Making meaning out of a senseless act

Published 4:02 pm Thursday, September 4, 2008

I stepped out of my car in front of Kelley’s Grocery and Market in Highland Home Sunday, and a stifling sense of sadness overwhelmed me.

The cars were lined up here and there in front of the store and Mrs. Betty Kelley’s home; friends and loved ones in Sunday clothes were going in and out of the mobile home.

I spotted my friend, Mrs. Joyce Garner, and waved to get her attention.

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She immediately came over and hugged me hard.

“Isn’t this awful?” she said. “It’s senseless; that’s what it is. It’s just senseless.”

That seemed to be the word that came up over and over again in any discussion about the Aug. 27 shootings.

“How is Mrs. Betty?” I asked her.

“Honey, she’s as solid as an oak. I don’t know how she’s handling all this as well as she is, losing her only child. It’s just unthinkable.”

About that time, Mrs. Betty came walking out of her home with the help of two loved ones, one on each side of her.

“Don’t tell her who I am,” I told Mrs. Joyce.

As far as I was concerned, she’d had enough cameras stuck in her face the last few days.

Mrs. Joyce simply introduced me as “Regina, a good friend of mine.”

I told her how sorry I was about her son and about everything that had happened, and that she was in my thoughts and prayers.

“He was a sweet boy,” she said, looking straight at me.

An oak.

I hugged Mrs. Joyce again and told her goodbye. She was going to Mr. Charles Kelley’s funeral services.

I walked over to the front of the store and kneeled down to look at the handwritten notes and cards that were left there with the flowers and bouquets.

“He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.”

Psalm 147:3 was handwritten on a note addressed to “Charles and Pat.” It also said, “We will miss you.”

Just two days before, I had stood and waited for Antonio Jamar McNear and John Lewis Thomas, Jr., to get out of the patrol car before being led inside to court. McNear was tall and slim, with dreadlocks to his shoulders. He wore a dark green jumpsuit and slide-on flip flops. When Thomas got out in his bright orange jumpsuit, he kept his head up but his eyes averted.

Bryan Henry from WSFA and Christa Littlefield from WAKA kept asking them questions over and over, trying to get them to say something, anything.

“Did you murder two people in a grocery store?” “Did you kill two people?” “Why were you arrested?”

At the stairwell, the questioning started again.

“Did you kill two people in a grocery store?”

Along the way, the two, at one time or another, said, “I didn’t kill nobody,” and “I don’t know why they arrested me.”

Inside the courtroom, they sat on the front side bench waiting for District Judge Tom Sport to appear. McNear’s parents were sitting in the second row up front. I watched as McNear kept mouthing words, trying to communicate with his mom. His dreadlocks would swing back and forth as he moved his head.

No family members were present for Thomas.

Judge Sport came in and began the initial appearance proceedings.

Thomas’s hands were cuffed behind his back. At one point, both Thomas and McNear had to sign paperwork. Thomas’s handcuffs were almost taken off so he could sign his name, until they realized that he could stretch his arms around and write if he bent his knees.

They had the charges read to them. No bond was issued. They were returned to the jail.

I sat down on the bench in front of McNear’s mother.

“Mrs. McNear, how old is your son?”

“He’s 19,” she said quietly, lowering her eyes.

Last Sunday afternoon, the wind whipped around and the humidity caused the sweat to run down my back while I watched the beginnings of the funeral services for Mr. Charles Kelley in Rocky Mount Cemetery. The hillside was filled with people, just as I’m sure Highland Home School will be filled with friends and loved ones this Saturday for Mrs. Barginere.

Senseless. The word that keeps popping up in every conversation surrounding this entire tragedy.

Four families that will never be the same.

“He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.”

Two verses later, we read, “Great is our Lord, and of great power: His understanding is infinite.”

Maybe that’s the only thing we’ll ever know for sure.

Regina Grayson is the Managing Editor of The Luverne Journal and The Lowndes Signal. She can be reached at