Young life cut down in Camden had great promise

Khalil Gibson's godmother, Betty Matthews , mourns while holding her son Isaiah, 2, joined by Holly Walker, in Roosevelt Plaza across from Camden City Hall. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Khalil Gibson's godmother, Betty Matthews , mourns while holding her son Isaiah, 2, joined by Holly Walker, in Roosevelt Plaza across from Camden City Hall. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 10, 2012

Four years ago, as MetEast High School teacher Josephine Parr steered her Chevrolet Venture minivan down Mount Ephraim Avenue in Camden past a long line of abandoned buildings, she turned to her passenger, Khalil Gibson, a student whom she was advising.

"What would you do with a whole block?" she asked Gibson, a young teen who had big ideas for himself and his beleaguered city.

Gibson proceeded to describe where he would place a community center for teens, a dance studio, and a music studio.

"You could see what he was trying to convey. He was a visionary. He didn't see the obstacles. He was able to see the potential," Parr recalled Monday as she tried to make sense of why Gibson's life was cruelly cut short.

On Saturday night, a masked gunman wearing yellow latex gloves shot Gibson as he sat in a car parked in the Fairview neighborhood. Jewel Manire, 18, the driver, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Three other passengers, two 16 and one 20, were wounded.

Authorities have yet to pinpoint a motive for the attack except to say it was not a random act.

Few details have emerged about four of the victims. But those who knew Gibson on Monday recalled a young man who impressed them with his maturity and ambition.

Friends said they didn't doubt Gibson would achieve his dream of becoming a music mogul, maybe even a millionaire. None had imagined he would be killed in the backseat of a car.

Guided by mentors, Gibson sought in turn to inspire other young people.

"He wanted to make sure that little boys had men in their lives," Gibson's godmother, Betty Matthews, said.

Matthews said she had planned to take Gibson to the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County in Parkside this week so he could sign up to be a mentor.

Sean Brown, 30, a Camden Board of Education member who mentored Gibson in high school and then became his friend, said, "He stayed on his path. The fact that some evil person decided to shoot innocent people speaks more to that person's character than Khalil's future."

Gibson, a 2011 MetEast graduate, was a Camden County College student. One ambition he had yet to realize was to follow his older brother to Morehouse College in Atlanta. He also worked part time at a Taco Bell in Cherry Hill.

Manire, a Camden High graduate, was a young mother. She had left a family gathering Saturday night to meet friends, according to a family member.

It was unclear how the five ended up together in a parked car on Hull Road. Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, declined to discuss the victims' whereabouts before the shooting.

The gunman, who allegedly also wielded a machete and wore a black mask over the lower part of his face, remained at large Monday. He knew at least one of the victims, the Prosecutor's Office and city police said.

Authorities pieced together the following events:

Around 11:40 p.m. Saturday, the gunman crept up to the driver's side of the group's burgundy Chevrolet Lumina. He repeatedly fired, hitting Manire first.

A 16-year-old girl who was shot in the arm and shoulder stumbled out of the car and called police. The gunman then pushed Manire aside and drove off with his four other victims inside.

Another 16-year-old girl was shot in the head but survived.

Yet another victim, a 20-year-old female who was shot in the face, reportedly played dead until the gunman stopped the car about a mile away on a dirt road near the 2500 block of Morgan Boulevard. It was long enough for her to jump out.

The gunman chased her, but she got away. He was last seen running toward basketball courts near Morgan Boulevard.

The victims were taken to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. The 20-year-old who was shot in the face and the 16-year-old who was shot in the head were reported to be in critical condition Sunday. An updated condition was unavailable Monday.

Laughlin declined to discuss a motive, but authorities said they did not believe the attack was random or connected to drugs.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, who attended a memorial Monday for the city's latest homicide victims, said the killings - the 49th and 50th of the year - did not appear to be gang-related.

Two more crosses were added to a field of them that has sprouted in Roosevelt Plaza across from City Hall. The memorial is the work of an antiviolence group calling itself Stop Trauma on People. Holly Walker, a friend of the Gibson family, hammered a sky-blue cross with Gibson's name and age in black letters into the grass. (The cross says Gibson was 19; authorities have said Gibson was 20.)

Parr said Gibson had been concerned about violence in his community and wanted young people to have a safe space. Shortly after he told her about his vision for the run-down block, he drew up a sketch of where he envisioned the community center and studios.

"He had grand ideas from day one," she said.

Parr, who headed the magnet school's internship program, introduced Gibson to Brown. At the time, Brown was an urban studies undergraduate student at Rutgers-Camden and founder of Young Urban Leaders, a nonprofit that seeks to prepare young people to address urban issues.

During the internship, Brown said, he discussed life lessons with Gibson as well as topics such as the economic models of nations. He taught Gibson about nonprofits and start-ups. He took Gibson to classes at Rutgers and to black student union meetings.

Gibson in turn taught him about underground hip hop, Brown said.

"I wanted him to see what a group of young, successful, community-minded, organized people looked like and how they got things done in a large environment," Brown said.

Donovan Moore, 24, a Camden native who said he freelances for magazines such as XXL and is known in hip-hop circles as Don Bleek, said his sister, a student at MetEast, introduced him to Gibson in 2008.

"We used to sit down and talk about how we're going to be the next Jay-Z and Diddy," said Moore, who works in New York in the marketing department of Universal Republic, a record label whose artists include Lil Wayne.

Moore said he helped Gibson complete his senior project at MetEast - organizing a free hip-hop concert at the Walt Whitman Arts Center.

"It was far beyond the expectations we both had," Moore said.

But Parr, 42, said she believed Gibson would not realize his full potential in Camden.

"I think you've reached your limit," she recalled telling him.

He wanted to leave the city, though he was nervous about starting his life over somewhere new, she said. Still, she encouraged him to chase his dream of attending Morehouse.

"I think you would feel more inspired and strong around your brother," she told him.

Authorities ask anyone with information to contact John Hunsinger, an investigator with the Prosecutor's Office, at 856-365-3239 or Camden Police Detective Shawn Donlon at 856-757-7420. Information can also be e-mailed to ccpotips@ccprosecutor.org.


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829 or at dsimon@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

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