- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2017

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - The image is haunting. The picture shows three teenage boys staring straight into a camera. With solemn expressions, and hands raised, Xavian Perry-Dean, Antoine Bell and Kerr-Dulea Neil force you to remember that before they were homicide victims, they were boys barely old enough to grow facial hair.

Perry-Dean, 15, was the first of the three to be killed during a robbery in Raleigh in December 2015. A month later, Bell, 17, was gunned down during a roadside ambush when he stopped to helped a stranded motorist in Raleigh. And three months after that, in April 2016, the last of the three friends, Neil, 17, was shot and killed on a basketball court in Frayser.

Their images are a visual reminder that the faces of homicide are too often a youthful one. In 2016, 16 percent of Memphis’ homicide victims were under the age of 21.

Word of Neil’s death hit social media before family members received the news.

“As soon as I walked back from the park, they were video-calling me on Facebook, saying that my brother was dead,” Neil’s older brother, James “J.T.” Neil, recalled. “I didn’t believe them because I had just left him, but then they turned the camera and said, ‘Ain’t this your brother laying here dead?’ I lost myself that day.”

Kerr-Dulea Neil, friends called him “K-Stacks,” liked making music, and wanted to work professionally as a rapper. He always boasted about his siblings’ accomplishments.

The 17-year-old was also a member in Fast Cash Stack Squad, a Memphis gang that sprung up around 2011 in the northern part of the city, according to police.

“Yes, Kerr-Dulea (pronounced Kerr-dew-lay) was in the gang,” his brother J.T. acknowledged. “All three of them in that picture were in Fast Cash. I’m in Fast Cash, but that still don’t take away that my brother was killed.”

In 2016, 72 of the record-setting 228 homicides in Memphis involved gang members, according to police.

“Some of the homicide victims - I can’t give a number - were connected to the Fast Cash gang,” said Lt. Darren Goods with Memphis police Metro Gang Unit.

Fast Cash is what authorities call hybrid gangs.

“What happens is young people that may be mad or feel like they have been disenfranchised in the more traditional gangs, they get upset about something with the traditional gangs or they are disciplined and kicked out and they hook up with their buddies that they grew up (with),” Goods said. “So you might have a Blood today hook with a Gangster Disciple tomorrow and they create a neighborhood/hybrid gang like Fast Cash for instance.”

Delvin Lane, a supervisor with 901 Bloc Squad, a community group that responds to volatile crime scenes and helps build relationships in communities in the city, said he understands the mindset of the three teens killed because he was once in a gang.

“I grew up in a violent culture too. But you know what was very troubling to me is that those three futures were cut short. Three families lost three young men,” Lane said.

Lane said the teens involved in crime and gangs are living recklessly because they are living for the day.

“So people ask me all the time, ‘Why are the youth choosing to participate in things in which they know the outcome?’ Well it is easy because I used to be there. There is no tomorrow for them. They are thinking that I’m living for right now and my value system teaches me to get all I can right now because tomorrow is not promised to me. So, we have to dig through all of that in order to help these kids. “

The three teens killed were well-known, and often well-loved, in their community, according to the flood of social media posts and memorials after each of their deaths.

Antoine Bell was a student at Raleigh Egypt High and was preparing to be a father. The teenager never got to meet his daughter who was born shortly after he was killed. Xavian “Zay” Perry-Dean played sports when he was younger.

Lane has seen hundreds of grieving families on homicide scenes, including the family and friends of these three teens.

“I remember on two of the scenes there was a lot of hostility and yelling and crying,” said Lane.

Police arrested Rodricus Adams, 18, in Bell’s death. Antonio Marshall, 19, was arrested in Neil’s death. It’s unclear if anyone has been arrested in Perry-Dean’s death.

The families of Bell and Perry-Dean did not return calls or requests through social media for interviews for this story.

Nearly a year after her brother’s death, Monterica Neil is still grieving the death of her baby brother Kerr-Dulea, who she said pushed her to become the first in their family to graduate from college.

“My brother has always been my best friend,” said Monterica, 24, who graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is now pursuing her master’s degree at Louisiana State University. “Coming up in the house we grew up in we saw domestic violence and drug addiction, I didn’t really have or feel like there was really anybody on my side. But Kerr-Dulea was always there. He was loving and very kind and never doubted my abilities.”

His public persona, in which he was in and out of juvenile facilities since he was 12 and was seen posing on Facebook flashing drugs and money, was in conflict with the private side that his sister saw.

“I tried my very, very best to get him to see that he could use that hunger and that drive and that motivation for money and turn it into something legitimate. A more positive outlet. He aspired to be a rapper,” said Monterica Neil.

She said Antoine Bell, whose nickname was Sosa, even urged her brother to leave Fast Cash behind.

“I remember him telling me that Sosa actually told him to get robbery and that kinda stuff off of his mind right before Sosa was killed,” she said.

She recalled one particularly ominous conversation she had with her brother shortly before he was killed.

Kerr-Dulea was devastated by the deaths of Sosa and Zay. I told Kerr-Dulea before he died, when he told me he wanted to go back to robbing people, I just asked him, ‘When you die, what do you want people to remember about you?’ He said, ‘Man, I want people to know I was out here getting money. That answer told me then that he would be dead soon.”

Lane said the city plans to award his group $900,000 in funding to grow its staff from 10 to 20 people. Mayor Jim Strickland announced in his state of the city address that he plans put the funding in the operating budget that he will present in April to the council.

“We are on the block, building relationships with those troubled teens, those troubled youth,” Lane said. “Trying to intercept a lifestyle and give them a different alternative. A lot of us have been in the streets and are from the streets. So our lives have been transformed and we just trying to give the youth the same transformation of life into a better life.”

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com

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