LAKE CITY, S.C. -- Photos of a peewee football player flashed across a slideshow. The image of a smiling young man adorned memorial T-shirts. But the body of the American gunned down three weeks ago by the Gulf cartel in Mexico was kept shielded from funeral-goers.
Over 100 people gathered Saturday to remember Shaeed Woodard at the first funeral service for the two people killed in the attack in the border town of Matamoros. The sendoff came at the end of a month that should have featured birthday celebrations for the man slain just days before he turned 34 during a tightknit group's road trip to help Woodard's cousin get cosmetic surgery.
Instead, friends and family shuffled across the maroon carpeting of Good News Deliverance Temple on an overcast afternoon in Lake City, South Carolina. The 6,000-person town was thrust into the international spotlight in early March when Woodard and three friends with ties to the area were attacked over 1,400 miles away.
On March 2, just a few miles across the border, a vehicle crashed into the group's van as they made their way to a medical appointment for Latavia McGee. Several men with tactical vests and assault rifles surrounded them and shots rang out.
Woodard and Zindell Brown died; McGee and Eric Williams survived.
The cartel’s Scorpions faction apologized in a letter obtained by The Associated Press through a Tamaulipas state law enforcement official.
At the funeral, spiritual leaders rejected vengeful thinking.
“We are asking you to give us a clean heart. Because no cartel, no demon, no evil spirit, no hellmaker, no one... We won’t seek retribution,” Minister Dearest Price said. “But, Lord, we ask you to deliver us from evil.”
There, Nisheeka Simmons read a letter poem for her cousin whose “untimely departure” brought everyone together “in solidarity.” She recalled his sweet nature, strength of mind, and the safety others felt around him.
A handout featured another poem suggesting Woodard “wanted to celebrate this birthday far different from before” with music, laughter and jokes “out on the open road.”
“If any of you knew the outcome, you would have cautioned me to stay,” the poem continued. “But those plans were of my Master and could not be delayed.”
The day contained mixed emotions.
Pastor Hugh Samuels shared words of consolation for the family shocked by the sudden loss of Woodard and heartened by the return of his cousin, McGee, who survived the brutal kidnappings. A reading from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes reminded attendees that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh” and “a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
Hands clapped and voices rang out during powerful medleys of songs.
Samuels thanked God for bringing people together in Woodard's death, which he said should remind people of the future's uncertainty.
“Brother Shaeed and three others went to Mexico. But the Son of Man called Brother Shaeed down,” Samuels said. “We are not promised to walk out of this place today. You don't know when God is going to call your name.”
State Cemetery marked the final resting place for Woodard, whose body had been handed over to U.S. authorities on March 9 after crossing the international bridge to Brownsville, Texas.
Since then, the Woodards have received an outpouring of support, said Colin Ram, an attorney for the family. Local officials' sympathy cards were read at the funeral. A nearby activist network promised to raise money. Ram pledged to guide them through the injustice's fallout.
“Make no mistake, what happened in Mexico was an act of terrorism that affected the lives of four Americans, of four South Carolinians,” Ram told The Associated Press.
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.