In front of a white brick home with a big bay window on a quiet, tree-lined West Philadelphia block, Bernadine Mills placed a stuffed bear wrapped in plastic on a patch of grass. She’s had the bear for 20 years, since her mother died, but Thursday she returned it to the home of the woman who gave it to her family: Janet Woodson.
The bear was next to a pile of daisies and a folded tie that read “Boys Latin Charter School." The items, wet with October dew, were a makeshift memorial to Woodson, her husband, and her two sons — one who went to Boys Latin — who were killed in a quadruple homicide Wednesday that rocked the 5000 block of Walton Avenue. Woodson’s oldest son, Maurice Louis, confessed to police that he’d shot his family members, including his younger brothers, Sy-eed and Leslie Jr., who were 18 and 7 years old.
Mills, a 67-year-old retired medical assistant who’s lived on this block for 50 years, was not only Janet’s neighbor — she watched Janet, who was 51, grow up. The two were god-sisters. They texted each other “good morning” every day. The last time was Tuesday.
“She wasn’t supposed to leave before me,” Mills said.
Now, Mills and other neighbors — both longtime residents and newer transplants — in this sliver of West Philly are leaning on one another to cope with the sudden loss of an entire family led by Janet, a woman who was always smiling and whom everyone knew. A woman who trusted her neighbors so much that she left her front door open on some Saturdays so clients coming to her in-home hair salon could walk right in. A woman who still dressed up to go on dates with her husband, Leslie Holmes. A woman who was killed in the same house where she was raised.
Today, that house has a “for rent” sign.
“I’m just at a loss for words,” said Raheem Green, who has lived in the same house on the 5000 block of Catharine Street, in between where the two quadruple homicides took place, for 58 years. “This is the second horrific thing that happened here in the last two years. It’s just sad, you know? I live on an awesome block.”
Green and others who have passed these homes through generations have watched the neighborhood change dramatically. Both killings took place just off Baltimore Avenue, the bustling street dotted with shops, a food co-op, and restaurants, including the popular Dock Street Brewing Company.
Cedar Park has experienced gentrification in the same way many other parts of Philadelphia have. Elder residents have passed away, some of their homes bought up and rented to younger, whiter transplants. One of them lives across the street from Mills. He’s checked on her multiple times since learning of what happened in the Woodson home.
Jim Jones, 67, who lives around the corner from the Woodson home and whose family has lived in the area for 30 years, said what’s happened in this neighborhood has been “a real turnaround.” His greatest concern when talking to a reporter Thursday was how the neighborhood would be described. “It should be a bright picture,” he said.
Michelle Payne, 39, has lived in the neighborhood since 2010, and was one of a handful of neighbors who spent time Wednesday talking to others on Facebook about how they could support one another. She remembered gathering with other residents after last year’s quadruple homicide, meeting newer neighbors on the street who just wanted to hug people who lived on the block where the shooting took place.
Sometimes the problem is just not knowing what to do when tragedy strikes this close to home.
“If there are things we can do as a community to ease the horrible after what just happened,” she said, “this is a community that will do it.”
Ursula Johnson grew up just a few doors down from Woodson. The 58-year-old retired teacher heard gospel music for the first time when Janet and her family invited her to come to church with them. It changed her life.
When Johnson arrived home Wednesday afternoon to see police lining the street, neighbors walked toward her. “It’s Janet’s house,” one said. “Four bodies.” They huddled together, trying to figure out how to get in touch with Sy-eed, not knowing he was among the dead.
What’s next for these women of the 5000 block of Walton Avenue is finding a way to support the Woodson relatives. But they’re taking condolence calls themselves.
“She mattered to us all,” Johnson said.
And the family mattered to those who didn’t live here. Mills and her longtime neighbor, Regina Jones, sat on a porch Thursday afternoon remembering the Woodsons with Lakia Sawyer, a 36-year-old from Drexel Hill who has been getting her hair cut by Janet for a decade. Janet would at times see four or five people simultaneously, and Sy-eed would come downstairs and hug the regulars. A hair appointment was an all-day affair, and the clients got more than a trim.
"She was somebody you could confide in,” Sawyer said. “I guess I’m looking for a little closure.”
On the sidewalk Thursday afternoon, a mere 18 hours after the bodies were found, the 5000 block of Catharine Street was shut down. Residents were roasting marshmallows and drinking cider in the street. Some were wearing Halloween costumes. In front of the Woodson home, neighbors encouraged kids: They should still trick-or-treat.