Family and friends will remember Malik Brown Burnette as a young man who was always smiling, happy and respectful of others.
“He was lovable, quiet, with a big, big, big smile,” his aunt Lillie Burnette said. “All his pictures spoke for him. That was Malik.”
Although born in Wake County, Brown Burnette grew up in Chapel Hill. Ann Booterbaugh met him while working as a substitute teacher at Phillips Middle School. He became friends with her son, she said, and made himself at home with the family, helping himself to snacks and joining them for trips to the lake.
Brown Burnette was a natural lacrosse player, who loved to spend hours fishing, Booterbaugh said. But he never knew what to do once he caught the fish, she said, laughing at the memory of having to remove the hook for him and return the fish to water.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The family saw less of Brown Burnette when Booterbaugh’s son started at East Chapel Hill High School. Brown Burnette’s grandmother Mary Lee Brown adopted him, and he moved into her Rainbow Heights apartment in the Chapel Hill High district.
Brown Burnette’s immediate family could not be reached for this story. His mother Gloria Brown and sister LaKesha Brown live in Graham, his obituary stated. His brothers – Fresh Burnette, Rashad Harris and Rakhid Byrd – live in Durham and Chapel Hill.
His father Reginald F. Burnette preceded him in death.
Pastor Thurman Hines got to know Brown Burnette when he attended Refresh Life Ministries services formerly held at Phillips. He also remembers a mature young man with a bright smile, which is why they didn’t worry when Brown Burnette stopped coming to services. They thought he had returned to his family’s home church, First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill.
“We thought everything was OK with him, and it never dawned on us that he was someone we had to worry about,” Hines said.
Hines and other friends hinted at the possibility of personal or family issues, but it’s unclear what hurdles he faced. Brown Burnette enrolled at Phoenix Academy last year and moved from his grandmother’s home to the Adelaide Walters Street apartment where his friend Tanner Cobb lived. Records show he was accused in April of selling a fake iPhone for $300 and charged with felony obtaining property by false pretenses.
Deontae Neal, a friend since middle school who lives near the Cobbs, reconnected with Brown Burnett last year. Their small group of friends hung out, playing video games or shooting hoops, he said. Sometimes, they smoked marijuana, he said, but Brown Burnette tried to avoid “drama.”
“He was a really smart kid. A lot of people thought he was a hood rat, because he’s got grills, and he’s got a chain and watch, and he’s got a lot of money and stuff,” Neal said. “You could still sit down with Malik, and you could actually have a conversation with him.”
DeLaine Ingram last talked with her grandson on July 24, when he told her he had done the work at Phoenix but ran into a problem qualifying for his diploma. He was planning to retake some classes and finish up next year at Durham Tech, she said.
He was working for Food Lion and had a second job at Waffle House on East Franklin Street.
“He was very smart and extremely intelligent,” Phoenix Principal John Williams said. “I would venture to say that he had potential, if (he was not) the naturally smartest, gifted child in the school. He was just that intelligent.”
Nikkima Santos only met Brown Burnette a few times, but her son Infinite Taylor hung out with him daily, she said. Brown Burnette was saving money to get his own apartment, she said.
Brown Burnette and Cobb were shot late at night July 26 on Jackie Robinson Street, just steps from home.
Neal heard the shots and ran outside to find his friend on the ground, bullet holes in his head and back. He helped James Cobb start CPR and keep pressure on the wounds until help arrived, he said. Brown Burnette died at UNC Hospitals.
Cobb was treated for a gunshot wound to his arm and released. He and James Cobb were among the casket bearers when Brown Burnette was buried Tuesday in Carrboro’s Westwood Cemetery.
Police arrested five people in what they called a drug deal gone wrong.
Denzel Spikes, 23, Laquida Poston, 26, and Renaire Lewis II, 22, all of Shelby; Thomas Oliver, 30, of Gastonia; and Jalen Hackney, 18, of Burlington, face charges that include first-degree murder, attempted murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon.
The shooting stunned friends, who insist Brown Burnette was not a drug dealer. Hines said thinks Brown Burnette may have “stumbled into it because he had a desire to help his family” and his own financial challenges.
They want people to remember Malik was special, Booterbaugh said.
“He wasn’t a bad person. He made a bad choice, like everybody does, every adult does, but it doesn’t mean he deserved ...” she said, her words trailing off. “I believe in second chances, and third chances. ... There was more to him.”
The loss also hurt her family deeply, Santos said, but inspired her to press forward with Malik’s Village. She had been considering for some time how to start a program that would give the community’s older teens more positive ways to spend their time.
Malik’s Village could offer classes to teens five days a week, from photography and video to investigative journalism and home economics, plus outings, resources and support for people of all ages, she said. She hopes to work in concert with UNC, community leaders and the police.
Hines said the experience taught him “to be more sensitive and really check in on these young people when I have an opportunity to share, because you just never know what’s going to go on with teenagers these days.”
It would be good if her grandson’s life brings a positive change for other children, Ingram said. She brushed aside questions about mistakes he may have made.
That’s not important, Ingram said, putting down okra she was cutting for dinner and turning sternly around to make her point. The good things are the only important things now, she said.
“Just know that he was a wonderful child, and he was gone too soon,” she said.
James Cobb has set up a youcaring.com fund to cover Malik Brown Burnette’s funeral expenses and Tanner Cobb’s medical care. Donations can be directed to bit.ly/2av4Mjw.