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The Korper kids face unthinkable tragedy, the murder of a beloved young friend: A Greater Cleveland

December 6, 2018

The Korper kids face unthinkable tragedy, the murder of a beloved young friend: A Greater Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Watching children grieve for a young friend killed by gun violence feels wholly unnatural -- their innocence breached by the brutality of the crime, the unthinkable details and the suddenly stolen kinship.

The four Korper children slowly, silently walk through the crowded church, their eyes still wide with disbelief eight days after the news. It is as if each of them is a fragile paper boat, set adrift on a turbulent lake. They’re not made for this kind of thing, one thinks, watching them approach the caskets of their lifelong friend, 14-year-old Paris Bradley, and her father, Paul.

Police discovered bodies of the father and daughter on Oct. 10, burned beyond recognition in the trunk of a car in a vacant East Cleveland lot. Investigators believe armed burglars pulled Paris and Paul from their beds and ransacked Paul’s Bedford house, looking for things to steal. Then, both were tortured and Paris was shot in the back of the head, while her father was still alive. (Police have arrested three suspects and are searching for a fourth.)

The Korper kids had just seen Paris two days earlier. Bubbly, sweet, gracious Paris, who loved fashion and new hairstyles and dancing and selfies.

“You’re making that up. That can’t be true,” 12-year-old Queen Ona had told her mother, Contessa, when she broke the news to the children that Paris was gone.

And now, before the memorial service gets underway in The Word Church in Warrensville Heights, all of the still tender, incorruptible parts of them align in childlike expressions of an adult anguish. They hold tight to their mom’s hands. Queen Ona and 5-year-old Princess wear taffeta dresses of cerulean blue, Paris’ favorite color. And their fingernails are painted in memory of their girl. One letter on each finger. P-A-R-I-S.

Like the rest of the nearly 3,000 people who turned out for the services on this day, the kids are quickly ushered past the caskets and are allowed no more than a glimpse, let alone time or privacy for goodbyes. The coffins, mercifully, are closed. Each one is wrapped in a decorative vinyl decal featuring smiling images of Paris and Paul. They are surrounded by elaborate floral arrangements, against a backdrop of two hanging tapestries, woven with Paris’ and Paul’s likenesses.

Someone on stage coaxes tranquil music from a keyboard. And on two giant screens overhead, a video of a dove taking flight, while the sun’s rays part the clouds, plays on a mesmerizing loop.

The Korper kids and Contessa, follow an ushers’ direction and sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a row on the far left side of the church. The sanctuary fills quickly with a continuous stream of mourners, and many are directed to an overflow room, where they can watch the services on closed-circuit TV.

The Rev. R.A. Vernon takes the stage and greets the attendees. Neither Paris nor Paul belonged to this church, he says. But when he heard about what happened -- well, he knew he must open his church’s doors to the family, he says.

One of Paul’s grown daughters, Dyamond, delivers the eulogy. She describes a dependable, loving father, who put his kids above all else, and pushed them to pursue an education. He was the reason why all of his adult children are in college today, she says.

“This is not the last goodbye for my dad or Paris,” she says. “They live through us always.”

Then the pastor takes over. He acknowledges the human instinct, when faced with unthinkable tragedy, to ask “Where was God?” He calls that question, on this day, the “elephant in the room.” He tells the crowd that Jesus delivered His followers from the penalty and power of sin.

“But we have not been delivered from tragedies like this,” he says. “Because there are bros out here who are still in darkness. And when you’re in darkness, you can do crazy stuff and you don’t think it’s crazy. When you’re in darkness, you can take somebody’s life and go get something to eat like nothing happened. When you’re in darkness, you’re going to say, ‘Well since they did that to me, I’m going to go do it to them.’

“And it’s a perpetual cycle,” he cautions. “And we keep going to funerals and going to visit bros in prison, because whenever something happens, somebody’s going to jail. And somebody’s going into eternity too soon, because no one has the authority in their mouth to stand up and say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, we come against this kind of craziness!’ Somebody ought to give God praise. He is the God who can fix this.”

