• Cocoa Piece remembers a loss too great • Family matriarch too broken to visit graves of her daughter and four grandchildren
A black banner bearing the images of a mother and her four children in Cocoa Piece, Clarendon, bears testament to the untimely and horrific murder of 34-year-old Kemesha Wright and her children – 15-year-old Kimanda Smith, 11-year-old Shara-Lee Smith, five-year-old Rafaella Smith, and 23-month-old Keshawn Henry.
Heralding the message “Forever loved. Truly missed by family and friends. You left a void in our heart. We miss you!!!”, the banner that hangs high in the rural community is a stark reminder of an evil deed that rocked the nation in 2022, leaving an indelible stain.
Sitting on her verandah at the family home in Cocoa Piece on Friday, an emotional Gwendolyn McKnight, mother and grandmother of the deceased family of five, told The Sunday Gleaner that life without her daughter and her only grandchildren is overwhelming.
This past Christmas without her heartbeats was so unbearable, she spent what should have been a joyous affair in tears and sadness.
Recalling the moment it hit her that Kemesha and her grandchildren would never attend another Christmas Sunday church service with her, the family matriarch said she felt like her heart was ripped from her chest.
“This Christmas was the first one without my daughter and grandchildren and it wasn’t a pleasant one for me. It wasn’t pleasant. I didn’t feel Christmas at all. I went to church Christmas Sunday, but I wasn’t happy, because they always come to church with me. I always invite them, and they always come, and I’m always so happy,” McKnight told The Sunday Gleaner as she burst into tears.
Instead of doing her regular Christmas shopping for toys for her grandchildren, the harsh reality of her new life saw her buying five roses – each representing the lives of her beloved that were cut short.
“Every Christmas we always go to May Pen together, and I would buy the kids toys and we would shop around and have fun. This year was a sad one for me. I didn’t enjoy Christmas,” she lamented.
McKnight shared that her daughter would bring a Christmas gift for her every year, including a Christmas cake as she loved to bake.
On June 21 last year, the nation awoke to the shocking news of the heinous and barbaric act. Their cousin, Rushane Barnett, who they had given refuge when he was in need, butchered the entire family, including the baby.
A post-mortem report revealed that a total of 107 wounds were inflicted on the five victims, washing the house in blood, so much so that chairman of the Jamaica Police Federation, Corporal Rohan James, said “I could smell the blood about a mile away from the scene”.
Barnett is now serving life in prison for the crime that he confessed to, claiming “voices in his head” led him to do it. He was convicted in July of five counts of murder. In October he was sentenced to five concurrent life sentences, with eligibility for parole after 61 years.
The mother and four children were buried at the Sutton Memorial Cemetery in Clarendon on July 31. McKnight said she has been reluctant to visit the graves, which are not too far from her house, describing the task as unbearable.
On Friday, the multi-sectional grave was laden with wreaths, teddy bears and dolls. Unfinished, the graves bore no headstones, evidence of a loss too great for one family.
On Kemesha’s birthday on September 13, McKnight said, “I just looked up there (the direction of the cemetery) and say, ‘Kim, happy birthday’.”
“I can’t go down there. I just can’t. I don’t have the courage to go down there. I cannot manage that one,” McKnight lamented.
At the house where the massacre took place, a dried up wreath hangs on the gate. Located metres away from McKnight’s home, the rented property that was once filled with the laughter of her daughter and grandchildren remains empty, haunted and stained by the horrifying deed.
Amid the grief, McKnight told The Sunday Gleaner that she is encouraged by the outpouring of support.
“The love, joy and happiness that people show me, I love it so much, because sometimes I’m here lonely and I just see the phone ring and it’s someone from abroad ... I don’t even know them, but they say, ‘Mama Gwen, you okay? Hold on to God. God will see you through.’ And I say, ‘Thank You, Jesus,’ because right away they cheer me up and give me hope again,” said the mother and grandmother.
George White, uncle and grand uncle of the deceased, said he is yet to grasp the grim reality that has befallen his family. White recounted the days Kemesha would call him to have dinner at her home, or to ask for his assistance in running errands.
White told The Sunday Gleaner that he was still in disbelief of the actions of Barnett – their own flesh and blood.
“Mi never did a look fi di youth do this, because him come an’ a down deh (Kemesha’s house) him eat, bathe and people was nice to him,” said White.
He, too, felt the punch to his gut at not having Kemesha and her children Kimanda, Shara-Lee, Rafaella and Keshawn around to revel in the family’s usual Christmas festivities.
“A next people come in and enjoy fi dem part, suh mi feel a way,” said White.