Tamorroa Robinson, age seven, took her position in front of the church in a white dress perfect for playing princess, on a different kind of day.
“I know how to spell my mommy’s name,” she said with a quiet confidence, grasping a microphone with two small hands. “B-R-I-T-T-A-N-Y P-O-W-E-L-L.”
Had Tamorroa’s mother been alive to hear her, she would’ve been proud of her only daughter. Her aunt and uncle would’ve too. Instead they were all gone, an entire slice of the little girl’s family lost and now brought together one last time before a packed house at LightHouse Cathedral in Pittsburgh: Beside 27-year-old Brittany Powell’s casket lay big brother Jerry Michael Shelton, 35, and little sister Chanetta Powell, 25. Tucked next to Chanetta in her coffin was her stillborn son, Demetrius, wrapped in a bonnet and dressed in a tiny tie.
The three siblings and unborn child were the victims of a backyard massacre two weeks before. On March 9, Brittany had invited her family over for a cookout at her home in nearby Wilkinsburg, a chance to savor the warm early spring air. Two men armed with handguns and a high-powered rifle launched a brutal ambush on the party. Their volley of bullets claimed six lives, and left 11 children without a parent. Four of those kids were present when the bloodshed began.
For Tamorroa, the loss was particularly hard. In 2013, her little sister Taylor Mae died in infancy. “Now my daddy is all I got,” she said. She gestured for her cousins to join her and address the congregation.
They were nervous. Jaron, 6, ran upstairs that day when the gunshots started, believing they were fireworks. He recited his mother’s name. “Chanetta,” he said, “I love her so much.” Makaysia, wearing glasses and a white dress to match Tamorroa, pained for Jerry, her father. “My daddy was the only man I loved,” she said.
Jerry Shelton often talked about his dream of being a marine biologist and had a passion for saltwater fish tanks. He was engaged to the mother of his children. In his casket, his corpse wore a navy baseball cap to hide his reconstructed head.
Calvin Sheffield, the 73-year-old funeral director who provided mortuary services for the family, needed several days to prepare their bodies. He called the work “most challenging by far” in his decades-long career.
Even in grief, Tamorroa and Jaron were gracious hosts. “Thank you all for coming,” Tamorroa told familiar faces.
“We love you, everybody,” said Jaron. Ushers walked up and down the aisles, handing out tissues.
“We love you too, baby,” replied a voice from the congregation.
The children’s innocence may have brought a measure of peace for the rest of the mourners, but justice has so far remained elusive.
On Friday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said investigators were “cautiously optimistic” that they had identified suspects in the case. “However,” he added, “we do not expect any arrests to be imminent.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of children present at the time of the shooting.
[Photo: AP/ Gene J. Puskar]