Lamont Walker has a condition he calls a “permanent tear.”
This is a physical ailment, not an emotional one. It keeps his eye wet, forcing him to dab the moisture away often. It also makes it hard to see through the obstruction teetering above his eyelashes.
So it wasn’t clear what he was looking at when he came home to his apartment near Stone Mounntain one night in 2016. Something large was on the floor outside the bedroom shared by his roommates, Sam White, who was Walker’s friend of more than 50 years, and White’s fiancée, Sylvia Watson.
“Sam’s gonna kill that cat,” Walker said to himself, thinking the pet had knocked over a box.
Then he wiped his eye.
He saw his roommates tied up on the floor, their hands and feet bound behind their backs. They were dead, shot in the back of the head.
The horror was enough to shake Walker forever and test his decade of sobriety. But there was so much horror he couldn’t see at first.
He didn’t know the pitiful reason two men had killed his friends. He didn’t know the same men would be accused of killing three more people — including children — in one of the most stunning strings of violence in recent metro Atlanta memory. He didn’t know everyone would be still trying to understand the deaths two years later.
The story of how these five people came to die can’t be told without telling about the gang.
The Rollin 20s Crips started in California and spread. Members saw Atlanta as fertile for growth. A few years ago, they got an apartment on Pine Tree Circle, off Covington Highway, according to the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office.
Among the regulars there, prosecutors said, were longtime members Christopher Spencer, a 20-something who went by “Crisco,” and Vernon “Veto Corleone” Beamon, a couple years older.
As for the victims, it seems none had anything to do with gang activity.
The first to die was an Atlanta model.
On May 30, 2016, Bridget Shiel, 19, was seen with Spencer and another man at a gas station two miles from the gang house, Atlanta police say. Hours later, she was found shot dead and naked at Atlanta’s Oakland City Park.
The next deaths came a few months later, on Oct. 22, when a crew stormed a home on Libby Lane in Clayton County. They were looking for a 15-year-old boy who’d been staying at the house and had stolen guns from the gang, police said.
Daveon Coates was 15, but he wasn’t the 15-year-old the men were looking for. He was a 10th-grader who’d done nothing wrong and lay asleep in bed. His 11-year-old sister, Tatiyana Coates, a sixth-grader, was also asleep.
Nevertheless, police said the Crips shot and killed them.
Two days later, Walker saw something strange through the tear in his eye.
Cases come together
Walker, a sharp-dresser who makes his living teaching dance, struggled to comprehend why someone would’ve done this to his roommates, good people.
Sam White, 54, was a surgical tech at Northside Hospital who once saved the life of a woman who’d fallen in front of a MARTA train. White had also fought addiction, and he and Walker bonded over it. Sylvia Watson, 57, worked at a warehouse and was adored by co-workers.
Walker said he got so nervous he moved back home to Pontiac, Michigan. Old friends kept asking him how he was staying off drugs with what he’d seen.
DeKalb County police Detective Keith McQuilkin struggled, too. He saw the way the couple died, tied up like animals. He had trouble sleeping during the investigation, he said in a recent interview.
McQuilkin watched security camera footage from Walker’s apartment complex and saw that Watson had been kidnapped by two men after she returned home from a doctor’s appointment. They took her from ATM to ATM to get cash. Bank surveillance video showed her face, terrified.
At the same time, Clayton detectives were looking at a link between the Rollin 20s Crips and the kids’ deaths. They searched the gang house and arrested Spencer on drug and gun charges.
In the DeKalb investigation, McQuilkin said he was able to capture a clear picture of one of the killers’ faces from the security footage. He sent it around the department, and one cop who’d assisted in the gang house search recognized Spencer.
Spencer and Beamon were soon charged with murder in the deaths of Walker’s roommates.
Finally, DeKalb prosecutor Lance Cross said he realized why Walker’s friends died: Spencer and Beamon were desperate to leave town after the children’s deaths so they decided to rob the couple to fund their exit.
Why White and Watson?
Apparently, the couple had been overheard talking on their back deck about settlement money White had from an accident.
“Once that hit the street,” Cross said, “it snowballed into, ‘He had a whole bunch of cash in the house.”
In reality, the couple didn’t have enough to pay for the criminals’ escape.
Walker came back to DeKalb last year to watch Spencer and Beamon be tried for murder and gang activity in his roommates’ deaths. He felt relief with the guilty verdicts and when the defendants were sentenced to life in prison.
This March, a Clayton County grand jury indicted Spencer and Beamon, along with six other suspect Rollin 20s Crips members, on murder charges in the child killings. Police declined to say what role specific suspects played.
Last week, Atlanta police revealed that DNA from a Sprite can found with the Atlanta model’s car tied Spencer to her death. He claims they never met, but he’s charged with Shiel’s murder.
Officials still don’t have a motive for her killing or know the identity of the second man seen with her before her death. Police said they haven’t ruled anyone out as the accomplice.
When Walker heard the latest about Spencer, he was surprised, but not that surprised.
“All I can say is thank God they’re locked up,” he said.
Walker is different now.
He jitters when a door opens. He thinks about White all the time.
It hurts, he says. He has a new kind of tears to fight, but he stayed clean, which he hopes would impress his friend.