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Street violence hits home

Samantha Houston told her mother in October that she was moving into a North Philadelphia house with Amin Payne, the love of her life and the father of their two children.

Amin Payne Sr. (left), Samantha Houston and Amin Payne Jr., 3. (Photo Courtesy of Trena Houston)
Amin Payne Sr. (left), Samantha Houston and Amin Payne Jr., 3. (Photo Courtesy of Trena Houston)Read more

Samantha Houston told her mother in October that she was moving into a North Philadelphia house with Amin Payne, the love of her life and the father of their two children.

Trena Houston told her daughter to be careful. She was concerned about Payne's reputation for having a dangerous street life - arrests for shootings, robbery and smoking weed.

"I said, 'If these things are true, don't let nobody know where you live,' " Trena Houston recalled. " 'Don't let nobody know where you lay your head, where you leave your children.' "

But Payne's enemies soon discovered he had moved into a two-story rowhouse in the 3300 block of Mutter Street. And in a blaze of gunfire, they left Trena Houston and her relatives to pick up the pieces of a shattered family - Samantha Houston dead and a 3-year-old paralyzed.

A little after 5 a.m. Dec. 1, police said, two gunmen barged into the house where Samantha Houston, Payne, and their two boys were asleep. Firing into the bed, they severely wounded Payne, 20, the target of their attack, who escaped out a second-floor window.

Samantha Houston, 19, was wounded and died in less than an hour. The couple's eldest, Amin Jr., known as Samson, was shot twice in the back - the 3-year-old had apparently crawled into his parents' bed during the night. Amir, their year-old son, who was sleeping in a separate bed, was not injured.

Samantha Houston's death and the injuries to Samson show the broad reach of the street violence that accounts for most of the nearly 2,000 shootings and 321 homicides recorded in Philadelphia so far this year. Even the bedroom of her own home was no sanctuary for Samantha Houston and her children.

"Now the next step is to take care of the kids," said Trena Houston, 42, who works as a security guard.

Some of Samantha Houston's relatives were upset that Payne's illegal activities had put the family into the line of fire.

But they suppressed their anger as the enormity of the tragedy came into focus: Samson survived, but one of the bullets damaged his spinal cord. Doctors at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children who struggled to save the child's life said he would likely spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

"I just want what's best for the kids," said Trena Houston, mother of three - Samantha was the youngest. She said her strong religious faith helped her set aside any animosity. "The kids need a warm environment to grow up in."

She and Samson's paternal grandmother, Yolanda Payne, are now united in the common purpose of caring for their grandson. Samson was moved from St. Christopher's to Shriners Hospital for Children on Tuesday, where he is undergoing therapy.

"We cannot hate each other because of a crisis that just occurred," said Yolanda Payne, 38. "I loved Samantha like she was my daughter, not just because she had children by my son."

Police say they are searching for the men who terrorized the household. The U.S. Marshals Service announced a $10,000 reward for James "Putt" Williford, 34, who was identified as a shooter. Police did not identify the other gunman.

Homicide Capt. James Clark said the assassination attempt was drug-related. But Payne told his mother that gamblers wanted to recover money he won in a dice game.

Payne faces more problems than healing from multiple gunshot wounds and worrying about his disabled son.

The day after he was shot, he was arrested on a pile of outstanding warrants. He had failed to appear in court last summer on a charge of aggravated assault for allegedly firing five shots into a woman's house last December. He was also charged with attempted murder, robbery and assault for allegedly shooting a 31-year-old man during a scuffle on Aug. 22 after stealing $150 in a sidewalk robbery.

Payne is held in the medical wing of the detention center with bail set at $100,000. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Dec. 30.

His star-crossed love story with Samantha Houston began when they were students at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in the tough neighborhood near 21st and Diamond Streets, west of Temple University, where their families lived within two blocks of each other. Payne and Samantha Houston got into a fight over her bicycle. The argument nearly brought their families to blows.

But, according to their mothers, they quickly became friends, and in 2005, Samantha Houston gave birth to Samson.

Samantha Houston never told her mother precisely what she saw in Amin Payne, an 11th-grade dropout whose mother said he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a youth. Samantha Houston had Amin's name tattooed in inch-high letters on her neck.

"Samantha is a very difficult person to get along with," Trena Houston said. "She's feisty. . . . So when she found someone she could display her softer side to, there had to be something there she saw that nobody else saw."

Amin Payne clearly had anger-management issues. He had his first encounter with the adult court system in 2004, when he was 15 and stood accused of shooting two men in the feet. According to the court records, Payne and one of the men argued in the 2000 block of Woodstock Street after the youth asked for a cigarette. They called each other names.

"If you say something else, I'll pop you," Payne was quoted as telling Taron Johnson, who was in his 30s.

Johnson replied: "If you're going to pop me, then go ahead and shoot."

Payne fired three times, police said, striking Johnson and another man who tried to intervene.

In the next two years, Payne was arrested in two more shootings, one of which resulted in an injury.

But Payne was never convicted. A consistent thread runs through all three incidents: The cases were withdrawn after witnesses failed to turn up in court and detectives were unable to find the victims to testify.

"He was never found guilty on any of those charges," Yolanda Payne said of her son. "He said it wasn't him, and I'm going to believe him."

Yolanda Payne said her son, who is listed in court records as 5-foot-8 and weighing 160 pounds, is not a bad man. She said he took care of Samantha Houston and their children and provided for them from the monthly Social Security check he received for his ADHD disability.

"He was there when his children were born," she said. "They were never apart. Different people would encourage her to leave him, and she would not leave him no matter what. If she would have survived this, she would not leave him."

Trena Houston said Payne was "very much a part" of her daughter's life. She encouraged her daughter to finish school and was proud that she was learning to become a medical assistant. Samantha Houston said she wanted to become a nurse.

But Trena Houston would not permit the young couple to stay in her house on Lambert Street because doing so would have clashed with her religious beliefs. She never confronted her daughter directly about Payne's rumored lawlessness for fear of alienating the couple altogether.

"She knew my values," she said. "I would have preferred to see them married. But it was like, she has two kids. He was a part of their life. . . . I didn't want her life to be hard, I wanted her to be comfortable and happy in the decisions she made."

In October, the young family was forced to move out of the Philadelphia Housing Authority unit where they had been staying - it belonged to Payne's grandmother, who died in June. They found lodgings on Mutter Street in a two-story brick house owned by Samantha Houston's father, who divorced Trena Houston about 14 years ago.

In recent months, Trena Houston was encouraged to see signs of maturity from her daughter and Payne. In November, the couple joined her for Sunday services at the True Vine Baptist Church on Lehigh Avenue. "He seemed to be willing to be subjected to change," said the Rev. James S. Christmas, the pastor.

Then disaster struck. And now the family is consumed with raising a 3-year-old paraplegic and his year-old brother.

Managing the crisis - arranging for medical attention, day care, public assistance - has become a full-time job for Trena Houston, and a way to avoid the grief. She is sharing child-care duties with Samantha Houston's sister, Ashley, and other relatives.

"The fact remains that she's gone now. It doesn't even matter who's to blame," Trena Houston said. "It's a done deal. That part is done and over with.

"I know somewhere way down the line it's going to hit me. But it hasn't hit me yet."