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Prom, Then Tragedy

June 7, 2005

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 abducted.

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 violence.

"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 said.

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 be bad.

"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 to DJ.

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 the victim."

While there had been no arrest as of Monday night, Pawlina said police were following some promising leads.

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 Street.

Eddie Limis

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."

Missing Girls

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 Hartford.

"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 said.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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