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It is a Saturday, so, as she has most Saturday afternoons for the past five months, Cleotha Howard has made the 18-mile drive from her home in Burnsville to the Crystal Lake Cemetery in north Minneapolis. Climbing out of a loaner Ford sedan (she dinged her minivan in a fender bender), Howard trudges through a fresh blanket of December snow. A heavyset, asthmatic woman, she looks older than her 38 years and seems tuckered out by the time she reaches the spot where her youngest son, Steven Lawrence Temple, is buried. The grave has yet to be sodded over. It is marked only by a wooden stake and a tattered red flag, fluttering in the wind. "I'd like to get him a nice headstone. I'd like to have his picture on it, I know that," Howard says, a hint of her native Arkansas in her voice. She pauses and squints in the blinding sunshine. "My son Marcus always tries to tell me, 'Mom, he's in a better place now,'" Howard sighs. "And I always say the same thing: 'Lord, a better place would be with me.'"
Despite the frigid temperature, Howard isn't wearing a coat, just a short-sleeved polo shirt emblazoned with a photograph of her late son: a big, beefy kid who could pass for 23 by the time he was 17. His name and the dates that Howard hopes will soon be engraved on his headstone are printed beside the image: "July 18, 1983 to August 16, 2000." The date of death is a guess, Howard acknowledges. Her son may have passed away on the morning of August 16. Or he may have taken his last breath just before midnight on August 15. That was the last time anyone saw him alive. He was mortally wounded then, running as fast as he could from his assailants, passing through the maze of cul-de-sacs, side streets, and well-tended yards in a residential district of Lakeville, a burgeoning Dakota County suburb some 20 miles south of the Twin Cities. About a year and a half ago, Howard moved to nearby Burnsville from north Minneapolis because she was worried that her son might run afoul of gang bangers or street dealers if she remained. "When I moved, I honestly thought I'd gotten my kids away from the danger," she says softly. "I guess I made a poor judgment."
Howard and her family usually combine weekly visits to the cemetery with errands in north Minneapolis. A devout Pentecostal Christian, Howard still worships in her old neighborhood , at the He Is Risen Church of God in Christ. And she still gets her hair done at a local salon (stylists in Burnsville and Lakeville don't have much experience coifing black people, she chuckles). Today Howard is accompanied by her two daughters, Karen Temple, age 23, and Kimberly Terry, 14. Karen has brought along her newborn baby girl, who is named Steveniece--as in "Steven's niece"--in honor of her late uncle. Kimberly plops down besides her brother's grave, pokes a finger in the snow, and scribbles a message: "Kim loves Six." Cleotha Howard seldom refers to the fifth of her six children as anything other than Steven or Steven Lawrence. But most of his peers, and his little sister, called him "Six." After his death, some newspapers referred to "Six" as a "street name." In truth, says his mother, it was just a family nickname, one which had its origins in a sudden growth spurt Temple experienced when he was about to turn 13. "His brother used to say, 'He's six times bigger than me,'" Howard explains with a little laugh. "Then that just got shortened to 'Six' and pretty soon his friends were calling the house all the time asking, 'Is Six there? Is Six there?' I'd always say, 'Do you mean Steven?'"
After a few minutes, Howard walks back to the car to warm up. Kimberly and Karen linger by the grave. A lot of stories surrounding Steven's killing have circulated from friends to family members to the news media. And, Karen says, not all of them have been true. For instance, she heard that Steven made a panicked call for help in his final moments. But just as he was about to divulge his whereabouts, so the story goes, the time expired on his cell-phone card and the line went dead. The details of the anecdote never checked out.
If the truth about Steven Temple's final night has sometimes proved elusive, the ironies have stood out in stark relief. Nine white youths are currently awaiting trial in connection with the case, but prosecutors, police, and defense attorneys uniformly maintain that while Temple was black, his murder was not race-related. And even though some familiar with the case have characterized the defendants as wannabes--alienated suburban kids quick to strike the gangsta pose--neither law enforcement (nor Temple's family) allege the killing was a gang act. "I would hesitate to use the word gang, because that has connotations that don't apply here. But this was a group-mentality exercise of violence," contends Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. "We haven't seen a case of this magnitude involving youth and young people in the 23 years I've worked in this office."
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