On a rainy Thursday morning in August, Tangela Sears parks her Mitsubishi SUV in front of a small yellow house on a quiet street in Liberty City. Her grandfather bought the home about six decades ago. Sears was raised there. She raised her own son David there, too, and had long planned to pass the house on to him as a financial safeguard in case something ever happened to her.
Sears, who is 49 years old, with dimpled, full cheeks and a petite frame, walks silently up the driveway. She wears a black head wrap over her hair, a loose T-shirt, and shorts. A longtime political consultant and community activist, she's known for her tenacity and vivaciousness, but today her large brown eyes are eerily vacant. She's more than an hour late for a meeting with a reporter, but barely seems aware that time exists at all.
"Some days are better than others," she says a few minutes later, her voice slow and somber. "I was raised in the church, and we were taught to love. But it's a lot of hatred. It's a lot of bitterness. And it's turned me into a different person."
For two decades, nobody has been a stronger or more consistent advocate in Miami's black community. Sears has fought tirelessly on issues such as HIV, education, and, especially, gun violence, developing a unique rapport with politicians and the vulnerable community they often struggle to reach. She has organized panels and conferences, appeared frequently in the media, and provided unceasing love and support to dozens of shooting victims and their families.
"She tries to give a voice to the voiceless," says Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a close friend. "And she's done a wonderful job."
But Sears has also weathered her own tragedies. Her brother lost his life to the AIDS crisis. Her mother died after a botched illicit silicone injection.
And now she's fallen victim to exactly the kind of senseless violence she's spent years fighting: David, her only child, was killed in a shooting this past May in Tallahassee.
His death came amid a national surge in violence. Homicide rates have climbed this year in more than 30 major cities, from Baltimore to St. Louis to Milwaukee, prompting worries that a decades-long downward trend in murders could be reversing. In Miami, too, it's been a bloody few months. This past May, one teenager was killed and four others wounded after being shot during a craps game in a Liberty City courtyard; two months later, two young men were killed and seven wounded in another mass shooting in the same neighborhood; in August, a Miami 14-year-old was charged with killing his 15-year-old friend; in September, two Miami Northwestern Senior High students were murdered three days and a few blocks apart.
Throughout the tragedies, Miami's loudest voice against urban bloodshed has been reeling, unsure whether she'll ever find the strength to fight again.
"People say to me now: 'You got to get back out there and fight. You got to be active. You got to do this,'?" Sears says. "But my child was my cause. I'm here to fight for these black boys 'cause I have one... so what am I fighting for?"
Sears has always been a unifier. And feisty. She was born in 1965, after her mother Vera got pregnant as a 16-year-old high-school student. But Sears didn't meet her real dad until she was a teenager. Because her grandfather didn't accept his daughter's pregnancy, he ordered Sears' biological father to stay away from the family; a few years later, Vera got married to another man, who Sears was always led to believe was her father.
She was 14 when she finally found out her life had been a lie. There was a couple in church who kept referring to her as their granddaughter, whom she had assumed were crazy. But one day Sears decided to ask Vera's mother about the couple. "I think it's time for you to know the truth," she replied. "That is your grandmother."
Sears was irate. She reached out to her biological father, then marched him up to her family's front porch. "Do you know this man?" she asked her grandfather. He was stunned, but once the dust settled, a new relationship was forged between Sears' biological dad and the rest of her family. "I brought the bond back," she says.
As an adolescent, Sears was always active in the church and at school, where she played clarinet and joined various clubs; she was also surrounded by strong examples of local community engagement. Her mother, always passionate about politics, had a long career with the Miami-Dade County Organization of Community and Economic Development; her aunt, Sandy Sears, rose to become a top administrator for Jackson Health System; and her stepfather was a local high-school principal.
"It really leads you in no direction but being involved," Sears says.
In the yellow house in Liberty City, Sears grew close to her young mother and even closer to her little brother Denard, who was six years younger. The two stuck up for each other, and Sears would often sneak out of her room at night to sleep near him, or vice versa. It only made sense, then, that Tangela — around the time she was starting high school — was the first to realize Denard was gay. "We couldn't do without each other," Sears says. "He kept me laughing."
