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A Day Of Sobering Tributes

Many Turn Out To Mourn Slain Teen, Hartford Victims Of Violence

June 12, 2005
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

Nearly 1,000 mourners showed up Saturday morning to pay tribute to Derek "D.J." R. Benford Jr., a "really good kid" who overcame family struggles and learning disabilities to prepare himself to become a graduate of Hartford Public High School and a father.

His life was cut short on the night of his prom.

Benford, 19, was walking home from an after-prom party in Hartford on June 4 when he broke up a fight on Broad Street. Later on the same street, police say, Alexis "Lex" Rosa, 26, formerly of Ward Street, delivered a massive punch to Benford's head which robbed the student of his "winning smile," his "positive spirit" and his dream of walking across the stage to get his diploma next week.

Now, all his family and friends have are memories. He died early Monday morning. Police have a warrant seeking Rosa's arrest on the charge of manslaughter.

Later in the afternoon, about 30 relatives of men and women who have died violently in the city of Hartford over the past three years marched on Granby Street and unveiled the first 20 panels of a quilt memorializing other homicide victims.

Before the march, the Mothers United Against Violence offered testimonies that rang similar to those delivered at Benford's funeral, where mourners walked past his cornflower blue casket inside Central Baptist Church to say farewell to the young man who was decked out in a black and burgundy tuxedo, a top hat and fashionable sunglasses.

While their tears screamed "why," many of the speakers at the funeral asked mourners Saturday to celebrate the life of a young man of character who was hardworking, respected and loved. In addition to having two jobs, Benford also volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club of Hartford and kept upbeat when times were tough.

Among those at Benford's wake and funeral were his foster father, his stepfather, his vice principal, his doctor, his friends and his mother. The Rev. Sandra Pastell offered the eulogy.

His mother, Ida Johnson, struggled to hold back her tears as she thanked the men in her life who helped raise her children. She found it difficult to deal with her son's untimely death but resolved that "D.J. is one of the chosen ones. I believe this," she said as she finally broke into tears.

Then she turned to her other son, Terrell, who had prepared something that made the audience clap.

"The good die young, but the great die even younger," he said.

As the Mothers United Against Violence marched from the New Hope Christian Ministry to Weaver High School, some held up the quilt that was covered with photographs, poems and salutations about those who had been killed.

Most of the victims never made it beyond 30, but James Washington stood out among them because he was 76 when he was gunned down in a 2002 robbery, his stepchildren April, Angie and Elijah Hooker said.

Their grief had turned to a different type of resolve to stop the violence.

"It's time for us to make our mark," April Hooker said to the survivors of homicide. She said her stepfather's death remains unsolved and people are still dying. She urged the city of Hartford to get behind the anti-violence campaigns and to work to make their streets safer.

"Don't wait until it's your loved one to come out. Come out now, before it's your turn. This should not just be for mothers but for everyone."

Her brother had a more forceful approach. "If the police don't want to do it [clean up the city of Hartford], then I'll do it myself," meaning it's up to residents to take a proactive stance against violence.

State Rep. Kenneth Green, city Councilman Kenneth Kennedy and the ministers at the Hope Street Ministries agreed to help them.

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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