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Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder

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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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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