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GRAND RAPIDS (Detroit Free Press) -- Minutes before the stabbing, Kelsey Beukema stood by her car, looking at three boys walking to the playground.

There was nothing unusual about that. Children go to the small playground all day long in Pinebrook Village, a clean, well-kept mobile home park in Kentwood, on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. Most of the time, the kids play in the sand, go down the slide, hang out on the jungle gym or have squirt-gun fights. Normal kid stuff.

It was just after supper on Monday night, and she knew two of the boys: 9-year-old Michael Connor Verkerke and his younger brother, Cameron, 7.

The third boy was walking with a bike.

Beukema had never seen the third boy before, and she said that he had a strange, "angry" expression.

"I saw the kid who did the stabbing, and he had this look on his face that was really creepy," Buekema said. "The only way that I can describe the look on his face is when you see a cheetah that is getting ready to pounce."

She paused, standing by her car, looking at the boys.

"I probably stared at him for a good four seconds," she said. "I was like, he doesn't belong here. He doesn't live in this park. I've never seen him before."

A thought popped into her head: Maybe the third boy had just moved in. Families come and go all the time in this area. The park has 185 homes — some are owned by residents and others are rented, starting at $436 a month.

"Cameron, one of the brothers, was kind of teasing (the boy with the bike)," Beukema said. "He was walking and kind of turning around. That's natural for the boys to do. They do it all day long."

She didn't think that it looked like a fight, just natural boy stuff. A little kid teasing an older kid.

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RELATED: Boy, 12, charged as adult with murder in fatal stabbing of 9-year-old

She didn't see a knife. But she saw something else in the third boy. "I saw something weird in his eyes," she said.

Beukema got into her car and drove to her sister's house.

A few minutes later, Connor Verkerke was stabbed repeatedly "for an unknown reason," according to Kentwood Police.

Police said Connor ran back to his residence, where he collapsed on the porch. Neighbors said his younger brother helped carry Connor from the park, and there were drops of blood down the road.

Connor Verkerke was transported to a local hospital, where he died.

Kentwood Police said the suspect left the playground, went to a nearby residence and asked to use the phone. He called police to turn himself in.

The accused assailant, 12-year-old Jamarion Lawhorn, has been charged with murder. Lawhorn pleaded not guilty Tuesday afternoon in Kent County Family Court. The Free Press is identifying the minor because he is being charged as an adult.

"It's not this community in general," Beukema said. "We don't expect that."

Is it video games?
Late Tuesday night, Beukema stood on the road outside her home, talking to several neighbors.

One of the neighbors was looking at his cell phone, reading stories about the murder on the Internet, and he found Jamarion's picture posted online.

"Yeah, that's him," Beukema said, looking at the photo.

"It says he's the youngest child ever to be charged with murder in Kent County," said the neighbor, who asked not to be identified.

How can a child kill a child on a playground? Is it video games? Parenting? All the violence seen on TV shows and movies?

The neighbors stood in the road, staring into the darkness, trying to make sense of something that seemed so unthinkable, raising questions and issues that will probably be raised in courtrooms and on talk shows in the days to come.

One neighbor suggested it is the economy, as parents have to work longer hours and don't have time to parent.

"They are not loving them the way they are supposed to, either," Beukema said.

Can a 12-year-old realize right from wrong?

What if there was some kind of mental problem?

The preliminary examination is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug.13. A competency hearing will be scheduled soon, according to police.

"When I was 12, I knew murder was wrong," Beukema said. "You know murder is wrong when you are 12."

One of the rumors going around the mobile home park was that Jamarion had prepared for the attack, burying a knife in the sand before he went looking for Connor, although facts are still murky and conflicting.

No matter what happened, Beukema does not believe that the boys had a prior history or relationship.

"I don't think they knew each other at all," Beukema said. "He was never in this park."

A 'doll' of a kid
The neighbors stayed out in the street. Nobody was in the mood to go to bed. Nobody could sleep, anyway.

The murder had become national news because of the ages involved. Jamarion is not the youngest person to be charged with murder in the state of Michigan. Nathaniel Abraham, at the age of 11, was the youngest person in Michigan to be tried as an adult for first-degree murder in 1997.

Abraham fatally shot 18-year-old Ronnie Greene of Pontiac in October 1997. Abraham was convicted in November 1999 and sentenced to juvenile detention. He was released the day before his 21st birthday in January 2007.

Still, it is rare. When a child is charged as an adult, it naturally becomes big news.

