June 7, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB,, MATT BURGARD And STEVEN GOODE Courant
A 19-year-old Hartford Public High School senior who was set
to graduate at the end of the month was accosted by an assailant
who punched him in the face just hours after he danced and laughed
at his prom Friday night. He died Monday at Hartford Hospital.
Twenty-four hours after Derek R.
Benford Jr. fell backward and struck his head, another Hartford
Public student, Eddie Limis, 15, was shot three times on Franklin
Avenue. News also broke Monday that three teenage girls from
Hartford are missing. Police said they do not believe they were
Though none of the incidents is
related, the barrage of bad news left many city teenagers questioning
the adults' ability to ensure their safety, at home or at school
or on the streets.
"It's been happening constantly.
It makes me think when's it going to be my turn," said freshman
Juan Torres, who sought out social workers at Hartford Public
to talk about his worries Monday. "I could be walking down
the hallway. I could be walking down the street. I'm not feeling
safe. ... Our society doesn't put enough effort into protecting
teenagers. Not just teenagers, but everybody. ...The cops - they're
worrying about other things. They're not worrying about us teenagers."
Benford is the 37th city resident
under 21 to die from violence since January 2000.
Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez said
that crime in the city is down compared with last year, adding
that he has launched several initiatives to crack down on youth
"Adults do care," he said. "I
see that caring from police officers. I see that caring from
teachers and from the churches."
After a wave of violence affecting
teenagers in the city's North End earlier this year, Perez developed
a list of 130 teenagers in crisis and started visiting them.
The city is training 38 new officers and sending a class of 25
new recruits to the police academy in July, he said.
"All violent crimes are down,
but that doesn't do anything for kids whose classmate was killed," Perez
Derek Benford Jr.
At Benford's home on Lincoln Street
Monday, young people streamed in and out to offer support for
one another, the teen's mother, stepfather and four siblings.
Fred Johnson said he and his wife, Ida, were struggling to make
sense of their loss.
"This was a good kid, a really
good kid who took pride in doing the right thing," Johnson
said. "He went to school, he never gave us no headaches
or worries. We were so proud of him, and you can see how many
people loved him."
Benford, known as DJ to friends,
had attended Hartford Public's prom at Chez Josef in Agawam,
Mass., Friday night. Then he and friends, including 18-year-old
Carlos "City" Santiago, went to an after-prom party
on Orange Street in Hartford.
Santiago said they were walking
home about 2 a.m. Saturday when a man got out of a car near Broad
and Madison streets and began shouting at them. Before Benford
or anyone else could respond, Santiago said, the man punched
Benford in the face, sending him sprawling. The moment DJ's head
struck the sidewalk, Santiago said, he knew the injuries would
"You could tell from the sound," he
said, fighting tears. "There was nothing we could do."
Ida Johnson had been trying to reach
her eldest son on his cellphone. The second time she called,
a friend answered and yelled that something bad had happened
Fred Johnson rushed to Broad Street
and found Benford's friends trying to revive him. Johnson picked
Derek up and drove him to Hartford Hospital.
By Monday, doctors said Benford's
brain had stopped functioning, Johnson said. By Monday afternoon,
the Johnsons had decided to pull him from life support.
"We didn't want him to have
to be in a vegetative state for years," Johnson said.
Benford's friends told Johnson that
a few minutes before the assault, DJ and the other friends had
broken up a fight between some girls.
Hartford Assistant Police Chief Mark R. Pawlina said Benford and his friends
were walking by two groups of women fighting and got involved in the situation,
though he wasn't clear how.
Within a few minutes, Pawlina said,
a green Dodge Intrepid pulled up to them, the assailant got out
and began yelling at them, telling them they were trespassing
on his "turf."
"He was telling them that basically
this was his territory, this was his corner and he wanted them
to get out of there," Pawlina said. "And then he struck
While there had been no arrest as
of Monday night, Pawlina said police were following some promising
Santiago recalled DJ, who was considering
joining the Marine Corps and whose girlfriend is expecting a
baby in November, as a loyal friend.
"He had my back," he said. "Ever
since we were kids, he had my back."
At Hartford Public Monday, students
fell silent when they weren't sobbing or in some cases, hitting
the walls in frustration.
The principal struggled with the
news, too. "He was having a great time at the prom. He looked
sharp in his tuxedo. He shook my hand," Mark Zito said. "This
is one of the tougher things you do as a principal - dealing
with this type of thing and helping the kids get through it."
Outside the main office, Benford's
class picture, blown up to poster size, was propped on an easel
with paper nearby where students wrote sorrowful farewell messages.
The fact that a good deed by the
popular student - breaking up a fight- may have contributed to
his death was confusing to some.
"He was just stopping a fight," said
freshman Mario Molina, who enjoyed laughing with Benford in gym
class. "I guess once in a while, you've just got to let
the fight keep going."
A memorial service for Benford is
scheduled for Saturday at Central Baptist Church on North Main
Unlike the Benford case, police
have few witnesses or leads in the shooting of Limis, a Hartford
Public freshman who was found bleeding from the chest on Franklin
Avenue about 12:25 a.m. Sunday, Pawlina said.
Pawlina said police received a report
of gunshots in the area of 150 Franklin Ave. When they got there,
police found nothing unusual, but later found Limis limping several
blocks down the road, he said.
Limis was taken to Hartford Hospital,
where he was recovering Monday from gunshots to the chest, thigh
and leg, he said. Pawlina said neither Limis nor his family has
provided much information on the events that led up to the shooting.
No arrests had been made as of Monday evening.
Zito, exhausted after a full day
helping students deal with Benford's death, learned of Limis'
shooting after school Monday. He said his staff would meet first
thing today to coordinate support for Limis' family and friends, "who
have concerns about this crisis, too."
Although police did not announce
the missing persons' cases until Monday, teens said they had
been hearing rumors for days.
The last time Karen Johnson saw
her daughter, Jasmine Christian, she was headed for the city
bus stop around the corner from their house on Lenox Street in
"Jazzy," 16 and a sophomore at A. I. Prince Technical High School in
Hartford, had just missed her school bus.
"She came back and asked me
for a dollar for the city bus and that's the last time I seen
her," Johnson said. "I wish I could turn back the hands
of time and walk her to the bus stop."
It was 7:30 a.m. on May 31. Two
hours later Johnson got a call at work from a teacher at Prince
Tech, who wanted to know why Christian wasn't in school. She
said she called police immediately from her job at Hartford Hospital
because Jasmine is not a runaway.
"She never took off before.
She's a good student and she doesn't have any problems," Johnson
Police said Monday that Quanysha
Banks, 14, and a student at Fox Middle School, was reported missing
Saturday and that Tatiana Sanchez, a student at Hartford Public,
has been missing since April.
The cases of the three missing girls
are unrelated, said police, who added that Banks and Sanchez
are likely runaways. Police said they are pursuing all leads
in Christian's disappearance.
Banks is described as 5 feet 2 inches,
146 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. Christian is described
as 5 feet 8 inches, weighing 125 pounds, with black hair, brown
eyes and a scar on her left forearm. A description of Sanchez
was not available.
Johnson said she has been trying
to keep busy at work until she heads out to look for Jasmine.
"I haven't eaten or slept in
six days," Johnson said. "I've just been walking the
dark streets looking for her."
Anyone with information is asked
to call Hartford police at 860-527-6300.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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