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From sorrow, a mission

Three St. Petersburg women lost their sons to the streets. But their pain has given them purpose, and they now entreat other young men to help stop the violence.

Published June 28, 2006

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Denise Swisher, 35, lost her son Forbes "P-nut" Swisher, 18, when he was shot and killed on May 31. "No one can know what it feels like to lose a son," she said Tuesday as she handed out fliers in the Childs Park area of St. Petersburg.

Forbes Swisher

Michael Smith

Antonio Roberts

ST. PETERSBURG - The tough young men stood on the sidewalk near Childs Park, sweating in the hot sun and staring down passing cars. They wore gold rims on their teeth and big chains around their necks.

Denise Swisher, Breeshell Devine and Alicia Roberts smiled as they walked up. They carried fliers emblazoned with photographs of their dead sons.

"Hi sweetie, how are you doing? I'm P-nut's mom. You know how he was killed last month," Swisher said to the men Tuesday. "We're just here asking for an end to this violence.

"Don't let another mother bury her child."

This is what the killing in St. Petersburg has wrought: Mothers of slain sons walking through neighborhoods like Childs Park and begging men on the street to do something - anything - to stop it.

The men listened silently as Devine told them how she couldn't eat or sleep. They stared at the ground when Swisher described seeing a bullet wound in her 18 year-old son's head. Then, they traded hugs and promises to spread the word.

"It's going to take them seeing one of you all for all this to stop," Antez Smart, 22, told Swisher as he embraced her on the sidewalk. "I don't care how crazy they all are."

Devine, 34, lost her 18 year-old son Michael Smith last month when he was shot in a parking lot near the Citrus Grove Apartments. Swisher, 35, lost her 18-year-old son Forbes a few weeks later when someone in a crowd of fighting youths pulled out a gun and fired. Alicia Roberts, 36, lost her 20-year-old son Antonio last May. He was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Pinellas Point Apartments.

Police have arrested a man in Smith's slaying. The other two cases remain unsolved.

The three young victims are among the 42 people slain in the city in the last 18 months. Many fall into a familiar and tragic pattern: young black men killed by other young black men.

Part of the reason is a longstanding rivalry between youths from Childs Park and others from Bethel Heights, an area known for an apartment complex that no longer exists. Childs Park lies west of 34th Street S; Bethel Heights is to the east.

The boundary known as "trey-4" separates groups whose territory lies on either side of it. No one seems to know how the feud began, or why it still exists.

"It's been going on a long time between these two neighborhoods," said Maj. Donnie Williams of the St. Petersburg Police Department. "It's sporadic. We can go six months or a year with nothing happening between these two groups, and then see two (incidents) a month."

Police decline to call these groups gangs, saying the neighborhood affiliation is much looser and harder to pin down.

Geography alone doesn't explain the violence. Poverty is widespread; drugs and guns are easy to buy. Children call 9 mm Glocks "9s" and refer to a shotgun as a "gauge."

With death so widespread and so regular in these small communities, rituals have formed to honor the fallen. The faces of slain young men adorn T-shirts. Their friends compose rap songs and get their names tattooed on their arms as tributes. Families use white shoe polish to write memorials to dead children on the rear windows of their cars: "Damn I miss U P-nut," or "My Bro R.I.P. V."

The three mothers of murdered sons began their crusade Tuesday morning in the parking lot of the Citrus Grove Apartments. Swisher, Devine and Roberts passed out fliers and told the young men to stop the feuding.

"Where are we? In Vietnam? It has got to stop!" Swisher yelled.

The handful of people in the lot read the fliers intently.

It begins: "Peanut was #10 this year what number will you be?"

It ends: "Kids if you have a gun - turn it in! Let's end the violence now! You don't want to be a number!"

All three young men were close to their mothers. Swisher lived with his mom and stepfather, earning the nickname "P-nut" because he had chubby cheeks that looked like they were full of nuts. Smith's mother doted on him, nicknaming him "Mike-Mike;" his dad drifted in and out of his life. And Roberts' mother nicknamed him "Pac-Man" because he had such a big appetite as a baby; his father was gunned down when he was young.

The three mothers have known each other for years; Roberts is Swisher's cousin. Their kids played together and watched football at Campbell Park together. When Smith was killed, Swisher was one of the first people to embrace his mother.

The three boys were regulars at local churches. Swisher played football at St. Petersburg High and won an academic scholarship to Bethune-Cookman college. Smith played flag football and worked as a cook at a Hardee's restaurant. Roberts graduated from Northeast High in 2003 and studied business education at St. Petersburg College.

Like many young men, each had brushes with the law: arrests on charges of taking a car on a joyride or shoplifting. One had a marijuana arrest. But those who know them say they did their best to stay out of trouble.

Now the three mothers find it hard to do anything but grieve. Denise Swisher visits her son's grave for hours every day so she can talk to him. She can't eat or sleep, so she decided Monday to print out dozens of fliers hoping that maybe she could stop another mother's suffering.

Devine says her son "Mike-Mike" was her best friend. She can't eat either. She does drink too much, she says, "because maybe that way I'll get to join him soon in heaven."

Ask Roberts about her son, and she'll talk about what a cute kid he was. Then she cries. "He didn't deserve to die."

After half an hour at Citrus Grove, they drove to Childs Park.

They got a warning as soon as they arrived. A youth in a car saw the tribute to Forbes on Swisher's Car and called out: "Trey-4." It was a way of letting Swisher know she had crossed into Childs Park.

A St. Petersburg police officer offered the mothers some protection, staying a few blocks behind in his cruiser as they knocked on doors and walked up to men on the street. They flagged down cars, walked into convenience stores and spoke to kids pedaling by on bicycles.

The young men listened intently. No matter how tough a man looked, he stayed quiet as the women spoke about the grief of burying their sons. The women talked softly, sobbing as they talked about seeing their sons' dead bodies.

"No one can know what it feels like to lose a son," Swisher told one group of silent young men in the park.

They hugged the women, and promised to talk to their friends.

"My baby's brains were hanging out of his head," Devine told another group of kids riding on bicycles. "All of this violence, it's not worth it. They're killing mamas along with their sons."

When told of what the women were doing, Abdul Karim Ali, an imam who is president of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association, suggested their actions should inspire united effort among community organizations.

"If those mothers can see that kind of effort, they wouldn't have to take it upon themselves to go out and do that," he said.

But Swisher vowed to keep passing out fliers until the cycle of death stops.

"I have to do it," she said. "I can't do anything else."

She vowed she would be back on the streets today.

Times reporter Jon Wilson and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified June 28, 2006, 02:14:37]

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