When Latonya Whitener dropped her only son off at his friend’s house in Cameron on the morning of Oct. 8, it was a normal Saturday for her. Her daughter was home from college for the weekend, and she planned to spend the evening at home with her, staying up to make sure her son made his 11 p.m. curfew. Like any other Saturday, Whitener returned from work to her Fayetteville home about 5 p.m. — and like many other Saturdays, 17-year-old DeMarcus Chambliss, a senior at Seventy-First High School, missed his curfew.
Whitener was irritated, but not concerned. “Your brother never makes it home on time,” she said she told her 19-year-old daughter Destini Chambliss as they watched television and awaited DeMarcus’ return. “He’s going to be on punishment. He’s not going to go anywhere next week.”
As the words left her mouth, she said, Destini’s phone rang shortly after 11 p.m.
“Are you the parent of DeMarcus Chambliss? Do you know DeMarcus Chambliss?” the caller asked.
Whitener said she grabbed the phone from her daughter. It was a Southern Pines Police Department detective.
“I regret to inform you your child’s been shot,” she remembers the detective saying.
Whitener’s youngest child had been shot dead at a Southern Pines gas station, more than 30 miles away from home.
Friendship turned fatal
Whitener put together the events surrounding her son’s death in bits and pieces. She didn’t understand why he was in Southern Pines when she’d dropped him off in Cameron, she said Thursday. DeMarcus had no reason to be in Southern Pines, as far as she knew. Southern Pines deputy police chief Charles Campbell said Friday the group was in the area to visit someone they knew.
Detectives told her DeMarcus had been shot at the Mobil gas station on Central Drive about 8 p.m. that day. He was already dead when police got there, according to a news release. The teen had been shot multiple times, from what Whitener has been told, he’d been shot at least three times at close range.
The events unfolded so quickly, Whitener said. According to video surveillance from the gas station, as soon as a blue-gray Honda Civic pulled up the pumps, DeMarcus got out of the car. Her son was always a gentleman, Whitener said, insisting on pumping her and her daughter’s gas every time. He’d be out of the car before you could try to stop him.
As DeMarcus got out, someone else did, too — another 17-year-old Whitener said she’d never met. The surveillance camera, police told her, captured the images as her son was shot multiple times. Then, the 17-year-old got back into the car with three others and left, Whitener said.
She knew that car; she’d memorized its license plate by heart over the past two years, she said. The Civic belonged to one of DeMarcus’ good friends — a friend who had given DeMarcus rides to school and who had dropped him off at his mom’s house countless times.
The same car was found abandoned in Fayetteville after his killing, Campbell said.
“They just drove off and left my baby in Southern Pines at the gas station,” she said, her voice heavy with grief.
If not for the learner’s permit DeMarcus had gotten two days prior, it might’ve taken far longer for police to identify his body, she said. But DeMarcus was excited about the permit, having passed the test on his first try, and kept the piece of paper in his wallet. That’s how investigators were able to get in touch with Destini about three hours after her brother was shot, according to Whitener.
The mother-of-two is struggling to understand not just how her son could be gone so quickly, but why his friends turned on him. Two of the people arrested in DeMarcus’ death had been friends with him for at least two years, Whitener said, naming Javeel Cleshaun Brown, 19, of Fayetteville, and Dywoun Mi’keal Ford, 21, of Cameron. Each is charged with accessory after the fact in DeMarcus’ shooting.
DeMarcus met them in high school, and though the older two graduated before he did, they still kept in touch, she said.
“They are long-term friends of DeMarcus,” Whitener said. “They have been to my house. I have cooked them food. I have just interacted with them, talked to them about life decisions, about just doing things in life.”
Ford’s home in Cameron was where Whitener last saw her son, she said. She was anxious about leaving DeMarcus and wanted to meet Ford’s mother before heading to Sanford to work an overtime shift, but the group at the house told Whitener the mother was busy. Whitener said she kept pressing, but eventually, Ford stepped up and reassured her, telling her he was 21, according to Whitener.
