Crime

Party held by Venice alderman grew ‘huge’ before sudden gunfire killed Jaylon McKenzie

Local 8th grade football player showing potential

Jaylon McKenzie, a 13-year-old, who attends Central Junior High in Belleville, Illinois, competed in the 8th Grade All-American Football Game as part of NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend in Canton, Ohio.
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Jaylon McKenzie, a 13-year-old, who attends Central Junior High in Belleville, Illinois, competed in the 8th Grade All-American Football Game as part of NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend in Canton, Ohio.

Venice Alderman Celestine Williams’ 18-year-old grandson asked whether he could host an after-prom party at her home in the 600 block of Third Street on May 4.

“We had a party last year and there weren’t any problems, so when he asked to have a party this time, I said OK,” she said. “It was a party so the kids could have a good time. They do not have any place here to go; there’s not much in Venice for them to do.”

She said she had no idea how many people were going to show up.

Some residents of the neighborhood, who asked not to be identified, estimated the size of the crowd was between 400 and 500. They said there were hundreds of cars lining the streets for blocks around the well-kept, brick-and-siding house.

“We believe it was published on social media and people started telling other people and they started coming here,” Williams said.

Still, as far as she could tell, everyone was having a good time with the help of a disc jockey.

But by 11:40 p.m. at least two teenagers had been shot, including 14-year-old Jaylon McKenzie, whose future in football was so promising he’d already been featured in Sports Illustrated and had been offered scholarships by a pair of NCAA Division-I universities.

McKenzie later died from his wounds at an area hospital. A 15-year-old girl, whose name was not released, also was hit and remained in critical condition as of Thursday, according to the Illinois State Police.

Williams said the incident started with a fight, then escalated quickly. She said she was inside her house when she said she was told that a fight had broken out.

“As soon as I heard this, I said ‘That’s it. This party is over. Everyone is dismissed,’” she said. “That’s when everything started.

Williams said she then heard gunshots coming from the direction of Kerry, Third and Granville streets. There must have been more than one shooter, she said.

“The shots were coming from everywhere,” she said. “... all over.”

Party goers scattered, some hiding under cars or in the house, and some running to Williams’ sister’s house on the adjoining lot.

“We were trying to get everyone to safety,” Williams said. “The police told us to let them in because there was an active shooter outside. They continued to shoot while the police were here. The ambulance couldn’t get through.”

Neighbors described a war zone, where the gunshots were rapid and abundant. They described the sounds as graduating from “pop, pop, pop” at first, to “pow, pow, pow,” then “boom, boom, boom.”

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Jaylon McKenzie, 14, was shot and killed during an after-prom party in Venice on May 4. Derik Holtmann Derik Holtmann

One bullet struck a woman’s house on Third Street and and went into the wall of a bedroom, where her sister was sleeping. The homeowner said she examined the room and figures the bullet ricocheted where it entered the room, off another wall and back again, landing on the floor behind a dresser.

Williams said she doesn’t know what led to the violence.

As the young people entered her backyard , she said, they had to come through the only wrought iron gate that was unlocked. They were checked as they came in and none of them were carrying a weapon. Williams’ grandson charged a $2 cover to enter.

“Where are they getting these guns? Someone needs to find out,” Williams said as she pointed to the spot on the ground where McKenzie was found laying.

Police are still searching for the people who were involved. Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Mark Doiron said he couldn’t provide specifics from the on-going investigation, only that all leads and allegations are being investigated.

A national figure

Jaylon McKenzie attended Central Junior High in Belleville during the fall 2018 school term, but transferred to Mason-Clark Middle School in East St. Louis for the spring. His parents, Sukeena and Otis Gunner, told the Belleville News-Democrat in August that they would consider moving to accommodate the “best fit for him both academically and athletically” in high school.

They found that fit with East St. Louis football coach Darren Sunkett and the eight-time state champion Flyers.

But even before he’d played a down of high school football, Jaylon’s talent was on the radar of major college programs, including the University of Illinois and University of Missouri, which already had scholarship offers on the table.

In October 2018, Sports Illustrated featured him as one of “six teens who will rule the future of sports.” Jaylon played basketball and participated in track and field as well. Football, though, was his favorite, his mother said.

“Since he was 3-years-old, Jaylon has wanted to play football,” said Sukeena Gunner, a former volleyball standout, both at East Side and Jacksonville State University. “He had a speech problem then so he would say tootall. We had to go out and buy him a helmet and uniform. He also had a bag. He would walk around the house dressed like he was going to play.

“We told him he had to wait until he was 5. We signed him up then and the rest is history.”

Like his talent, Jaylon’s tragic death made national news. Among other national media outlets, it’s been reported in the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, ESPN and CNN. Professional athletes took to social media to express their shock and sadness.

Dwyane Wade, the former NBA All-Star with the Miami Heat, tweeted: “My heart goes out to this family at this time. It’s no words that can make this nightmare go away. My family and I will keep them up in prayer as they deal with this tragedy. Rest in Heaven young Jaylon.”

Ezekiel Elliott, the Alton-born All-Pro running back for the Dallas Cowboys, has offered to pay for Jaylon’s funeral expenses.

“Jaylon loved Ezekiel Elliott. All he talked about was Ezekiel,” Gunner said. “... So just knowing that and for him to reach out to me at his difficult time leaves me speechless.”

Wrong place, wrong time

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A recent photo of Jaylon McKenzie, provided by his family.

Gunner said her son was dedicated to being the best athlete and student he could be. He followed a daily routine that included school, practice and homework.

There was no time for trouble.

Jaylon had attended an eighth-grade dance with friends, but she said she didn’t know they went to the party at Williams’ house.

It was Jaylon’s older brother, Brandan Jenkins, a member of the Belleville West track team, who told his parents what happened.

“He told me something happened to Jaylon. He wanted me to reach out to his friends,” Gunner said as she cried. “I learned about what happened from his friend.

“We want justice. We want to know who took Jaylon’s life away.”

Williams said she and the rest of the Venice community wants the same.

“Everybody is upset. This city doesn’t have all of this. There is no violence around here. This is the first time this ever happened,” she said. “My heart breaks for his family. My family is heartbroken. We didn’t see this coming.”

Memorial services

A wake was held for Jaylon at Greater St. Mark Church of God in Christ in East St. Louis from 5-8 p.m. Friday. A memorial service was held at the Scottish Rite Masonic Bodies Temple in Belleville at noon Saturday.

The community also is invited to a memorial vigil at Clyde C. Jordan Stadium by East St. Louis Senior High School at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

A GoFundMe page has been established to benefit the family by members of Gunner’s sorority. Those who would like to contribute should visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-for-our-soror.

Gunner says she would like her son to be remembered for his unassuming personality, his determination and his leadership.

“He didn’t say much. He was not outspoken. He wasn’t outgoing , but everybody loved him. His personality was infectious,” Gunner said. “He was polite. He never thought he was better than anybody else. Everybody wanted to be around him. He wanted to be around everybody. He was loyal to his team and the team was loyal to him.

“He was a silent leader. He didn’t say much. He led.”

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