CARY — On Sundays, Devon Mitchell trudged along Carpenter Fire Station Road, navigating orange construction cones and thatches of weeds to join hundreds for worship at Crosspointe Church.
Mitchell, 19, went to church in the sun and the rain. When he could get a ride and when he couldn't. Sometimes, his mom and sister joined. Even when they didn't, Mitchell went.
With a similar focus, he walked into a nearby Wachovia bank Feb. 10. He ordered an employee to call police, and he terrified hostages for three hours. Cary police shot Mitchell to death as he emerged from the bank, gripping a hostage tight as he pushed what police thought was a gun to her head.
Mitchell had no gun. Police later described him as troubled, signaling that he may have summoned cops to the bank in the hope that they would kill him, though authorities provided no evidence to support the theory.
In the weeks since, Mitchell has become the face of a menacing element in this otherwise manicured swatch of suburban Cary. Neighbors have grumbled about crime, suggesting that Mitchell's apartment community, catering to low-income residents, brought a seedy element erupting in a recent bank robbery and a 2010 drug-related homicide.
Mitchell's final day, however, capped a private and at times desperate journey, friends said.
"He just wanted a better life ... he wanted more than what we had," said Stackz Washington, 38, a friend at Mitchell's apartment complex, The Grove at Cary Park.
Mitchell hungered for family connections, often turning to a collection of young people at The Grove for the love and support he sometimes struggled to find at home. Though school seemed to be a challenge, he was determined to earn a degree, juggling GED classes at Durham Tech before returning to Panther Creek High School this year. And Mitchell sought religion, talking of deep philosophical issues of faith with friends and sometimes capturing his spiritual questions in rhythms he rapped.
On good days, Mitchell spoke in silly accents and danced in the street wearing his trademark purple sweatshirt. When new neighbors arrived, he helped move their boxes.
"He was a community boy," said Latoya O'Neal, a neighbor in The Grove. "He'd do anything to help."
Mitchell had never been charged with a crime, and his friends say he wasn't violent. More recently, though, Mitchell's load seemed heavy.
At age 19, Mitchell was still trying to pass his freshman year. He fought with his mother, their disagreements sometimes forcing Mitchell to find other places to sleep, several friends said. Occasionally, police came to intervene. Calls for service to their home since 2004 show a smattering of domestic disputes involving his mother, Crystal Walton, her children and other grown-ups at their home.
Mitchell's friends say they missed clues that he was coming undone. They are now repeating conversations from those final days, wishing they had detected trouble and intervened.
He called his friend Samantha Perry two days before he walked into the bank. Perry said his usual buoyancy was gone, and he pressed upon her the importance of living life fully.
"I keep replaying that conversation," said Perry, 18. "What if I'd have thought to ask if he needed help?"
Struggled as a student
Mitchell was the second son born to Walton, then a teenager living in Gary, Ind. Whatever help Mitchell's father offered ended early; friends say he died when Mitchell was a boy.
By 2004, Walton packed up and moved her three children to Cary. What lured them here, 600 miles from a web of family in Indiana, isn't clear.
Mitchell's family settled in western Cary, where apartments and townhome communities have replaced woodlands and farms over the last decade. Developers built thousands of units in the Cary Park area in the first half of the 2000s, including Mitchell's apartment complex, The Grove. The question of how and where to put affordable housing weighed on Cary leaders in the 1990s, and The Grove was part of their answer.
Excelled as a wrestler
Mitchell enrolled in and graduated from West Cary Middle School, and at age 16 started his freshman year at Panther Creek High School. He was muscular and compact, a natural talent for a lower weight class on the wrestling team. At 140 pounds, he would become a standout, once leading his team to a dramatic comeback with an 8-2 victory against an Athens Drive High School opponent in January 2008, according to a story in The Cary News.
But academically, Mitchell wasn't soaring. When he returned to Panther Creek in the fall of 2008, he would be repeating freshman year.
By September's end, he had dropped out of school. Some friends recall him leaving town for a while; Washington, the friend from the apartment complex, thinks he followed a girl to Eastern North Carolina for a stretch of months.
But by spring 2009, he was back in the Triangle giving his education another go. This time, he opted to bypass traditional school. He enrolled in GED classes at Durham Tech in May 2009.
"He'd walk around with his books in his backpack and talk about needing to study," Perry recalled. "He kept asking me to help him study, but we just never found the time."
Washington said money and transportation issues kept Mitchell from completing the GED program.
Mitchell found a job at a Bojangles' in Cary last fall. In January, he enrolled again at Panther Creek High School. His designation: freshman.
Locked out of home
All the while, trouble brewed at home.
The source of tension is not clear, but Mitchell's friends say he and his mother quarreled often.
She set a curfew, which he sometimes broke. When he did, he came home to a locked door and had to find a couch at friends' places. Failing to complete chores often brought the same result, friends say. Mitchell struggled to understand why he wasn't welcome at home, friends said.
"She would still lock him out the house even when he was doing good," said Alex Nazar, 37, a friend at The Grove who said he often let Mitchell stay with him.
Things had been hard for Walton and her family through the years.
She has no criminal history in North Carolina, despite the police's occasional visits involving domestic strife. Once, Walton reported Mitchell as a runaway.
The family was dealt another blow in 2008. In December of that year, a landscaping truck turned into the path of her sedan.
According to a lawsuit she filed last year, Walton's leg was severely fractured, forcing surgery and sidelining her career. Her attorney, Joe Chambliss of Durham, said she had just started working as a real estate broker and was forced to stop working after the wreck.
Reporters' efforts to speak with Walton and her family failed. Leaders at Crosspointe Church said she has chosen to mourn Mitchell privately, and they declined to speak out of respect; the family held a private funeral last week.
Searching for clues
Mitchell's neighbors and friends have sought their own ways to accept his death.
O'Neal, one of the neighbors, invited others to a gazebo last weekend.
In the center of the gazebo, they built a collection of candles, cards and balloons to memorialize his life; they swapped stories about the rhymes Mitchell crafted, and they shared what they knew of his last days.
Some resent that Mitchell didn't reach out to them for help. Others blame themselves for not listening more closely.
Perry is haunted by a conversation she had with Mitchell near the first of the year. He told her he wasn't sure he wanted to be around much longer.
When Perry pressed, she said he assured her that he didn't think he was capable of killing himself. She let it be but wishes she had intervened.
"I didn't pay it the attention I should have," she said.
Perry is left now with a single, frightening image she can't shake.
Again and again, she has watched the video - now posted on YouTube - of Mitchell walking out of the Wachovia, a hostage in his grip.
She watches those agonizing minutes, looking for clues she didn't heed when Mitchell was alive.
Perry notices how slow Mitchell is walking. She can't see the smile that typically spread across his face.
"It just doesn't seem like it could possibly be real," she said.
News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.
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