FORT VALLEY — The cold rain relented for a few minutes Thursday night, long enough for loved ones to honor Anitra Gunn.

Several dozen friends, neighbors and coworkers crowded on the sidewalk in front of Eighteen36 Restaurant and Lounge, where the Fort Valley State University student had worked. Spread among the mourners were 23 balloons — yellow, white, pink — one for every year she lived before she went missing on Valentine's Day. Her remains were found a few days later. Earlier Thursday, the GBI had ruled her death a homicide; the cause of death is pending as toxicology tests are underway.

At the restaurant and all over town, people were brokenhearted and frustrated by the death of Gunn, who graduated from Fulton County’s Westlake High School. But the mourners could do nothing about the loss, so they did what they could.

After a count of three, they chanted in unison: “Forever Anitra.” They released the balloons and craned their necks to watch them shrink into dots against the grey sky, until they were gone and all there was left was gray sky.

A local pastor summoned Psalms 121.

“Look to the hills,” K.D. Dawsey of Central Union Missionary Baptist Church said to the group, “from wence cometh your help. Your help cometh from the Lord.”

Anitra Lashay Gunn

Credit: Krissy Musallam

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Credit: Krissy Musallam

So many in the crowd were looking for help. They didn’t understand why Gunn died.

Investigators haven’t revealed a theory.

Hours after Gunn’s body was discovered, the Fort Valley Department of Public Safety announced the arrest of her boyfriend, DeMarcus Little, 23, on charges of criminal damage to property. The charges stem from a Feb. 5 incident that left Gunn’s windows smashed and her tires slashed. Little has a court appearance scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.

Balloons are released in memory of Anitra Gunn in front of the Eighteen36 Restaurant and Lounge, where Gunn worked, in Fort Valley on Thursday, February 20, 2020. (Photo/Leah Yetter for the AJC)

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No charges have been filed in connection with Gunn’s death.

Friends and co-workers recalled her as bright in mind and spirit, as kind and thoughtful — someone who took an interest in you and made you feel like you mattered.

Sandra Marshall, who said Gunn had been her assistant at a daycare in 2017, remembered her love for children and how Marshall came to see Gunn as her own child. They hadn’t seen each other in while, because Gunn was hired as a server at the restaurant. Now Marshall feels lucky because she came for a meal recently.

“The last thing I said to her was, ‘I love you.’ She said, ‘I love you, too, Miss Sandra,’” Marshall said.

Kelvin Blalock, who said he hired Gunn at his restaurant because of her smile, said he and his employees had started the work day with a prayer. Many tears had been shed in the restaurant over the past few days.

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“She was our sister, she was our teammate,” he said. “We loved her dearly.”

Gunn worked the lunch shift: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. In a small town like Fort Valley, which has about 9,000 residents, it’s not surprising that the smiling, personable waitress met a lot of people. Mayor Barbara Williams remembered her. So did Fort Valley Police Chief Lawrence Spurgeon, who says his office, the Peach County Sheriff’s Office and the GBI are “laser focused” on justice for Gunn.

Mia Jordan, co-worker of Anitra Gunn, prays through tears after mourners released balloons in memory of Anitra Gunn at the Eighteen36 Restaurant and Lounge, where she worked, in Fort Valley on Thursday, February 20, 2020. (Photo/Leah Yetter for the AJC)

Credit: Leah Yetter

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Credit: Leah Yetter

After the balloons flew away, a woman broke down sobbing and went inside to sit down. Others left quickly, their eyes wet and faces hard with hurt.

At the bar, Mia Jordan sat looking despondent with her tears glistening from the overhead lights.

“It’s just very hard,” said Jordan, who worked at the restaurant with Gunn. “Nobody deserves…” She stopped a moment. “It’s just hard.”

She stared toward the door, looking to the distance like the pastor had suggested.