The black car driving slowly around Atlantic City’s most dangerous neighborhoods has a message: “Crime Stoppers: Love doesn’t make you a snitch.”
Maria Diaz’s campaign could make her a target, she’s been told. But the mother of six just wants to bring focus to the violence that took another of her daughter’s friends this week.
Zachary Taylor, 19, of Mays Landing, died just after 9 p.m. June 18, after he was found shot in the chest at the corner of McKinley and Michigan avenues.
“Please don’t be in (Atlantic City),” his mother, Leilanai Cranmer, remembers telling him during their last phone conversation, just about an hour before he was killed.
Cranmer was in California, waiting for her youngest child to meet her. As Zooty Bang, he was an aspiring performer on the brink of making it big. There were several labels interested in signing him, she said.
“My music is bringing people together,” he told her. “I’m going to get everybody out of the ’hood.”
She told him she was happy, but to get out Atlantic City and go to California.
“Things are getting crazy out here on the streets,” he told her. “I’ve got to handle some things.”
But she wanted him to leave.
“Mom, my friends need me,” he told her. “They need me.”
“He was true to his friends like he was true to his family,” his aunt Denise Dickens said.
Unfortunately, some of those friends had their own problems.
“We knew, with the people he surrounds himself with, this could happen,” said his older brother John Taylor, 23. “But now we don’t have to worry about where he’s at. He’s no longer looking over his shoulder.”
The younger Taylor was trying to go straight after spending time in the New Jersey Training School for Boys, from where he graduated last June.
But he was unable to get work due to his record, Cranmer said.
In April, Taylor was among eight people arrested in an investigation that resulted in the seizure of five guns, including a semiautomatic weapon. He had weapons offenses and drug charges pending from that case.
“As a parent and as a mom, I’m totally against violence and guns,” Cranmer said. “But there’s a war out here on these streets. I taught a lot of the kids that are dead already.”
For the past eight years, she worked as a teacher in Atlantic City and substitute in Pleasantville.
She said her former home in Egg Harbor Township was a safe house, until someone shot it up May 23, 2010.
“Zach came from a good home,” she said. “He did make some bad choices. Even when he was doing his time, he focused on his music.”
“He wasn’t a ’hood rat,” Dickens said.
“What he did in the streets, it was survival,” his mother said.
“He died for somebody else,” she added, without detailing what may have happened.
Taylor was the fifth person killed in a gun homicide this year in Atlantic City; there have been 10 homicides.
The family insists Taylor was trying to talk things out but that someone arrived armed. No one has been arrested in the killing, and for safety reasons the family will not comment on what they may know. The funeral arrangements are being kept secret to protect them.
Many friends will mourn him, though. Those who knew Taylor said he had a magnetism. He had a talent for music — and for making people laugh.
On one video, he combined both, strumming a guitar and playing a few lines of a country song he wrote.
“It’s shaky because I was laughing,” John Taylor says, as he shows the video on his phone.
His cousin Rondavet Jones shakes her head.
“Something’s got to give,” she says. “Just 19 years old. Something’s got to give.”
Her daughter, Mariangeli Calderon, has lost so many friends to violence “I’ve lost count,” the 20-year-old says.
She grew up in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico. Her family had been in Pleasantville for a few years, but had to move when the landlord sold the house. Now they are back in Atlantic City.
“Not by choice,” Diaz says of her home on Tennessee Avenue. “I’m in the middle of it now.”
The troubled neighborhoods that surround them are well-known to those following shooting reports.
“Schoolhouse Apartments is over there,” Calderon says, pointing forward and to the right. “Over there is Stanley Holmes.”
Then she points left: “And Carver Hall is back that way.”
But Diaz thinks maybe there’s a reason she couldn’t find a place until the one in Atlantic City became available.
“Maybe God put me here for a reason,” she said.
So, despite not having a lot of money herself, she bought a plane ticket to bring Cranmer home. Then she painted messages on her small black car, telling people to put down their guns and pick up the phone to report what’s going on.
She gets strange looks, and warnings from friends, for driving slowly through the same troubled neighborhoods that surround her new home.
“I’m not worried,” she says. “I walk with the Lord.”
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