Outpouring of love

Family, friends and strangers attend an emotional vigil for Cedric "C.J." Mills, the popular Jefferson High student-athlete who was shot to death in April.

By Kevin Graham, Times Staff Writer
Published May 4, 2007

TAMPA - As the sun set over the goal posts at Lincoln Gardens Park Thursday, tears fell on the field where Cedric "C.J." Mills spent much of his childhood playing flag football.

More than 150 people attended a candlelight vigil to remember the 17-year-old Jefferson High sophomore, whose standout performance on the school's football team had many predicting he'd someday play for the NFL.

"He would be so proud, " his grandmother, Lucy Mills, said of the community's support. "All you would see is him throwing up his thumb. That would be his sign that everything is all right."

LaKesha Baxter, Cedric Mills' mother, found it hard to speak about her son. When asked about him, she clung to Lucy Mills and closed her eyes.

"It's hard for me to talk about my baby for the fact that he's not going to be there for us anymore, " she said as she wiped away tears and surveyed the growing crowd. "It made me proud to know that my son was loved by so many people."

It's the outpouring of love and support that Mills' father, Vidal Mills, said has helped him make it through each day since his son was gunned down outside his W Laurel Street home on April 25.

"That's been more than a blessing, " he said. "Of course rage is building, but I've got to think about my family and put it in the Lord's hands."

Tampa police detectives have given the family few details about their investigation, Vidal Mills said. They have asked the family to trust them as they track down leads and weed out rumors. And Vidal Mills said he has done that.

Just hours before the vigil, detectives released a photograph of a newer model silver Chrysler Sebring like the one they believe was used by the two men suspected of shooting Cedric Mills.

"At least they're getting closer, " Lucy Mills said. "I just want them caught, and I don't want no loopholes. They didn't have any loopholes when they killed my baby. I want them caught for what they did to him."

Many who came to mourn Cedric Mills on Thursday had never met him. They know his story through the newspapers and newscasts, and sharing a laugh or hug with relatives and friends.

"Every time I talk to someone, I end up choking up in tears, " said Vivian Heyward.

A community activist, she never met Cedric Mills. She was so moved by his story and the grief for his family that she organized the vigil. She also circulated a petition to have the park renamed in Mills' honor.

There were others who came to the microphone to speak as well, outraged over prevalent acts of violence in the black community.

"All of us here are asking ourselves why did this happen and why does this continue to happen, " said Ali Muhammad. "There's an attack on our family going on, and we can't continue to blame others outside our community."

He said Mills was the "promise of Tampa, " and urged people to take notice of the violence happening around them, and talk to their young people about it before someone else dies tragically.

Joyce Conyers, 65, was the school bus driver who took Jefferson's football team to its games on the road. She'll remember Mills as one of the students who called her "Grandma, " and often stopped his teammates from cursing on the bus.

Lakingya Williams, 16, lived next door to Mills. A Jefferson sophomore, she'd often catch a ride with him to school. Now when she wakes up and looks at his car in the mornings, she has to remind herself he's not coming out to drive it.

"I still don't believe he's gone, " she said.

Trey Hill, 18, is a senior at Jefferson who played football with Mills. They were next to each other on the defensive line. Though Mills was younger, Hill said he looked up to him because Mills "had a lot of character" and challenged him to be better.

"You can't describe C.J., " Hill said, "or we'll be here all night."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or 813 226-3433.