It was the 4th of August, 2014, when 12-year-old Jamarion Lawhorn took some “little red pills” that he had found in his family’s home in Kentwood, Michigan. He then picked up a knife, put it in his pocket and walked to Pinebrook Village, which was a mobile home community. Here, he entered the playpark.
Over the course of the next several minutes, Jamarion played with nine-year-old Connor Verkerke and his seven-year-old brother, Kameron. As they played together, Connor attempted to climb up a slide but slipped back down and fell to the ground. While on the ground, Jamarion came up behind him and stabbed him several times in the back and arm.
Connor and his younger brother ran back to their home which was located nearby. Connor collapsed on the front porch and neighbours could hear his mother’s screams emanating in the air. His father, Jared, frantically put pressure on his son’s wounds in a bid to stop the bleeding. Connor was rushed to hospital where he was tragically pronounced dead.
Following the stabbing, Jamarion walked to the home of a man who lived near the playpark, 34-year-old Glen Stacy. He asked if he could use his phone to call 911 and calmly stated to the operator: “Hi, I just stabbed somebody. Please pick me up. I want to die. I don’t want to be on this earth anymore. Please pick me up.” As he waited for police to arrive, Jamarion had told Glen that nobody loved him and that he wanted to die. According to Glen, Jamarion was extremely cavalier and the only time he raised his voice was when police arrived at the scene and walked over towards the playground. Jamarion had shouted over to them: “Hello. I’m right here. You’re going the wrong way!”1
A makeshift memorial appeared at the playground at Pinebrook Village. There a large sign which read “Connor is love” along with numerous drawings. There was also a quote from Connor which read: “Mom, I want to do what you do. But not make bouquets, deliver them. Flowers make people happy,” it read.2 Connor’s family would inform the community that before Connor had died, he had told his brother that he would always love him.3
Meanwhile, Jamarion appeared in juvenile court where he pleaded not guilty. It was announced that he would be charged as an adult in the murder. His defence lawyer, Charles Boekeloo, informed the court that he would be seeking a mental health evaluation to determine whether Jamarion was competent to stand trial. According to court documents that were filed, Jamarion had told police that he was “bad and always does stupid things,” adding that he believed that when police arrived on the scene, they would shoot him dead.4 Jamarion had also told police that he often got mocked at school for getting into trouble and said that people frequently called him “dumb” and “black.”
The shocking murder really instilled fear into the community, especially parents, and they would come together to provide support for Connor’s family. A memorial fund would be established to help them pay for the funeral and within 48 hours, it would swell to over $13,000. Meanwhile, a candlelight vigil was held in Pinebrook Village where it was announced that Connor’s funeral would be held on the Wednesday.5
Hundreds of people would flock into Cornerstone Church to pay their final respects to Connor. During the service, he was remembered as a big-hearted and fun-loving boy who was taken from earth far too soon. Pastor Brad Kalajainen told the mourners that Connor’s life had barely just begun when it was stolen from him in an unprovoked attack. His father, Jared, spoke fondly of his son: “I have never known anybody who loved as much as my 9-year-old son.” He recollected some of his interests including dancing, singing, superheroes and the Cub Scouts. In fact, the Scouts had lined the entrance to the church that morning and performed a flag ceremony inside.
Connor’s 7-year-old brother, Kameron, who had witnessed the attack, stood up before the crowd and emotionally stated: “It’s hard to go through this, but he’s in a better place.” His godmother, Laura Roth, said that on the afternoon of the stabbing, Connor’s selfless and kind attitude was displayed when Jamarion had come up to him and asked if he could join in: “Connor welcomed him wholeheartedly,” she said.6 His grandmother, Toni Nunemaker, took a minute to acknowledge that Connor had an amazing life, adding that there were thousands of children out there without a support system and without a stable home environment.
Shortly after the funeral, court documents would reveal that when Jamarion was arrested, it was noticed that he was covered in bruising and that he had lived in “deplorable” conditions. His mother and stepfather were both heavy drug users and child welfare officials had documents allegations against the couple.7 Just the year before, a DHS worker had reported physical abuse of Jamarion at the hands of his mother, Anita Lawhorn, and his stepfather, Bernard Harrod. Nevertheless, Jamarion and his three siblings remained in their care. In 1996, two other children had been surrendered by Anita after allegations of severe physical abuse including unexplained fractures and cigarette burns.8
In addition to the bruising, a gel plasma sample was taken from Jamarion and revealed the presence of the prescription drug, Mirtazepine, an antidepressant, and the sedative anti-nausea medication, Promethazine. Inside the home, police had found drug paraphernalia, which tested positive for cocaine. There were no sheets or bedding on any of the children’s beds and clothes were discarded throughout the home. In fact, utilities in the home had been turned off and there was barely any food. When Jamarion was questioned about the bruising, he blamed his stepfather. Anita and Bernard would be accused of beating Jamarion with a belt and an electrical cord and they would both plead no contest to the charges.9
Following the revelation, Jamarion’s three siblings would be removed from the home and State Sen. Judy Emmons would call a hearing to investigate why the children had not been removed from the home earlier.
