It had been raining all day, but Hakeem Butler, 39, was not going to let the weather dampen the memories.
“I’ve been a part of this community for 39 years,” said Butler, of the Mill Creek section of West Philadelphia. “And this is long overdue.”
The sun already had set Friday, but Butler and about 40 others planned to stand later in the middle of the Mill Creek Playground’s basketball court at 47th and Brown Streets and let go of seven green and black balloons, one for each person slain in the biggest mass killing in Philadelphia’s modern history.
It was 18 years ago Friday, on Dec. 28, 2000, when 10 people were shot execution-style in a crack house in the 800 block of North Lex Street, seven of whom died. Among the dead was Butler’s cousin Calvin “CJ” Helton, a bystander.
The commemoration Friday was expected to include prayer and dancing, Butler said. A few people planned to say a few words.
“We want to remember them in a positive light,” he said, “not just every time we think about them is something negative. We’re trying to touch people through this tragedy.”
Tanja Carter, an aunt of Helton’s, said she and others were there to show support. “We came back here just to make a mark," said Carter, who lives at 56th Street and Wyalusing Avenue. "We want you to know y’all have our support regardless.”
“What we went through,” she said, “blood couldn’t make us tighter.”
“CJ” Helton Sr., 64, the victim’s father, said Friday’s gathering was special for him, rain or shine.
“This year is about victory over the enemy, victory over the depression," he said. "Every year, everyone goes through their own private hell. We usually do it privately. And not as a whole family unit.”
Others killed in the massacre were George Porter, 18; Tyrone Long, 18; Samuel “Malik” Harris Jr., 15; Ronnette Abrams, 33; Alfred Goodwin, 54; and Edward Sudler, 44. Wounded were Yvonne Long, 33; Bruce Carter, 45; and Greg Kilby, 37.
Two groups of four men stood trial for the killing, which was dubbed the “Lex Street Massacre” by former Daily News reporter Theresa Conroy.
Four were charged with murder and spent 18 months in jail before charges were dropped for insufficient evidence. They sued, eventually receiving a $1.9 million settlement.
In a second trial, brothers Dawud and Khalid Faruqi, who denied involvement, were convicted of murder. Two other men, Shihean Black and Bruce Veney, pleaded guilty.
“The system failed me twice,” victim Helton’s mother, Veronica Conyers, said in 2011. “The first time they failed me was when I went to court every day for 18 months when they had the wrong guys charged with the crime.”
The second time, she said, was when the prosecution struck a plea deal with the Faruqi brothers that led to consecutive life terms in prison instead of the death penalty.