut down. Meanwhile, he took care of his 1-year-old daughter and worked odd jobs mowing grass and laying sod for his uncle in West Palm Beach.

On a February afternoon, Hardwick ushers a visitor past her crowded kitchen to a cramped formal dining room with flowers on the table, fancy red place mats, and cracked tile on the floor. She moves an ironing board so her guest can sit on a chair with a plastic-covered seat. Soon, her 27-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, and a friend stop by for a visit.

Hardwick has kind, hazel eyes and a weary face above her faded hospital scrubs. She raised six kids and has seven grandchildren. She pays the bills by working at a nursing home in Clewiston. Across the street from her tiny house is a decrepit apartment building with aluminum foil covering some windows like black eyes. Men linger on the balconies.

Like many in Belle Glade, Hardwick and her family don't trust the police. She says her son is a good kid who was wrongly accused of the drive-by shooting in 2010. "They kept him in [jail] for over a year for something he didn't do," she says.

Considering Jones' arrest record, it's tough to know what's true. But Hardwick makes a fair point about the circumstances surrounding her son's latest arrest. A probable-cause affidavit gives the impression that he was charged as an accessory to McMillan's murder primarily because of the accusations of Corey Graham Jr.'s mother.

Errica Hearns told police that she'd discovered a handgun in her son's room two days after the murder. Graham pleaded with his mom for the gun, saying Jones wanted it back. Jones was outside her house during this conversation. Hearns told police she overheard Jones say, "I'm going to fuck her up and the family." Fearing she would be killed, Hearns gave her son the gun.

The probable-cause affidavit doesn't mention fingerprints, phone records, or other evidence to back up Hearns' account of events. It does say that Jones was in the Alabama Georgia Grocery buying a book of matches eight minutes before the robbery began.

The morning of McMillan's murder, Hardwick says her son went to the grocery store to buy a lighter and a pacifier for his daughter. Then he came back home. "Mama, I didn't do nothing," Hardwick remembers him saying later, when police began calling.

"That's why I don't know what's going on," she adds.

Agitated, she disappears into a backroom for several minutes to dig out some papers and returns with printouts showing Jones' old report cards. "He gets good grades," she says. In a town where everyone knows one another, she hates to think people would blame her son for what happened to McMillan. "I don't put my head down. I hold my head up, and I read the Bible," she says, sitting at the dining-room table. "I don't care what people say about me."

But as the conversation wears on, Hardwick drops her head in her hands. Robinson stands behind her in the small room, reminiscing about growing up in a neighborhood where there were free art and recreation programs for the kids, trips to the movies and the park on weekends. That program ended a decade ago. Now teenagers in Belle Glade end up hanging out in nightclubs or on the street. "You ain't got nothing for these young kids," Robinson says.

Hardwick's voice grows muffled, close to tears. She's ready to get out of Belle Glade, the town that seems to brew trouble for her son. Jones and Graham have both pleaded not guilty and are in jail awaiting trial. "When God bring my baby home safe, I'm gonna leave," Hardwick says.

A month after McMillan's death, the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store is open for business again. The makeshift memorial of flowers and scrawled messages is gone, and for the first time in its history, the store is for sale. McMillan's widow is ready for someone else to take over, according to McMillan's sister and family spokesperson, Connie Deaton.

Inside the shop, a short, wiry man with curly white hair and glasses stands behind the counter. "How you doin'? You doin' all right?" a customer asks him.

Wilson McMillan, Jimmy's dad, speaks in a soft, scratchy voice. He's bursting with pride about the fishing competition his 16-year-old grandson will compete in that week. Jimmy was supposed to enter the contest too. Three years ago, Jimmy won a $100,000 bass-fishing prize on Lake Okeechobee after being named Angler of the Year in the FLW Series Eastern Division, Wilson brags.

"Jimmy always fished," he says. "That's all he ever wanted to do."

Wilson's voice is shaking. He says he wanted Jimmy to go away to college, but his son insisted on staying in Belle Glade, clerking beside him. "He was done with school," Wilson remembers.

Ten years ago, Jimmy bought the store from his dad. Running the shop gave him the freedom and steady income to fish whenever he could, Deaton says.

Wilson McMillan has a different hobby. He shoots targets at Markham Park in Fort Lauderdale. His love of guns is well-known in Belle Glade, and he's not shy about using the weapons. If he had been working that morning of the robbery, Wilson McMillan says, "I'd 'a had a field day."

Outside, behind the store, Calvin Leggett is in his usual spot, under the tree with his friends. The bucket of beer is propped on the card table. Someone brought a bag of peanuts.

Leggett liked Jimmy McMillan. He was grateful for the store owner's hospitality and the cases of beer he distributed every Christmas. But he's not sure one man's murder will bring the change so badly needed in Belle Glade.

There are still no jobs, still too many young men wandering aimlessly along the streets. Leggett complains that the sheriff's deputies huddle their cars in one spot instead of patrolling the neighborhood more. He says violence in the area calmed down right after the murder, but he has little reason to believe it's gone for good.

"After [McMillan] got killed, it stopped for a minute," Leggett says. "I imagine it's gonna start back up."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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