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A 'Community Tragedy' Deepens

As hundreds mourn a woman's death, police say a friend may have killed her accidentally.

July 23, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Until she died of a gunshot wound in front of her apartment, Meleia Willis-Starbuck was the perfect Berkeley success story -- an African American Ivy League scholarship recipient who was on a strong social mission to change the world.

That she would die on the street after an ugly argument has made the pain even greater here, in a city that takes pride in its racial, ethnic and gender tolerance.

At the Berkeley High School gym Friday, more than 400 relatives, friends and schoolmates mourned the loss of the popular Dartmouth College student, believed to have been shot to death in her hometown by a close friend she may have called for help.

"The city lost a wonderful hero. Someone who strived, succeeded and came back to the community," Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said in praise of Willis-Starbuck.

The 19-year-old was killed early Sunday morning outside the apartment where she lived while working for the summer at a center for homeless women and children. Her death struck a familiar chord for San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, an African American who writes often about East Bay black communities.

"For those who question why an Ivy League student would maintain a friendship with a gun-toting man," Johnson wrote in his Friday column, "the answers may lie in the consciousness of many African Americans who climbed the social ladder to achieve middle-class status but feel a strong sense of duty, loyalty and responsibility to the rough-cut neighborhoods they come from."

The tragic nature of the killing near the University of California campus became apparent later Friday afternoon, when some of the same mourners gathered in an Alameda County courtroom to show support for Christopher Larry Wilson, 20, one of the two men charged with murder. The other man accused in the killing, Christopher Lester Hollis, 21, is at large.

Wilson, Hollis and Willis-Starbuck were close friends from school days at Berkeley High, which all three attended. Ivy leaguer Willis-Starbuck encouraged Wilson in his studies. After completing community college, Wilson planned to enter UC Santa Cruz this fall. Hollis and Willis-Starbuck were so close they called each other brother and sister, friends said.

According to police reports and accounts of others present at the shooting, Willis-Starbuck and five female friends had stopped at her College Avenue apartment after 1 a.m. on Sunday when they were approached by a group of men who asked them to party. Willis-Starbuck objected to the language allegedly used by some of the men, including the term "bitches."

Police allege that about 1:45 a.m., a car driven by Wilson approached on an adjacent street and that Hollis got out of the car and fired several shots, one of which fatally wounded Willis-Starbuck. No one else was struck. Police are investigating the possibility that Willis-Starbuck called Wilson and Hollis on her cellphone minutes before the shooting.

Friends and family speculated that Hollis might have been attempting to frighten the men and accidentally shot his friend.

"They were kids out doing what they should not be doing. They were all friends," said Michael Jamison, a Wilson family friend who attended the hearing. "It was senseless and crazy."

Shortly after police obtained arrest warrants for the two men on Wednesday, Wilson, accompanied by Berkeley attorney Elizabeth Grossman, turned himself in at the Berkeley Police Department. Grossman and others have urged Hollis, a resident of Hayward, to turn himself in.

In the days after the slaying, a small shrine was built in front of Willis-Starbuck's apartment. Friends attached favorite photos and poems to the trunk of a large mulberry tree and circled the tree with votive candles.

One friend wrote: "Friday night I was relaxing on your couch. Saturday morning we talked on the phone. And in between then and when I woke up to start my day someone decided to display the fragility of existence."

Another writer vowed: "We will not let your death [be] in vain. Stop the violence!"

"I know all of them. They are all good kids. Chris Wilson was like another son to me," said Arnold Perkins, Alameda County Health Care Services director and Berkeley resident, who attended both events Friday. "This is a community tragedy, one of those terrible situations where friends ended up hurting friends.

"No one blames anyone in this," said Perkins, who spoke at the memorial service and was prepared to speak on Wilson's behalf in the courtroom. "We are all caught in this matrix created by too many handguns."

Through a friend, the family has issued only one brief statement: "This has become a tragedy for the whole community. What the family wants most is for the violence to end and for healing for everyone to begin."

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