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West Michigan young killer saved by love, including victim's grandma

Evart — Jamarion Lawhorn was failed by every adult in his life.

His mom neglected him, his stepdad beat him and social workers ignored warning sign after warning sign about his troubles, according to court records.

The 12-year-old Jamarion lashed out in the most shocking way imaginable by fatally stabbing a 9-year-old boy in 2014 in Kentwood, a Grand Rapids suburb.

The end of one young life looked like it would lead to the vanquishing of another.

But love is a funny thing. It sometimes takes a circuitous route and arrives from the unlikeliest of places.

For Jamarion, it came from three strangers, including the victim’s grandmother.

They bathed him in love and support, each playing a role that had been ignored in the past — mother, father and, yes, grandmother. From the darkness sprouted a family.

Jamarion, now 18, has blossomed under the attention, therapists and judges say. He has been an exemplary inmate at Evart Youth Academy juvenile detention center, lauded by the staff. He hopes to be released next year.

For the first time in his life, he feels worthy of grace.

“I feel like I’m blessed. This was the love I needed,” he told a judge last year. “I just want to prove to the world that I’m not who they thought I was."

The tragedy would have been compounded if a second young life had been discarded, said Toni Nunemaker, 67, who is the grandmother of the victim, Connor Verkerke.

“Jamarion got lucky,” Nunemaker said. “He became surrounded by tons of adults who said we’re here and will be here until you don’t need us anymore.”

She keeps saying it’s a story of love.

'Come kill me or take me to jail'

Walking out of his home in August 2014, Jamarion wanted to hurt somebody. It didn’t matter who.

He walked several blocks and saw a group of boys, including Connor, at Pinebrook Village trailer park in Kentwood, according to trial testimony. He asked if they wanted to be friends and led them to the park playground, where he showed them an 8-inch kitchen knife he had buried in the sand.

When Connor fell from a slide, Jamarion pounced on him and stabbed him five times in the back, twice puncturing his lung.

Connor, with blond hair and blue eyes, was the oldest of four boys, a free spirit who loved to sing and dance, his family said.

Jamarion then used a resident’s phone to call 911, describing what he had done, according to a recording of the call. His voice was so flat it sounded like he was ordering a pizza.

“Hurry up and come kill me or take me to jail. Exactly how you do it in the movies,” he said. “I don’t want to be on this earth no more. Give me the electric chair. I don’t care how I die.”

Jamarion later told police he had wanted to stab himself but was afraid of the pain. He attacked Connor so he would be killed by the police or electric chair.

Police quickly learned why Jamarion hated his life. His body was covered with bruises from being beaten with a belt and an electrical cord, according to testimony.

In 1996, his mother, Anita Lawhorn, had surrendered custody of two daughters in upstate New York after a 1-year-old suffered four broken bones and a 3-year-old had a cigarette burn on her chest, according to New York court records.

More recently in Michigan, police discovered Anita and her partner, Bernard Harrold, hadn’t spent money on food or heat for Jamarion and three siblings. Instead, they bought cocaine, police said.

“The world is not perfct,”Anita wrote on Facebook in 2015. “So qestion. Why am I expcted to be?”

Anita and Harrold were sentenced to a year in jail for child abuse. They declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Detroit News tried to reach Jamarion by mail but hasn’t received a response.

A mentor in detention

Jamarion was so malnourished he looked much younger than 12. He stood 5 feet tall and weighed 83 pounds, according to police reports at the time.

At the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center, he quickly began to grow and put on weight.

But his body was one thing. His mind was another. He still felt marooned in a childhood of fear and neglect and abuse, counselors said.

His mother, despite promise after promise, rarely visited him, counselors testified. She missed most of the court hearings as well. Jamarion was still alone.

“He was never given a chance to live a normal life,” said Frank Briones, a Kent County surveillance officer who had worked at the detention center when Jamarion was there. “Everyone who was supposed to love him and protect him did the complete opposite.”

During the first six months at the facility, Jamarion lashed out at people, Briones said. He tried to kill himself several times.

He eventually calmed down, but after two years, he was moved to the Evart Youth Academy for more in-depth treatment. Dealing with new staff and new inmates, he again got into fistfights.

Briones, 43, a straight-talking former Marine, constantly visited Jamarion at the new facility.

He told the teen he couldn’t imagine what his childhood had been like and knew he hadn’t asked for any of it. But this is what life gave Jamarion, so he had to make the best of it, Briones said.

Jamarion had to learn to deal with adversity, whether it was an absent mom or mocking inmates, the surveillance officer said. He had to resist people pulling him down.

“He just needs someone to love him and show compassion,” Briones said. “He never had someone who believed in him.”

If Jamarion was going to have a shot at a normal life, someone needed to champion him, Briones said. So he assumed the role.

Second guardian angel arrives

Paula Creswell was watching TV news coverage of Jamarion’s trial in 2015 when it showed him turning to face the camera. Creswell saw pain and doubt on his face but also spied what she thought was something else — hope.

She wrote to him on and off for a year, but he was wrestling with his demons, she said. He finally wrote back and put her in touch with Briones.

Briones told Creswell not to befriend Jamarion if she wasn’t going to follow through, she said. The youth had already seen too much of that.

But Briones didn’t know Creswell. She is a mensch who keeps snacks in her car in case she encounters the homeless. She helped start a group that works with churches to find pen pals for prisoners.

Creswell began calling visiting Jamarion every week and, four years later, hasn’t stopped. She goes to all his court hearings.

“It gave me a sense of purpose,” she said. “I just played a motherly role.”

Creswell, 57, felt like she came at the right time. She said Jamarion needed a mother figure, and she filled that role, bringing him homemade meals they ate together at the youth home.

