Ervin Coley III had a natural curiosity, and a curious favorite animal: Earthworms, the slimy invertebrates that burrow into the soil, enhancing its richness with organic matter.
Coley would gently handle the tiny worms, one at a time, and place them in patches of soil that he hoped to improve.
“We called Ervin the ‘Worm Man,’” remembered a tearful Iyalode Kinney, Coley’s manager and mentor on the North Richmond Lots of Crops project, where Coley worked since December, “because when he first came out, and I taught him about what purpose the worms served, he just loved that philosophy of enriching the ground so more life would come out of it.”
Coley had found something of a calling in his work as a gardener in North Richmond, friends and family say. He had put in a day of work on March 29.
That evening he was killed.
More than 500 people filled Hilltop Community Church on Thursday to mourn Coley, 21, a lifelong North Richmond resident who was killed by a hail of bullets on March 29 while walking near the corner of Silver Avenue and Second Street.
Many people wore t-shirts with Coley’s smiling faced embossed on the front and back. Coley’s mother, father, and 5-year-old brother sat up front in the two-story worship hall. Several of the neighborhood’s most prominent religious figures attended.
“I am just getting hit with mixed emotions here,” said Jelani Moses, 30, Coley’s co-worker on the community gardening program. “I know we’re here to celebrate Ervin’s life and remember how beautiful he was, but this hurts real bad. Ervin was young and had it all ahead him and it all just got destroyed … totally senseless.”
Coley’s death was the first homicide in the tiny neighborhood of unincorporated North Richmond since May, 2010, but was part of a spate of crime that rocked the neighborhood with three shootings in three days. One night later, Jerry Owens, 22, was shot and killed less than two blocks away.
No one has been arrested in connection with either killing.
Police and neighbors have speculated that the deadly violence has origins in a simmering feud between rival neighborhood gangs in Central Richmond and North Richmond. Among the casualties were central Richmond native Joshua McClain, who was shot and killed in San Francisco; and Coley and Owens. Two other men were shot and wounded during the chaotic 72-hour period.
Friends and family have maintained that Coley was not an intended victim. “They come through, and they were just looking for a target,” said Saleem Bey, who supervised Coley in the gardening program.
Police have said that retaliation attacks between the neighborhoods have been known to target any young man found on the street at a given moment, and that the victims do not necessarily have ties to gang activity.
The service Thursday was a mix of laughs and celebration—thanks mostly to a slideshow featuring pictures of Coley’s irrepressible smile—and solemn reflection.
Bey told the crowd that North Richmond is under siege, and that despite glimmers of hope, violent crime continues to decimate the community.
“This young man was part of the positive change that was occurring in North Richmond,” Bey said. “I can’t tell you how much it hurts to see someone who had such a future get cut down like this.”
Before the spate of shootings, North Richmond seemed to enjoy a sustained period of calm. A one-square mile unincorporated community of about 3,000 people, North Richmond has the lowest per capita median income in Contra Costa County, according to Census data. Crime rates remain down from recent years, according to Sheriff’s Department statistics, but there is new unease about the prospect of future violence.
Several people in attendance Thursday expressed concern about the potential for retaliatory violence, given the raw emotions and the assemblage of so many hundreds of people for the service, many in their teens and 20s.
“We just have to do our best and hope that things don’t flare up again these next few nights,” said Joe McCoy, a longtime North Richmond resident who works for the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, a crime intervention program.
Coley was born in San Pablo in 1990, but his family’s roots in North Richmond run deep. As a young child, Coley spent periods living with a great-grandmother on Sanford Avenue. He attended the local elementary school, and later graduated from high school, an event featured in a slew of photographs during a slideshow commemorating his life.
In recent years, he lived mostly with his mother, Mariecelle Lowery, 37, and his baby brother in a unit in the Las Deltas Public housing project.
In December, he was hired as a community gardener in the Lot of Crops program, an initiative funded with money that comes from a nearby county landfill to mitigate economic and environmental impacts from the waste disposal. The job gave Coley a jolt of confidence and hope. During an interview in February, Coley enthusiastically told reporters how fulfilling it was to work to better his community.
“He wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I don’t know—can you teach me?’” Kinney said. “He was so open and so eager to learn, he was a sponge.”
After the services, Coley was buried at Rolling Hills Memorial Park in El Sobrante.
Kinney said Coley will be commemorated for his work in the neighborhood where he lived all of his 21 years. The day before his death, Coley worked at North Richmond’s newest garden, which he helped build in a vacant lot on Vernon Street. On April 23, his co-workers will dedicate the garden to Coley, with a yet-to-be-determined symbol honoring him.
“That garden will be a special place that will honor Ervin and symbolize the healing and growth of the community that he was a part of,” Kinney said.
For more on North Richmond and the loss of Ervin Coley III, you can visit Richmond Pulse, which also helps provide diverse and vigorous media coverage for the benefit of the Richmond community. Read a commentary on Coley’s death, and analysis of the larger implications.