The neighbors were already sick of the media attention. They chased two TV crews out of the park, and now those crews were set up on the other side of the road, waiting for a live shot.

Neighbors describe Connor as a "doll" of a kid. He wasn't a troublemaker. "The two brothers used to play in my son's pool on our deck," Beukema said.

This is a mobile home park where the kids have always felt safe. The only real concern, for most of the parents, was a child getting hit by a car. "We moved here because we liked the park," Beukema said, "and we liked the area."

Late Tuesday night, five neighbors walked over to the playground. It was dark, so they turned their cell phones into flashlight mode.

About 30 hours after the stabbing, the police tape was taken down, and there was no memorial to be found. A park worker didn't want a memorial site to be started here because two other boys had witnessed the stabbing and she didn't want it to be a constant reminder.

Beukema bent down and picked up some of her son's plastic toys, still stuck in the sand.

At a place where somebody was stabbed.

And none of it made any sense.

No warning signs
It didn't make sense to those who know Jamarion Lawhorn either.

He lived in a working-class neighborhood of mostly modest one-story homes across from the mobile home park.

Twelve-year-old Gavin Jackson-Merritt has known Jamarion for about a year. Every other day, they would ride bikes up and down the street about a half-mile from where Connor was stabbed, but they never went all the way to the mobile home park together.

"He's just cool," Gavin said. "We played basketball sometimes."

Gavin never saw Jamarion get angry or do drugs or do anything violent. "He doesn't really get angry," Gavin said. "If we did have a problem, he was like, all right, he wouldn't get angry. We'd talk and work it out."

Several Kentwood Police officers canvased the neighborhood on Wednesday, talking to people who knew Jamarion. "I told the police the same thing," said Gavin's father, Jermaine Merritt, 36. "I've seen him, but he's a real quiet guy. I would never picture stuff like this. Always quiet. It's tripping me out. I don't get it."

Cheri Theriault has known the accused boy for two years. He would stop by her house and play baseball or soccer with her children in the front yard. She described him as polite, well-mannered and got along well with others.

"He was very respectful, never had an issue, played with the other kids," Theriault said. "I saw his picture this morning, and I was devastated. He was always a good kid. He was friendly; he'd smile and wave and call the kids by name."

Theriault runs a day care center out of her home, less than a half-mile from where the stabbing happened. She has worked with children for 14 years and never saw any warning signs in Jamarion. "He'd stop by with his siblings and play and have a snack with us," she said. "I don't understand it."

Theriault never saw any signs of drug use by Jamarion. "Not out of the parents either," she said. "They were always nice, called me by name."

One thing was bothering her, though. Theriault read on Facebook that some people are blaming his parents. "I met his mom and dad at the bus stop," she said. "I take my kids to the bus stop. I'm overprotective that way and they would (be), too. It's not like he was a loner kid. The dad was there; the mom was there.

"He was a good kid."

The greatest superhero
On Wednesday morning, somebody put up a poster at the playground. They wrote descriptions of Connor along the edge: "Funny. Reading. Wise beyond his years. Open minded. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Joy. Kind. Witness. Camping."

Diane Little, 53, walked up to the poster and paused, her eyes filled with tears.

"He was just a little boy," said Little, who lived two doors down from Connor. "He'd dress up in Halloween stuff. He was the happiest, go-lucky boy you've ever seen. He'd be Batman one day, Superman the next. He'd wear a cape, and he was riding his bike."

Little wrote on the poster: "Connor, you will always be my Superhero."

"That's what he was to everybody in the park," Little said, crying. "He was the greatest little superhero in the park."

'That's a community'
Several hundred people gathered for a candlelight vigil on Wednesday night.

Family. Friends. Neighbors. And several Cub Scouts because Cameron was a member.

As everybody lit candles, Jim Sterns spoke for the family.

"I've talked with all the boys, Cameron especially," said Stearns, 49, of Ann Arbor, who is the paternal great uncle of Connor's mother. "He's in good spirts, but it's difficult. He wants to say to all of his friends here, thank you for coming. And he appreciates it. Hopefully, one day soon, we can play in the neighborhood, with our spirits held high and our hearts open."

Stearns said that Cameron is a hero for helping his injured brother get home from the playground.

"His brother got him back to his house, that's a hero," Stearns said. "Everybody was trying to get Band-Aids to help; that's a hero. That's love. That's a community. Just remember that Connor was all about love."

Stearns said that Connor had one last message for his brother, Cameron: "Remember, he turned to his brother, and I want you all to remember this, and he said, 'If anything happens, it's not your fault. I'll love you forever.' "

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com . Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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