The summer after graduating high school, she took a job at Burger King, where she met a funny, boisterous young man named David Queen, and the two began hanging out and goofing around between shifts.
"David told me when I first met him that I was going to have his child," Sears says. He was joking, of course, and Sears — who had never even seriously dated — initially brushed him off. But soon enough, the two were dating. Sears moved in with Queen in Miami Beach, then moved with him to New York, his hometown.
Sears was 21 when she discovered she was pregnant. Nine months later, after lying to Queen and her mother about receiving prenatal care because she was so terrified of doctors, she passed out in the hospital after a protracted labor. "David went down and named the baby," she says.
Sears and her two Davids moved back to Miami to be closer to her family. Her baby's father was a good man, Sears says, who was respectful and wanted to provide for her family. But soon after returning to Florida, he got caught up in the crack epidemic and started regularly pressuring Tangela and her friends for money.
One time, Sears returned from the store with diapers and left the receipt on the kitchen table; when she came back from the bathroom, the Pampers, the receipt, and her son's father were gone. She broke things off after she discovered he had taken her grandfather's gun from its hiding place in the closet. Within a few years, the elder Queen had developed a rap sheet of theft, burglary, and drug charges, for which he's spent years incarcerated. "He's never been a part of his [son's] life," Sears says.
Yet even as a busy single mother, Sears' career and activism blossomed. As a young woman, she made a name for herself working at the Department of Children and Families before beginning a career as a local political consultant.
She was already a force in Miami's black community — networking, organizing town halls, contributing to campaigns — when her personal life motivated her to take up a new cause: Her brother Denard was diagnosed with HIV. (Sears sensed it even before he did, she says, and persuaded him to get tested.) In May 1996, Denard died of AIDS. Sears was crushed. But she was also motivated. She cold-called the future U.S. congresswoman Frederica Wilson, at the time a school board member who had made HIV/AIDS education a focus, and told her she wanted to join forces. "She was very persuasive," Wilson says. "She won me over."
The two became close while working together to organize forums and policy changes, including mandatory testing of prisoners who were being released. Over the years, they would adopt many causes together, including spearheading efforts to pursue justice for Rilya Wilson, a 4-year-old foster girl who went missing in 2001. Wilson and Sears worked on the case for more than a decade. Rilya was never found, but her caretaker, Geralyn Graham, was convicted of kidnapping and child abuse.
Sears met Rundle after approaching her at a campaign event in the late '90s. The state attorney was impressed by Sears' good intentions and her mettle. "I always called her sort of a diamond in the rough," Rundle says. "She's like a little mighty mouse."
Their bond strengthened in March 2001, when Sears faced another, even more unexpected tragedy: Her mother, 53 and healthy, died suddenly after attending a "pumping party" — a gathering where women received illegal, and dangerous, silicone injections from an unauthorized provider.
Once again, Sears spiraled into a deep grief — and once again, she found a new energy, throwing herself into the prosecution of the person she held responsible. She attended every legal hearing, read every brief, and called Rundle practically nightly for advice and support. (Rundle's office wasn't working the case.) "I was able, and I was happy to do it," Rundle says. "I had lost my mother, and she was there for me." After more than two years of Sears' efforts as a judicial hound dog, Mark Hawkins was convicted of third-degree murder, although the conviction was later downgraded on appeal.
Sears also emerged as Miami's staunchest anti-violence advocate, buoyed by her position as president of the African American Grassroots Organization, which she took over in the late 1980s. She regularly appeared on local TV news shows to plead with politicians for safer streets and better enforcement of laws. She's lobbied for changes in legislation, including an amendment to a decades-old national gang prosecution law that would expand federal authorities' ability to pursue street violence cases. Around the holidays in 2011, years before the wave of demonstrations against police shootings swept America, she organized a rally after seven local black men were killed in eight months by Miami Police.
