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Life, death and gangs
in south DeKalb

Authorities blame a string of killings on a street gang — and say most of the victims were gang members, too. But in a place where guns and drugs are abundant and violence a constant threat, gang affiliation may be beside the point.

Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell Jr.'s funeral procession was led by a white horse-drawn hearse. This photo was taken from a friend's Twitter account.

Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell Jr.'s funeral procession was led by a white horse-drawn hearse. This photo was taken from a friend's Twitter account.

A horse-drawn hearse led a column of black limousines through Resthaven Gardens of Memory. In the mid-summer heat, mourners lined the cemetery’s narrow lane. Many raised cellphones to record the gleaming white hearse, where Oliver Campbell Jr. lay inside a polished casket the color of a gun barrel.

An undated photo of Oliver Campbell Jr., posted on friends' accounts on Instagram and Twitter.

An undated photo of Oliver Campbell Jr., posted on friends' accounts on Instagram and Twitter.

“Bring my brah in style, man,” a bystander said, marveling at the grand procession. “Rest in peace, Poopoo.”

“Everybody loved Poopoo,” says Campbell’s mother, Vernicia. She gave her son the nickname when he was a toddler, and it stuck. Now it’s an early afternoon nearly three months after she buried her only child, and she speaks in a voice so low and raspy from grief it’s almost unintelligible at times. Her husband is attending services for a friend’s son, another young murder victim. She can’t bear to go.

“I’ve been to enough funerals,” she says.

In south DeKalb County, where the 20-year-old Campbell lived his entire life, violent deaths of young men are so common that a shorthand term has evolved for the nighttime vigil that follows so many shootings. It is, simply, a “candlelight.”

Poopoo Campbell’s candlelight took place July 30 after he was shot to death at a gas station on Candler Road. His was one of five killings across south DeKalb between mid-May and late July that authorities attribute to a street gang called the Gangster Disciples. In September, a grand jury indicted nine alleged gang members for murder and other charges. They are as young as 17, no older than 25.

By implication, the grand jury also blamed the victims. It suggested Campbell and three of the other four were themselves gang members, killed for violating the Gangster Disciples’ rules or, perhaps, for joining rival groups.

But a close look at Campbell and others involved in the case underscores the complexity of lives often glimpsed only in passing, on local television newscasts or in brief articles deep inside the newspaper.
Across south DeKalb and on social media, representations of gang life are plentiful: hand gestures considered a shout-out to the Bloods, for example, or clothes in the blue and black of the Gangster Disciples.

Even the most menacing pose, though, may be only a pose.

Oliver Campbell Jr., known to friends and family as "Poopoo" and known as "Plug" in the rap group OneFive 1K, is shown with two handguns. He was killed July 30, 2015, in what prosecutors say was a gang-related crime. This photo is taken from a friend's public Instagram page.

Oliver Campbell Jr., known to friends and family as "Poopoo" and known as "Plug" in the rap group OneFive 1K, is shown with two handguns. He was killed July 30, 2015, in what prosecutors say was a gang-related crime. This photo is taken from a friend's public Instagram page.

On Twitter and Instagram, numerous photographs show Campbell displaying semi-automatic handguns, or smoking marijuana, or both. In one picture, he holds two guns while smoking a blunt – marijuana stuffed into a cigar wrapping. In another, he has stuck a pistol with an extended magazine, capable of holding 30 or more rounds, into the waistband of his sagging pants. Other photos show Campbell with wads of cash, its provenance unstated. In one, he has formed cash into a pillow to rest his head against his shoulder.

Then, in a video on Instagram, Campbell stands on a beach, embracing his mother and smiling. “Happy birthday to this beautiful lady,” he says, “my mama.”

Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell Jr. and his newborn son, Messiah, a few days before Campbell was shot to death in DeKalb County. The photo was posted to Twitter by the child's mother.

Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell Jr. and his newborn son, Messiah, a few days before Campbell was shot to death in DeKalb County. The photo was posted to Twitter by the child's mother.

On Twitter, Campbell beams at his infant son, born June 24.

“Poopoo is a great daddy,” his girlfriend, Darica Earl, 19, posted on the baby’s one-month birthday. She called Campbell her BD — her baby daddy. She wrote about his plans to build a family with her. And she delighted in how much the baby looked like his father.

They named the child Messiah.

He was born into a subculture in which violence, or the threat of violence, is a constant reality; in which guns and drugs are abundant; and in which a palpable sense of resignation leavens the malevolence displayed online and in public.

