Like many girls her age, Sonja “Star” Harrison loved music and fashion and styling her hair, but the 14-year-old also had more serious cares: she was eight months pregnant.
She was expecting to deliver a baby girl just before New Year’s Day. Monday night she was babysitting her sister’s three little boys at her sister’s Southwest Atlanta apartment when a gun was fired in the apartment above. The bullet passed through the ceiling and struck her in the head, killing her and her unborn baby, her mother, Sonja Denise Harrison, said.
“They took her life — and my grandbaby’s life,” Harrison said. “They took away two lives from me.”
She called on the shooter to surrender to police and criticized what she saw as weak security at the gated Pavilion Place Apartments on Cleveland Avenue. “They’re going to have full responsibility,” she said.
The apartment management had no comment Tuesday.
Atlanta police were called to the complex shortly after 6:30 p.m. Monday after a 911 caller reported a shooting, according to Officer Lisa Bender. When officers arrived, Star was already dead from an apparent gunshot. Star was in the 8th grade at Freedom Middle School in DeKalb County, her family said.
“The preliminary investigation has revealed that the gunshot came from the apartment directly above the apartment where the victim was located,” Bender said in an emailed statement.
Tuesday afternoon, investigators were still working to determine whether the shooting was accidental, Bender said. No arrests had been made.
The same complex has been the scene of other high-profile crimes in recent months. And within hours of Star’s death, deadly gunshots were again fired.
At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, officers returned to a different unit at the Pavilion Place complex after a caller reported a possible suicide, Bender said. This time, a woman was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head, according to police. Though the two shooting deaths did not appear to be related, both remained under investigation Tuesday.
There have been at least two other killings at the complex: in November 2015, Tiffany Louise Bailey — a 24-year-old mother of three — was shot to death. Her boyfriend, Deunta Grier, confessed to the crime and surrendered at Bailey’s funeral and was later sentenced to life in prison. And in October 2017, 3-year-old Kejuan Mason was beaten to death, allegedly for eating a cupcake. The boy’s godmother and her sister were both charged with murder.
More recently, in May, an Atlanta officer shot a teenager, Jamal Baker, in the leg during what police called a “running gunbattle” that ended on Cleveland Avenue, near the complex. The GBI is assisting with the officer-involved shooting investigation.
An awkward scene unfolded at the site of the shooting Tuesday afternoon. As Harrison talked with reporters, a woman in the upstairs apartment called out through a screen window, saying she wanted to talk with her.
The woman descended the stairs and apologized to Harrison, saying she’d lost one of her own children — she said she had 11 — and could empathize. The woman declined to give anything but her surname — Weaver — saying she and her daughters were hiding from a stalker.
She said she was studying in her room for a college class when the gun went off. She blamed the teens who were visiting her apartment. She said her daughters didn’t know them well, and that they spent just as much time in the apartment where the 14-year-old was shot.
“Your daughter knows I’m not a bad neighbor,” said the woman, flicking the ash from her cigarette onto the plywood floor where the linoleum had peeled away at the stairwell entryway.
“If it was an accident, why did he run?” Harrison asked the neighbor. “I believe he was scared,” she said.
Harrison’s daughter, Sade Pruitt — the sister of the deceased — said she was working a late shift Monday and that her sister was visiting from her mom’s home in Stone Mountain, helping out with her kids. The boys were asleep and Star and Pruitt’s sister-in-law were about to start a movie when the gun fired, Pruitt said. “My sister-in-law called me and she told me she wasn’t moving.”
The latest shootings had some residents on edge.
“I’m afraid, but you just have to pray,” said Vincent Smith, 55, who lives in the apartment next door to where Sonja died. He said the music from the apartment was so loud that he didn’t hear the gun go off. Teenage boys who don’t live there were always hanging around, both in the apartment where Star was shot and in the one upstairs, said Smith, a grandfather who lives with his wife.
“They don’t go to sleep. That’s seven days a week,” he said. “And the rent office don’t do nothing about it.” He said the management is supposed to provide a security guard, but the person only drives by infrequently.
“You give me some money, I’d be glad to move,” he said.
The rental office is a few dozen feet from where the shooting occurred. Tenants say no one answers the door, but it happened to swing open as a reporter approached Tuesday afternoon. One of the several women inside swore softly, before the door was quickly closed. “We don’t have nothing to say, sir,” said the woman closing the door.
Jake Jackson, a new tenant who lives in a neighboring building, had heard about the shooting but shrugged off the risks at Pavilion Place. “It’s dangerous everywhere you go, man. It’s America 2018.”