Dead End

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"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.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman