KENTWOOD, Mich. — In 2014, Jamarion Lawhorn was thrust into the spotlight after a brutal crime on a Kentwood playground.
Lawhorn, then 12, stabbed and killed 9-year-old Connor Verkerke.
Now, nearly eight years later, Lawhorn is ready to tell his side of the story.
"That was me at my worst. My worst," Lawhorn told FOX 17 News. "I went to somebody who didn't have anything to do with what I was going through. And I have to live with that every day."
FOX 17's Janice Allen sat down with Lawhorn in February as he approached one year of being released from the Evart Youth Center.
"I'm trying to get my story out there," he said. "You know, a lot of people heard the story but they haven't heard the voice."
He continued, "They put on headlines 'Kent County's youngest killer.' And I know a lot of people address me as Kent County's youngest killer... But you know, when you approach me, I'm Jamarion Lawhorn."
Watch FOX 17's full interview with Jamarion:
August 4, 2014
As the summer days began to wind down, kids like Michael Connor Verkerke—who was known by loved ones as Connor— were soaking up every last second.
The 9-year-old had been playing on the playground near Pinebrook Village Mobile Home Park with his younger brother and another 9-year-old when they met Jamarion. Court documents indicate the four played together for nearly 20 minutes before the attack.
Lawhorn lived near the park and recalled seeing the Verkerkes there quite often.
Family described Connor as funny and sweet with a flare for theatrics. He wanted to be a music teacher and join the Peace Corps.
What happened at the playground that day would forever change Connor's family and the troubled 12-year-old's life.
"I remember... I was going through a lot. And one thing I do remember is, I was numb; I was really numb. It had got to the point where I was so numb that, you know, I couldn't sleep," Lawhorn recalled. "I'd seen Michael, you know, and it's like, at that moment, my intentions wasn't, you know, to hurt. But I snapped."
Lawhorn stabbed the boy several times with a kitchen knife.
Connor's younger brother tried to get him home quickly to get help, but it was too late.
"When I realized that he died, that was like when everything settled in," Lawhorn said. "That's when I knew what I did and I knew at that point I messed up."
Lawhorn approached a neighbor, asking to borrow a phone to call 911.
The 12-year-old told the dispatcher, "I just stabbed someone," adding, "They're going to try to beat me so hurry up and come kill me or take me to jail or something. Exactly like you do in the movies... kill me in the electric chair. I don't care how I die, you pick the way."
He again confessed to the crime, saying, "Yes, I did it cause I'm fed up with life and want to die."
Investigators would later learn Lawhorn had taken prescription pills that day.
Allegations of child abuse and neglect in his home would also be uncovered as well.
Lawhorn said, “That still didn't give me, you know, the right to take a life....And I want to be clear, I don't want to make any excuses for what I did. No, I'm taking full responsibility. And I embrace that. I got to."
Jamarion in custody
Lawhorn was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.
As his case moved through the system, his mother and stepfather also made headlines: both were charged with child abuse after bruises were found on Lawhorn's body in custody.
During that time, a 2013 child abuse investigation regarding Lawhorn's home was revealed.
In May 2013, a worker with Child Protective Services was called to the house, where they found marks on Lawhorn's body and "deplorable" living conditions.
The investigation ultimately went nowhere, when the CPS worker failed to report the findings to Kentwood police.
Lawhorn's stepfather, Bernard Harold, pleaded guilty; while Anita Lawhorn was convicted of third-degree child abuse in 2015.
Today, Jamarion Lawhorn maintains they have a good relationship, denying any abuse from his mother.
"It was put out there that, you know, my mom abused me and, you know, hit me and I want to... I just want to make it clear that my mom never put her hands on me. Never touched me in any way."
Lawhorn would face a judge in September 2015 for his trial at age 13.
His defense attorneys argued he was "legally insane" at the time of the murder, pointing to the abuse and trauma he suffered as a child.
"I was so scared; I was afraid of my stepfather. I wanted to die because I thought there was no way out," Lawhorn said during the court proceedings.
Lawhorn was found guilty.
At his sentencing, he had the chance to address the Verkerke family and share his remorse with the world, saying, "I know, what I did was wrong. I just do not understand why I did it... I made a terrible mistake. I just want you to know that I am sorry for all the pain you have been going through."
