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Hundreds gather for Jonathon Ferrell’s funeral

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Two weeks after he was fatally shot by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, Jonathon Ferrell was buried Saturday, eulogized in his hometown as a son and brother, athlete and scholar who inspired others without drawing attention to himself.

The rousing celebration of music and prayer lasted more than two hours, drawing more than 500 people to the Old West Florida Enrichment Center, not far from where Ferrell grew up.

A series of ministers told the family and others gathered how the 24-year-old Ferrell had inspired them. A former teammate from Ferrell’s high school football team described how Ferrell helped turn his peers into better players and people.

“It matters what you do while you’re here. Jon is a role model for black men, young black men, all across America,” said Leo Jackson, who played with Ferrell in 2006 when the Florida A&M Developmental Research School won a state championship.

“There is no substitute for hard work. That’s what Jon believed.”

There was no mention of how Ferrell died, other than occasional allusions to the questions still surrounding his death.

On Sept. 14, Ferrell was shot 10 times by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick during an early morning confrontation in a northeast Charlotte neighborhood, police said. Ferrell was unarmed, and Kerrick, 27, was charged that same weekend with voluntary manslaughter.

That night, Ferrell was driving a co-worker home, the family’s attorney said police have told him.

The case – the first surrounding an on-duty shooting by a Charlotte officer in more than 30 years – will be handled by the attorney general’s office. Kerrick’s lawyer has called the shooting death tragic but justified.

Much of Ferrell’s funeral was upbeat, with spirited choir and solo performances that had the crowd swaying, clapping and singing along.

After Jackson spoke, he called for Ferrell’s other high school teammates on hand, including Ferrell’s younger brother Willie, to join him at the front of the church. The group huddled, swayed, chanted Ferrell’s name, then broke to audience applause.

When his family entered the sanctuary, Ferrell’s mother, Georgia, was near the front. She wore a black veil and carried a Winnie the Pooh doll, her dead son’s favorite during childhood.

“This ain’t the end of the story,” the Rev. Chris Burney said to the family and their supporters. “Somebody gonna have a family reunion after a while.”

A sense of homecoming

While the funeral gave Ferrell’s life its closing ritual, his Friday night wake proved to be a more private time for his family and friends to start drawing their public mourning to a close.

There, Ferrell’s body lay in an open casket at Bethel AME Church. He wore a black suit and a light purple paisley tie selected by his family.

“You have to understand: Different cultures handle grief in different ways,” funeral director Al Hall said as visitors streamed into Bethel. “He’s from here. He went away. They didn’t see him. They need to now.”

Ferrell moved to Charlotte several months ago to be closer to his fiancée, Caché Heidel, his girlfriend since middle school and now a Charlotte accountant. At the time of his death, Ferrell had enrolled in Johnson C. Smith University and was holding down two jobs.

His funeral weekend took on a strong sense of homecoming. Bethel AME is across West Orange Avenue from the new home of Ferrell’s old high school. It’s close to the campus of Florida A&M, where Ferrell played football while majoring in chemistry and psychology.

As Hall said, there was grief during the wake. It moved pew to pew along with the boxes of tissues passed from hand to hand.

There were questions, too.

“I don’t understand. What went wrong?” said Trone Williams, a Leon County Sheriff’s deputy who grew up with the Ferrell children and now works with Jon Ferrell’s sister Joy.

“How could something so senseless happen?” asked Jackie Robinson after she had shared a few words at the front of the church with Heidel.

The family last heard from Ferrell on the afternoon of his death when he talked to his mother by phone, said attorney Chris Chestnut, who was hired by the family after the shooting. Ferrell was supposed to call his brother that night but never did.

Before dawn, he wrecked his Toyota Camry. He kicked his way out, then knocked on the front door of a nearby home. The woman inside called 911. Kerrick and two other officers responded.

Ferrell’s death – at the hands of a white police officer – has sparked headlines and anger around the country. NAACP officials in North Carolina say they will hold a town meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte to discuss what they describe as the plague of shooting deaths claiming young, black men.

But if there’s anger in south Tallahassee, Ferrell’s family and friends, former coaches and teachers hide it.

When asked whether he had anything to say to people in Charlotte, Ferrell’s uncle, Ralph Ferrell, said he hoped the city could become a place “where people try to make strong, solid decisions before you do anything, before you pull a gun.”

His other family members and friends say the violence of Ferrell’s death doesn’t jibe with how he lived his life, a life that was depicted in photos on two big screens flanking his body during the wake.

First Christmases and family vacations. Big dogs and swimming pools. Gymnastic meets and football games. Graduation nights and smooches with Caché.

Tamela Mann’s “Take Me to the King” added a haunting note to the slide show.

“Truth is I’m weak,” she sang. “No strength to fight. No tears to cry.”

Heidel arrived ahead of Ferrell’s family. At first, she hung back at a side entrance in the church vestibule, standing alone, staring at the front of the church. Her mother joined her, and the two walked to Ferrell’s casket.

Skilled athlete

Ferrell’s athletic accomplishments dominated the weekend conversations.

He was a gymnast as a child. Later, in high school, his fourth-quarter interception in the state championship game helped set up the winning touchdown. And at Florida A&M, where he was a backup safety and special teams player, when he was on the field, “somebody was about to get hit,” said his former coach at Florida A&M, Earl Holmes.

Yet Eileen Warner, his high school English teacher for three years, said all that talk makes her former student seem one-dimensional.

“Football, football, football,” she said last week. “That was only one aspect of this child’s life. He was a steady, constant worker who was academically focused.”

Ferrell was the second-youngest of the five Ferrell children. Their father died when the children were young. Georgia Ferrell raised them by herself.

“Their momma did not play,” said Lesia Washington, a family friend. “She was stern.”

By the time Ferrell sat in Warner’s classroom, he had developed into a quiet, observant student. Paging through her records, Warner said Ferrell performed particularly well on writing assignments about family and relationships.

Ferrell’s death, she said, hit her hard. “I’ve loved them all,” she said, “but some of them stay with me a little longer. They leave imprints on their teachers that they don’t even know.”

Soon, the athletic and academic sides of Ferrell’s high school career will come together. Next month, the school will retire his jersey, and Warner said the school will soon announce a foundation in his name.

Remembering his laughter

Throughout the weekend, James Wesley, Ferrell’s 23-year-old cousin, tried not to cry.

He failed publicly during Ferrell’s wake, walking out of the church at mid-service with tears rolling down his face.

But then he returned, smiling. Outside the church, Wesley said later, he had heard a laugh – “Jon’s laugh.”

He walked to the front of the church and took the microphone. Soon other people were laughing, too.

He described how his seemingly quiet cousin had a gift for good-natured mischief, how he could pick an argument and then withdraw, how he couldn’t be in a room with anyone without making them laugh.

“He’s picking at us now, except he’s not here,” Wesley said outside the church. “What can you do but laugh?”

When the wake ended, no one left. Instead, all the family and friends gathered near Ferrell’s coffin.

Wesley and some of the other cousins were the closest to the casket, close enough for Wesley to reach over and remove some lint from his cousin’s cheek.

All of them were smiling.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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