During his last phone call to his family, Kwamne Clyburn showed a rare vulnerability.
“His voice seemed very timid,” says the family member with whom Clyburn talked that night in August 2013. “He kept saying, ‘These people are setting me up.’ He was afraid for his life.”
As a boy growing up in Asheville and Winston-Salem, Clyburn had dreamed of being a doctor or a sports star. In high school, he had loved JROTC. Only days before that final phone call, he had been accepted into a Charlotte halfway house that promised to help him prepare for college or a career.
Several weeks earlier, Clyburn’s mother had thrown him out of her Winston-Salem home for dealing drugs around her apartment, a family member says. In Charlotte, he had checked into the Journey Place program, with his belongings packed into two garbage bags, but disappeared after a day or two.
By the time he called his family, the 18-year-old was sleeping in Pressley Road Neighborhood Park, a wooded glade in southwest Charlotte at the bottom of a dead-end road.
Many of the events in his life that helped put him there are locked away under child-privacy laws. Efforts to reach family members were mostly unsuccessful.
Given the transience of his life, officials at his schools and the places he stayed could offer little detail beyond when the youth arrived and when he left. Given how Clyburn died, the one relative who agreed to talk did so anonymously out of fear for his own safety.
Pieced together, the details sketch a life marked by setbacks he couldn’t control and Clyburn’s own bad choices.
There was also this: Since childhood, Clyburn had bragged about being part of a gang. It remains unclear if he was ever telling the truth. But the claims made him sound tough.
In Charlotte, however, the boast made him a target.
Members of the United Blood Nation have their own name for gang posers like Kwamne Clyburn.
They call them food.
Losing sight of hope
Clyburn was born June 13, 1995, near Asheville.
He was executed on Aug. 22, 2013, in Pressley Road park.
Shortly after 1 a.m., Charlotte-Mecklenburg police found the youth with his hands bound behind him with tape. He had been shot seven times. One bullet, which entered under the teenager’s nose, had been fired at such close range that gunpowder tattooed the right side of his face.
A woman who lived nearby made the 911 call that night. She still remembers the gunshots, then someone screaming, “He’s dead. He’s dead.”
Later, she says, she went online looking for the name of the victim.
“I always wondered who he was,” says the woman, who also asked that her name not be used because of the apparent gang involvement. “If he was from out of town, what was he doing in a Charlotte park at 1 a.m.?”
For more than a year the questions lingered, and Clyburn’s killing went unsolved. His death was one of 58 homicides committed in Mecklenburg County that year. Most took place in minority neighborhoods. Two-thirds of the victims, including Clyburn, were African-American males. Seven were teenagers or younger.
Last month, federal officials charged alleged UBN gang members Jamell Cureton and Ahkeem McDonald with Clyburn’s murder. The accompanying 51-page racketeering indictment uses Clyburn’s killing to help illustrate the gang as a criminal enterprise that asserts power and inspires fear.
The focus of the indictment is the killings of Doug and Debbie London, who were attacked in their Lake Wylie, S.C., home in October. Their deaths were allegedly ordered by Cureton to keep Doug London from testifying against him and others accused of trying to rob the couple’s Pineville mattress store last May.
According to the indictment, Cureton and other gang members were disappointed that the Londons had not already been killed by McDonald, who had helped kill Clyburn the year before.
Clyburn’s transgression? In UBN parlance, he was guilty of “false claiming” – asserting gang membership without actually having it. It sounds trivial. To his accused killers, however, Clyburn had committed a capital offense.
“We had to roll the (expletive),” McDonald told other gang members after Clyburn’s killing, according to a prosecutor’s courtroom statements. “That s--t ain’t right.”
The FBI, police and other investigators say they solved the mystery of Clyburn’s death while searching for UBN links to the Londons’ shootings.
In all, the indictment charges 12 people believed to be part of the UBN gang. Each is charged with racketeering and conspiracy. The indictment outlines crimes ranging from assault and illegal possession of weapons to robbery, witness tampering and murder. Six are charged with murder of the Londons, accused of playing various roles in the planning and execution of the crime. The couple’s case covers three times as many pages in the indictment as Clyburn’s, whose death may well have remained unsolved if not for the investigation prompted by the shocking execution of the Londons.
On the surface, Clyburn fits the role of a gang recruit. He was born to a single mother with physical and psychological ailments, and spent almost a decade shuffling through foster homes and orphanages. By the time he came to Charlotte in the summer of 2013, he had aged out of state care and was quickly accumulating an adult criminal record of petty thefts and credit-card fraud.
Brennon Graham, executive director of The Relatives, a Charlotte nonprofit that attempted to get Clyburn under its care, says the teenager was among the swelling ranks of North Carolina young people who lack family support, schooling and jobs. Often, they make bad choices that throw their lives even further off track.
“I don’t think people realize that we have a really huge problem affecting so many kids,” Graham says. “There are so many variables stacked against them – cyclical homelessness, poverty, criminal backgrounds, and not realizing there’s hope.”
