In murders' aftermath, an unlikely friendship

Rhonda Gibson (right) visits Latonya A. McGorder. McGorder's son helped kill Gibson's son, but McGorder reached out to Gibson even as Gibson pleaded for stiff sentences for those convicted in the killing.
Rhonda Gibson (right) visits Latonya A. McGorder. McGorder's son helped kill Gibson's son, but McGorder reached out to Gibson even as Gibson pleaded for stiff sentences for those convicted in the killing. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2013

The Facebook message from the stranger was cryptic: I've been searching for you. I'll understand if you don't want to talk to me.

Perhaps it was an old friend, Rhonda Gibson figured as she read and reread it. She messaged back.

Gibson was startled to read Latonya McGorder's reply. McGorder said she was the mother of one of 10 people involved in a savage gang beating that left Gibson's surrogate son, Michael Hawkins, bloodied and dead in Camden.

McGorder said she was grieving not just for her only son, Lance Fulton, 23, sentenced to a 25-year prison term in the attack, but for the victim as well.

Gibson agreed to continue the conversation. She said that she wanted to learn more about Hawkins' final hours, and that McGorder's son "wasn't one of the main ones" involved.

There was another young victim that February 2010 evening - Hawkins' girlfriend, Muriah Huff, a high school senior, who was beaten and strangled. Fulton was not charged in her death.

The women exchanged more messages in the months following their first online encounter in early 2012. They also cried over the phone about their young men and the horror of the crime.

They tried to meet a few times, but never did until encountering each other unexpectedly over the summer.

On June 21, they locked eyes at Camden High School's graduation. McGorder, a 1983 graduate, was active in the alumni association, which was giving out a $500 scholarship. Gibson worked at the school. They posed for a photo. They were "spiritual soul sisters," as McGorder put it, connected by tragedy and faith.

They discovered commonalities beyond the obvious. Both worked with young adults; both were chasing doctoral degrees in their 40s; both were raised in devout Christian homes.

"I wanted to embrace Latonya, to let her know we're in this together as parents. Her son is still here, but we're kind of united," said Gibson, 49, of Willingboro. "I'm a Christian. She's a Christian."

"I have great respect and admiration for Rhonda," said McGorder, 48, who grew up on Berkley Street, where the murders took place. She recently returned to the block. "We both share the same notion: In our community here in Camden, if we can get these young men . . . to realize, in this whole institution of a family circle, their part is vital."

Gibson grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of a corrections officer and a hairstylist turned elementary-school teacher. At 18, she joined the Air Force. She met her husband, a master sergeant, while stationed in Germany. The couple have four adult children and two younger adopted boys.

After the Air Force, she worked as a corrections officer in the 1990s in the Burlington County Jail. She left to become a teaching assistant with the Burlington County Special Services School District, which serves students with special needs.

In 2003, as a Rowan University student, she worked part time at a group home in Lumberton. There, she met Hawkins, then 16.

He had lived in 17 foster homes and several group homes, and struggled with abandonment and anger issues. His biological parents were not in touch. "He never got a chance to get close to anybody," she said.

She encouraged him to graduate from Rancocas Valley High School in 2005. and gave him money for food and clothes. She frequently checked on him.

"He didn't really have anybody," she said.

Over the next few years, Gibson would earn a master's degree in education from Central Michigan University, taking classes in 2006 at what is now Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

That year, McGorder earned a master's degree in human services from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

On Feb. 22, 2010, Hawkins, a Maple Shade resident, and Huff, 18, of Cinnaminson, arrived at a Camden rowhouse to hang out with friends who were members of the Lueders Park Piru Bloods, a loosely organized gang named after one in Los Angeles.

The gang members accused Hawkins of stealing two bottles of liquor belonging to a member. In his backpack, they also found scribblings that indicated he belonged to the rival Crips.

A T-shirt was draped over his head, and nearly every bone in Hawkins' face had been broken by the time the beating ended, according to confessions.

McGorder said she learned that her son had told Hawkins to play possum. Then another gang member shot Hawkins dead. Huff was killed because the gang feared she would be a witness.

Entering a guilty plea in court, Fulton admitted punching and kicking Hawkins.

He "did not go out seeking, looking, for a gang," McGorder said her son told her. He said he felt trapped and went along, she said.

She acknowledged his guilt - "He admitted to hitting this boy. Why shouldn't he go to prison?" But McGorder said her son doesn't deserve a 25-year term.

Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said Fulton was among those who initiated the assault. "He admitted in court to doing some pretty terrible things that led to the deaths of two people," Laughlin said.

Fulton and seven of the others reached plea deals. Two went to trial and were convicted.

McGorder said she was compelled to reach out to Gibson after Huff's uncle told her at a court proceeding that Fulton was a good person who made a bad decision. Huff's grandmother also stopped her, and prayed for her.

"I was stepping out on faith . . . that I wouldn't be hurting anyone's feelings or violating anything by reaching out," she said.

In May, Gibson finished her doctorate in educational leadership from Rowan University.

Gibson, the learning-disabilities teacher consultant at Camden High, works with freshmen. She likes the "challenge of working with people that nobody has patience for."

McGorder, an adjunct professor at Camden County College's Division of Nursing, Health Science, and Human Services, hopes to work with ex-offenders and their families.

She is also doing independent study for a doctorate in education from Fielding Graduate University of Santa Barbara.

McGorder laughed last week when she discovered that Gibson drives the same model of vehicle - a 2005 GMC Envoy.

Knowing McGorder, said Gibson, a 23-year military veteran, has helped her come to terms with the awful crime.

"I still call them murderers," she said, and she still thinks the sentences were appropriate.

But now, she said, she forgives Fulton and the others.


dsimon@phillynews.com

856-779-3829

@darransimon

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