Not long after 18-year-old Kennedy Hobbs received her diploma from Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, on Tuesday, she and a few friends drove out to the grave of her boyfriend, Jaquan Williams, who’d been shot and killed eight weeks earlier.
Jaquan, whom the teenager had dated for over two years, had been on her mind all week, and after the ceremony, she made an Instagram post of herself grinning in her blue cap and sash and captioned it: “I DID IT QUAN,” Williams’ nickname. Then, friends told The Daily Beast, she took the sash and laid it at his grave, a way of dedicating the milestone to her lost love.
“He always motivated her,” Tammara Carr, Williams’ mother, told The Daily Beast. “So I think she felt in a way like she was [graduating] for him. She really struggled after his death, and this was important for her.”
But hours later, Hobbs would be shot and killed herself in an apparently unrelated but eerily similar murder at a local gas station. Like her boyfriend, she became a victim of the surge in gun violence that has plagued Jackson, and much of America, especially over the past year.
“I’ve never been in this situation before. Jaquan was my first time losing someone this way,” Carr told The Daily Beast. “And not only did I lose my son, but now I feel like I also lost a daughter.”
“It’s too much.”
In 2020, 128 people were murdered in Jackson, the highest number in the city’s history and a 50 percent increase from 2019, giving Jackson the dubious distinction of having the second-highest homicide rate in the country, according to a local news analysis.
But Jackson is no outlier. Last year, nearly 20,000 Americans were murdered, according to preliminary FBI data, a 25 percent increase over 2019. In the 34 largest cities in the U.S., homicides rose a total of 30 percent over the year before. And the effect appears to be lingering. Hobbs’ murder was Jackson’s 57th this year, roughly in line with where the city was this time last year, according to a spokesperson for the Jackson Police Department.
“The question is, are we going to see rates of homicide this coming summer that rival those of last summer? My sense is that we will not, but how far off is anyone’s guess,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist with the University of Missouri. “It’s distressing that we’ve already seen an uptick in homicide in the first quarter compared to last year.”
On a large scale, these extra homicides account for less than 1 percent of the approximately 650,000 excess deaths the United States experienced during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
But for Hobbs’ and Williams’ family and friends, the effects have been indescribably painful.
“We were all close, so it’s been hard. It’s been really hard on all of us” said Keshawn Burns, 20, a friend of both Hobbs and Williams. On Wednesday, after he heard about Kennedy’s murder, Burns got a tattoo of a large red broken heart on his shoulder, along with Kennedy’s and Jaquan’s names.
“I got it out of the heartbreak this situation brung me and for the blood they shed,” he told The Daily Beast.
Hobbs was vibrant and funny, a good student whose mother is a popular teacher at the same school she attended, her friends said.
“Kennedy loved to party,” another friend who went to school with Hobbs from sixth grade through graduation told The Daily Beast. “I remember when we were sitting in class and it was extremely quiet and she’ll just bust out with a noise [to] make everyone laugh.”
Hobbs was an only child and incredibly close with her mother, Lashanda Jennings-Hobbs. Several of Hobbs’ students said that she doted on Kennedy and often talked about her during class.
“Kennedy always came to visit the class,” said Maisie Brown, 19, who graduated from Murrah last year. “They were extremely close, got their hair and nails done together. I mean, they hung out like the best of friends.”
Jennings-Hobbs did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Williams, meanwhile, had four half-sisters and two half-brothers through his dad, plus a brother and sister on his mom’s side. Carr said that being around all those girls rubbed off on him.
“He knew how to be sweet. He was a mama’s boy, always protective of me,” she told The Daily Beast.
Williams and Hobbs became friends during her freshman year and, Burns said, by sophomore year, they were dating. Williams, who had just turned 21 when he was killed, had considered dropping out of high school, but Hobbs encouraged him to stay and graduate.
“School, that was important to Kennedy,” Burns said. “They were always talking marriage, kids, you know.”
Around 1 p.m. on April 8, Williams stopped by a local convenience store. In the parking lot, he got into an altercation, and eventually Williams decided to drive away, according to police. But as he put the car into reverse, his assailant came around and shot him multiple times through the drivers’ side window.
“Right as he was leaving he shot my baby in the car,” Carr said.
Although the incident happened in broad daylight with several bystanders, no arrests have been made and the police don’t have significant leads, according to Sam Brown, the public information officer for the Jackson Police Department. Carr told The Daily Beast she was frustrated by the investigation and felt the police had largely given up. But Brown said JPD had had very little information to go on.
“It’s not cold. It’s not. They’re still investigating, and of course, you can have 20 witnesses, but when you ask them, nobody saw anything,” Brown said, with a laugh. “That’s the problem investigators run into every day. They'll tell everything they saw to anybody but the police.”
Although the police have not yet zeroed in on a suspect, Brown told The Daily Beast that 80 percent of murders in Jackson are committed by people who know the victim, so it was likely Williams knew his assailant “in some way or fashion.”
Rosenfeld told The Daily Beast that several factors have likely contributed to the surge in homicides across the United States. The coronavirus shutdown forced people out of work and school, both major stressors, and keeping people home means people are spending more time around each other.
And while murder rates had begun to tick up in several cities at the start of the pandemic—and had, in fact, shown signs of rising for years before that—they surged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, according to Rosenfeld.
“We tend to see rises in interpersonal violence during periods of social unrest, especially social unrest directed at police and police violence,” he said. “Now, is that because the police pull back or is that because the community is even further alienated and less likely to call police to intervene? It’s probably both, but the question is, is it closer to one pole of that debate or another?”
Much like the coronavirus pandemic itself, this violence has disproportionately hurt communities of color. Jackson, where homicides rose 50 percent over the last year, is 82 percent Black. And a study of nine major U.S. cities by the Marshall Project found that more than 85 percent of the increase in homicides last year took place in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, where homicide rates were already higher than in white ones.
Williams’ murder shook his family and friends after an unbearable year—perhaps Hobbs most of all. “It affected her tremendously,” Carr told The Daily Beast. “She couldn’t eat. It messed with her real bad.”
But in the last few weeks, the teenager had started to move forward. Graduation was a victory, Carr said, not just academically, but emotionally, a way to prove that she was moving ahead with her life.
“Just never in a million years would I have thought this would happen to Kennedy too,” Burns added. “She was doing good. She was smart.”
It wasn’t enough to save her life.
A little before 11 p.m. on June 1, as she headed to a graduation party, Hobbs stopped for gas at a Texaco station off Medgar Evers Blvd. Details on what happened next are few because surveillance cameras apparently weren’t working that night. Police interviewed five witnesses, but they’re still trying to locate another one. Still, Brown told The Daily Beast, it’s likely Hobbs, who was shot multiple times and pronounced dead at the scene, was killed because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Although the circumstances of her death bear an eerie resemblance to Williams’, Brown said police have not indicated whether Hobbs knew her killer and it’s unlikely that the incidents were somehow related.
For those close to Hobbs and Williams, the horror was truly unthinkable. It is still.
“Kennedy and Jaquan were two loving, beautiful, spirited people who [got] along with anybody they came in contact with. Both were smart, genuine, and outgoing. It wasn’t nothing that you could ask for and they wouldn’t come through for you,” Burns said.
“I just want everyone to know they’ll be missed. They’ll really truly be missed.”