The pastor then closes with the biblical story of Stephen the martyr, who was about to be stoned for his faith when he looked to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus assumed Stephen into heaven before he felt a single stone hit his flesh, the pastor tells the congregation. Those in the audience who see where he’s headed with this story begin to clap.

“Can I suggest to you that maybe what we think happened (to Paris and Paul) didn’t happen, because God is so good,” he says, his voice building to a soulful crescendo. “That maybe Jesus said, ‘Nooooo! She’s too sweet for that. Whatever you think is going on, I’ve already come to get her!’ … Like God came to get Stephen, maybe God came and got them both. And what we think they felt, they didn’t feel at all, because they were already in the presence of angels.”

As he speaks, tears form rivulets down 14-year-old Princeton Korper’s cheeks, collecting in a bead beneath his chin. He uses a balled up tissue to wipe them, before finally burying his face in a forearm that is resting on the back of the chairs in front of him. Paris’ name, in a cursive script, is shaved into the side of his head.

The kids hardly remember a time in their life without Paris. When Contessa and the kids had moved into the Garden Valley public housing complex, it was as if Paris had just appeared there. They were fast friends. Her kindness, positive attitude and charming disposition were irresistible.

“The kids were like moths to a flame,” Contessa says. Especially, Princeton, who was always sweet on the girl – maybe even held out hope that she would think of him as more than a friend. One day.

Paris and the Korper girls took turns sleeping over at each other’s houses, where they would play games, nosh on snacks, do each other’s hair and invent dance routines and secret handshakes.

When Contessa decided to volunteer as a Girl Scout leader, Paris joined her troop. She was a shining example for her peers. An honor student, wise beyond her years, committed to her community, family and friends. She sent Contessa messages on Mother’s Day and her birthday, often referring to her as “ma.”

“I love & miss you a lot,” she once wrote. “You the reason I smile a lot more & cry a lot less. …”

Today, the Korper kids feel like they could cry forever. In the weeks that lie ahead of this church service, this burial, the kids will continue to reel from their grief. Princess will ask her mom if Paris is ever coming back. When the answer is no, she will sleep every night in a T-shirt printed with Paris’ face and will want to wear it to school every day beneath her uniform.

The kids will begin acting out in school. Teachers and principals will call Contessa daily with complaints about behavior, but she’ll feel helpless to intervene. Violence and loss are ubiquitous in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, where the Korpers have lived most of their years. But until now, that was always just in the background. This violence, this grief – it is almost too much to bear. The way forward is so unclear.

“I’ve got to stay strong for her and get good grades for her and always remember her,” Queen Ona will say nearly two months after Paris’ death. “I loved her a lot. My whole heart. A lot.”

But on this day in the church, the loss is still too raw to consider the days to come.

When the service concludes, the caskets are loaded into a horse-drawn carriage. The

Korpers pile into Contessa’s Chevy Malibu and join hundreds of mourners in the procession to the Cleveland Memorial Gardens cemetery on Green Road.

There, some attendees have changed into T-shirts memorializing Paris and Paul. The caskets are displayed beside freshly dug graves, while the family releases doves, one for each of Paul’s 14 children. Then all go about the business of saying goodbye. The Korper kids work their way through the crowd, stopping for a moment to share an embrace with Paris’ tearful mother. They take their time at their friend’s casket. They lay flowers and their hands on its surface before it is lowered into the ground.

For the first time today, no one is hurrying them along. Finally, a moment with their girl.

Above them, the sky is bright and uninterrupted. An endless stretch of cerulean blue.

Read more about the Korper family here.

A Greater Cleveland is a project of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. See the entirety of our project by clicking here.

A Greater Cleveland is a call to action to the community to help identify and remove the barriers to success faced by Cleveland children in poverty. Because of the sensitive family matters discussed in this series, we have provided the people we write about anonymity and are using pseudonyms to identify them.

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