An art piece to honor Xavier Arnold, who was murdered while he and and two friends wanted to shoot photos of some graffiti (background), hangs on the fence near a bicycle path in Kirkwood on Friday, January 3, 2014. Xavier Arnold was a soldier, an art student and a skateboarder, a black kid who didn’t see race and a young man who wanted to make a living drawing cartoons. He was also one of the last people murdered in Atlanta in 2013, getting shot on a bicycle path in Kirkwood. Arnold and two friends wanted to shoot photos of some cool graffiti when they were accosted by a 14-year-old with a gun and another man. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A free spirit collides with a killer

The old, graffiti-covered buildings at the Pullman Yard in Kirkwood was the perfect place for X’avier Arnold and two friends to take some artsy photos. The looming sunset cast perfect light and the abandoned buildings evoked a forlorn feel.

Walking the path by the railroad tracks, the group noticed two two young men following them. They were leery of the two, but not worried — one looked like a little kid, the other like a teenager. Then the younger one began taunting them, saying, “You have a problem with us?” So Arnold, 21, skateboarder, art student, part-time soldier known by all as “X,” turned to face the youth, Arnold’s friend Ebb Sanusi said.

It all went down in a blur. The younger one pulled a handgun and demanded Sanusi’s wallet, while the older one reached into Arnold’s pockets. As X’s girlfriend started screaming, Arnold began wrestling with the older guy and Sanusi grappled with the young gunman.

Sanusi said the gunman broke free and shot him in the upper thigh. He said the older robber, who was getting the worse of his fight with Arnold, started screaming, “Shoot him! Shoot him!”

The gunman fired a 9mm bullet into the back of X’s head.

X’avier Arnold, the promising artist who all say carried a sparkle in his eyes, lay dying on the path. Arnold’s Dec. 26th killing was the 83rd of 84 homicides in Atlanta last year, a low total statistically and historically speaking. It was the second lowest total since 1963. But the killing has devastated Arnold’s close, hard-working family and has shaken the gentrifying Kirkwood neighborhood, where residents say random, violent crime is increasing.

In the days following, police arrested a 14-year-old, who they say was the gunman, and 22-year-old Qutravius Palmer. Often, police say, an older criminal will team up with a juvenile to do the dirty work because juvies face less severe punishment if caught. That was not the scenario this time, said Atlanta police Detective Kevin Ott.

“The 14-year-old is well-known to local beat officers,” said Ott, mostly for alleged burglaries. Palmer had a clean record, he said. “It sounds backwards. The whole thing is just strange and unnecessary.”

Stranger-on-stranger crimes are hard to solve, but the media blitz and some alert neighbors prompted numerous tips, including ones from people who heard Palmer and the young teen talking about the shooting. “They talked about it quite a bit,” Ott said, “which was also shocking.”

Arnold’s mother, Nicole Villafane, was getting ready for her son’s wake Friday when she took a few minutes to talk about his life. X’avier, who was widely known as a free spirit, did not tolerate foolishness or bullies, Villafane said.

“My son unfortunately doesn’t run,” she said. “It was a 14-year-old and my son has a problem with children acting that way. He was probably like, ‘I’m your big brother, I’ll spank you on the butt.’ That is X’avier’s personality.

“And the 14-year-old boy pulled out a gun.”

Friends and family say Arnold was a passionate and talented young man carving a path to the future. As a National Guardsman, he had a tough, smart, serious side that enabled him to sail through boot camp and a 19-week training in geospatial engineering, which is a combination of high-tech map-making and military intelligence. He had top-secret clearance, said his commander.

The Chamblee High School grad was also a talented student at Savannah College of Art and Design majoring in sequential art, which is a fancy way of saying high-end cartoonist.

He attended SCAD at the Savannah campus but decided in November to transfer to the Atlanta branch, his mother said, in part so he could be with his 14-year-old brother, who has autism and whose emotional growth had been a lifelong project with X’avier.

Ebb Sanusi said Arnold’s friends were all floored when he said he was joining the Guard. “He was such a free spirit,” Sanusi said. “He said that it would pay for school. He took the Army thing seriously.”

Sanusi said his friend “motivated everybody. We liked his drive, his art, how he was a hard worker.”

His commander, Capt. Jermaine Anderson, chuckled while reminiscing on Arnold, one of his favorites.

“If I was trying to find him, I knew he was off sketching something,” Anderson said. “Conforming to the Army standard was challenging. He was very expressive with his hair and piercings and tats. He had to tone that down so on weekends he could look like a soldier.”

A year ago on Halloween, Arnold died his hair blond to go to a party as singer Chris Brown. The dye was stronger than he realized and, even after trying to cut his hair short, the soldier arrived at weekend drills with an orangey-blond coif, drawing guffaws from his comrades and eye-rolls from superiors.

Rodney Reid, a longtime friend of Arnold’s mother, said the young artist was excited by animé, a cartoon-like artform that has grown in popularity.

“He embraced life as a whole,” said Reid. “He loved people. He’s someone who didn’t see color. He loved that area (of Atlanta). He liked the Bohemian thing going on. It was a very eclectic area.”

The Kirkwood streets surrounding the old Pullman yards have many carefully renovated old homes in a neighborhood that has been gentrifying for two decades.

Neighbors say crime — other than car break-ins or occasional burglaries — had been on downturn until last year.

“This year has been a disturbing trend toward more physical and violent crime,” said Earl Williamson, a 13-year resident who chairs the neighbohood planning unit. There have been stick-ups, purse snatchings and, most worrisome, about half a dozen home invasions. “And these are normal middle-class people accosted in their homes. Most home invasions are drug-related. These were not.”

Brandon and Alyssa Kitchel live next to the trail, maybe 100 yards from the site of the killing. The Saturday before the shooting, two men broke a window and climbed into their home. They were out of state but alert neighbors spotted the crime and called police, leading to the capture of two suspects, one with a gun. One, Brandon Kitchel said, was 16.

The neighborhood also jumped to action the day Arnold was shot.

Neighbor David Light, a DeKalb County firefighter, was in his front yard when he heard the shots. Surprised, Light grabbed a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun he bought for protection last summer when a series of high-profile robberies and killings rocked southeast Atlanta. He told his wife to take their baby upstairs.

He could hear Arnold’s girlfriend screaming. He ran to the trail and shouted out to her, trying to find out what had happened and which way the gunmen had gone, but the hysterical young woman couldn’t answer. Light then ran up the trail but saw there would not be a good ending. “He was still conscious but he wasn’t able to talk,” he said of Arnold. “Seeing the gunshot wound in the back of the head, I knew there wasn’t a lot I could do.”

Light said the killing as well as a recent burglary has left his neighborhood shaken.

“It is not going to change the way we behave. The only difference is my wife is going to get a concealed-carry permit now.”

Arnold’s mother, Villafane, is familiar with the justice system, having worked for years in DeKalb’s courts and watched an ever-increasing stream of young people facing serious charges. She said she is determined that her son’s death will not be in vain and is drawing up plans for a nonprofit — “X Out Crimes” — with a mission of mentoring troubled youth.

“We want them to start mentoring these young kids and tell them we need to stop glorifying this,” she said.

Villafane, 41, is a grand jury coordinator for District Attorney Robert James, who she said mentored her son.

“I never thought I would see my son’s name in the body of the indictment as the victim,” she said.

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