“Niggas getting killed everyday and y’all wonder why I’m always gripping on my pistol,” a friend of Campbell’s, using the name FaDaMoney, wrote on Twitter. “I can’t trust nobody.”

The killings

A Department of Corrections photo of Tory Alston, killed in May 2015, allegedly by members of the Gangster Disciples.

A Department of Corrections photo of Tory Alston, killed in May 2015, allegedly by members of the Gangster Disciples.

Tory Alston had been out of prison exactly five months. He had finally met his second child, a daughter born while he was serving time for a probation violation. He talked of putting his past behind him, including his years with the Bloods street gang.

“Daddy, my life is worth more than that gang stuff,” the 20-year-old told his father, Gary Alston Sr.

On May 13, Tory Alston was at home in Stone Mountain with his girlfriend, Fabienne Pierre, when he grabbed a few dollars from the bedroom and walked outside. “He told me someone was going to sell him a phone,” Pierre says. But “a minute later,” she says, she heard gunshots. She found Alston on the ground and saw a car speed away.

She can’t understand why he was targeted.

“The whole time we was together he wasn’t in no drama,” Pierre says. “He didn’t have no issue with no one.”

Alston’s death started a string of homicides that stretched into the summer, authorities say. How the killings are related is not entirely clear. Most of the victims and most of the accused killers had criminal records, but none seems to have been caught with any of the others. Three of the killings occurred within a two-mile radius, but weeks apart. Two victims had ties to South Carolina, but to different parts of the state. If prosecutors know of links between victims and defendants, they are not yet saying.

Demarco Franklin was the second to die. The night of July 1, Franklin and his girlfriend walked home with their baby along Holcombe Road, just inside Interstate 285. Earlier, Franklin had a confrontation with two young men he didn’t know, police say. That night, they jumped from behind some bushes and opened fire. Franklin, 21, fell dead in the street.

Two days later, Edward Chadmon, 24, was staying with a friend in a Stone Mountain motel. Chadmon rapped under the name E-Thugga and had adopted a tough persona online. In one picture on Facebook, he aims a monstrous assault rifle at an unseen target. In the next photo, though, he carries his young daughter at bedtime; she is wearing mismatched flannel pajamas and barrettes in her hair. On July 3, a motel employee saw several young men running away after the gunshots that killed Chadmon.

Roc-Qwell Nelson, 22, died July 30. He was in a Stone Mountain apartment complex, visiting a woman he met just the day before. Somehow, authorities suggest, gang members hunted him down there and, when they saw him on a ground-level patio, started shooting.

Fourteen hours earlier, Poopoo Campbell was found in his father’s red Ford pickup truck in front of a gas station three-quarters of a mile from Campbell’s home. The engine was running, the transmission still in gear.

“...My son had never been in a fight. They had no reason to take his life.”
— Oliver Poopoo Campbell’s mother, Vernicia

DeKalb police work the scene of a shooting at a Valero gas station off of Candler Road in DeKalb County, Thursday, July 30, 2015. 20-year-old, Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell, was found in his father’s red Ford pickup truck three-quarters of a mile from his home. The engine was running, the transmission still in gear. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Chit Chat Lounge, on Ember Drive in Decatur, a nightclub where murder victim Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell used to rap every Wednesday night. 
Photo by bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Chit Chat Lounge, on Ember Drive in Decatur, a nightclub where murder victim Oliver "Poopoo" Campbell used to rap every Wednesday night.
Photo by bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Candler Road

Nail salons and check-cashing stores. Liquor stores and pain-management clinics. A funeral home and too many churches to count. An empty storefront that once housed the Young Men’s Mentoring Center.

Barely a mile long, this stretch of Candler Road is where Poopoo Campbell’s life played out. Since he was a toddler, he had lived with both of his parents in a small brick ranch house two short blocks off Candler. He attended elementary school up the street and played youth sports at a neighborhood park. More recently, using the stage name Plug, he rapped during open-mic nights at the Chit Chat Lounge, a club just across I-20.

The Valero gas station, at 2587 Candler Road as seen here on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015 in DeKalb County was site of early morning shooting involving gang activity in the past.

The Valero gas station, at 2587 Candler Road as seen here on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015 in DeKalb County was site of early morning shooting involving gang activity in the past.

Diagonal to the club, on the expressway’s north side, is a Valero station. That’s where Campbell was shot to death. And a few blocks up the street, directly across Candler Road from his neighborhood, is Resthaven, the sprawling cemetery where Campbell is buried.

Campbell liked to stay close to home, his mother says — away from commotion, away from trouble.

