Slayings leave families stunned

DURHAM -- Four Triangle families struggled Monday to come to terms with the deaths of their loved ones Saturday night in what police describe as a drug-related robbery.

Family members said the victims, all men in their 20s, had spent the day at an N.C. Central University football game before gathering to hang out at a two-bedroom townhouse in the quiet Breckenridge complex, where two of them lived.

Some parents expressed doubt Monday that their sons were in the drug trade. All had four-year degrees or had attended college. Among their parents are a schoolteacher and a Durham fire marshal. One was the nephew of a retired Durham police captain.

Police have not identified any suspects, though they have released general physical descriptions of three men seen running from the area after the shootings.

Authorities identified the dead as Jonathan Skinner, 26, of Raleigh and Lennis Harris Jr., 24, Lajuan Coleman, 27, and Jamel Holloway, 27, all of Durham. All were said to have been shot in the head, their faces so badly maimed that one had to be identified by a tattoo.

Statewide records checks showed none had ever been charged with dealing drugs or any other serious crime.

Two other men were wounded. A 22-year-old, shot in the face, was in serious condition late Monday at Duke Hospital. Another, who is 26, was taken to the hospital and released. Police said he jumped from a second-story bedroom window to escape the shootings. The wounded men's names were being withheld.

Police Chief Steve Chalmers said in a news conference Monday that gunmen came to 2222 Alpine Road to rob and kill those inside. There was no sign of forced entry, indicating that at least one of the victims might have known the killers.

The Breckenridge development is off Hope Valley Road, not far from some of Durham's most pricey homes. A check of a police database showed no violent crimes in the area over the past two years.

"This was not a random crime, but one that was specifically targeted to these individuals," Chalmers said. "These individuals did not come into that community for any other reason than to rob and murder the individuals they came in contact with."

Family stories

Lennis Harris Jr., identified by police as one of those living at the townhouse, was the son of Lennis Harris Sr., a Durham fire marshal who lives in Wake Forest. His mother, Marsha Harris, lives in Durham's Parkwood neighborhood. She declined to speak with reporters.

Lennis Harris Jr. and Jon Skinner were first cousins said to have been friends since childhood. Skinner grew up in Winston-Salem before moving to northern Raleigh with his parents, Linwood and Claudia Skinner.

Reached at their home, the couple said they were not ready to talk publicly but were emphatic that their son, who lived with them, could not have been a drug dealer. Claudia Skinner is a teacher in the Durham Public Schools.

Jon Skinner was a basketball standout at Winston-Salem's R.J. Reynolds High School, where he graduated in 1997. Harris and Skinner attended St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, though neither was currently enrolled. Harris is the nephew of Sonny Harris, a former captain with the Durham Police Department.

Lajuan Coleman was also identified as a tenant in the Breckenridge townhouse, which neighbors said had been rented only weeks before. The property's owner has moved to Florida.

Coleman graduated from Southern High School in Durham before attending Florida A&M University on a basketball scholarship, family members said. He later graduated from Old Dominion University in Virginia with a degree in biology.

His mother, Sandra Coleman of Durham, said that her son grew up with several of the men who were shot and that "they were all good boys" who loved to play basketball at the Durham YMCA.

She dismissed any speculation that her son would have been involved in the drug trade. He was an avid reader of self-help and motivational books.

"I never thought I'd get a call like this," Sandra Coleman said, her hands trembling as she tried to light a cigarette. "I lost it."

Gloria Washington, a cousin who had raised Jamel Holloway since he was 5, said dealing with the nature of the shooting has been particularly difficult for her.

"Like they were animals," Washington said. "Police asked us, 'Do they have any markings on their bodies to identify them by?' "

Holloway was a 1997 graduate and three-sport athlete at Durham's Hillside High School before receiving a degree in sports medicine from Livingstone College in Salisbury. He was a volunteer wrestling coach at Hillside and worked nights at a Durham group home.

Washington said he often bought clothes and paid for haircuts for needy children. She also doubted that he was involved with selling drugs.

"If Jamel worked two jobs and he was volunteering his time, there was no way in the world," she said Monday. "I can't see it."

Forensic investigators from the State Bureau of Investigation continued to comb through the townhouse Monday in what Chalmers, the police chief, described as a "very, very slow, thorough and meticulous process." Yellow crime-scene tape still surrounded the beige townhouse, as well as seven cars parked out front.

One of the vehicles had a license plate identifying the owner as an alumnus of Winston-Salem State University. Another had what appeared to be a faded student parking pass from Appalachian State University.

Chalmers said his detectives had several strong leads, but he would not give specifics.

Could be capital case

District Attorney Mike Nifong said he could seek the death penalty against those responsible.

"It sounds to me like it would be a death penalty case, just based on the fact that you have four people that are killed execution-style," Nifong said.

Durham had the highest murder rate per capita of any large North Carolina city in 2004, according to FBI crime data. The quadruple killing makes a total of 33 homicides within the city limits in 2005, exceeding last year's total of 30 with six weeks left. Three other killings have occurred in unincorporated areas of Durham County.

City leaders stressed that many of those killings involved drugs and street gangs, and that law-abiding residents should feel safe.

"We're not giving up or giving the streets of Durham to the criminals," Chalmers said. "We do have innocent victims, but again, this particular crime certainly involved people who were involved in a certain type of activity that would bring this type of activity to their doorsteps. ... They didn't go next door. They didn't go to the next building."

Officers were in the neighborhood Monday evening to glean more information.

"This is an ongoing investigation with information coming in constantly," said a handbill they distributed. "This violent act was an isolated incident and not indicative of your neighborhood."

(News researchers Denise Jones, Brooke Cain and Susan Ebbs contributed to this report.)

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