The judge handed down a "blended sentence": probation and eight years at Muskegon River Youth Home.
Afterward, the Verkerkes spoke to the media about the sentence.
"Anything is possible," said Michael Verkerke, the victim's dad. "At this point it's really up to him and how much effort he puts in, trying to rehabilitate himself and how much he tries to be a decent human being."
Danielle Verkerke, his mother, added: "The hard truth is that it doesn't matter how long he's locked up. It doesn't matter. Connor's not coming back."
Lawhorn would ultimately spend six and a half years in custody, before being released in March 2021.
Rehabilitation and Release
Jamarion Lawhorn was 13 years old when he had to face the consequences of his crime.
After being tried and convicted as an adult of killing Connor Verkerke on a Kentwood playground, he was set to spend the rest of his teenage years at Evart Youth Center.
Frank Briones, who spent more than a decade working as a youth specialist in juvenile detention, remembers meeting a young Lawhorn in the months leading up to his sentencing.
"He was this little kid," Briones said. "And I was like, 'How is this even possible? How could he even do this? What would even drive someone to do that?'"
Briones befriended the boy, eventually writing the judge on his behalf to ask for leniency.
"I felt he was one of those kids that kind of got that bad card that he was dealt," he explained. "I don't know if it made a difference or not, but I would like to think that it was a different perspective from somebody who was there working with him, who got to know him."
The judge handed down a "blended sentence": probation and time at Muskegon River Youth home, now Evart Youth Center, until Lawhorn was 21.
It was a chance to avoid prison, with the hopes Lawhorn could be rehabilitated and returned to society as an adult.
The teen might have thought he'd seen the last of Briones once his case was over, but it was actually the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
"I told him, I said, 'Listen, I don't know what's going to happen, but if I can help you in any way I can, I want to, if you're willing to fight along too.'"
Briones kept his word and began visiting Lawhorn once a month at Evart.
The visits may have very well helped to save his life, as Lawhorn made several suicide attempts.
"He felt isolated; he felt alone," Briones told FOX 17 News. "Those visits started to help him and reassure him."
Lawhorn was forced to confront his crime and cope with a range of emotions, from anger to hurt and depression.
The teen also had to grapple with the abuse and trauma issues highlighted during his trial.
"As humans, you know, we have different ways to cope with things. I didn't have them ways to cope. And I'm not blaming mental health for my decision. But I definitely wasn't in the right space," Lawhorn said. "I went to somebody who didn't have anything to do with what I was going through. And I have to live with that every day."
Intense therapy and an individualized treatment plan helped to lay the foundation for Lawhorn's rehabilitation.
"Our program is pretty trauma intensive, so counseling services is a huge portion of it," said Kathy Fiorletta, the director of Compliance Monitoring for Youth Opportunity, which operates Evart Youth Center. "We also base a lot of what we do on relationships, and building relationships that are going to help motivate. We're looking at providing treatment for, you know, the intellectual side, your mental health, your physical health, your emotional health. So, of course, education, vocational training is a huge part of our program... with therapy comes, you know, addressing the behaviors. Obviously, we have to address that to make them safe in the communities but also providing them with the skills so they can be successful."
Along with having Briones on his side, support also poured in for the teen from around the world.
"I got cards from Europe, all over the country," Lawhorn said. "They didn't realize how much that boost... or pushed me forward."
Several of those letters came from one woman in West Michigan.
Paula Creswell said she felt compelled to reach out after seeing the story on the news.
"Watching the news along with everybody else and it's the one picture of him where he turns and looks at the camera in the courtroom," she explained. "I just saw his eyes and it imprinted in me that this isn't just your average kid; this is somebody who is hurting and just needs someone to love him."
Creswell wrote letters and cards for a year before finally getting a response.
"As time went on, you know, them cards kept on coming in. And one day, I really sat and read it. And then I went back and read all her cards," said Lawhorn. "I was in a rough space at the time. And, I wrote her back and I said, you know, I'd love for you to come up and visit."
The visit would be the first of many.
Creswell would join Briones in forming a critical support system for Lawhorn as he completed his time at Evart and earned his GED.
