Da’Vonta McLaurin and Carleisha Greene began dating as teens.
They knew each other from Richmond’s Hillside Court neighborhood, and they both liked to ride dirt bikes and motorcycles. The young man with a big smile soon became a member of Greene’s family, and she a member of his. They figured everything out together over the years, even the hardest things.
They started a family and planned to get married when the time was right.
“Our souls were one,” Greene said. “We just always knew — we really were meant for each other. I loved everything about him. He loved everything about me. We beefed sometimes, yeah, but that was just because we loved each other so much.”
“Tae,” as he was known by many, was a father of three young children. He could barely wait for his 25th birthday in September, and he was excited for his 5-year-old son to start kindergarten. He also was starting a trucking company.
But early on the morning of Father’s Day, his dreams were stolen in a storm of random gunfire that also wounded his father. They had been out celebrating with family and friends.
“I think every guy who had a gun out there started shooting — selfishly, uncontrollably,” said Greene, waving her arms as she described bullets flying from what seemed like every direction.
McLaurin’s death exemplifies a growing problem in the city of bystanders being killed in random acts of gun violence, said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Learned Barry. A short-staffed homicide unit has been working longer hours as shootings across the city increase, Barry said.
That spike mirrors a national trend in violent crime as police departments across the country, facing calls for reform amid a reckoning on police brutality, struggle to recruit and retain officers.
In an interview Thursday, Barry said he was concerned that the city has been working with 20% fewer homicide investigators this year than the last, with officers retiring or leaving for other departments. The number of aggravated assault investigators, who handle nonfatal shootings and stabbings, among other crimes, also diminished by about 20%.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch asked police officials on Thursday about the staffing concerns and, on Friday, the department said the homicide unit will be fully staffed by July 17.
Three weeks have passed since Greene lost McLaurin. Every day seems to get harder. She wears sunglasses when she goes out because she cries so often.
“That’s all I know how to do,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have any plans. I don’t understand any of this.”
“I don’t want to stay here. I want to go with him,” she said. “But my kids are just so little.”
On the day before Father’s Day, Greene got McLaurin some clothes, and they planned to spend the holiday doing whatever he wanted to do.
“We liked to look nice, us and the kids,” she said. “Everybody knew we always wanted to look nice.”
After midnight, they had been planning to hit a favorite hookah spot but instead decided to stop by a big party in Shockoe Bottom. McLaurin told Greene he was ready for them to leave 15 minutes in. There were too many people out there, too much going on.
It was nearly 1:30 a.m., and hundreds of people were in a parking lot off of Crane Street between East Broad Street and Main Street Station. The lot is near the Exxon gas station at North 17th and East Broad streets.
Music was playing as women danced on cars.
Greene and McLaurin had begun returning to their car when people started to run, and the shooting started. Greene took off and got low beside her cousin’s car. Bullets smacked the dirt near her, sailing past her head, and pelted the pavement, a pole and other cars. More than 40 rounds were fired from several different guns.
“Everything was getting hit,” Greene said. “People are just shooting and don’t even know what they’re shooting at. All you were seeing is spots from guns — like the scariest thing you can ever imagine.”
While she was on the ground, she could see a man taking cover near another car.
“I’m so scared, I’m so scared, I’m so scared,” she screamed. The man yelled back: “Me too, me too.”
Amid the chaos, McLaurin caught up with Greene and checked on her. Then he went back to see if his brother was OK. When Greene found McLaurin a short time later, he was lying on his face with blood coming from his head.
She begged him to get up. He took a deep breath and sat up. He was trying to get up, but Greene told him to sit and be still.
The police were pushing people back, she said. “So I was just talking to them from a distance and getting into it with the police officer.”
The officers told them they wouldn’t get an ambulance there until everyone left, Greene said. She begged them to help.
“They left him right there,” she said. “He was bleeding and laying on his back.”
