Was there any way to know that a dam was about to break and that Ezekiel Kelly was about to implode?
“Yes,” says an ex-girlfriend and a youth advocate, who is helping her process the resulting shooting and carjacking rampage that left three dead, three others injured, and much of Memphis reeling for several hours on Sept. 7 as police tried to capture the shooter.
“Zeek felt like he had no one,” said ex-girlfriend Destine Christian, who met Kelly at Coleman Elementary School in Raleigh when they were in the fifth grade.
They have been romantically linked “on and off” over the years, she said.
“He was close to his mother, but other than that, there was no one. Three years of drugs, loneliness, and depression made him feel unloved, unhelped, unseen.
“I understand why it happened, but it still made me very sad.”
Christian’s voice trailed off into a low, unsteady whisper. She swallowed as tears streaked her face.
Torrey Bates, executive director of For the Kingdom conference center and retreat, said, “Children in Raleigh are raised in a culture of death. …. There was a shootout across from Coleman Elementary School last week, and nobody even called the cops.
“I see young boys 13-14, running out the house with AKs almost as big as they are, jumping into cars. It is a culture of death.”
Bates slowly shook his head.
“I was shot in December 2019, myself,” said Bates. “I was hit in the face, and there is still a bullet in my neck. A total of 16 bullets struck my vehicle.
“But I have learned how to love Raleigh. I love this community, these children.”
Bates linked Kelly’s actions to four generations of the forgotten.
“Decades ago, Raleigh was a white community,” Bates said. “When they left, a community of renters took their place. Raleigh is a transient, forgotten community – no ownership, impoverished.
“Four generations of the forgotten is what we are seeing. Zeek, who grew up in Raleigh, is in the lineage of the forgotten, raised by one of the forgotten.”
The New Tri-State Defender’s Sept. 10 interview with the pair was an attempt to get at who Kelly is, and why the rampage.
The “unofficial mayor of Raleigh” and newly-elected Shelby County Commissioner Charlie Caswell Jr. suggested a talk with Bates as someone with his finger on the pulse of the community.
Bates described Raleigh as grieving, saddened, and very distraught about what Kelly did.
“The video (posted on Facebook Live showing the suspect shooting a man inside a store in the 4000 block of Jackson Avenue) was sent to my phone, but I didn’t know what I was opening,” said Bates.
“So, when I opened it and saw what was happening in real-time, it just broke me down. It broke me all the way down.”
Because of his advocacy, Bates is known as a “father” to hundreds of youngsters, who participate in daily mentoring programs at For the Kingdom, a 100-acre scenic rustic oasis of cabins and trees, a pond, and acres of stunning greenery in the heart of Raleigh.
“In the summer, it’s a camp retreat and conference center for groups,” said Bates. “But I realized four years ago when I came that we could do so much more to help young people in this community. More than 1,000 children and teens are here each week. They are our children.”
Neither Christian nor Bates handed Kelly a pass for the murder spree. They were simply stating the “reasons why” and the “answers to.”
“I work here at For the Kingdom as a youth engagement specialist,” said Christian. “I graduated from Craigmont High School at age 16, and I am now 19, a junior at the University of Memphis, majoring in exercise, sports and movement sciences.
“I have wanted to be a sports medicine doctor since eighth grade. My mother is a single mom, but we were raised in a loving home. Many kids are not.”
Kelly was released from prison earlier this year following about 11 months behind bars after he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to three years.
Initially, he had been charged with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault, employing a firearm with intent to commit a felony, and reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon.
Christian said after his release there was hope that things could turn around for him.
Kelly stopped by the family home to see his mother before the shooting rampage started, Christian said, apparently while still intent on committing violence.
Christian said she has witnessed it firsthand – Kelly can appear in every way to be two very different people.
“He wrote me all the time in prison, and we would talk on the phone every day,” said Christian. “Zeek is really a nice guy. If I needed something, or his mother needed something, he would make sure we got it while he was locked up.
“He took care of us. But the drugs and alcohol made him a different person. It was just like you were dealing with two different people.”
Christian recalled Kelly’s release from prison on March 16. His mother, alone, picked him, she said.
“I wrote him just before he got out. He didn’t trust anyone. His mother was trying to get him out of Raleigh, out of Frayser, out of North Memphis, and send him to East Memphis. But it just didn’t work out.”
Was Kelly part of a gang? Definitely, Christian said.
“When Zeek got out of jail, he returned to the streets. He was a member of the Spring Valley gang. On the live stream, you hear him say Spring Valley military.
“His older brother was in that gang, and Zeek started running the streets in middle school. Most kids don’t have fathers, so the street is their father.”
When kids don’t have their father, their guidance comes from the street, Christian said.
“Zeek lost his brother while he was locked up,” said Christian. “And, he has lost so many friends, who were murdered. When you’re in the life, that’s just how it is.”
Bates envisions adding more programs, drawing in more children to help change the course of more young lives in Raleigh.
“What happened just makes me want to do more,” said Bates. “It should make us all want to do more. I worry that for every Zeek, there is an army of Zeeks across our city, across our country, just waiting to happen.
“They don’t have the life skills to deal with anxiety and sadness, and depression. Zeek does not have the life skills to deal with those things, or even ask for help.
“We are saddened because we don’t want the world to label all young, Black men as angry and violent. I grieve because we have failed them. We all have failed them.”
Kelly’s younger brother participates in For the Kingdom activities.
“He’s in the eighth grade. (Recently) Zeek’s younger brother just wanted to talk. And that’s just what he did. He is grieving, and he is very sad.
“But, I have so much hope for these children. We mean to break this cycle with love. God’s love has the power to break generational curses.”
Kelly is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the slaying of one of the three victims. He is being held without bond.