Crime

East St. Louis community comes together at vigil for slain 8th grade football star

East St. Louis community comes together at vigil for Jaylon McKenzie, 14, killed by stray bullet

Friends, teammates, and supporters of Jaylon McKenzie and his family attended a vigil in East St. Louis to honor the life of the 14-year-old football star fatally shot by a stray bullet after an eighth-grade dance.
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Friends, teammates, and supporters of Jaylon McKenzie and his family attended a vigil in East St. Louis to honor the life of the 14-year-old football star fatally shot by a stray bullet after an eighth-grade dance.

Jaylon McKenzie had always dreamed of playing sports for East St. Louis Senior High School, just like his parents had.

But on May 4, that dream was cut short when McKenzie was gunned down at a party after a school dance in Venice.

At a vigil to celebrate the life of the 14-year-old football star on Wednesday, almost 300 people gathered at the high school’s football stadium to show support for his family and friends. They were mostly clad in orange and blue, the colors of the team for which McKenzie would never get to play.

“All Jaylon ever dreamed about since he was a baby was playing for East Side,” his father, Otis Gunner, of Belleville, told the crowd through tears.

McKenzie was an 8th grader at Mason-Clark Middle School, where he played multiple sports, but especially excelled at football. He was a handful of middle school players nationally to compete at a Pro Football Hall of Fame game last August and already had scholarship offers on the table from both the University of Illinois and University of Missouri.

Timothy Pitts, a teammate of McKenzie, said he’s still trying to comprehend that his friend is gone.

“I can’t understand it,” he said at the vigil.

Trooper Josh Korando of the Illinois State Police, which is actively investigating the shooting, said on Thursday there were no updates to the case.

“I’m angry,” Gunner said at the vigil. “I want answers, but I know I’m not about to get them right now.”

A crowd made up of citizens both young and old, came from East St. Louis and surrounding towns like Washington Park and Cahokia. They listened to speakers, including East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III, who offered their condolences to McKenzie’s family and condemned the rampant gun violence in the community.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Eastern said. He told the younger people in the stands, “We need you to help rebuild East St. Louis.”

Later, Gunner also turned to the youth in the crowd to tell them to “stop and think” before they act with violence.

“Find your circle ... find those who care about you,” Gunner said. “You can be doing the right thing, but if people around you are doing the wrong thing, it could cost you your life.”

Gunner described his son as a funny kid, who touched many people across the world.

“I realize now I was living with an angel for 14 years,” he said. McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena, was cheered on by a standing ovation when she approached the front of the crowd. Though she didn’t speak, she was surrounded by people who cared about her son and were saddened by his sudden death.

At the end of the vigil, hundreds of people approached the Gunner’s to hug them and give them condolences. Then, balloons were released, including ones in the shape of a “6,” which was McKenzie’s jersey number.

Faith Mitchell, a close friend of McKenzie who brought orange and blue balloons to release in his honor, described him as caring.

“I know if it were me, Jaylon would be here for me,” she said.

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Hana Muslic has been working the public safety beat for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.


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