They met in 1978 when she was 15 and he was just a year older.
A handsome West Oak Lane boy from the neighborhood, Kevin Drinks took one look at Keyna McClinek when she and a friend passed him and his crew and said, “Now, she’s pretty.”
They were high school sweethearts — he took her to her senior prom at Germantown High — but they broke up shortly after graduation.
It would be almost two decades before they reconnected, after Keyna’s mother died in 2000. Kevin, by then divorced, stopped by to pay his respects.
“That was it,” said Keyna Drinks, now 59.
They married in 2001 in front of more than 100 people at the Unitarian Society of Germantown church on Lincoln Drive. Kevin, a talented singer from a long line of vocalists in his family, serenaded Keyna while she walked down the aisle, substituting Keyna’s name for “Lady” in the 1998 Lionel Richie classic.
In 2011, they bought their dream home in Rhawnhurst, a twin with hardwood floors and iron banisters, but had been in it only a few months when Keyna received a call from Kevin’s youngest brother.
“Get to the hospital!”
They’d thought Kevin had been in a car accident and raced to Hahnemann Hospital, only to learn that he was killed in a shooting. They were stunned.
That night began an odyssey that would stretch on for more than a decade, during which Keyna fought tirelessly to find out who killed her beloved husband. The case turned cold and threatened to become yet another of Philadelphia’s unsolved homicides.
But then last month, after a serendipitous bit of police work, four men were convicted of murder in what the authorities said was a horrific case of mistaken identity: The killers, prosecutors said, were hoping to silence a witness in another murder case, but their bullets found Kevin Drinks instead.
To Keyna, the moment is bittersweet. Hers is the kind of justice for which countless families are still anxiously awaiting.
Kevin, 50, had been gunned down behind a North Philadelphia furniture store where he had started work four days earlier as a delivery driver. He was shot three times. He died at the hospital not long after.
At the time, his killing made no sense to Keyna or anyone who knew her husband: Kevin was a churchgoing grandfather who sang gospel music and loved spending time with his family.
Who would want to kill him, and why?
The police didn’t produce any answers, so those questions would haunt Keyna for years. Her calls to police were consistent, as was her unwavering persistence for answers.
She passed out fliers and buttons and T-shirts calling for “Justice for Kevin Drinks” in the area where the shooting occurred. She called her elected officials imploring them for help. She vowed to silence the whispers from those who wondered if maybe there wasn’t more to the story.
“I wanted to clear his name,” she said.
She grew frustrated as other murder cases were solved while Kevin’s remained open. She ached for the smallest details of her old life, how Kevin would always bag the groceries when they went shopping, the way he’d fill any room he was in with his singing and humming.
“This is how people get discovered,” he’d say when she’d teasingly tell him to hush.
Their dream home became a hollowed-out space of painful memories, and fear. Without knowing why someone would target her husband, she wondered if she was safe. She moved. She prayed, pressed officials for answers, and prayed some more.
And then in 2018, she got the call she’d been waiting for. Philadelphia Police Detective John Verrechio had been listening to recordings of jailhouse telephone conversations and heard something relevant to the Drinks case.
Chad Rannels, who had been accused of killing a 22-year-old man two months before Drinks was shot, was worried that a key witness was going to testify against him, so he plotted with three other men, Michael Blackston, Semaj Armstead, and Rashawn Combs.
They wanted to silence a witness. Instead they executed Kevin Drinks — the wrong man.
Keyna had wanted answers for so long. But when they finally came, they were gutting.
Last month, more than 10 years after Drinks was killed, Rannels, Blackston, and Armstead were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Combs was convicted of third-degree murder. He’s scheduled for sentencing in June.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said he hopes this case shows Philadelphians that there are innumerable people in law enforcement “who consider no case to be permanently cold, and who are always trying.”
The heartbroken widow, who expressed her frustration about the case that went unsolved for so long, is now effusive with praise for what she calls her “dream team,” including Assistant District Attorneys Ashley Toczylowski and Christian Wynne and witness victim coordinator Kathy Lees.
Toczylowski deflected Keyna’s compliments, and said a lot of hard work in years past allowed her and Wynne to be “in a position to give Keyna the closure and justice she deserved.”
In another moment of healing, Krasner invited Keyna to a news conference earlier this month, near where her husband had been killed, to talk about the loss that had both baffled and tortured Kevin’s family.
She was nervous to speak, but once at the lectern, she grabbed the “Justice for Kevin” button on her jacket — one of the ones she and his family, many of whom stood behind her, had worn for a decade.
“Family, take the buttons off. Justice is done. Justice is served. We don’t need those buttons anymore.”
It was a moment she was still processing when we met a week later.
“People can say, ‘Oh, that’s not really justice because he’s not here, he’s still gone.’ But my husband can rest in peace.That’s how I look at it.”
After wondering for so long who killed Kevin, the question she now faces is: Can she find peace without him?
Next month would have been the couple’s 21st wedding anniversary. It stings to have waited so long for her happily ever after, only to have it so brutally cut short.
And now that her eyes have been opened to the number of families who, like her, still wait for answers about why their loved one was murdered, Keyna mourns for them, too.
After the men were convicted, Kathy Lees, the witness victim coordinator who had sat by Keyna and her family for the weeklong trial, confided something she hadn’t before.
Six months before Kevin Drinks was murdered, Lees’ only child, Justin Reyes, was gunned down.
The 17-year-old’s murder is still unsolved.
Without knowing, Keyna’s persistence and ultimate victory in finding out what happened to her husband helped Lees see that Justin’s story wasn’t over, either.
When Lees told Keyna about Justin, she hugged Keyna tight. Lees told her, “This case gives me hope.”