Update, July 9: Beyonce (yes, that Beyonce) posted a beautiful tribute to Tillet on her website yesterday. She calls him "one of my biggest fans and a loyal member of the Beyhive."
Much like Oscar Duncan, the Venice youth pastor and anti-gang worker ironically killed by gang members last month, 24-year-old Hawthorne resident Dennis Tillet was the last guy anybody would have expected to fall victim to L.A. street fire.
"This is so unreal, because he was the total opposite of a [violent] person," says Shedonna Burleson, one of Tillet's best friends since childhood. "He was so happy and outgoing; he never had any problems with anybody."
Tillet, who graduated from Morehouse College in 2009, often returned to Ward AME, his childhood church...
... to "encourage young people to further their education," says Jackie Dupont Walker, president of Ward Economic Development Corp. He also volunteered at the Ward Villa Senior Complex, where Walker says residents "have wonderful, wonderful memories of Dennis."
Adds the church executive: "He was one of those people who would always find a way to make you smile. He would always try to diminish the impact of anything that would create tension."
Yet on Wednesday night, the unthinkable became reality: As Tillet stood with a group of friends outside a Fourth of July house party on 2nd Avenue in South L.A., an unidentified shooter opened fire on the partygoers. Tillet and two others were hit.
"It was some random dude, like some thug like standing on the corner just point-blank like letting off," Tillet's boyfriend, Britten Rogers, reportedly told KTLA.
LAPD Detective Michael Applegate says investigators aren't yet certain whether the shooting was a result of a gang feud. But as far as he knows, Tillet's group of friends was "just out there lighting fireworks and trying to enjoy the Fourth of July."
Burleson, Tillet's "best friend since sixth grade," says she wasn't at the party. However, she has been told by witnesses that "Dennis was at a friend of a friend's house, and he went to watch the fireworks outside. There was a guy at a corner who started shooting into a crowd. Everybody started running into the house, and Dennis was one of the last ones to run in."
His last words before the ambulance arrived, according to Rogers: "I've been shot."
The following morning on Twitter, friends remembered the victim as "an amazing person," "an angel," "a true gentleman and a scholar" and "one of the sweetest people I've ever met."
From what we've gathered, Tillet was raised among L.A.'s black elite in the West Adams area. He graduated from Palms Middle School and Hamilton High School before heading off to Dillard University in New Orleans, one of around 100 "historically black colleges and universities" in the country.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit.
Ward AME's Walker remembers helping Tillet evacuate from his dorm -- "I actually got a hold of a sheriff on a boat, who paddled over to Dillard and put Dennis on the phone," she says -- and, later, apply to Morehouse College, which had agreed to admit some of Dillard's displaced students.
Morehouse had been his dream school ever since he was little, his mother Audrey Fletcher tells LA Weekly today.
The school's Greater Los Angeles Alumni Association released this statement last night regarding Tillet's untimely death:
"By all accounts, Dennis was an endearing young man. Never confrontational, always helpful, and a source of positive energy on campus and in the classroom is the motif when hearing about Dennis from his peers. There has been a heartfelt outcry of sadness / mourning for Dennis and his family from across the country. We in the Greater Los Angeles Morehouse Alumni Association, share the shock that such a kind spirit would be taken from us in a violent and unnecessary manner. We extend our sincerest condolences to Dennis' family and friends and expect that this incident will be investigated with the full resources local law enforcement has at their disposal."
After graduating on time with the Class of 2009, Tillet returned to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a businessman, friends say. And within months, he had secured a job at Enterprise Rent-a-Car in West Hollywood, where he worked until the day he died.
"We talked about traveling a lot more, and he was thinking of possibly going back to school," says Burleson of her friend's dreams for the future. "He was looking forward to his 25th birthday on October 15."
Kristian Orphey, who grew up with Tillet, calls him a true "L.A. boy."
"His license plate used to be 'Cali boy,'" she remembers. "He loved the sun, he loved the beach, he loved going out."
But Tillet traveled somewhat outside his usual stomping grounds on the Fourth of July, according to the family and friends we've spoken with. In a matter of seven hours, nine shootings had been reported in the South L.A. area. Along with Tillet, 14-year-old Unique Russell and 15-year-old Eddie Mitchell were murdered; 11 more were wounded.
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"I don't think he really knows the area," says Tillet's mother. "I don't think he really knows the areas where the gangs are."
Walker expresses frustration that some media reports have labeled Tillet's murder as possibly gang-related, because Tillet himself existed so far outside gang culture. She wonders aloud how one might convince L.A. city officials to post reward money for information leading to Tillet's shooter. (The City Council is currently on a two-week summer vacation.)
"You exhale when they graduate -- like, we've done our job," she says, almost to herself. "Then, this. It's heartbreaking."