“He wasn’t in that gang — no gang,” she says. “He didn’t have no tattoos, he didn’t have no piercings. My child didn’t have no record. All he liked to do was perform rap and make everybody happy. My son had never been in a fight. They had no reason to take his life.”

He got into trouble with police only once. On a January night in 2014, a police officer stopped Campbell in east Atlanta because his truck’s license-tag light was out. The officer reported that he smelled “burnt marijuana” and, on the truck’s floor, beside Campbell’s right foot, found a loaded Smith & Wesson 9 mm semi-automatic pistol. The officer arrested Campbell on a firearms charge. A year later, prosecutors dismissed the case.

Campbell preferred sports to the streets, his mother says. A glass case dominates her living room, displaying trophies that Poopoo collected in youth leagues. The largest is for a football championship in 2002. He was 7 at the time.

As a teenager, Campbell formed a rap group, OneFive1K, with his lifelong friend, Dominique Boyer. He seemed to view rap the way earlier generations thought of sports: as a means of escape from a life that offered few prospects.

“Every time Plug made a new song, he let me hear it 1st,” his friend FaDaMoney wrote on Twitter. “He be like, ‘Dis da 1 dats gone be a hit.’”

Guns and money dominate Campbell’s songs, all set in a harsh urban landscape:

They owe me,
They owe me, nigga.
And I can’t get enough of their money,
Their money, nigga

Campbell and Boyer, known as Domo, were inseparable, Vernicia Campbell says. In the spring of 2013, both were seniors at Columbia High School. After class one afternoon, Boyer was hanging out at an apartment complex on Glenwood Road. An SUV pulled into the parking lot, and a passenger opened fire. Boyer was the only person struck. He died less than an hour later at Grady Memorial Hospital. He was 18.

Campbell was so devastated he couldn’t finish school, his mother says, and didn’t earn a diploma until December 2014. He visited Boyer’s grave often.

“Yeah, what the hell is going on?” Campbell says in a video he shot at the gravesite. “Over here come to see my blood … OneFive. Rest in peace, Dominique. Yeah. What the hell going on?”

He seemed to think he would meet the same fate as Boyer.

“Baby pray for me,” he texted his girlfriend on March 4, when she was several months pregnant. “I feel like I’m next.”

Campbell was working part-time for a lawn-care service. Success in the music business continued to elude him. At the Chit Chat, the club where Campbell told his mother he rapped regularly, managers say they don’t remember him or his group.

OneFive1K produced several videos and released at least one mix tape, a compilation less formal than an album that is distributed free online. The videos affirm how small a world Campbell occupied.

The video for the song “F&N” was shot on the corner half a block from Campbell’s house. Neighborhood friends, many of them armed, appear as extras. And the “Going Thru It” video concludes at Resthaven, where Campbell would later be buried, at the foot of Boyer’s grave.

‘Someone who can be saved’

Joseph Broxton, 20, is charged in four of five killings that authorities say are linked to the Gangster Disciples street gang.

Joseph Broxton, 20, is charged in four of five killings that authorities say are linked to the Gangster Disciples street gang.

Another grieving mother:

“My son,” Talisa Payne says, “is not what they’re making him out to be.”

Prosecutors allege that Joseph Broxton, 20, committed four of the five murders blamed on the Gangster Disciples. He is accused of acting alone in killing Campbell and of helping other alleged gang members shoot three others. No other defendant is charged in more than two deaths.

The way prosecutors describe their case, Broxton is “a monster killing smaller monsters,” says his lawyer, Daryl Queen.

Beginning as a juvenile, Broxton built an extensive criminal record: burglary, shoplifting, possession of marijuana, cocaine distribution, and more. Police files and court records show he was arrested nine times between 2012 and 2015.

Nothing in the documents explains how, in just three years, Broxton could have gone from stealing laptops and selling drugs to killing a series of purported gang members. Even as he faced more serious charges, he attracted attention from adults who saw value in what others might view as a hopeless case.

Broxton pleaded guilty in 2012 to breaking into an apartment in broad daylight and stealing three laptops, two televisions and one tablet computer. The victim was his sister’s next-door neighbor.

The prosecutor told the judge Broxton had committed similar crimes both as a juvenile and as an adult. The state sought a five-year sentence: one year in prison, then four on probation.

Broxton’s court-appointed lawyer, Duana Sanson, appealed for mercy. She said Broxton had smoked marijuana since he was 13. During six months of sobriety, she said, he performed well in school, but relapsed. Still, she said, even with a possible prison sentence looming, a rehabilitation facility had accepted him into a residential treatment program and a McDonald’s had promised him a job.

“This is someone who can be saved,” Sanson told DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams.

