‘That’s how you know how hard we miss him:’ One Akron family on losing a son and brother to gun violence

Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato

When D’Andre Pete’s brothers talk about him, they can’t help but grin.

Marquavius Beach, D’Andre’s younger brother, waves his arms to quiet the room.

“We got chased by these Rottweilers,” Marquavius says between spoonfuls of soup at the family home on a November afternoon. “It was the funniest thing. D’Andre, I swear to God, he just threw me over the fence. He hopped over the fence and he had a big old cut in his pants.”

Around the table, D’Andre’s family roars with laughter.

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Damien Palmer, another of D’Andre’s younger brothers, holds his 7-month-old daughter in his arms. She sees her dad laugh and flashes a gummy smile.

D’Andre was the oldest of his siblings. They say he protected them, encouraged them, made sure they got to school and football practice on time. 

“I feel like D’Andre bettered me as a person,” Marquavius says. “He made me not that bad little kid that I was. He made me straight.”

According to his family, life with D’Andre was a celebration — full of belly laughs and loud music. 

When he died two years ago, all of that changed.

Over the last 11 months, gun deaths in Akron have increased by more than 20% compared to last year. As of Dec. 21, the city has seen 46 people killed in gun-related incidents, including several infants and children.

The city’s spike in gun deaths has left a trail of grief and uncertainty for the friends and families of those who were killed by gunfire in 2020 — a reality D’Andre’s family has faced every day in the nearly two years since his death.

Michele Beach, D’Andre’s stepmother, says he left behind an unimaginable void — an empty seat at the dinner table, an empty spot in every family photo.

Beach met her stepson for the first time when he was 12 years old. For the first half of his life, D’Andre’s biological mother raised him, but Beach says it never mattered much to her that she didn’t give birth to D’Andre herself.

For more than a decade, Beach has called D’Andre her son.

In Beach’s kitchen, a grainy portrait of D’Andre sits on a shelf above the table. In the photo, he looks tough, his brow furrowed. But Beach says he was gentle and funny, a favorite among his little siblings.

On his mother’s side of the family, D’Andre had six siblings. When he came to live with his dad, he gained another five.

“I could always trust him with the kids,” Beach says. “D’Andre used to make sure he took care of everything. I didn’t have to worry about nothing. He’d make sure the kids was good, dogs was good, house was clean. He did everything.”

On Facebook, D’Andre is tagged in dozens of photos with his younger brothers and sisters — playing with them on the living room floor, posing for selfies in the bathroom mirror, tongues out and laughing. 

Mar’Vayah, the youngest of the bunch, took D’Andre’s death the hardest. Beach says the pair took to one another the moment Vayah was born.

D’Andre and his girlfriend, Jenna Smith, showered Vayah with attention. On their Facebook pages, the trio pose together smiling. “They’d be looking like a little family,” Beach laughs, waving a hand toward Smith.

Now, Smith spoils Mar’Vayah in D’Andre’s place.

On July 13, 2018, Kennae Baker murdered D’Andre Pete in his living room at Spring Hill Apartments in Sherbondy Hill.

In the days and weeks after D’Andre’s death, Beach struggled to keep her family from unravelling. When her husband was arrested, Beach was left to care for her grieving kids alone. She worked a food service job, shuffling her kids to and from school and practice between shifts, driving a car that seemed to break down more often than it ran.

The family held a memorial in the parking lot at Spring Hill. They released balloons and lit candles in D’Andre’s memory. After the funeral, Beach carried on with her daily routine — getting to work before 5 am, getting her younger children ready for school, cooking dinner — all the time wondering how many times D’Andre was shot, and when the police might find the man who killed him.

Baker, who was just 19 years old at the time, was arrested nearly a month after the shooting. His attorneys argued that he killed D’Andre in self-defense, but Judge Alison McCarty told the Akron Beacon Journal there was no evidence that D’Andre had a gun.

Marquise James, D’Andre’s closest brother in age, says it was painful to see his older brother framed as a violent criminal during Baker’s trial.

“I couldn’t not look at [Baker],” adds D’Andre’s cousin, DaJourna Hall, who was present in the courtroom while Baker gave testimony. “Like, you’re going to sit here and see this pain on my face.” 

In May 2019, nearly a year after he shot and killed D’Andre, Baker was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, but he will be eligible for parole in 19 years.

Because there was a mistake in the instructions given to the jury, an additional aggravated murder charge against Baker was dropped. Prosecutors opted not to retry Baker for the charge — a decision Beach says didn’t take D’Andre’s family into account.

When Baker becomes eligible for parole, Beach worries she won’t be alive to fight his release. She says she’ll have to teach her youngest children how to contact the judge and the parole board. In 18 years, she fears the family will have to relive D’Andre’s death again.

“I don’t understand why he gets to get out and live his life like that,” Beach says. “That’s not fair. It shouldn’t be like that.”

“[Baker’s family] still gets to talk to their brother,” Palmer says. “We never get to talk to our brother again.”

When D’Andre came to live with his dad, he came with a nickname already attached. He called himself Frog, an acronym he created as a kid. He told his family what it stood for: Forever relying on God.

After D’Andre died, the family bought Mar’Vayah a stuffed frog with a recording of his voice tucked inside. To hear her brother’s voice, all Vayah has to do is squeeze.

At Beach’s house, a tall shelf sits in the entryway near the stairs. It’s lined with frogs of every shape and size — toys, lawn ornaments, photos, stuffed animals and statues.

Marcus Jr., Beach’s youngest son, arrives home from school with a friend. In a blur, they toss their coats and backpacks at the foot of the stairs, just in front of the shelf. After school lets out, Beach’s home becomes the family’s hub.

Mar’Tazia, Beach’s oldest daughter, dashes up the stairs, getting ready to take her senior photos. Marqiyana, another of D’Andre’s younger sisters, plays with her niece, shaking a toy to catch her attention.

Life hasn’t stopped for the family in the two years since D’Andre’s murder. Hall, who was pregnant with her first child when D’Andre died, now dresses her son in t-shirts with D’Andre’s portrait on them. For Palmer, who became a father for the first time this year, watching his daughter grow up without her uncle has been difficult.

“It’s sad for me that all of us have to explain to our kids who he was,” Palmer says. “They see his photo and they don’t know [him].”

But the family says they’re learning to find joy in D’Andre’s memory, and new ways to keep it alive. Over the summer, Beach threw a birthday party in D’Andre’s honor. On Aug. 3 he would have turned 27 years old.

With more than 50 guests, Beach says the family blocked off parts of the street. In photos from that day, the family pose together smiling.

Beach and Hall say they’re proud the party was something positive for people who knew D’Andre.

“That’s how you know how hard we miss him. Everybody is so hurt by [losing] him, we’re all just trying to love on each other. Nobody’s fighting or arguing,” Hall says. “We’re all just hugging on each other and just being all lovey-dovey — making jokes, remembering him.”

“It’s like if he was there,” Palmer says. “It’s like a Christmas or a Thanksgiving with D’Andre, because all it is was laughter. All we did was laugh.”

Editor’s note: H.L. Comeriato and Michele Beach worked together in Comeriato’s previous job. Neither reported to or supervised the other and they did not have a relationship outside work.