Teacher's murder has community looking for answers

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ST. THOMAS - David Payne Jr. first met the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, David Hall, on graduation day last May.

"He was one of the most excited graduates we had," Hall said. "He gave me a big hug and was just so thrilled with that moment. The whole audience erupted when he came across the stage. It was memorable for me and him."

On Sept. 7, about four months later, Payne was gunned down in front of his Anna's Retreat home. He was 30 years old.

Linda Thomas, the dean of the School of Education at UVI, was a teacher and adviser of Payne's and knew his enthusiasm well. Payne, she said, was the sort of person who worked well with his peers and put a lot of effort into everything he did.

"He was loved by his peers, really," Thomas said. "He had that kind of personality where people just like him."

Thomas checked on his progress as he worked on his bachelor degree in elementary education.

Payne's entry into the field of teaching was no surprise to those who knew him.

As far back as 1999, during Christmas break in his senior year of high school, Payne volunteered as a mentor for 7- to 11-year-olds at Carol's Day Care.

"I chose this project because children of today are the leaders of the future and I want to be a positive force in their lives as they grow up in this world today," Payne wrote in a project report. "The first day I told them I will be a big brother to all of them. I made them aware of the fact that they can have fun and be disciplined at the same time."

Despite the normal frustrations with disobedient children and "their nagging ways," Payne reflected positively on the experience.

"The children were always joyful and that made me feel good inside," Payne wrote. "They had someone older than them that related to them in the same way. I loved volunteering at Carol's Day Care and I would go back any day to volunteer again."

When he graduated from UVI in May, more than a decade after this work at Carol's, Payne won the School of Education's student-teacher of the year award. He got a job as a teacher at Ulla F. Muller Elementary School and began pursuing a master's degree in education.

"We were expecting great things in that regard," Hall said.

Gunned down

But not long after the start of the 2012-13 school year, on the night of Sept. 7, Payne was murdered.

"I was speechless," Thomas said. "It took some time for me to gain my composure. I really cried. I mean, it really did something to me. It's always sad when someone dies, and when they die in these kinds of unexpected ways it leaves a sadness and we sometimes question why."

Less than 90 minutes after Payne was shot, 39-year-old Andre Jules Tanis also was found shot to death on Gamble Gade in Savan. They were the territory's 42nd and 43rd homicides of 2012.

Both shootings were written about in a single 10-inch newspaper article.

"Several times where things like this have happened, time passes and we forget about it," Hall said.

Unlike in Payne's case, police have made an arrest in the slaying of Tanis, charging 22-year-old Lakeel Wade with first-degree murder, among other crimes, about two weeks after Tanis' death.

Payne's loved ones, on the other hand, still are searching for answers - as are the police.

St. Thomas-St. John Police Chief Darren Foy said through a spokeswoman that Payne's death remains under investigation and, so far, a clear motive for his killing has not been established.

"The VIPD sympathizes with the Payne family and all families who have lost loved ones," Foy said.

The chief renewed his request for anyone with information in the case to call detectives at 714-9844 or 714-9805, or the anonymous Crime Stoppers tip line at 1-800-222-8477.

As Payne's death reverberated throughout the UVI community, Hall said he was determined to ensure Payne's death made a difference.

"Bringing some sustained and coordinated effort is really what the university is focused on," Hall said.

Making a difference

At Payne's funeral, Hall pledged that the university would take a more active role in trying to address the systemic problem of violence that Payne's death epitomizes. He organized a town hall meeting that included members of Payne's family to brainstorm ways the university could play a role in addressing the issue.

Hall said the meeting produced four broad categories in which the university could help - research, policy development, advocacy and outreach to local schools.

"It's natural for the university to be able to do more research to try to figure out why so many young men and women are drawn to violence and gangs," Hall said. "We all have our theories and ideas, but as a university, so many of these questions can be answered in a more systematic way."

Hall said the university hopes to hold a follow-up meeting some time in 2013 to continue the discussion.

Hall and Thomas both reflected on the double tragedy of Payne's death in light of the career path he was pursing.

"He was such a young guy, and we don't see too many males in education wanting to be teachers and we know that we need male role models in our school system," Thomas said. "We see so few young men coming through, and when we see someone like David with a brilliant future ahead of them, we try to encourage them. And then to lose him - this man who was so enthusiastic about teaching. With his boys, he was a real dad, so I could tell he would be someone good in the system as a male role model. When we lose them, that leaves a void."

- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email lmattei@dailynews.vi.

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