JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The shooting death of a 22-month-old boy in a gang-related drive-by this weekend shook the Jacksonville community and left the boy's relatives clinging to their faith and begging for answers.
Aiden McClendon was shot while sitting in a parked car in front of a house on Spearing Street about 6:10 p.m. Friday, when an unidentified vehicle came by, and someone inside fired bullets into the victims' car and a nearby house.
The boy, who was the only one hit, was taken to UF Health Jacksonville with life-threatening injuries and died Saturday morning.
“He was a child that wanted life, just like we do, and his life was taken from him. He was just a baby,” Aiden's second cousin, Will Collins, said. “He was a beautiful kid.”
Collins said whoever is responsible for Aiden's death needs to come forward and confess to police. He said if he wasn't disabled, he'd be out searching for whoever shot Aiden.
“This person who committed this terrible crime doesn't need to be on the streets anymore,” Collins said.
Collins said Aiden's family is grieving deeply, especially his mother.
“She's going down some deep sorrow. Her heart is hurting,” he said. “It's hard. It's just really hard when you lose someone in death. Death is the enemy to all of us.”
Despite the family's pain, they are clinging fast to their faith, Collins said.
“They'll never get over the death of that young boy. … It is a loss. It's a loss for the family that we lost him, but for God, he's not lost,” Collins said. “One thing we can remember, though, he's going to live forever. That baby will live again with a brand new body. He don't have to worry no more.”
Church family also grieving
Aiden's death also left an Eastside congregation bereft this weekend.
The Rev. Torin Dailey took to the pulpit at The Church of Oakland on Sunday with a message on the violence that took the life of his church's youngest family member.
“This is an issue that we are not going to press conference and vigil our way through. What we need is leadership,” Dailey told News4Jax on Monday, while walking through his church's Eastside neighborhood. “We’re right in the middle of everything.”
Just blocks away from the church, Aiden was shot.
Dailey said his congregation is distraught over the boy's death, and he is challenging Jacksonville’s sheriff and mayor to make good on campaign promises to cut down on the city's violence.
“We need the sheriff and mayor to work in a way that is productive,” Dailey said. “Their cooperation is good, but we need to see a plan of action.”
Dailey said it’s difficult to get the community to report crimes when many of them don't trust that they'll be protected.
Daily said it's Sheriff Mike Williams' responsibility to bridge that trust gap, starting with making sure his officers reflect the community they serve.
“Helping our sheriff’s office and sheriff’s department look more like our community. The Jacksonville community is made up of about 30 percent African-Americans,” Dailey said.
Williams said that when he took office last July, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office had its lowest number of officers in 15 years, and he’s working on long-term improvements.
“I’d love to sit down and talk to anyone that wants to talk about that, just to explain that it’s not just a wave of a hand, it’s not a magic wand,” Williams said. “And keep in mind, when I came in in July, I didn’t really inherit anything that was broken, so in terms of resources and how they were allocated, Sheriff (John) Rutherford did a good job at the end of his tenure with what he had to work with.”
Williams said the keys to combat crime in Jacksonville is more officers on the street and a better working relationship with the community.
"The men and women who work down in Eastside, that work in Grand Park, that work in all these other areas that are so incredibly impacted by violence, they care about this community,” Williams said. “But we have to get that message out, and we've got to connect with those communities. And as we begin to see trust, I think you'll see that tide turn.”
Bloody start to new year
Aiden's death was one of the most recent in a string of 15 homicides to start 2016.
In the first 24 hours after Aiden's death, a prayer vigil was scheduled Monday from 7-8 p.m. at Bethel Baptist Church to honor him and the others killed in Jacksonville last month. Business leaders donated money so that Crime Stoppers could offer a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, and Families of Slain Children held an anti-violence rally Monday to galvanize the community.
During that rally, community leaders stood side-by-side with those impacted by violence.
One of those was Sharon Randolph, whose brother, Malcolm Davis, was shot and killed last week in a drive-by.
“It's very hard, and we want justice, not only for Malcolm, but for that 22-month-old innocent baby,” Randolph said.
Aiden's death and other recent homicides prompted the Families of Slain Children rally, where the group met to talk about the violence problem and to get feedback on the city's proposed solutions.
Mayor Lenny Curry said Saturday that he is committing $1 million to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to pay for overtime for officers.
“It might not hurt if they are doing something, if they are helping in the community, if they are reaching out and trying to get to know the people in the community and not killing them,” McClain said at the rally.
McClain and many of the other speakers at the rally favored a focus on prevention, instead of more policing.
She said the time for action isn't after violence occurs but before.
“If we truly care about our youth, like we say we do, and this is for the politicians in the city, you would provide our kids with infrastructure and things,” community activist Orain Reddick said. “Very simply, they have nothing to do.”
While there may be different ideas what the road to justice might look like, everyone at the rally agreed it’s a road that can’t be traveled alone.
“You can't do it alone, but it takes unity in the community,” McClain said. “Each community needs to help each other.”
McClain said her group's goal is to be able to partner with city leaders to come up with real solutions.
The phone number to call with Crime Stoppers tips is 1-866-845-TIPS. Callers can remain anonymous and be eligible for a cash reward.
Interactive map of January 2016 homicides
Point to dot where name is pointing to read details of each crime.