Even at 74, even with dementia coming for him, Melvin Cleveland seemed fine to his wife of 45 years. He had a caretaker who sat with him sometimes, but he walked a lot, played with his grandsons and only occasionally had what his wife called mental “hiccups.”
Phyllis Cleveland, 12 years younger, always thought the man would live years longer and, one day, he just wouldn’t wake up.
It wasn’t meant to be.
One year ago this week, he heard someone in his front yard in a typically quiet neighborhood off Rainbow Drive, near I-285 in DeKalb County. He stood at the door, talking to someone and then fell down, clutching his chest as blood spilled from a gunshot wound.
The homicide remains unsolved.
Phyllis Cleveland was gone to a doctor’s appointment when the shooting happened, while the caretaker was with her husband.
Neighbors called and told her to hurry home.
“I heard a neighbor in the background saying, ‘Don’t tell her he’s dead,’” the wife said.
She arrived to find police swarming the home, and she soon learned that her husband had been shot while talking to a man who was rolling a wheelbarrow across the yard at about 11:30 a.m. The wheelbarrow was left at the scene.
The wife said she later found her husband’s ladders leaned against the back of the house, like someone was preparing for a break-in.
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She’s come to believe her husband knew the killer, because the caregiver described the conversation at the door as nonconfrontational.
Then why did the shooting happen?
If DeKalb police know, they haven’t yet said publicly or told Phyllis Cleveland.
The questions add to the grief for the wife and the couple’s two children — a daughter, 41, and a son, 44.
Melvin Cleveland was a retired General Motors worker who mentored his kids, as well those around the neighborhood, whose ball games he’d attend to cheer them on. When his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years ago, he decided then and there that she would never lift another heavy object.
“I mourn for my husband every day every night,” she said.
For Phyllis Cleveland, there’s something else in addition to the longing: fear.
She and her neighbors had seen the area as safe, a peaceful haven for seniors, before the shooting. Now they’re calling to check on each other and looking leerily at passersby.
Phyllis Cleveland put up a gate.
She’s in and out of bed all night, worried someone is lurking around the house. She needs to have the place painted but is afraid to have a stranger come give her a quote.
When she walks out the front door, she relives what happened to her husband.
At least she has good memories to punctuate everything else. This past Saturday, the one-year anniversary, she went with her kids to put flowers on his grave, to be close to him again.
Anyone with information can contact Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477, by text at 274637 or visiting crimestoppersatlanta.org.
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Credit: Family contributed photo