He knew it was against the rules to transport liquor in the 18-wheeler he drove, but it was Father’s Day weekend. So Jamaa Cassell pulled over on his way home from a long-haul and scored a bottle of Buffalo Trace for his dad.
Charles Billings, Jamaa’s dad, collects the famous Kentucky distillery’s hard-to-find brands. When Jamaa and his sister were teenagers they’d sneak sips here and there until Charles started drawing marks on the bottles to catch them. Jamaa thought he could outwit his old man by refilling the bottle with water, but then his dad laughed and let him know, “Look, son, I can tell the difference between good bourbon and water.”
Now Jamaa was 39, a truck driver with kids of his own. He was getting through a divorce and living with his parents and two of his children. He was, Charles tells me, just becoming a more refined man himself.
The big picture: These are the memories that are locked in Charles Billings’ mind forever, from Father’s Day 2020, the final hours before Jamaa somehow found himself at the scene of one of Charlotte’s most deadly mass shootings.
Jamaa gave his father the Buffalo Trace and seared scallops for him that evening. They ate and played Uno with the kids on the floor. Jamaa, always the performer, crowed whenever he got skipped. Charles sat in a chair and watched the scene he’d dreamed of — kids and grandkids and good food and card games.
“God’s really blessed us,” Charles told his wife and Jamaa’s mom, Bridgette.
The family gathering broke up around sunset.
Jamaa told his dad he needed to feed Boss, his dog, who was staying with a cousin in west Charlotte. He figured he’d stop by the Food Lion on Beatties Ford, buy a big bag of dog food, spend a little time with Boss, then come home. He had a big day planned for the kids the next day — they were going to the zoo.
Beatties Ford was flooded with people when Jamaa pulled into the Food Lion parking lot. It was the third night of an all-weekend party that had started with a laid-back Juneteenth celebration on Friday. By Sunday, the street trash cans were filled with beer bottles and fireworks boxes.
Cars did donuts in the street. People sat on the hoods of cars and in the beds of trucks while music played. Charles isn’t sure whether Jamaa knew anyone there or not, but crowds draw crowds, and at some point Jamaa went to check out the commotion.
The next morning, a friend called Charles and asked, “Did you hear what happened on Beatties Ford last night?”
What happened: Someone — or many someones — fired nearly 200 shots into the crowd. The partygoers ran out of their shoes, hid behind gas pumps, wailing. Three people were dead and a fourth would be gone by the end of the day.
After a mass shooting people tend to talk about the number dead, as a group. The deceased from that night would become known as the four people who died on Beatties Ford Road.
But their names were Kelly Miller, Christopher Gleaton, Dairyon Stevenson, and Jamaa Cassell.
Four dead, countless family members mourning.
This is just one story of one.
The phone rang at Charles and Bridgette Billings’ house late that Monday morning.
By then there was already a rally planned for the victims of Beatties Ford. Let’s say that again: A march for the dead was planned before the parents of the dead even knew.
I was walking around on Beatties Ford that morning talking to people who’d been there. TV crews were there. Yellow tape was everywhere. DA Spencer Merriweather was there. It was national news. But Jamaa Cassell’s parents were at home that morning with no idea.
Zoom out: Their home had always been a safe space where Jamaa and Kenya and their friends could be comfortable. The couches are plush, the curtains all tidy, and they had an in-ground pool out back with a tiki bar next to it. Charles took it upon himself to show Jamaa and his friends what a good and loving house looked like.
That morning it was quiet when the nurse asked Charles and Bridgette to help identify their son with one world-shattering question:
“Does he have a tattoo with a chain on it that says Bridgette?”
The nurse told them to take their time getting to the hospital. When they got there, a doctor told them that after two surgeries, there was nothing more they could do.
Police vowed to find the killers. Local politicians vowed that they’d never be forgotten.
But now it’s a year later, and aside from a couple of press conferences and the release of security video footage that showed still-unidentified people shooting into a crowd, there’s been little progress.
Charles says he spends most days alone, and says he’s had so many different contacts at the police department that he’s not really sure who’s working the case anymore.
No good witnesses have come forward. In a crowd of 400 people, nobody’s said a damn meaningful thing to help catch the killers of Kelly and Christopher and Dairyon and Jamaa.
Charles now lives parts of his days in the peace and quiet of that house, and other parts living with his imagination.
There’s one dream where his son’s killer is in a courtroom, and the judge tells Charles, “This is your house now. Tell him what you want to say.” In this dream Charles doesn’t talk to the killer but to the killer’s parents. He imagines them crying over the prospect of their kid going to jail.
“Is this what you raised?” he asks them.
Charles has a peaceful spirit about him, but those visions underscore how frustrated he is. And over the course of a few hours recently at his house, he let me know just how many people he was mad at.
He rattles them off:
He’s mad at the witnesses, of course, who won’t be witnesses.
Mad at police for not breaking up the party. Mad at detectives for losing contact with him.
Mad at the city for letting that section of Beatties Ford fall into economic hardship. Mad at the systems and decisions that made west Charlotte the place where shootings happen. Mad at a world where wealthy neighborhoods on one side of town are mostly white, while Black people live on the other side. But he’s also mad, he tells me, at the people who say it’s not politically correct to talk about “Black on Black” violence.
He’s mad at the politicians for having a press conference a few months later on the same block to say they’re going to develop the area.
Mad at one officer, in particular, who called him one day and said, “Hello Mr. Stevenson,” confusing him with Dairyon’s dad.
Mad at the maintenance crews for not maintaining the area around the memorial for the victims.
He’s got so many reasons to be mad. But also so many reasons to be grateful.
For nearly two weeks after Jamaa died, cars were lined up down his north Charlotte street with people coming to pay respects and drop off food.
He calms himself with thoughts of those memories, and with projects around the house. He had the pool filled in with dirt this year. He’s redoing the patio, thinking about putting in a hot tub.
Jamaa’s death changed him, he says. Now, he says he doesn’t fear anything. He has his family to give him strength. He helps with Jamaa’s kids, helps with Jamaa’s ex’s kids. “We don’t have half-brothers or half-sisters. We don’t say ‘adopted’ or ‘step.’ We don’t use those words. We’ve got family,” Charles tells me.
He tells me he believes one of those dream scenarios will come true one day, and someone will fess up or mess up, and he’ll meet his son’s killer.
Until at least then, though, there are two things Charles Billings still can’t do.
One, he hasn’t been able to bring himself to visit Jamaa’s grave in York Memorial Park since the funeral.
“I want to remember my son cooking me scallops. He’s playing Uno with his kids. He’s on the floor like a baby. And he’s cussing because he’s not winning and he thinks everybody’s cheating. That’s how I want to remember my son.”
The other thing Charles won’t do is touch that bottle of Buffalo Trace. He figures as long as it’s still full, and those memories of scallops and Uno are the first ones to come to mind, it’ll always be last Father’s Day.