DADEVILLE, Ala. — Raven Tolbert, a Dadeville native, returned to her hometown after graduating college to fulfill her dream of setting up a dance studio, Mahogany Masterpiece, devoted to kids and young people.
On April 15, the red-brick building on Broadnax Street across from the courthouse and police station, right in the middle of town, turned into a scene of carnage. Its vinyl sign is now gone, the storefront adorned with a makeshift memorial of flowers. That Saturday night, during a Sweet 16 party there, six gunmen fired a total of 89 shots. They shattered the small community in a matter of seconds.
The shooters took the lives of Dadeville High students Shaunkivia Smith, 17, and Philstavious “Phil” Dowdell, 18; Marsiah Emmanuel Collins, 19, of nearby Opelika; and Corbin Dahmontrey Holston, 23, who graduated from Dadeville High in 2018. Residents of this sleepy town of 3,100 people, 90 miles southeast from Birmingham, have turned to one another for support as they mourn their loved ones and pray for the recovery of at least 32 others injured in the mayhem.
“It breaks my heart,” Tolbert said.
Six weeks after the shooting, the pall hanging over this small town has slowly begun to lift. Black and gold bows representing the high school’s colors drape business doors and residents’ mailboxes, a symbol that the town remains connected in grief. A painted sign in a storefront reads: “Dadeville Strong.”
“With time to think about it, it’s still hard to believe that a little place like this could have something like that happen,” said Tasha Woodward, whose daughter is recovering after being shot. Woodward was reluctant to speak about the incident and did not share her daughter’s name. “It hurts to talk about it. It’s been very difficult for everyone because everyone pretty much knows everyone, so we’re all hurting.”
Also hurting is Martin Collins, whose son, Marsiah, did not make it out of the building alive. Collins, a former U.S. Marine, is in his third year of law school at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and had encouraged his son to enroll at nearby Louisiana State University, where he was supposed to begin this fall. Marsiah was reluctant to leave Dadeville after graduating from high school last year. But in April, he texted his father: “You’re right. I’m ready to come down there.” Collins was elated. He told his son he’d come to Dadeville to bring him back with him to Louisiana in mid-May. A few days later, his son was gone. “I can’t help but think that I should have made him come last year,” Collins said. “He’d still be alive.”
Woodward said she feels “blessed” that her daughter survived. “She has good days and bad days — physically and emotionally. But the love the community has shown has been more than I could have expected,” she said. “If people heard about what happened here and forgot about us, that’s fine. We’re going to get through this through each other.”
Black residents make up 45% of Dadeville, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. There is one high school in this rural community, where most people work at manufacturing plants and shop at Piggly Wiggly or Dollar General. The median income in the town is $24,722.
A faction of the folks are University of Alabama football fans. Another faction likes Auburn. The competition is friendly, “because so many of us are related or have known each other all our lives,” said Ricky Harris, 42, who stood outside Mr. Kutz Barbershop, a few blocks from the high school and the murder scene.
“I knew every one of those kids who got shot,” he said. “You see it happening everywhere, but not here. But now it has. And it has hurt us, but it’s bringing us closer together, too.”
At graduation last Thursday night, emotions exploded. The entire graduating class wore custom shawls and buttons memorializing the two seniors who were supposed to cross the stage that evening. Smith’s and Dowdell’s parents joined the graduation procession, wearing caps and gowns while walking the path intended for their fallen children. Their senior headshots were placed in the seats they would have occupied. Tears flowed.
“I’m a big ole grown man and I cried like a baby,” said Mason Jamison, who moved to Dadeville from Montgomery three years ago “because it’s smaller and I always enjoyed the feel here. I didn’t know the people who got shot, but I sort of felt the pain of the town. I felt like I had to go pay my respects to the victims and to be around the people and hug somebody because we’re all hurting.”
The pain Collins feels is tangible at times, he said. He is just getting back to being able to eat more than once a day. There are fleeting moments when he feels OK. “But then it hits me,” he said. He remembers receiving a call about the shooting from a relative. He immediately tracked Marsiah’s cellphone. It showed that it was in the building of the shooting. When someone on Twitter posted an image of the gory scene inside of bodies strewn on the floor, he recognized his son, if no one else could.
“I could tell from the body language. I just knew,” Collins, 40, said. “None of those kids deserved to die like that. I did all I could protect Marsiah from the streets. And then he gets shot at a party? It’s a devastating situation.”
Collins said he is infuriated with the gun violence that is plaguing the country. He fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and has seen “what a weapon does to the body,” he said. “These kids are shooting and running and not seeing the damage a bullet causes.”
When he visited the morgue, Collins asked to see Marsiah. He was advised not to, but he insisted. “I wanted to see what they did to my son.” He was shot five times, including the face. “In the surrealness of the moment, I thought about how much money his mother and I invested in braces for his teeth when he was young. He had such a beautiful smile. And the moment was so crazy that I thought, ‘They messed up my boy’s smile.’”
“That’s how devastating this is. I was in there talking to my son, like he was here, knowing he couldn’t answer me back.” Collins’ voice trailed off.
Already charging the suspects with four counts of murder, a grand jury issued additional charges in a 145-count indictment against five of the six suspects who were of age. The charges includes assault for the victims who survived.
“Justice will take care of them,” Collins said of the assailants. “In Dadeville, they will take care of each other. They are hurting. I know. I tell people things can change in a second. I can be fine now and then, bam, the next second I have anxiety or I’m in tears.“
“It’s hard,” she said, “Dadeville is a small town and the community is hurting. But we are close. Closer than I realized. It will always hurt. But we can hug each other and stick together and get through this nightmare. Together.”