"We want to see more work done by the city to stop this type of policing," Sears said then. "We are tired of burying our black sons, brothers, nephews, and fathers at the hands of City of Miami cops."
Along the way, Sears also assumed what became her most important role — acting as a support system for the families of dozens of black youths slain or injured in the streets. "Mothers would call me, and I would walk them through the system as if it was mine," she says.
When Annette Jackson's son Fred Killings was gunned down in August 2013, Sears called as soon as she heard Jackson was suffering. "She came to my house... making sure that I was OK because I almost had a nervous breakdown," Jackson says. "Whenever I needed her, she was just there."
Last December, after 16-year-old Bryce Brewton was shot in the head by a spray of gunfire while playing pickup basketball, Sears met with Brewton's family the same week. She connected his mom Traci with police and later organized an anti-violence conference, inviting Traci to be a panelist. "It really meant a great deal to me," Traci says of Sears' involvement. "She's a remarkable woman."
Just this past February, when 9-year-old Amonie Wilson was inadvertently hit by an unmarked police car while she was crossing the street in Miami Gardens, it was Sears who reached out to Wilson's family, putting them in touch with an attorney, helping the girl get a wheelchair — even making sure Wilson was enrolled in homeschooling. "She just took care of it," says Dee Dee Steed, Wilson's mom. "She's a very sweet woman, and she's knowledgeable."
More than practical help, though, Sears, again and again, offered sympathy. "I can't imagine what you're going through," she would say.
One day in 1996 at Moore Park, a wedge of green space tucked between I-95 and NW 36th Street, 10-year-old David Queen Jr. looked over at some hurdles lined up for the older kids on his club track tream. He was small for his age but exceptionally fast and adventuresome. He walked up to the hurdles and began playing around, trying out different jumping techniques. He didn't know it, but the team's coach, Jesse Holt, was watching. Holt soon showed him the right way to jump: one leg extended straight while the other swivels around behind. "He was a natural," the legendary coach says.
Pretty soon, Queen was competing against older kids because hurdling wasn't included in the races for 10-year-olds; by the time he was 12, he was among the nation's best hurdlers in his age group. At one top national meet in Baton Rouge, he placed second; at another meet, an international race in Miami, he set a course record that still stands.
"He definitely was the fastest kid in Florida," Holt says. And at virtually every meet, Sears was on the sidelines cheering. Before his races, she says, David "looked up, and as he ran, he looked over. God was up, and Mama was over."
As an adolescent, David was overprotective of his single mother, once even defending her on Facebook in a political debate. He was an ace at math, played football, and had a lot of friends, including eventual Olympic hurdler Bershawn "Batman" Jackson. A likable young man with Tangela's round cheeks and gregariousness, David attended Miami Northwestern Senior High, where kids from different neighborhoods — Liberty Square, Brownsville, the Scott Projects — generally kept to themselves in what Dr. Steve Gallon, the assistant principal at the time, calls "factions." But not David, who moved seamlessly between groups, disarming everyone.
"He was a unifier," Gallon says. "I think it was his smile and his Afro."
David was a good student, and funny — "the life of the party," Gallon says — and developed a close relationship with Gallon when a friend of David's began getting rides home from the assistant principal. Soon David was tagging along, and the three would eat burgers or talk about life over games of pool, where the young man — like his peers, too often surrounded by the influence of gangs and drugs — impressed his mentor with his maturity and clear sense of direction.
"He was raised right," Gallon says. "I had no doubt David was going to be fine, not only in school but in life."
And he was. After high school, David moved to Tallahassee to attend Florida A&M University, where he studied criminal justice. In late 2007, his third year, he also met a pretty, soft-spoken student named Britney Houston, a local pastor's daughter. "He had such a big heart," Houston says. "He was family-oriented... He shared the same values. That was something that just drew me to him."
The young couple laughed a lot and went to church together. They took a road trip to Atlanta, and David, stubbornly refusing to use his GPS, ended up lost in Alabama — but they just laughed about that, too. In late 2008, Britney got pregnant, and David dropped out of FAMU, later enrolling in online classes so he could work to help support the coming baby. In August 2009, a beautiful little girl, Zanaa, was born, and David became, by all accounts, the world's best dad.
