Blacks and whites, joining in grief

Social-media comments aside, Clayton residents see nothing racial in girl's killing.

Posted: October 29, 2012

The visitors have come in a steady stream, old, young, white, black. Some stand silently, almost reverently, as if attending a viewing. Others tell stories and hug one another. One day last week a man dropped off a bouquet, then wept uncontrollably as he walked back to his car.

For days, people have paid their respects at a memorial to 12-year-old Autumn Pasquale that has grown on a lot behind the Clayton house in which authorities allege she was killed by two teenage brothers who coveted her white BMX bicycle.

The ground under a few maple and oak trees has become a healing place covered with stuffed animals, balloons, photos, flowers, candles, and pumpkins emblazoned with personal messages.

There is anger, too, as the prosecutor acknowledged early on. An occasional motorist has hurled threats while driving by the suspects' house. And some have felt freer to express racially tinged comments on social-media sites, for the victim was white and the suspects are black.

At the memorial, however, that kind of acrimony appears to be absent.

Townspeople note that black and white residents searched together when Autumn was reported missing last Saturday.

They attended prayer vigils together, and grieved together after the seventh grader's body was found Monday in a recycling bin near the East Clayton Avenue house where she was allegedly strangled.

There is sadness and disbelief in the small Gloucester County town, but mourners don't see Autumn's killing as race-related. They speak of the whole community being rocked by tragedy, and of the loss of innocence in a town where many leave doors unlocked.

"Our town will continue to be very strong and the people close together," said Lars Ligameri, 39, a lifelong Clayton resident whose 11-year-old twins attend the same middle school Autumn did.

The borough is hurting and frustrated, he said. "I've seen more than one person drive by [the suspects' house] and say, 'Run them out of town!' " Ligameri said while looking at the memorial. " 'How can you stay here where your children have committed such a heinous crime?' "

But the bitterness is not directed at black residents and "shouldn't create racial tension," said Ligameri, who is white.

The borough is 79 percent white and 16 percent African American, while the county is 87 percent white and 9 percent black.

"This wasn't a black-on-white crime; it was a crime," said one of Autumn's aunts, Marlene Peters, 32, a former Clayton resident who lives in Pine Hill, is white, and has an African American husband.

Other memorial visitors agreed.

The details of "what happened don't matter. That doesn't bring her back," said Peters, who remembered visiting family at her brother's house shortly before Autumn's death and receiving "a hug and a kiss from her."

The killing has been traumatic for close-knit Clayton, a working-class town of 8,000 where everybody knows everybody, where minor offenses such as theft dominate the crime statistics, and black and white kids play together in neighborhoods and on sports teams.

Bordering on Glassboro, Elk, Franklin, and Monroe Township, the area that takes in Clayton grew after a glass factory was opened there in the mid-19th century.

An abandoned glassworks building, encircled by a chain-link fence, sits behind the house of the suspects, Justin Robinson, 15, and Dante Robinson, 17. They have been charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, disposing of the body, tampering with evidence, and theft. The younger boy was also charged with a count of luring.

"This is a great little hardworking town," said Mayor Tom Bianco, father of four, who also serves as executive director of the Work Force Investment Board of the Gloucester County Department of Economic Development. "When we started to look for Autumn, her race, color, or creed didn't matter.

"This was a little girl who wanted to graduate from school, make life, have children, but that was taken from her and I'm sitting here as mayor trying to understand it," he said. "We all get along here. We work together toward one goal. Look at the outpouring of support."

Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton and Clayton Police Chief Dennis Marchei last week encouraged the community to turn away from anger and let the criminal-justice system work.

James House, an African American who moved to Clayton in December, hoped that "something good can come of out of something so sad."

"There are evil things in this world; we've lost some innocence," said House, 42, an ironworker whose wife is white and children biracial. "Hopefully, this will bring us together like it did when we banded together to search for" Autumn.

"There are evil things in the world," he added. "This was about two stupid kids doing stupid stuff. It will take time to heal."

The killing is unlikely to change the town's friendly character, said Rodney Williams, 52, a retired operations manager for a financial firm on Wall Street.

"I walk down Clayton Avenue and see teens interacting and commingling with each other," said Williams, who is African American and has been a resident for seven years. "It just makes me feel good. That's why what's happened is so tragic."

The murder "is an isolated incident," he said. "There's nothing racial about it."

Many white residents agreed.

"I'm proud of the town and the way it reacted," said Paul Shimkus, 48, a landscaper. "There has never been any tension, and I don't think it will go that route.

"This is a mixed community and everybody knows one another," he said. "This was just a couple of bad kids."

The feeling of unity was nowhere clearer than at the First Baptist Church on Tuesday where a prayer service - attended by white and black residents - was held after Autumn's body was found.

"We were packed to the gills," said Ike Jones, associated pastor of youth and Christian education. The crowd "spilled outside onto the lawn and parking lot" of the adjacent supermarket, where the service was heard over speakers. "It was a good beginning.

"There's no doubt that there will be some playing the race card," he added. "The unfortunate part of the social media is that it's a place where people can say things and they don't use great wisdom."

At the memorial, brief, often emotional visits continued over the last week as people stopped to read the messages, leave mementos, and shed tears.

"Rest In Peace My Beautiful Cousin," said one message.

The sight of so many gifts left by well-wishers was overwhelming to Bob Tartaglia of Franklinville. He looked down at the stuffed animals and burning candles - and wept.

"I haven't been able to stop crying," he said.

Patti Erhart, a white Newfield resident, came to the memorial with daughters Alexis, 12, and Destiny, 19, who are black. Clayton "will just get stronger," she said.


Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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