CINCINNATI - Christopher Williams is never far from his mother. She keeps some of his ashes in a silver pendant, engraved with hearts, that hangs on a chain on her neck.
Williams, 24, became the city's first homicide victim of 2013 when he was shot while aiding a friend.
"He meant everything to me and he's still close to my heart," his mother, Eamet Lail-Clemons, said as she gently rubbed the pendant. "I don't need to go visit him at a cemetery. He's with me always. He was my best friend."
There have been 33 homicides in Cincinnati in the first half of the year, but it only took one to get Lail-Clemons and her family enraged and committed to preventing more senseless shootings like the one that took her son.
They have formed a group called S.E.R.O.C. – Sisters Engaging Residents of Cincinnati. They plan to change things, not just complain about them.
"We're going to be aggressive. We're going to be in your face," Lail-Clemons' sister, Shequita Lail, said.
Musician's life cut short
Christopher Williams was a musician and an entrepreneur, his mother said, not the kind of 24-year-old you expect to find on the homicide list.
"Christopher didn't use drugs. He didn't have provocations with police. He didn't come from a bad home," his aunt said.
The Princeton High graduate performed at local clubs with his cousin, Lamont Lewis, who was shot along with Williams outside their apartment building on Jan. 11.
Under the stage name "Spaceship Williams," he wrote and performed rap and R&B, cut a couple of CD's and planned to go on tour in February.
His mother was his accountant, keeping watch over his money. His aunt was his manager, promoting his shows.
"He had everything in my basement – a booth, mixers, mikes. Some nights he would stay till midnight making sure everything was perfect. I had to tell him to come eat," his aunt said.
"He always had friends over ..."
At that, Lail's voice cracked with emotion, and she paused to steady herself.
"He had lots of friends. One of his friends told me Christopher saved his life. He stopped selling drugs. He hadn't been in jail. Christopher got him to perform at open mike," Lail said. "He said if not for Christopher, he wouldn't be here."
Williams had dreamed of making his own music since his early teens, his mother said. He had plans, things to live for.
"And I live for him," his mother said.
'I saw a sheet over my son in the street'
Lail-Collins works two jobs. She is married with a 9-year-old daughter, Tema'e ("Eamet spelled backwards") and a teenage stepson. They live in Blue Ash.
She and her three sisters have college degrees. She served in the Navy aboard the USS Monongahela, a fleet oiler that delivered fuel and supplies.
She never expected to lose her son so soon.
She said she was at work downtown when Christopher's biological father walked in and spoke two words:
She raced to the street outside Christopher's apartment.
She felt her heart stop.
"I saw a sheet over my son in the street," she said.
'That's the kind of person he was'
Lail-Clemons said her son was killed while helping a 20-year-old friend, Tiffany Robbins. They both lived in the Alms Hill Apartments at 2525 Victory Parkway, in Walnut Hills.
She said Robbins had an argument with another resident, Omar Jackson, 29, about 1 p.m. She said Robbins knocked on her son's door on the seventh floor and asked him to go down to the street and talk to Jackson.
Williams' mother said she doesn't know what Robbins said to him, but she wasn't surprised that he would help her.
"That's the kind of person he was," Lail-Clemons said.
She said her son approached Jackson in front of Jackson's mother's house, behind the Alms on Park Avenue. Robbins and Lewis went, too.
Lewis was at her son's apartment so often he basically lived there, Lail-Clemons said.
"Christopher was like a role model and a brother to Lamont," she said.
"The next thing you know…"
'We don't know why'
"I lost my nephew at 1:26," Williams' aunt said, reciting the time of the shooting as if she will never forget it.
Williams' mother said her son didn't do anything to provoke Jackson. The prosecutor's office said Williams and Jackson argued and Williams threw a punch at Jackson.
According to court documents, Jackson pulled out a Taurus .357 magnum five-shot revolver and shot Williams three times, firing the fatal bullet into his chest.
Jackson shot Lewis in the arm. His arm was temporarily paralyzed, Williams' mother said.
Jackson shot at Robbins and missed.
According to court documents, Jackson's brother, Purnell Foster, drove Jackson away from the scene.
"Somebody heard the commotion and called police. The police were right around the corner when they took off," Williams' aunt said.
Right after they sped away, Jackson jumped out of the car, and when Foster drove off again, he refused to stop for police and a high-speed chase ensued, court documents say. Foster admitted he threw a gun out of the window. Police found it later in the path of the pursuit. Jackson was arrested 3 1/2 hours after the shooting.
Jackson had two prior felony convictions that precluded him from legally having a gun. When he was 14, he was convicted of attempted burglary. When he was 17, he was convicted of assault by a prisoner.
On June 6, Jackson was sentenced to prison for 22 years. After prosecutors dropped the murder charge, Jackson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, two counts of felonious assault and having weapons while under disability.
Jackson's brother was charged as an accessory. His case is pending.
"We don't know why Omar shot Christopher," Williams' mother said. "He never said in court. He apologized with regret and concern for himself and his brother. When I got a chance to speak, I called him a coward. He had a weapon. My son didn't. What was a simple verbal altercation could have been resolved.
"I told Omar I pray for him," she said.
Lail-Clemons called the murder of her son "the most devastating thing ever in my life."
"I get up in the morning and cry," she said. "But I've got two jobs and a family and I know I have to keep moving."
'I've got a 9-year-old daughter. I have to protect her'
Out of their anguish and determination, Williams' mother and her family started S.E.R.O.C. The other original members are Lail-Clemons' three sisters, two cousins and a niece.
They have scheduled the "Gala Ceremony for S.E.R.O.C." from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday at PLAY, a club at 35 East Seventh St., downtown.
"It's our coming-out party," Lail-Clemons said.
What do they hope to accomplish?
"A lot more than is happening now," she said. "Over 30 mothers have lost their sons already this year. It's ridiculous. It shouldn't be happening.
"I've got a 9-year-old daughter. I have to protect her."
Lail-Clemons and her sister said they want to change the law and the attitudes that lead to lawlessness.
"We want to focus on illegal firearms getting into the hands of young people," said Lail, Williams' aunt. "There's a loophole letting guns into the city that's hard to stop. You've got girlfriends getting guns for their boyfriends who have criminal records."
The commander of Cincinnati's homicide unit, Lt. Col. Dave Bailey, says more killings seem to be over simple disputes between people. Williams' mother agreed.
"Back in my day, people would fight to settle their differences and they would be friends the next day. Now people can't settle their differences without a weapon," Lail-Clemons said.
Williams' aunt said young people have become numb to the violence and adults have been silent.
"I know a teenager who has 15 R.I.P. T-shirts for all the people he knows who have been murdered. That's not normal. Parents must not allow their children to think that's OK. It's not OK. They have to learn it from home," Lail said.
"We have some great homicide detectives, but they can't do it without us. We have great people at City Hall, but they can't do it without us. We have to do it together."
Lail-Clemons said she can be an advocate for other mothers of murdered children and their families.
"I don't want any more mothers to go through what I'm going through, and it could happen to anybody," she said. "No place is safe. No one is safe."
The sisters said they would collaborate with other groups and welcomed others to join S.E.R.O.C.
"We want to leave Cincinnati safer than it is," Williams' aunt said.
Tickets for the gala are $12 and can be purchased at CincyTicket.com. There will be light food, music and guest speakers.