"He said to me," Sears remembers, "?'I didn't have a father. I don't know what being a father is. So I'm just going to be the best I can be.' To him it was just giving his daughter the world."
Every year, David — who worked for a cleaning company — took Houston and Zanaa to Disney World. Earlier this year, during a trip to the Miami-Dade County Fair, David turned his head for a second to speak with his cousin and turned back around to find his 5-year-old daughter missing. He rushed to find a fair police officer and within three minutes had organized a search party, with multiple cops, bystanders, and officials scouring the grounds for the girl. A minute later, Zanaa turned up, asking what all the fuss was about: She had been just a few feet away, high in the air on a swing ride, watching the commotion from above.
Zanaa, who has large, expressive eyes and a megawatt smile — just like her dad — loves performing and goofing around, but she can also be shy. Once, David told her that whenever she felt afraid, she should think of him and he would protect her. "Are you like a superhero?" she asked. "Yeah, I'm just like a superhero," David answered.
"From that point on, she would just call him her Superman," Houston says.
When Zanaa was nervous about her first T-ball practice, her dad — Superman — showed her how to run the bases and swing the bat. When she was afraid the first day of school, Superman held her hand as they walked into the building. When she got her first loose tooth, Superman yanked it out.
In March, when David and Zanaa visited Sears in Miami during Zanaa's spring break, Sears and her son went shopping together in Aventura, where she bought him a pair of LeBron James sneakers. They went to Jazz in the Gardens at Sun Life Stadium and goofed around in front of the family's yellow house, taking selfies with Zanaa. A couple of months later, on Mother's Day, David sent his mom a text.
"I love you," he wrote. "You know you got the best son in the world."
Early in the afternoon of May 20, Sears got another text from her son. "What you doing?" The two texted back and forth; David told his mother he was on his way to get his dreadlocks taped. It didn't occur to her at the time that this was unusual — her son always got his hair taped on Fridays, and it was Wednesday. He was doing it early because the next day he planned to drive to Miami to surprise his mother.
That spring, as always, Sears had been busy. In late April, she attended a celebration for City of Miami Police lieutenants and met with local leaders, including Wilson, about the federal gang legislation amendment; in early May, she began organizing a forum, with several local pastors and a judge, to address local youth killings. "Black-on-black, senseless shootings are equally important as police shootings," she wrote.
Sears had no idea that another black-on-black shooting — the one that would change her world forever — was just around the corner.
An hour after getting the texts from her son, Sears' phone went off again. It was David's cousin Isabella, who lived in Tallahassee, shouting words that hit Sears like a lightning bolt. "Tan! Tan! You talk to your son?... I just got a call that Queen got shot!" Sears couldn't bear to hear anymore. She hung up.
Over the following days, a clearer picture would emerge of what had happened that afternoon, although many questions still remain. After texting Tangela and visiting the barber, David and a friend had gone to get lunch together, then driven back separately to David's apartment complex, the Plantations at Pine Lake, a leafy, middle-class complex with a pool and rocking chairs outside the front office.
Once they arrived, according to Leon County Police reports, David stopped by the laundry room to put his clothes in the dryer, then came out and chatted with a neighbor who was passing by. That's when a gray Jeep SUV pulled up next to David. "What are you looking at?" asked the driver, 28-year-old Michael Mason, a man David had never met who lived in the complex with his wife and had no criminal record in Leon County.
David and Mason exchanged words, and David motioned to his friend to get out of his car in case he needed help. But then the altercation seemed to be over: David and his friend got back into their cars and pulled away. After just 100 feet or so, though, David stopped by the mail kiosk and got out. Mason pulled up and began yelling through the window, then parked and also got out. Mason and David started shouting at each other; then Mason pulled out a .22-caliber Derringer, a small pistol.
From about four feet away, he shot David twice in the chest.
