Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder

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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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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