An investigation would reveal that the Kent County Department of Human Services did not fully comply with policies and state law when they were interacting with Jamarion’s family back in 2013. CPS workers had substantiated physical abuse of Jamarion at the time and Anita had even told an investigator that she often beat him with a belt. Jamarion himself would tell CPS workers that he was being physically abused by his mother and stepfather. Nevertheless, police were not made aware of the abuse and CPS workers made arrangements for Jamarion to move in with his father in New York. Nevertheless, Jamarion was simply returned to the care of his mother and stepfather.10
Ultimately, two CPS workers would be suspected for “neglect of duty” in their handling of the case. Anita would respond to the abuse charges by claiming that it was Bernard who had abused Jamarion, not her.
In May, a judge would determine that Jamarion was competent to stand trial on the murder charge. As the defence and prosecution were preparing to go to trial, Anita pleaded guilty to welfare fraud and failure to inform. She had defrauded $14,546 from the welfare system and was ordered to pay back $50 a month. Shortly thereafter, Bernard admitted to abusing Jamarion. He stated: “I whooped him with a belt that left marks, sir.” He pleaded guilty to third-degree child abuse.11
On the 1st of September, Jamarion’s murder trial began. Prosecutors would state their theory that Jamarion had planned on stabbing somebody for around a year. They revealed he had hidden the knife in the sandbox at the playground and had taken his shirt off to make sure that he didn’t get blood on it. “He went looking for someone he didn’t know, and that someone turned out to be Connor Verkerke,” said Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Bramble. Defence attorney Charles Boekeloo, on the other hand, stated that his client was the victim of physical abuse at home. He stated: “He had no choice. This was his only way out.”12
It would be revealed during trial that while in a juvenile detention centre, Jamarion had attempted to take his own life. He was given medication for depression. His stepfather would also testify about the abuse he had inflicted on Jamarion, stating: “I didn’t whoop him all the time, only if he did something bad… I left the marks on him.”13
A psychiatrist would be called to testify by the defence; Dr. Priya Roa said that the abuse Jamarion had suffered had harmed his mental health and put him in a “trance-like” state of fear and rage. However, her testimony would be rebuffed by a psychiatrist called by the prosecution. Dr. Susan Tremonti said that Jamarion knew exactly what he was doing and had the thought to hide the knife before unleashing his attack.14
After a three-day trial, the jury would find Jamarion Lawhorn guilty of the murder of Connor Verkerke. He would be sentenced as a juvenile and then resentenced as an adult when he turned 21. Speaking outside court, Connor’s father said: “Prison is the answer,” while his mother said: “This is for Connor.” Shortly after Jamarion was found guilty of murder, his mother would be found guilty of child abuse; she and Bernard were both sentenced to five years’ probation.
In November, it was time for Jamarion to be sentenced for the murder charge. He was sentenced to a detention center with the possibility of release when he turned 21-years-old. “I believe in redemption. I’m not willing to give that up on a 13-year-old boy at this point,” said Judge Paul Denenfeld. Jamarion was given the opportunity to speak and he apologised for his actions. He said: “I’m sorry for all the pain you’re going through. I wanted to die because I thought there was no way out.”15
Jamarion showed tremendous progress at the juvenile detention facility. Connor’s grandmother, Toni, would forgive Jamarion for what he had done and in 2019, she said she would be willing to take him on day trips out of the juvenile detention facility. By this point, Jamarion had shown such progress that he was allowed to leave the facility for eight hours a month. According to councillors, Jamarion had excelled while in the juvenile detention facility and even mentored others entering the facility.16
In March of 2021, just shy of his 19th birthday, Jamarion was released from the juvenile detention facility. In releasing him, the judge stated: “I’m confident you’re going to do great.” He said that Jamarion had done a “magnificent job” in his rehabilitation and had been respectful, productive and clearly recognized the harm he had caused.17The Grand Rapids Press, 1 March, 2021 – “Kent County’s Youngest Killer Impresses Judge”/18
- Long Island Examiner, 6 August, 2014 – “Boy 12 Stabs Boy 9”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 6 August, 2014 – “Connor is Love”
- Associated Press, 7 August, 2014 – “Boy Voiced Love After Playground Attack”
- Associated Press, 8 August, 2014 – “Boy Accused of Murder Wanted to go to Jail”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 8 August, 2014 – “Nearly $13k Raised”
- Associated Press, 13 August, 2013 – “Loved Ones Say Goodbye to Boy Killed at Playground”
- Associated Press, 27 August, 2014 – “12-Year-Old Murder Suspect Badly Bruised”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 29 August, 2014 – “Playground Stabbing Death Prompts Hearing into Actions of State Child Welfare Workers”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 12 October, 2014 – “Court Records”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 13 December, 2014 – “Playground Stabbing Death Leads to Statewide Policy Change”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 30 July, 2015 – “Stepfather of 12-Year-Old Accused Murderer Admits Abusing the Child”
- Associated Press, 1 September, 2015 – “Jurors Hear 911 Call”
- Associated Press, 2 September, 2015 – “Defence Portrays Teen as Deeply Troubled”
- Associated Press, 3 September, 2015 – “Jury Hears Closing Arguments in 13-Year-Old’s Murder Trial”
- Associated Press, 4 November, 2015 – “Teen Who Killed Boy at Playground Could be Free at 21”
- The Grand Rapids Press, 30 June, 2020 – “Kent County’s Youngest Killer Now and Extraordinary Young Man”