By Zaeem Shaikh and Aria Jones
ITALY — Dark, gray clouds unleashed a torrent of rain. Flashes of lightning streaked the sky and thunder roared in the distance as a crowd gathered Thursday night in the Ellis County town of Italy.
Despite the weather, nearly 70 people in the town of 2,000 gathered at a home on the 300 block of Harris Street to mourn the loss of three children who were killed last week.
Attendees wanted to show the children’s family that they matter to the community. That these children mattered. That they were loved by many and will be missed by many.
The Ellis County Sheriff’s Office has only identified the children who died March 3 by their ages and genders. Relatives told The Dallas Morning News their names are Legend Chapelle, 6, and 5-year-old twins Aaliyah and Ayden Martin.
Those three children, along with two others — a 4-year-old boy and a 13-month-old girl — were stabbed at the home on Harris Street, authorities say. The two unidentified children were seriously wounded.
The mother of all five children, 25-year-old Shamaiya Hall, is accused in the stabbings and faces three capital murder charges and two charges of aggravated assault. She was booked into Ellis County Jail the night of the slayings and has a total bail of $10 million, according to records.
Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Cozby said authorities were “extremely sad” to report the incident. The killings have reverberated inside the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Authorities said a Child Protective Services worker had chosen to remove the children from the home before they were killed.
But the Thursday vigil wasn’t about what happened March 3 or why. It was a time of healing, prayer and community.
Among the attendees was Stafford Elementary Principal Lance Bray. Before the vigil began, he opened the school’s doors to community members seeking refuge from the rain.
He wore a T-shirt that read “Italy Strong.” The “O” was replaced with a heart that had the number three was inside it. Under the letters was the date of the killings — all in front of a map of Texas.
Once the vigil began, dozens of people streamed out of Stafford and walked toward the home on Harris Street. They carried balloons of various colors — pink, blue, white and red — along with images of characters from movies like Toy Story and Spider-Man.
Blue was Legend’s favorite color and Spider-Man was his favorite superhero, LaTanya Reese, who identified herself as Legend’s grandmother, told The News. At 6-years-old, Legend was a leader to his siblings and a smart kid who had many dreams of who he wanted to be, Reese said.
For one, Legend wanted to be a professional boxer. He also had a strong love for basketball and told his family he dreamed of buying the Los Angeles Lakers.
Reese said he was an “easy-going child” who loved school, where he said he could be himself. Among the things he loved to do: play outside, ride his bike and play with his siblings and friends.
“The world will never finish getting the opportunity to see what Legend Chapelle had in store for us,” Reese said.
Many people who attended the vigil did not know the children’s family but wondered: What if it was their own?
“It just feels close to home,” said Casey Johnson, who carried pink and blue balloons by his side.
Bishop Joshua Perkins of Cornerstone Unity Church in Milford, stood under a makeshift tarp near the home. He read Bible verses and shared a few words.
“In this time of need like this, God is here to comfort us,” Perkins said. “He will never leave us. We latch on to God and the word of God and that’s what is going to keep us and draw us.”
He continued, “For the family today, I just want to encourage you that God loves you. He has his arms around you. Never doubt that he doesn’t. He always will.”
Nearly half the crowd stood near the home, holding umbrellas over their heads; children wore ponchos while rain poured.
Standing beside Perkins was Rayla Morrison, who led a prayer asking for God’s strength. “We thank you for touching every family member,” she said.
Bray, the Stafford principal, also shared words of his own. He spoke about the role of an educator — a job to serve and love students — and mold them and teach them life lessons.
“We thank you Lord for this opportunity that we had with Legend, with Aaliyah, with Ayden,” Bray said. “Lord, we thank you so much for the smiles they gave hundreds and hundreds of people each day. The encouragement they gave to so many each and every day just with their smile, with their curiosity, with their energy, Lord God with their questions.”
Dozens of balloons were released at the vigil’s conclusion, the colors lighting up the dark gray skies — a sea of pink and blue. They flew a few feet in the air before being pulled down by heavy winds.
When the balloons were let go, the crowd cheered. For twins Aaliyah and Ayden and for Legend, who Reese said will forever be “our little Spider Boy.”
This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas- at the bottom.