For Camden family, killer’s 30-year sentence does little to numb the pain

Taisha Mercado’s goal last for last Friday’s sentencing hearing of the teenage girl who shot and had killed her 13-year-old son was a simple one:

She wanted to testify–without crying in front of her son’s killer, Casche Alford, who had pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter, and was facing a 30-year sentence.

“I just don’t want to cry,” said Mercado, “because I want them to hear what I have to say.”

It had been an emotional week. The previous Sunday afternoon, Mercado joined friends and family in the bitter cold to sign a memorial sheet on the East Camden sidewalk where her son, Nathaniel Plummer Jr., had been killed one year earlier, and to try—mostly in vain–to light candles for him in the winter wind. Following the sentencing, she planned to drive to Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery to view her son’s headstone for the first time since his death last January.

A mother’s testimony

Still, the 30-year old medical assistant managed. Mercado told the court of being at her mother’s East Camden home the night of January 7, 2016 and hearing the gunshots at 11:15 p.m. that she would find out later killed her only son.

She contacted Casche Alford, then 17, a half-hour later. Though Nate considered the girl a friend, Mercado believed she was a danger to him. When Casche said she had dropped the boy off at his grandmother’s, Mercado told her she would be filing a restraining order against Alford the following morning.

“Good luck,” responded Alford, who has since been convicted of gunning Plummer down at Line and Beacon Streets as he walked from a van in which the teens had taken a drive. Authorities have said that Plummer received a Facebook message warning him that Casche was going to “set him up” which he apparently ignored; no motive has been established in the shooting.

Now it was Mercado’s turn. She remained calm as she told the court of explaining to her 11-year old daughter that her son would never return, of her 6-year old daughter’s nightmares and the endless drawings of her brother wearing angel wings.

“Her last words to me,” Mercado told the court, “were ‘Good Luck.’ So I’m going to walk away saying to Alford, to her mother…you changed my life, my daughters’ lives and this entire courtroom that’s full of my family. When she murdered my son, she murdered half the people that’s here, and that’s something that can never, ever be changed.

“My words to Miss Alford are, ‘Good luck.’ Because she’ll need it.”

Alford, now 18, had been sent to adult court for Plummer’s murder and for two other criminal cases: the October 2015 shooting of a 19-year old man who survived, and the armed robbery of a taxi driver two months later. In addition to the 30 years for the Plummer homicide, she received seven-year prison terms for each of the other two crimes, to be served concurrently.

The sentencing was the culmination of a year in which Mercado became a powerful voice in the Camden community, speaking out about the gang violence that she believes claimed her son’s life, as well as her frustration when she reached out to various agencies for assistance to little avail.

In Nate’s last month of life, the family’s house in Camden’s Carpenter Hill section was riddled with bullets and a few days before his death.  It wasn’t until he’d been killed that Mercado was informed she’d been approved for relocation by the Camden County Prosecutor’s office for the family’s safety, and that her son Nathanial had been approved for in-home counseling.

She got hateful, she got evil

During the sentencing, Judge Steven Polansky expressed astonishment at Alford’s criminal record and her failure to apologize. He called the killing “about as heinous a crime as I have ever seen.”

“I don’t recall,” he said, “seeing another juvenile with an eight-page rap sheet,” adding that “the senseless killings of innocent children have to stop. I wish I had an answer as to how to stop that.”

Pastor Gwendolyn Ann Cook, who got to know Alford when the girl was incarcerated in a juvenile facility as part of Cook’s mentoring program for at –risk youth – WWITS (“Women Walking in the Spirit Ministries”) – doesn’t see the mystery.

Cook said in an interview that she first met Casche two or three years ago at the Juvenile Medium Security Facility in Bordentown. The girl that Cook knew back then had issues; she didn’t believe she was attractive, and seemed to wish she’d been born a man, Cook said. Still, Casche had “high hopes” and “a beautiful smile. She would laugh and light up the whole room.”

Casche had one unwavering dream. “She’d say, ‘Miss Gwen, you’re gonna help me become a professional basketball player, right?'” Cook remembers Casche embracing her and holding on “really tight.”

Cook says she told Casche that “she would be the best basketball player ever, but only if she didn’t go back to the same situation when she got out–the drugs, the gangs.” Cook tried to keep track of the girl and says she watched with sadness as she changed after her release.

“She got hateful, she got evil,” said Cook. “When she went back to Camden, she was just mean. She didn’t want to speak to me or anybody, she became more and more like a man.” Cook said Casche “wasn’t happy with her home environment, and that Casche’s mother, much like Taisha Mercado, had sought help in vain when she saw her daughter was “headed down a dark path.”

“There’s a little girl in there who is screaming for love,” said Cook, “but nobody was paying attention. If the system hadn’t failed, I don’t believe this would have happened to either one of them, her or Nate.

“I always tell people,” said Cook, “you have to look at the history. They’re not born to be bad kids.”

April Saul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who lives in Camden. She can be reached at   aprilpix@aol.com, and her work chronicling life in Camden can be seen at her Facebook page.

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