“He said, ‘Mama, I got you. Imma take care of him. Nothing’s going to happen to him,’” Whitener said. “He said, ‘We’re going to chill out all day long. He’s good.’”
So Whitener said goodbye to her son, not realizing it would be the last time.
‘The sweetest little boy’
DeMarcus and his mother were close, she said.
“No matter what, every morning I’d tell him, ‘DeMarcus, I love you,’ and I’d kiss him, and he’d kiss me on my cheek,” Whitener said. “He was the sweetest little boy.”
DeMarcus’ father lives in Petersburg, Virginia, so most of the time, it was just DeMarcus, his mom and his sister, according to Whitener. DeMarcus and Destini were particularly close, their mother said, explaining that when Destini got off work at a gym in Greensboro every night, she would call DeMarcus. He would stay on the phone with his older sister until she got to her car.
A nursing student, Destini is now thinking of studying criminology in the face of her brother’s killing, Whitener said.
Whitener described her son as a cheerful, outgoing teen who loved football. He played lineman at his high school, she said, and also worked for Fayetteville Parks and Recreation. The job stemmed from DeMarcus’ childhood passion of playing football at his recreation center, something he pursued until he aged out of the program. Over the past four years, he worked as a scorekeeper on Saturdays and some weekdays at the recreation center, his mother said.
“Football was his joy,” she said. “He enjoyed working with the recreation center because there was just a variety of kids.”
DeMarcus would play with anyone, Whitener said, no matter their age, gender or race.
“Kids nowadays don’t want to go outside; they just want to play the games. Not my baby,” she said, a hint of pride in her voice. “He enjoyed going outside, just playing, riding bikes. He’d walk around with his football all the time and he made friends with older kids.”
Though his mother and other relatives pushed DeMarcus to enter the military after high school, he’d known from a young age what he wanted — to become a long-haul truck driver, Whitener said. That goal came from a childhood of driving up and down Interstate 95 to visit family in Virginia and seeing truck on the road.
“He wanted to get his CDL,” she said. “He always wanted a red 18-wheeler.”
Through the hurt, Whitener said she’s found comfort in the case’s progress. As of Friday, four arrests have been made, including Ford and Brown who surrendered Oct. 17, 11 days after the killing, according to Southern Pines Police. The 17-year-old accused of shooting DeMarcus was arrested Oct. 12 on a charge of first-degree murder, police said. His name was not released because of his age. On Thursday, Rahsaan Lee Young, 23, of Fayetteville, was booked into the Moore County jail on a charge of accessory after the fact. Bail for Ford, Brown and Young is set at $250,000 secured each.
“This is a very tragic moment, but things is working out for me,” Whitener said. “Within a week’s time, we was able to get everyone involved in the incident. So that was helpful for me.”
Whitener attended the alleged shooter’s first appearance in court, she said, supported by 20 members of her family. What bothered her most was that the 17-year-old’s mother wouldn’t meet her eye; Whitener just wanted an apology, she said.
“You can never account for what your kids do, which is hard. We try to teach our kids to do better,” she said. “Sometimes we do have to apologize for our kids’ actions.”
In spite of the pain her family is facing, Whitener said she feels sympathy for the families of those arrested in DeMarcus’ death — but that doesn’t mean she won’t seek justice. The accused are still alive, and her son is not.
“Hopefully, they lost their kids for life as well,” she said. “I don’t wish nothing bad, but I do want justice for my child, and I want them to pay, because I’m never, ever going to see my child. I’m never going to be able to hold him, to kiss him. I’m never going to be able to fuss at him — anything at all.”
DeMarcus’ senior year, meant to be a milestone achievement for both mother and son, has now turned into a tragedy, Whitener said.
“I just wish he was here with me,” she said. “I wanted him to graduate and put his little red cap and gown on.”
Public safety reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at ABSolomon@gannett.com.