A rocky road led Walter Preston to Franklin Street, where he was fatally stabbed April 3, friends said.
His family is too broken up to talk, said friend Samantha Stone, but they want everyone to know he had a home, people who loved him and a spirit that remained positive.
“Even through (times when) life beat him down, that boy would have a smile on his face,” Stone said.
Charles Anthony Rhames, 25, formerly of Fayetteville, has been charged with Preston’s murder and is in the Orange County Jail. His family has asked for a psychiatric evaluation, saying he may have stopped taking his prescribed medication.
Preston, 27, was a native of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., but moved around the state while growing up. He ran into troubles as a teen, friends said. Police records show misdemeanor charges for larceny and drug possession.
Stone met Preston when his family settled in Englewood, on Florida’s west coast, and they worked together in a local doughnut shop. He loved music, she said, and would start rapping spontaneously. He was a loyal friend who really enjoyed being outdoors, she said.
“We fished and worked,” Stone said. “We just hung out countless nights, just talking.”
He also loved traveling, she said, making friends everywhere he went. He had decided Chapel Hill was where he wanted to stay, she said.
Preston lived in a hotel for a while and worked construction jobs, Stone said. He met his girlfriend while they were both in Florida, she said, and they eventually moved in with her family in Moncure in Chatham County. They talked about starting their own family, she said.
Preston and his girlfriend Liza had a son in 2012, according to a March 2013 obituary for the child in The Sanford Herald. Blade Maverick Preston was just 7 months old when he died. The obituary also includes the child’s half-brother in Florida among the survivors.
Stone declined to talk about Preston’s children.
Dan Hepp, who met the couple at Estes Park Apartments in Carrboro, said the baby’s death hit Preston hard.
An autopsy reports Preston had multiple tattoos, including one on his neck that read “RIP Blade.” He created a Facebook page in his son’s name, posting photos and memories.
Preston briefly left his girlfriend in 2013, staying with Stone until the couple reconciled. Preston, when he died, was looking regularly for jobs and housing, according to officials at the local nonprofit Community Empowerment Fund.
The couple would hang out in Chapel Hill, Hepp said. If they had a fight, Preston might come alone, he said, and Liza would follow to talk it out.
Preston had a quick temper, especially if he was drinking, Hepp said. It wasn’t his first run-in with Rhames, he said.
“We knew (something) was going to happen eventually,” Hepp said, but he didn’t believe it when Liza showed up the next day and said Preston was dead. His friends got together later and signed a shirt in his memory, he said. It’s framed on his apartment wall.
“He was a really good friend of mind,” Hepp said. “We all really loved him very much around here and really miss him a lot.”
Witnesses, the U.S. Marshals Service reported, said the men were arguing that night when Rhames reached into his backpack and pulled out a knife, according to an autopsy report, stabbing Preston in the heart.
The report states Preston “stumbled a few yards and then collapsed.” Emergency workers found him near University Presbyterian Church at 209 E. Franklin St. and rushed him to UNC Hospitals. He died in the emergency room.
Rhames, who fled, was arrested the next day in Carrboro. His next court hearing is May 26, and if convicted of first-degree murder, he could face the death penalty or life in prison.
Preston’s mother Patty Crystal and sisters, Casey and Eileen, took his ashes home to Florida, Stone said. They know Rhames’ family is grieving, she said, but he is still in their lives. Preston’s family only has questions, she said.
“It was a senseless, careless, inconsiderate and thoughtless thing that one man did to another man,” she said.