Slain water seller’s mom: ‘They took all of me when they took him’

Jalanni Pless, 18, was shot to death in June while selling water in Midtown. He was a 2019 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta.

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Jalanni Pless, 18, was shot to death in June while selling water in Midtown. He was a 2019 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta.

Jalanni Pless, 18, was shot to death while trying to earn money for a car

Since graduating from high school, he’d been working and saving money. He helped pay the bills to make sure his mother, younger sister and a young godson had what they needed.

He had been applying to technical colleges, hoping for an automotive degree. He hadn’t told his mom. He wanted to surprise her.

Jalanni Pless never got the chance.

On June 27, Jalanni was gunned down while selling water bottles to passing motorists in Midtown. He was 18.

“They took all of me when they took him,” said his mother, Tomeka Pless.

Jalanni’s shooting is one of 144 homicides the Atlanta Police Department has investigated in 2020. This year’s deadly tally is the highest since 2003, when there were 148 homicides, records show.

An argument with another teenaged water seller led to the shooting, Pless said. The other teen was angry that her son and his friends were selling water on what they considered their turf, she said. Investigators charged a 16-year-old with murder, but his name was not released due to his age. He was arrested the day after Jalanni’s funeral, police said.

“All over $10 and some water is what Jalanni lost his life over,” Tomeka Pless said. “He took Jalanni’s life but he took his life as well because he’s a juvenile.”

Pless hasn’t spoken publicly since the days following her son’s death. But in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pless said she doesn’t want another family to endure the pain of losing a child to senseless crime. And she wants her son to be remembered as more than a “water boy” as the sellers have become known, killed during a violent year in Atlanta.

On that Saturday morning in June, Pless questioned why Jalanni planned to go sell water. He had just gotten a paycheck from his full-time job working at a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

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Jalanni Pless, 18, was three weeks away from his 19th birthday when he was shot to death while selling water in Midtown.

Credit: Family photo

Jalanni Pless, 18, was three weeks away from his 19th birthday when he was shot to death while selling water in Midtown.

Credit: Family photo

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Jalanni Pless, 18, was three weeks away from his 19th birthday when he was shot to death while selling water in Midtown.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

But Jalanni had his eye on a white Dodge Charger and needed money for a down payment. He planned to go with friends to sell waters and return later for dinner.

“I wanted to stop him but I didn’t,” Pless said.

Shortly after he left, Jalanni called his mother.

“I got a feeling something’s not right,” he said. Pless told him to come back home, but Jalanni had just purchased water and Gatorade at a grocery store for resale.

“We talked for two minutes and that was the last time I heard from my child,” she said.

When a customer paid Jalanni for water, the 16-year-old became angry, accusing Jalanni of moving in on his territory, she said.

“The person gave Jalanni gave the money and the suspect snatched the money,” Pless said.

Jalanni took the money back and the bill was torn as he and the 16-year-old scuffled. Jalanni offered the other teen $5, telling him he would split what he had just earned, witnesses later told Pless.

More than 30 minutes later, Jalanni and his friends were walking near Spring Street and Peachtree Place, heading to a MARTA station, when the 16-year-old reappeared. This time, he had a gun.

“He walked up from behind, chasing him, shooting at him as he was running,” Pless said of the suspect. “He went directly just for him, nobody else.”

After being shot, Jalanni was able to run into a nearby parking garage, where he died from his injuries. Pless still has the ripped $10 bill that was in her son’s wallet when he was killed.

Jalanni’s death wasn’t the only violent crime related to water sales. In mid-July, a driver was shot twice following a dispute with a group of juveniles selling bottled water in Atlanta, police said.

In the weeks after Jalanni’s death, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a crackdown on water sales in an effort to stop further violence.

“We appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of youth who are selling water to motorists,” Bottoms said in a statement. “But we have seen an increase in unsafe and violent activity in some locations and cannot allow it to continue.”

On Monday, Atlanta police spokesman Officer Anthony Grant said the department has not received any recent reports involving the sale of water on city streets.

“Keeping pedestrians and motorists safe as well as intervening and enforcing city ordinances on juveniles soliciting water still remains a priority,” Grant said.

City Council President Felicia Moore addressed the issue in October.

“I still stand on my position that water selling must stop,” she said in a social media post. “And, I also believe that the city must do more to address the underlying causes that create this activity. I want to thank those who are trying to work directly with these youth on a daily basis, to uplift them and offer mentorship and support.”

Pless said she believes the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to some of the violence. Not all of the water sellers are responsible, she said.

“Since COVID, there’s nothing for these kids to do but stand outside on the corner,” she said. “The only thing they have to do now is get in trouble.”

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Jalanni Pless, center, stands with his cousin and a friend on the day of his 2019 high school graduation.

Credit: Family photo

Jalanni Pless, center, stands with his cousin and a friend on the day of his 2019 high school graduation.

Credit: Family photo

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Jalanni Pless, center, stands with his cousin and a friend on the day of his 2019 high school graduation.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

She struggles daily with her grief. The suspect’s arrest brought some relief, but she misses her son, who she said hadn’t had any run-ins with police.

High school wasn’t always easy for Jalanni, who changed schools after his mother said he was with the wrong crowd of friends. He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in May 2019.

It wasn’t until after his death, when she started to look through Jalanni’s personal items, that Pless learned he had been applying to colleges. He’d planned to turn his love of cars into a career.

Since his death, Pless has honored her son with vinyl designs on T-shirts and other clothing items. The shirts have an image of Jalanni’s face with a logo that reads, “Ambitious Hustler.” The clothing line honors his hard work and friends, family members and strangers have become customers.

The holiday season has been difficult without her son, who loved Thanksgiving because he loved to eat, Pless said. But she still feels Jalanni’s presence and can picture his face.

“Every time I wanna break down, I close my eyes and that’s what I do,” Pless said. “This has humbled me. Not only do I ask God to give me strength, I ask Jalanni to give me strength.”

— Staff writer Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.