Alabama woman mourns loss of third son to violence

Published 9:59 pm Sunday, September 11, 2022

Theta Johnson stood outside the yellow crime scene tape with grief written all over her face as she stared at the blood-stained white sheet that covered her son’s body.

Johnson’s son, 32-year-old Rodriquez “Dreke” Powell, and her nephew, 35-year-old Justin Taylor, had just been shot in a hail of gunfire while they sat inside a Ford Mustang in Birmingham.

Taylor was rushed to a hospital where he died shortly after arrival. Powell barely made it out of the car before he was killed on the roadway.

For Johnson, the scene on Sept. 3 was all-too familiar. Powell was her third son to die by violence in the city. Taylor, who was like a son to her, was her second nephew killed in the streets.

Johnson’s faith, she said, it what gets her through the losses.

“I can’t say, ‘Again, Lord?’ No, because I trust God‚‘’ Johnson said the day after the killings. “He loaned them to us. They’re not ours. They’re God’s.’’’

“I love my children, I love my grandchildren, I love my family,’’ she said, “but my trust is in God.”

Johnson’s first son she lost was Jacoba Powell, who was 23 when he was fatally shot by an off-duty Birmingham police officer in 2005.

Police at the time said the officer had seen two men in a confrontation on an outside walkway. Powell had a knife, and the officer called for him to stop and drop it. When he stepped toward the officer, the officer fired a gun and struck Powell.

Eight years later, in 2013, Johnson lost another son when former Tarrant High School football star Emanuel Powell, 22, was fatally stabbed during an argument over money.

His football career ended with his graduation from Tarrant. He since had been working in road construction.

“He was loving and kind-hearted,’’ she said. “He always took care of our mom after our brother passed away. He was just special.”

Johnson took both deaths hard, but the first was the hardest because she said she didn’t have the spiritual strength that she does now.

“When I lost Jacoba, I was saved but I wasn’t into God as I am today. I tried to commit suicide because I didn’t understand,’’ she said. “After that … I was saved.”

“God just shields. The Holy Spirit is a keeper if you want to be kept,’’ she said. “It keeps me. I would be crazy right now if it was me, so I thank the Lord that he covers me with His grace and his mercy.”

The day of the latest killings, Johnson was preparing for a women’s conference that she was going to hold to celebrate her birthday. It was to be a spiritual gathering called “Bad girls, bad girls, what you going to do when the Lord comes for you.”

While in the midst of preparing for that, she said her thoughts suddenly turned to the two sons and one nephew that she had lost.

Her nephew, 39-year-old Rodregous Gurley, was shot to death in Birmingham in 2019. She posted about them on Facebook, calling them her angels.

“The relationships I had with all three of you, words can’t explain,’’ Johnson wrote. “I really, really do miss y’all, the love, joy, calls and the laughter was all genuine.”

“That saying is so true. You don’t miss someone until they’re gone,’’ she wrote. “Just sitting here reminiscing and smiling until we meet again.”

It was just a couple hours later that she would lose another son, and another nephew. She received a phone call telling her they both were dead.

“I couldn’t believe it because they didn’t mess with nobody, they don’t beef with nobody,’’ she said.

Birmingham police Sgt. Monica Law said the victims were inside a Mustang when a small sedan drove by and someone inside opened fire. Crime scene investigators marked roughly 20 shell casings on the roadway.

Law said police received a 911 call reporting multiple people shot. When officers arrived, they found both the driver and the passenger of the parked vehicle shot multiple times.

Dreke Powell worked at Brother’s Recycling and worked earlier Saturday. He and his cousin, Taylor, then went to the mall and were sitting outside Powell’s girlfriend’s house when they were shot.

Her nephew leaves behind five children. Her son leaves behind two, including a 7-year-old daughter who is autistic.

“Dreke was so good with her,’’ Johnson said. “He was a family-oriented man.”

She said she wants them remembered for “their compassion for people, their love and their smiles.”

“I really wish they would put the guns down. I’ve been praying and asking the Lord, ‘How can we reach this generation that they will put down the guns and love one another?’’’ she said. “But I know that there’s less love in the world today.”