Standing before the judge, Broxton fumbled through an apology.

“Basically I understand that I made a mistake and basically I want to go home as soon as possible,” he said. “I will not put myself in the same situation and end up back in the DeKalb County Jail. I — I can’t — I can’t do no more time in there.”

Adams agreed to send Broxton to rehab, not prison. But he warned: “Do yourself a favor. Don’t come back.”

“Obviously, people think that you can make some changes,” Adams said. “But, young man, this is going to be your last opportunity to get a break.”

Five months later, Broxton was arrested again, this time for shoplifting. Then he was charged with failing to report to his probation officer.

Still more arrests followed: for firearms possession, for marijuana possession, for probation violations. Broxton spent a total of 91 days in jail in 2014, plus the first 68 days of 2015.

Two months after his latest release, Broxton went to a nightclub off Covington Highway called The Cave. He intervened in a fight, and two men opened fire, according to a police report.

Shot in the abdomen, Broxton lost his spleen and half his colon. Doctors fitted him with a colostomy bag.

He was still wearing the device early on July 30, when he allegedly crossed paths with Campbell at the Valero station on Candler Road.

Paying respect

Campbell looked forward to his weekly outing at the Chit Chat, his mother says. “Every Wednesday — the same routine. Go there and come home.” If he couldn’t borrow his father’s truck, he’d walk to the club.

Most nights when her son was out, Vernicia Campbell was a light sleeper. She listened for the truck as Poopoo came up the street and pulled into the driveway. Then she could sleep. The night of July 29 and into the next morning, she slept soundly until about 6:30. Two people came to her door, banging and ringing the bell. Come with us, they said. They drove her to the Valero station.

Poopoo had been shot about 6:25. Wearing a gray T-shirt and gray shorts, he sat behind the steering wheel of his father’s truck, but was slumped over toward the passenger seat. A police officer could not find a pulse.

Darica Earl, Campbell’s girlfriend, was at her apartment with Messiah, their baby, when her phone rang. Immediately she went on Twitter, posting a stream-of-consciousness account in real time.

First:
This can’t be true omg why me.
Then:
On my way to Grady.
I hope my bd not gone lord please.
From the hospital:
He gone wtf Ima tell my baby.
He all I had.
And later in the day:
Whoever killed my bd better be ready for war that’s all I gotta say.

Campbell’s parents scheduled the funeral for Aug. 8, a Saturday. All week, his friends put out the word on social media: No guns at the funeral — and no gang colors.

“If you cannot respect his mother,” one friend wrote, “you will not be getting in.”

It was hot the day of the funeral. To accommodate a large crowd, the services were moved from Vernicia Campbell’s church to the more spacious sanctuary at Greenforest Baptist, near I-20 and I-285. Her pastor, the Rev. David Benton, had spoken with Poopoo the previous Sunday about joining Greater Liberty Hill Baptist. Campbell wanted to have Messiah christened, Benton says. “He wanted to make us his church home.”

At the funeral, Benton looked across the crowd of young people. Campbell’s death “shook them up,” he says.

“Maybe it did something internally in their minds. They wanted to get closer to the Lord.”

When Benton extended an “invitation to Christ,” he says, 80 to 100 mourners approached the altar.

A gleaming white horse-drawn hearse delivered the body of Oliver Campbell Jr. to the Resthaven Cemetery in south DeKalb County on Aug. 8, 2015. A friend posted this photo on Twitter.

A gleaming white horse-drawn hearse delivered the body of Oliver Campbell Jr. to the Resthaven Cemetery in south DeKalb County on Aug. 8, 2015. A friend posted this photo on Twitter.

The horse-drawn hearse waited outside. It led the procession west on Rainbow Drive, then north on Candler Road. It passed the Chit Chat and the Valero. It turned into Campbell’s neighborhood and went by his house. Finally, with traffic stopped on Candler, it crossed over to Resthaven.

Eight pallbearers, dressed all in white, lifted Campbell’s casket from the hearse. Funeral attendants released two white doves into the sky.

Then they placed white chrysanthemums on top of the casket and lowered it into the red-clay earth.

ABOUT THIS STORY

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined alleged gang activity in south DeKalb County after a grand jury charged nine people in connection with a series of five homicides that occurred from mid-May through late July. The newspaper relied on multiple sources: police reports and court files, interviews with family members and lawyers for accused killer and their victims, and social media posts. A reporter also spoke to gang-violence experts from around the nation.

The social media posts, by people directly involved with the case, included real-time descriptions of events described in the story, as well as numerous photographs. Information was taken from public sites on such platforms as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.