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Brenda Wiggins has not lived in her Liberty Square home since the night of Aug. 24. It doesn’t feel like home anymore. Even her closest friends and neighbors have moved away.
Their corner of Miami’s notorious housing project known as Pork and Beans used to be the safe corner, a section they called The Wall, near the intersection of Northwest 12th Avenue and Northwest 62nd Street.
Now it’s like a ghost town.
When Tyree Smith was shot and killed outside his front door four months ago, he took the life of the neighborhood with him. His killer, still unknown, destroyed any illusions that a patch of Pork and Beans could be sheltered from violence and heartbreak.
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Smith, 20, was the second youngest of Wiggins’ four children. Since her son was gunned down while chatting with friends on a sticky summer evening – Miami police tell her they have no suspects or motive – she has only been back inside the apartment to collect belongings. She can’t bear to sleep there.
“It’s too painful, too hard, too many memories,” said Wiggins, who is staying at her sister’s house in West Little River.
She goes back to sit by Smith’s memorial made by his friends, an arrangement of stuffed animals, candles, photographs and messages with his nickname, Tybo, spelled out on the sidewalk.
Scenes in the Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight” were filmed in Liberty Square, where director Barry Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney grew up and where their mothers became addicted to drugs.
The 753-unit complex was a model of modernity for Miami’s black middle class when it opened in 1937, but neglect, poverty, the crack cocaine epidemic and the infiltration of criminal gangs have turned it into a blighted, dangerous place that Wiggins wants to escape.
“I was born and raised in Liberty City,” she said. “But I never want to live there again.”
Smith, a Northwestern High School graduate, was lovable and clever, quick with a joke, and the first one to defuse a tense situation, his mother said.
“Since he was a little boy, he was a happy kid, the class clown,” Wiggins said. “You’d never see him mad or sad. If there was a fight, he would say something funny and get people laughing. He was a peacemaker.”
Smith, a fan of comedian Kevin Hart, was king of the put-down, delivered like a punch line, but always with a smile.
When he was 12, he fell off his bike and chipped a front tooth on the handlebars. His friends teased him by calling him Chip Tooth, “and he would laugh with them but he ranked back at them, from head to toe,” Wiggins said. “You better be ready to get ranked on by Tybo.”
Smith, who worked labor pool jobs and aspired to get into the music business, was a homebody who liked cooking his mom’s recipe for French toast, writing rap songs and playing pick-up basketball. He took care of the neighbors’ children or helped carry their groceries.
He enjoyed playing video games and was immersed in Fortnite when his mother and younger sister Brianna went out to visit friends on Aug. 24. Less than an hour later, they were inundated with calls and texts. Tyree was lying on the ground. Tyree was bleeding. Tyree was shot.
Wiggins rushed home to find police roping off her walkway.
“I was crying and hollering, ‘Where’s my baby?’ and a rescue truck passed by with the sirens going,” she said.
She and Brianna jumped in their car and drove to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center.
“I was crying and praying and the doctor came in, shaking his head, and said, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do,’” she said. “Disbelief. I’m still in a state of disbelief. I had just left my son, and he was eating dinner, and his last words to me were, ‘I’m good, go ahead, Mommy. I got this.’”
Neighbors heard five gunshots. Smith’s friends said a young man was walking by when Smith said, ‘What’s up?’ He replied, ‘What’s up?’ then turned, pulled out a gun, started shooting and ran away. Details are sketchy.
“In a project, people are going to talk but they are not going to tell you what they witnessed,” Wiggins said. “They’re too scared. No, they didn’t see anything, which I know they did.”
Their corner of Liberty Square, near Holmes Elementary School, didn’t seem so perilous when Tyree and Brianna were kids. They were outside all the time, playing kickball, football, hide and seek. The close-knit group of neighbors had picnics and parties. Looked out for each other.
Behind The Wall, originally built to block off the black neighborhood from the white neighborhood, there was a strong sense of community and a safe little world.
“When I first moved in there, you heard occasional shooting,” Wiggins said. “Then it got terrible. Somebody was dying every other weekend. Then it calmed down because a lot of people went to jail. Mostly the bad stuff happened on the other side of Pork and Beans. But recently they started shooting again.
“I had requested a transfer before Tyree was shot. It was denied. I requested another one after he was buried. I guess it takes the murder of a family member to get out.”
One of Tyree’s best friends, Antquiniesha Flowers, also 20, was shot and killed two years ago on Aug. 25 in Liberty Square.
“She was walking out her back door,” Brianna said. “Anybody can buy a gun. Every time you look around, somebody’s getting killed.”
Wiggins, 54, expects to be relocated to a housing project near Southridge High School near Cutler Bay.
“It’s still the projects but it seems to be a lot more quiet,” she said.
Brianna has postponed plans to enlist in the Army and become a nurse.
“I wanted to stay by my mama’s side,” she said. “I try to be strong for her, but I have my moments.”
As they talk, Wiggins wraps herself in a blanket woven with an image of Tyree’s face. The funeral home had it made for her. A green urn filled with his ashes sits on her sister’s dining room table, alongside a white wreath from the funeral. She wears a pin with his picture on her dress and a locket with his ashes around her neck.
A Christmas tree sits in the corner. She cannot imagine celebrating Christmas without Tyree. She’s going to start over in a new place far from her home of 54 years.
Wiggins, who is on disability, was nominated for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book by the RJT Foundation, a group of women who support the families of murdered children. The foundation provides grief counseling, mentors at-risk youth and hosts violence-prevention programs. The RJT acronym stands for Restore Joy and Trust and represents the names of three young men who were killed in drive-by shootings in Miami.
Wiggins needs furniture — living room, dining room, bedroom — for her new apartment. She needs anything that will help her set up a household from scratch, including kitchen supplies and linens.
She wants to re-establish herself in a stable, peaceful environment and move forward.
“I wish this was a dream and I could wake up and it would be over,” Wiggins said. “I want my baby back. I want to ask the killer, ‘Why? What did he do to you, a boy who didn’t bother anybody? What was the purpose of shooting him? Why are you still out on the street and Tyree is gone? How can you go on with your life when I struggle every day to go on with mine?’”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans. Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook