Moultrie’s streets are no stranger to slayings nor the gatherings of the clergy after a particularly bloody stretch in occasional calls to halt the violence.
That was the case last year, when ministers joined hands on Second Street Northwest where two men were gunned down in a drive-by shooting. That event — called in response to the fatal shooting of James L. Key, 50, and his nephew, 42-year-old Eric Debruce — was followed up by a community gathering later in the year.
This pattern — violence, ministerial calls for peace, trials and young men sentenced to long prison terms before another outbreak of shootings — has become familiar over the years.
Now two Moultrie residents — both of whom quickly point out they’re no angels — have decided to see if a man who lost his brother to a bullet and the man recently released from prison for firing that fatal shot can change a community’s hearts and minds.
In November 2009, Curtis Aldridge, now 45, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Jakira Strong on New Year’s Eve 2007, allegedly while Aldridge was playing with a handgun. On April 7, Aldridge was released from state prison.
Less than two weeks later Aldridge had a confrontation with Strong’s 33-year-old brother John, but it was not an outcome that those familiar with their past histories would have expected, the men said.
Strong said his cousin, Kayla McCloud, was friends with Aldridge, and she knew he was in pain. Through her mediation Aldridge and Strong got on the phone and then agreed to meet.
On April 23 they met at Jakira’s grave, where they cried and found forgiveness, Strong forgiving Aldridge for his brother’s death and Aldridge perhaps finally able to fully forgive himself. When Aldridge was released, it was inevitable that the two would come face to face eventually in a small town.
“It’s not like we were strangers,” Aldridge said. “This is Northwest and Southwest Moultrie. Our families have intermingled for years. We were friends before the tragedy occurred.
“I was grieving, angry. I was trying to find out where his brother was buried at. I reached out to Kayla. He said it would be great if we met at his brother’s site.”
Strong said that after he learned of his release from prison, one of Aldridge’s nephews told him that Aldridge was having a tough time.
“I got to thinking, this man is grieving,” Strong said. “Something came to me he’s got something on his mind. Something really said I ought to reach out to him.
“When he saw my brother’s grave, I think it brought back something and he got on his knees and he shed tears. Something else said as a human being this is more than me forgiving him. It’s my job to embrace him. It’s my job to grab him and say don’t let this destroy you, you’ve got to do something with your life.”
Aldridge said he harbored bitterness for some time, going from the description of a “good Samaritan” who loaded a bleeding man shot outside his grocery sotre into his pickup truck to take him to the hospital to Jakira’s accused murderer. The shooting was an accident, he insisted, not intentional. One night, while in prison, he felt Jakira’s presence.
“That night when Jakira came to me in a dream, he said ‘I’m good; let it go.’ Then I started thinking about what I wanted to do. When I was at the (grave) site, I said again, ‘You got to let it go.’”
On New Year’s Day 2007, Strong was told of his brothers death as he himself was in prison. Violence, he said, also had been part of his life up to that point.
“You start thinking about the pain you caused other people,” Strong said. “You think, ‘This person’s got a momma, this person’s got a sister.’
“A feeling comes to you that you know how it feels to be hurt. I think that’s the first time I thought about other people’s feelings.”
Strong said the he was inspired to put that that lifestyle behind him. He started Trapp Angelz Entertainment and worked with rap artists, including Young Dro, with whom he made a video in Moultrie. Aldridge said he also is a different person than he was in 2007.
“As time passes I think you become more spiritual,” Strong said. “You have a couple of children; you start thinking a different way. For me it was music. It opened up my eyes to a new world. I wanted to bring artists, ideas to Moultrie, so people can look at this and say this can happen in Moultrie.”
After photos posted on Facebook and Twitter brought a huge positive reaction, the two men thought that perhaps some good could come out of tragedy. Together, the two hope that their experiences can help convince a younger generation for whom school antidrug programs, cops and courts have not worked.
Aldridge and Strong are scheduled to speak at 5 p.m. Saturday at Greater Newton Baptist Church.
The idea of reaching out to youth has been on his mind, said the Rev. Cornelius Ponder III, the pastor at the church. Not long after he had the urge in that direction, he ran across Aldridge and Strong.
“It’s just something that’s been on my heart for years,” he said. It’s been on my heart to change the minds of this next generation. When these young gentlemen called me, it was my confirmation.
“I’m a changed man too,” he said. “I’m not just a pastor in Moultrie. “I’m someone who has a past, just as they did, and God did it for me. This is an awesome opportunity to get everybody to come together. It’s bigger that just these two.”
When there is a death caused by violence it is an event that fills the church, Ponder said.
“If it had been a funeral, people would have packed my church because of their death,” he said. “Why not come pack the church just because one of these lives has been saved?”
The two men said multiple times that this message is not about them.
“I’m not an angel by any sort,” Aldridge said. “Like he (Strong) explained to me, you don’t have to carry this grievance that was on his heart, because he loved his brother and I loved his brother. What we’re trying to give to other people, no matter who you are, no matter what you did you can find forgiveness. We wanted it to be a change, because change can come from this accident. We’re trying to get people to realize forgiveness is the beginning to rectifying any situation.”
Assistant District Attorney Brian McDaniel, who prosecuted the case in which Aldridge entered a guilty plea after about four hours of trial testimony, said that he has not seen this type of forgiveness come out of a case as in Strong’s case.
“If he’s sincere, I admire him,” he said. “If he can do that, it’s better than carrying it around for the rest of his life. If they can go around and talk to some of the young people, they might actually make a difference.”