At some point, four rescuers picked up McLaurin and took him away without a stretcher. Each one held a limb, his head dangling. They would not let Greene go with him in the ambulance.
“They just kept telling us, ‘Get back, get back, get back,’” she said. “They wouldn’t let us do anything.”
At the hospital, before he died, McLaurin asked one of the nurses to hold his hand.
More people are getting killed in Richmond this year, and Barry, a veteran prosecutor, is worried.
McLaurin is one of 42 people killed in the city so far in 2021, a 40% increase over this time last year. Those numbers include some deaths that Richmond police don’t record in their homicide statistics, including self-defense killings.
The number of nonfatal shootings in the city likewise is up about 28% year-over-year. Just this month, six people were slain in Richmond in a six-day period.
Over the three-day Fourth of July weekend, the Richmond region saw 10 killings. After three slayings in Henrico, the county’s police chief warned that it could be a “hot and heavy” summer.
In Richmond, this year’s dead include two 3-month-old children and a 15-year-old. Of the 34 cases that police count as homicides, 11 resulted from arguments or retaliation; six were drug-related, robberies or both; four were gang-related; and two were domestic killings. Seven of the victims were bystanders killed in random violence, as was the case with McLaurin.
“We’re having more of these random killings,” Barry said. “It’s gotten worse over the last two years. Also, our shooters are getting younger.”
“The bad guys get these high-capacity weapons, go to a general area where they think their targets are and just spray the area with bullets,” Barry said. “People who don’t do anything wrong can just get shot in the crossfire.”
Cases like McLaurin’s are especially difficult to solve. “We normally — from the street if nothing else — have a general idea of what’s going on,” Barry said. “But in these cases recently, we don’t have a clue why these people are being shot. I’m seeing an uptick in violence, and I’m seeing more innocent people than I’ve seen in the past.”
In McLaurin’s case, Barry said, “no one can give us a description of the shooters. We don’t have any witnesses, so we have to do it the hard way.”
It could be three months before ballistics experts analyze the more than 40 shell casings found at the scene, he said. Until then, authorities won’t even know how many different guns were fired.
Of the 34 cases that Richmond police are recording as homicides this year, 64% have been cleared by arrest, Barry said.
“They are clearing cases higher than the national average, but they’re running on fumes,” he said Thursday. “I don’t know how much longer they can keep up this performance.”
Police Chief Gerald M. Smith declined a request to be interviewed on Thursday about the random violence and staffing issues. But on Friday, a police spokesman said “the department consistently looks to address the demands of staffing, and next Saturday [July 17] the homicide unit will be fully staffed.”
Across the department, 74 sworn positions were vacant as of June 15.
In a statement on Friday, Mayor Levar Stoney noted that the ongoing pandemic and last year’s civil unrest have strained law enforcement agencies across the country, impacting recruitment and retention.
“In the city of Richmond, we’re fortunate and grateful to have such dedicated professionals and prosecutors who continue to serve the city under such difficult circumstances, and we will seek ways in the coming year to support them in this critical work,” the statement said.
As she waits for answers, Greene misses the way McLaurin cared for her feelings.
“Tae was always so smart and so different,” Greene said. “He didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He didn’t have any enemies. I never expected this to happen to him. I never expected having to raise these kids by myself.”
McLaurin was about to start a business. Kids looked up to him, said his stepfather, Marty Gray.
“He was a great guy. He was always the type that liked to push others to do better,” Gray said.
Keisha Cummings, a community advocate, said McLaurin and Greene were a well-known couple in Richmond. “It was like a love that you idolized, like something you would see on TV,” she said. “Tae was amazing. He just was very cool, respectful — just a young boss.”
McLaurin had a special love for his 7-year-old daughter.
“That was his heart, his everything,” Greene said. “It was the same for her. She loved her daddy more than anything.”
The couple enjoyed traveling with their kids and were looking forward to many things. They planned to grow old together.
“He was so young,” she said, “and we had so much more to do.”
Staff writer Ali Rockett contributed to this report.