- Associated Press - Monday, November 30, 2020

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Charles Billings and Kenny Stevenson didn’t know each other before Father’s Day 2020.

Their sons both attended West Charlotte High School but graduated years apart. They were raised in Charlotte only miles apart, but as far as their families know, the two sons - both fathers themselves - never met.

Now, for the last five months, both Charles and Kenny have been plunged into parallel paths of grief: Combing through decades of family photos. Re-telling childhood stories. Burying their sons with no answers on who killed them and what caused the violence.

For Charles, the loss of his 39-year-old son Jamaa Cassell has unleashed a simmering anger. In the aftermath of the late-night shootout on Beatties Ford Road on June 22 that killed four people and injured at least 10 more, Charles found his voice in a call to the community for witnesses to come forward and assist the police department’s investigation.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he said. “They took something from me you can never fix, and someone has to be accountable for those deaths on Beatties Ford Road.”



Kenny, too, has publicly and privately pleaded for bystanders to come forward. But his pain is a more quiet grief. At home, he sits on the porch of the house where his son Dairyon Stevenson grew up, smoking and staring down at a framed photo.

“I’m taking it day by day,” he said. “I’m just so proud of him and the person he was.”

The gunfire from that night has inextricably brought Dairyon and Jamaa’s families together but in their grief, they often find themselves feeling acutely alone.

Kenny Stevenson’s only child arrived in Charlotte at the age of four after first living with his mother in Atlanta.

At first, Dairyon was reserved. His father said it took him some time to get adjusted to his new home, but when he did, Kenny said everyone gravitated toward him.

“Once he got here, he took off,” Kenny said. “And it was a joy.”

Dairyon played nearly every sport - football, basketball, baseball and track - and was always surrounded by friends, his father said.

“He started being everyone’s favorite,” Kenny said. “And as a friend, he was loyal to you.”

He and his cousin Jessica, who lived next door, were inseparable.

“I had to do everything the boys did,” she said. “We were always goofing around.”

His grandmother was his “sweet thing.” Rosa Stevenson said that’s what Dairyon called her.

Rosa raised her grandson in her home on Prince street.

Even after graduating and moving out, he would talk to her nearly every day and often swing by the house. And it was from Rosa that Dairyon, who worked as a chef, developed his love for cooking.

“He never really helped, but he was always around when I was making different dishes,” she said. “And then he grew up and cooked different food from me.”

One of her favorite memories of her grandson was when he cooked Rosa and Jessica a Valentine’s Day lunch - grilled salmon, salad and potatoes. Rosa said that was just the kind of person he was.

“He just really loved his family, and wanted to show us,” she said.

Their family had one last weekend with Dairyon - Father’s Day weekend - when Kenny, his son and Dairyon’s children took a trip to Myrtle Beach. Dairyon, 31, got to fulfill a lifelong dream of deep sea fishing.

“It was the best feeling in the world, I cannot lie,” Kenny remembers. “But the scary part of it is, I’m just wondering if he knew something.”

Detectives working the mass shooting investigation say someone knows something about what happened but leads have run out. From the start, police have said they’d had difficulty finding witnesses who can help solve the case. Recently, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police released a surveillance video of that night that shows a few people surrounding a black SUV in a parking lot. After gunshots ring out later, several people run away and two men get out of the car with guns and begin shooting.

“I just don’t understand why,” he said. “I’m sure somebody knows something that just hasn’t said anything. I hope it’s eating at them enough they do the right thing.”

For Charles, an arrest or multiple arrests is the only accountability that can answer for the pain his and other families feel.

“It hurts so bad,” he said of losing Jamaa. “It’s deeper than the bottom of the sea.”

A BOY WITH HIS LEGS CROSSED

When Jamaa was about five years old, his parents took him and his sister to see the battleship on display in Wilmington.

As he and his sister Kenya ran after each other, playing, Charles sat on a nearby bench and watched on, his legs crossed at the knee and hands folded.

A few minutes later, Jamaa walked up and sat next to his father, mimicking his pose. He crossed his shorter legs at his wobbly knees, folded his boyish hands, and looked up at Charles.

“That picture stays in my mind,” Charles said. “That’s when I knew that I had to set an example for my little son. He was following my lead.”

In other family pictures, Jamaa is seen sitting with his dad, always a mirror image. It became Charles’ parenting philosophy.

“You show them, and they’ll follow your steps,” he said. “That’s what I did.”

Charles was described by Jamaa’s friends as a father to them all. All of the young men in Jamaa’s neighborhood would come by their house to play basketball or swim in their pool. He said he tried to show all of the boys, not just Jamaa, what a loving family was and what it meant to be a good man.

As he got older Jamaa, too, became a mentor to young kids - especially those who didn’t grow up with their father. And, his father recalls, Jamaa was a devoted dad to his own kids. He had seven.

The day before he died, he told his youngest two daughters that he’d take them to the zoo.

“When he promised them something, he’d always do it,” Charles said. “When he didn’t show up, we figured something was up.”

B.J. Brown, also known musically as Bettie Grind, was one of the young men who frequented the Billings house during his childhood. He refers to Charles as his father and Jamaa his brother.

“Jamaa was a special spirit,” he said. “When he passed, I lost a part of me.”

One of his most important traits, his father said, was that Jamaa never showed anyone disrespect, even when they didn’t respect him.

“He always gave people the benefit of the doubt,” Charles said.

“Not like his daddy.”

It was Charles who - at a news conference at the police department just two weeks after the murders - loomed behind the podium with his hands gripping both ends and spoke resolutely into the microphone.

“I’m putting it in God’s hands, and I’m praying that He takes the anger out of me,” Charles said. “And if anybody knows anything, don’t tell me… don’t tell me a bunch of bullshit.”

NOT MAKING IT IN TIME

That day, that press conference, began Charles’ mission.

He’s trying to band together with the rest of the grieving parents. He’s been trying to reach out to Kenny, the family of 28-year-old Christopher Gleaton, and the family of 29-year-old Kelly Miller.

As a group, he says, they can continue to publicly demand justice for their children.

Kenny is grieving the death of a son and a friend. Though he wants the killer to be caught and prays that witnesses “have the heart to tell the truth,” Kenny’s more focused on spending as much time as he can with his family.

“There’s sorrow and sadness, but there are times that we’ll laugh about a good time,” he said. “That’s what he would have did. He got us laughing more than crying.”

Above all, he’s grateful he got to spend Father’s Day with his son one last time.

“I’ll miss his smile, and just how genuine he was. What a great father and friend he was,” he said. “The kids are going to miss him, that’s what devastates me, but every time Father’s Day comes around, I’ll remember that the last Father’s Day we spent together was the best ever.”

Some parts of the night Dairyon died are difficult to recall - Kenny is still in shock. He said the only thing he really remembers was the knock on his door from Jessica, and then her telling him that Dairyon had been shot.

“I came to check on my mother (Rosa),” he said. “And then, I just knew I had to get to my child.”

But Dairyon died at the hospital before Kenny could get there.

“I’m still in shock. I’m just heartbroken,” he said. “I’m still dealing with the idea of my son not coming home. Who done it, that’s just beyond me still.”

Charles and his wife were together when they got a call that Jamaa was in the hospital on June 22.

“It was so crazy. That’s the way God works. We were just saying we had raised two great kids, and it wasn’t 15 minutes later my wife got a phone call,” he said. “And they told us we needed to come to the hospital.”

By the time they got there, Jamaa had died.

Charles knows the only people who might understand are the parents of Dairyon, Kelly and Christopher. But the other parents don’t often respond to phone calls.

“Everybody grieves different,” he said.

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