DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. – Two rows of lanky, purple-clad basketball players bounded out of practice Tuesday and quietly huddled in prayer for Bobby Tillman, the 18-year-old who was stomped to death in a shocking unprovoked attack over the weekend.
They left, but slowly more than 100 of Tillman's friends and classmates gathered in a growing circle in front of his alma mater, Chapel Hill High School, where they remembered him during a vigil as a plucky, good-natured kid they hoped did not die in vain.
"Something had to happen today," said Chauncey Walker, a classmate of Tillman's. "God took him away to show us — this is our lesson learned. Adults look at us like we're hooligans, like we're crazy. We're not — and let's show them we're not."
The senselessness of Tillman's killing was still rippling through this working-class suburb west of Atlanta. About 80 people had descended Saturday night on a house party near the school that spilled out on the street when the crowd grew unruly.
A fight broke out, and authorities say a woman hit a guy, who investigators say decided not to retaliate against her because she was a woman. But he vowed to strike back against the next man who passed by.
That's when Tillman happened on the crowd. Four teenagers swiftly stomped, kicked and punched him to death while dozens of bystanders watched, authorities said. Douglas County Coroner Randy Daniel said Tuesday he was hit so hard, his heart was cut during the beating.
Four men have been charged with murder in the killing. They are Quantez Devonta Mallory, 18; Horace Damon Coleman, 19; Emanuel Benjamin Boykins, 18; and Tracen Lamar Franklin, 19. Three of the men spoke with television reporters Tuesday night at the jail and said they were innocent.
"I am not guilty of murder," Franklin told WXIA-TV.
Coleman told reporters he witnessed the beating but was not involved.
"I didn't get within 10 feet of him," Coleman told WGCL-TV. "I am very positive that I am going to, you know, get out of here and not be charged with murder."
Boykins told reporters that he wanted to send his condolences to the Tillman family and said he tried to stop the beating.
"While I was trying to pull my friend off of him, more people came and jumped in," Boykins told WSB-TV.
WXIA-TV said Mallory declined to be interviewed.
Friends of Tillman's — and there were many — remembered him as a good influence and savvy dresser who seemed attached at the hip to his phone. BreeAnna Coleman said her friend was probably fiddling on his cell phone when he was attacked.
"Bobby was texting on his phone, like he always was," said BreeAnna Coleman. "You couldn't catch him without it. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Tillman's classmates urged the crowd to think twice the next time they wanted to fight — and not to retaliate against the friends of the four suspects, who attended a rival high school.
"We don't want another tragedy like this," said Shawn Saulsbury, a classmate. "Then Bobby's death would be in vain."
At first, just a handful of Tillman's friends spoke, and their words were almost drowned out by the muffled sounds of friends trying to hide red eyes beneath dark sunglasses and wipe away tears under hoodies. But by the end of the vigil, many of his friends put on a brave face and vowed to respect each other in his honor.
"I see all these sad faces, and I know Bobby wouldn't want any of it now," said his friend, Rebecca Sanchez. "He's safe now. No one can hurt him anymore. I hope we can learn from this and I hope no one will ever get hurt again like this."