They played games and sometimes just talked. She dispensed parental advice while he described his experiences at the facility.

Creswell and Briones take turns buying things for Jamarion, such as shoes for his ever-expanding feet.

But the best stuff they provide can’t be found at the mall.

They give him attention, security, compassion, hugs, unconditional love, they said. They give his life meaning and his days structure. They provided light in a dark place.

“I never thought I’d make it this far,” Jamarion said during the court hearing last year. “I never understood how they could forgive me for what I did.”

Most people would be lucky to have a guardian angel. Jamarion was blessed with two, with a third on the way.

Forgiveness helps assailant

One of the students at the charter school where Nunemaker taught music was her grandchild, Connor. So every morning, she drove him to school and they ate breakfast together in her room.

She often told Connor there were two ways to live a life — in fear or in love. She described incidents from her past and showed the difference between responding in a positive or negative way.

Nunemaker had always tried to respond to life’s challenges with light. But never was that tested more than the day Connor was killed by Jamarion.

How does one forgive the unforgivable?

And yet, just moments after Connor’s death, while viewing his body in a hospital room, Nunemaker said she turned her thoughts toward the source of her grief. She asked Connor to ask God to look over the young killer and his family.

Others struggle to understand how she did it.

“It goes beyond forgiveness,” said Melissa Emmorey, who has been one of Jamarion’s therapists.

Nunemaker also gave money to Anita Lawhorn and began driving her 90 miles to visit Jamarion at the youth home. If friends were nonplussed by Nunemaker’s support of the youngster, they were angry about her embrace of his mom.

But who are we to decide that only some people are worthy of love?, Nunemaker asked.

In 2017, she self-published a book that describes her response to the death in the hopes of encouraging others to be more compassionate. It’s entitled “Hey Nana!” which is how Connor began every conversation with her.

“My decision seemed simple,” Nunemaker wrote. “Would I choose to live in anger, fear, separation and hate? Or would I choose compassion, oneness and love?”

A year after the book came out, she finally met Jamarion. They embraced and sobbed in the lobby of the juvenile facility. He kept apologizing while she repeatedly forgave him and said she loved him.

Like Creswell and Briones, Nunemaker has become a steady presence in Jamarion’s life, regularly calling and visiting him.

Her forgiveness allowed him to forgive himself, said Creswell.

The staff at the Evart facility said they see an equanimity in the teen that wasn’t there before. Some of his guilt has lifted. He allows himself to smile.

Excelling in schoolwork

The once-diminutive Jamarion, who now towers over his three benefactors, is getting good grades as he works toward his high school diploma at the youth home, they said. He wants to attend college, hoping to get a scholarship from Calvin University in Grand Rapids.

He no longer responds to taunts from others, counselors said. Instead, he mentors them, gently chiding younger inmates when they misbehave. He told Creswell he feels like their dad.

Jamarion, who had tortured animals as a small boy, now raises chickens, collecting their eggs, she said. They follow him around the detention yard. It’s not unusual for him to be seen talking with a staffer with a rooster tucked in his arm.

“There’s such a peace in him now,” Creswell said.

After he was convicted of first-degree murder, Jamarion was sentenced to juvenile detention until he was 19 years old or 21, when a judge would decide whether to send him to adult prison.

His future is in the hands of Kent County Circuit Judge Paul Denenfeld, who has followed his progress in review hearings held every six months.

After receiving glowing reports time after time, Denenfeld said last year they sounded like a broken record, a good type of broken record.

The judge said he was impressed Jamarion took responsibility for what he did instead of making excuses for it.

“Every time I see you, I’m more impressed,” Denenfeld said. “You’ve continued to grow, and I think you’ve got a terrific life ahead of you.”

With prison unlikely because of Jamarion’s progress, the only question is whether he will be released when he’s 19 or 21.

The Kent County Prosecutor’s Office will ask that it be 21, although he wouldn’t necessarily have to serve the time at the youth home. He could stay temporarily with Creswell or Briones.

Fidgeting with forgiveness

As Jamarion’s behavior improved, Denenfelt allowed him to leave the juvenile lockup, first on day trips and now on weekend stayovers with Creswell or Briones.

Jamarion once turned quiet when he was upset but is getting better about opening up, his supporters say. He talks about everything — his feelings, his future, his mom, how much he misses his sisters, ages 8 and 13.

During a day trip last month with Creswell and Nunemaker, Jamarion and the two women talked about forgiveness, they said. He’s struggling to accept the violence inflicted on him as a little boy.

Thanks to the grace Nunemaker extended toward him, he feels he’ll eventually extend the same to his parents.

“One big talk we had was about forgiveness. He has some people to forgive,” Nunemaker said.

During another day trip, Jamarion went to McDonald’s with Briones, his wife and four children. The family exchanged mundane chatter, including Briones gently reprimanding his son for acting up.

Afterward, Jamarion told Briones how much he had enjoyed the dinner. He said he had never sat down to a meal with his parents and siblings, Briones said. It felt good to be part of a family.

After he killed Connor, Jamarion felt his life was over, he told his benefactors. And it deserved to be, he believed. What he had done was reprehensible.

He still doesn’t understand how he was given a second chance or why three strangers stepped forward to give him one.

Creswell said she was visiting Jamarion on the day before her birthday in 2018 when he said he couldn’t afford to get her anything. But he handed her a letter.

“When I was first arrested, I thought I could never trust or love or be loved by anyone,” he wrote.

“Sometimes I wonder how someone can have so much love and I never understood that until I got to know you. I can’t explain how much I appreciate and love you. You are the mother I never had.”

[email protected]

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @prima_donnelly

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