Clyburn’s family member says the teenager always had big plans and dreams, but lacked the discipline and temperament to achieve them. He could be popular and polite with teachers, then turn into a playground bully. He had trouble trusting people, but if he considered you a friend, he would share whatever he had.
Clyburn talked in detail about his future during an interview for admission into Journey Place, a Charlotte halfway house for homeless young men run by The Relatives. His words impressed the selection committee enough to earn him one of six slots in the independent-living program.
Then he walked away.
“He wanted to be so many things,” says Clyburn’s family member. “One thing he always said he wanted to do was to get straight, to stay out of trouble.
“He was a good guy at heart. This should never have happened.”
State homes and gang signs
Clyburn’s parents never married.
His father, Monroe Edgerton, was rarely around and couldn’t be reached for this story. For a time, his contact information included the phone number for an Asheville homeless shelter.
The youth’s mother, Union County native Donna Clyburn, died in 2014 from a combination of bipolar disorder, diabetes, tachycardia and sickle cell anemia. She was 40.
Court records outline a volatile relationship between the parents, including two convictions against Edgerton for assaulting Donna Clyburn and a court fight over Kwamne’s child support that started before he was born and continued for most of his life.
The Clyburn family member says Kwamne was a sweet child who seemed to harden after he moved with his mother and older brother to Winston-Salem in 2000. There, according to the Clyburn family member, the 5-year-old found potential new role models in the gangs that operated around the apartment complex where the family made its new home.
When he was 8, the family member says, Kwamne was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation after he put a knife to the throat of his 11-year-old brother. After his release, the boy repeatedly asked his mother to send him back.
Around the same time, he started wearing bandanas and throwing gang signs, his family member says. He’d tell classmates, “You mess with me, I’ve got people who will come after you.” Kwamne was in elementary school at the time.
In 2005, Donna Clyburn asked the state to take custody of her two sons after she suffered a psychological breakdown, the family member says. Kwamne remained a ward of the state for the next seven or eight years. His family member says the boy couldn’t stay out of trouble. Cut off from his family, he became more strongly drawn to gangs.
On one of his infrequent visits from foster care to his mother’s home, Kwamne showed up sporting a red bandana. Donna Clyburn ripped it off and shredded it with scissors, the family member says.
Whether Kwamne ever belonged to a gang is unclear. At 14, he created a Facebook page that featured selfies of the teen posing shirtless, tying on bandanas and flashing what appear to be gang signs. Except, a gang expert who looked at the photos says the gestures don’t appear real, and the color schemes on the bandanas don’t match those of well-known gangs.
As he grew older, Clyburn acted even more the part. Beginning in the fall of 2012, he was arrested several times on theft and other charges. He dropped out of Central Davidson High School in March 2013.
In June 2013, right around his 18th birthday, Clyburn spent 24 days in jail for punching a younger boy at the Davidson County children’s home where they both lived.
“If you snitch, I will kill you,” Clyburn told his victim, according to the complaint filed against him.
After one of his arrests, he used a pencil to fill out the form for a court-appointed attorney. The financial-disclosure section had 28 questions on assets, dependents and other sources of support. He put zeros in every box.
When he got out of jail in July – now too old to return to the youth home – he moved in with his mother for the first time since she gave him up. Within a month, Donna Clyburn told him to leave after she received an ultimatum from her landlord, the family member says.
Kwamne Clyburn was now on his own. Soon afterward – his family doesn’t know exactly when – he headed south to Charlotte.
‘They all deserve a chance’
Before Clyburn’s path led him to Pressley Road park, it passed through several crossroads. He had chances. At times, there were people in his life who saw something worthwhile in him.
When his mother gave up her boys, the father of his brother tried to bring Kwamne to South Carolina to live with them. North Carolina’s Department of Social Services refused, Clyburn’s family member says.
When Kwamne was about 16, the foster family with whom he was staying tried to adopt him. But the youth pulled back at the last minute, telling his natural family that he did not want to live by somebody else’s rules, the Clyburn relative says. Later, the foster father turned up at Clyburn’s memorial service, lamenting that he had not pushed harder to bring the adoption about.
Clyburn’s last clear chance came at Journey Place, where for up to 18 months he would have worked and been pushed toward achievable goals of attending college or getting a steady job. Participants, with the help of staff members, must be working or in school within three months of entering the program. Graham says Journey Place is relatively new, but the success rate for graduates has been high.
Applicants don’t have to be perfect, Graham says, but they must be willing to try. Not all teens who interview for the program have the maturity to take on the work, Graham says. Others can’t get beyond their mistrust, old ways of behaving or what their lives already have put them through.
Whatever Clyburn’s reasons for leaving, Journey Place was not willing simply to let him walk away. Eventually, the staff reached him by phone, according to a person familiar with the case. A meeting was set up at the parking lot of a nearby hotel.
Kwamne Clyburn never showed. Two days later he was dead.
Journey Place staff had only just met the young man, but Graham says he was shaken by how he died.
“We know there is always a risk when enrolling residents that we often don’t really know anything about, but they all deserve a chance,” he says. Adam Bell and researcher Maria David contributed.