As David lay bleeding and moaning on the pavement, Mason called 911. He told the dispatcher he had just shot someone in self-defense: "The guy was coming at me like he was going to attack me." But as he spoke, Mason was interrupted: "Naw, naw, he didn't try to attack you, man!" David's friend yelled in the background.
After the panicked call from Isabella, Sears ignored a flurry of texts pleading for her to call back. Instead — still in a state of shock — she called Rev. Billy Strange, a close friend, and told him to come to her place. While Strange talked on the phone with Isabella in Tallahassee, Sears avoided looking at him, afraid of seeing his facial expression.
Then she told Strange she wanted to go to the yellow house, the home where she had raised her son. When she and Strange arrived, a group was already there waiting: friends, relatives, police. As Tangela walked up to the door, a uniformed officer walked toward her, unaware she hadn't yet heard the news. "I'm sorry," he said. "You have my deepest condolences."
Sears let out a scream, then collapsed in agony.
That night, little Zanaa sensed something was wrong. She lay in bed with her mother and asked if she was going to school tomorrow; the next morning, Zanaa told Britney she wanted to fetch her favorite book, Jazzy Miz Mozetta, about an older woman who wants to dance — the one that David would often read in animated voices. It was a few days later, on the big front porch at Houston's parents' house in the country, that Houston and her father told Zanaa the hardest words they've ever had to say: Her Superman was gone.
In the wake of her son's death, Sears has been enveloped by an outpouring of love and support. David's former high-school classmates put together a signed picture board; several Florida agencies, including the state house of representatives, have passed honorary resolutions in David's name; Frederica Wilson has set up a scholarship fund for Zanaa; Rundle has personally been in touch with Leon County prosecutors to make sure they do everything right.
But three months later, on that rainy morning in August, Sears' world was still destroyed, her continued role as Miami's most visible anti-gun-violence advocate still in doubt.
In the living room, she sat near two portraits of her son — one a small, recent picture of him flashing his megawatt smile, dreadlocks below his shoulders; the other a large, faded portrait of a 12-year-old David kneeling in his football jersey while a beaming Sears wraps her arm around him. For nearly three hours, she vacillated between utter despondency and pure rage.
"When you have lost your mother, your father, your brother — your child is your world," she said. "I've had a lot of suicidal thoughts... because I can't understand why am I still here?"
In Tallahassee, Mason was charged with second-degree murder just days after the shooting. Prosecutors didn't believe his claims of self-defense.
"The victim and suspect are similar in stature and size," a Tallahassee detective wrote in a probable cause affidavit. "There were no weapons found on or about the victim. [David] was not observed by any witnesses displaying a weapon. Given the facts above, this investigator cannot find a justification in this case to warrant the taking of another's life based upon a verbal altercation."
For days after her son's death, Sears said, she sent him texts, praying against all reality that a message would come back. She often can't sleep, she said, haunted by the image of her son's body in the morgue.
After years of fighting violence, Sears said, she was trying to stay strong — but she was on an emotional roller coaster, and sometimes the anger was overwhelming. She couldn't help but feel mixed emotions when her son's friends hinted at taking justice into their own hands if the system didn't.
"I'm angry every day that I have to wake up," she said. "I don't want to live in this world without my child."
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On Facebook, in the days following David's death, Sears posted extensively about the murder, and about the case that's become her new mission for justice, using the hashtag #ItsMineThisTime. On September 15 inside a conference room at a Miami-Dade Police station on NW 81st Street, Sears organized the first of a new weekly meeting for families of murdered youths. More than 20 mothers and fathers attended, and Sears sat in front, putting on a brave face.
But she was also a different woman. The death of her son has changed her, she says, and she doesn't know if she'll ever be able to fight with the same spirit she once had.
"Maybe when I get full understanding," Sears said that morning inside the yellow house. Sitting next to David's old room — and the portraits and the framed honorary resolutions and the picture boards — she still hadn't moved beyond the phone call that had come 99 days earlier, just an hour after she got the last text from her son.
"All I want to know is why?" she said. "Why?"