"I did not believe that I would have this much support after, you know, what I've done," said Lawhorn. "I was expecting for the world to give up on me."
On March 1, 2021, Lawhorn was released two years early, just two weeks shy of turning 19.
Lawhorn was eager to start a new life and make the most of his second chance.
"I'm definitely thankful for the courts, because it's not a lot of people who are in a system who really, you know, see the positive," said Lawhorn. "When things are not going right for me, it's easier for me to overcome them. Because, you know, I realized that me being where I'm at today is literally a blessing. You know, I could have been in prison for the rest of my life; the courts did not have to work how they worked for me."
Redemption and Remembering Connor
"I just want people to know my story. I want people to see how much... how I changed from that story," Lawhorn told FOX 17 News. "I see [Connor's] face when I go to sleep at night; that's the consequences behind my actions... But since then, I've done everything to give back for what... for what I've taken, and I know I can never give back exactly what I took. But I know that I can at least, you know, turn around and make an impact."
Lawhorn's first step toward making that impact brought him to 70x7 Life Recovery in Wyoming shortly after his release.
The faith-based nonprofit assists returning citizens and those impacted by incarceration.
Lawhorn would complete the organization's two-week "Changes" course, learning job readiness and life skills for the next chapter.
"The first few weeks to making sure Jamarion was on the right path were absolutely critical to his rehabilitation... You could truly see him focusing on being a better version of himself; I think that was very important to him," said Antwan J. Brown, the executive director of 70x7. "I think that one of the things that he walked away from here with was hope."
The program propelled Lawhorn into the workforce, thanks to a partnership with 70x7 and another faith-based nonprofit, Next Step of West Michigan.
After completing Next Step's paid training program, Lawhorn learned valuable woodworking skills and earned a full-time position.
"It's a real positive environment," Lawhorn said. "We build bunk beds, we build birdhouses, bat houses... we do display stands for Meijer, all types of things."
The nonprofit is proud to offer the "next step" to anyone in need and looking for a better life.
"It's a place of many chances, second, third, sometimes fourth chance, but it's a place of grace and opportunity," explained Phil Nellis, the manager of manufacturing at Next Step. "I think that some of the choices that haunt people and disqualify them from opportunity, those are things that many folks are looking to move beyond... It's not fair to judge anyone by their worst mistake. And that gives me a lot of hope too."
Lawhorn has quickly worked his way up the ranks, becoming a mentor to new trainees.
The job has also been a chance to change the perception among co-workers about who Lawhorn is.
"I have had some people say, you know, 'Oh, I thought you were something else; I portrayed you to be a demon,'" he said. "You meet me and nothing like it... you wouldn't even know I was incarcerated, or anything to do with what I did."
Along with a new job, Lawhorn also has a new place to live.
Paula Creswell, who began writing Lawhorn while he was at Evart Youth Center, opened her Jenison home to the teen.
"When I got out... you know, she opened her arms, and literally taught me adulthood, in a way," Lawhorn said. "Definitely the main one that has been guiding me."
"It's kind of amazing," said Creswell. "It's kind of like watching a kid learn to walk and then ride a bike and then drive a car. It's...the growth has been so fast... In the last year, he came home not knowing anything about what it was like to be in a family. And in the last year, he's just a normal part of our home now. And that's been growth in every area of his life: maturity and growth and helping put other people before himself."
Lawhorn also signed up for classes at Grand Rapids Community College in the weeks following his release.
He's proud to have also learned how to drive, purchasing his first car with his own hard-earned money.
"I'm proud, but I'm not satisfied. I know I can do a lot more and I know it's a lot more to come," Lawhorn told FOX 17 News. "I still have days where I feel like I don't deserve what I have. Or even days I [don't] want to get out my bed and... or even live, but I realized that no, it's not right for me to do that. Because... I'm not just living for me. I'm living for somebody else, too."
To stay "sober-minded", Lawhorn has made the decision not to drink or smoke.
Lawhorn hopes to use his story to inspire others through public speaking or working with at-risk kids.
"I want the name [Jamarion Lawhorn] to be associated with, you know, Next Step West Michigan, motivational speaker, hard, determined, motivated person. And I want it to be an icon. I want Michael Connor Verkerke to be an icon as well. Because when you say my name, his name is literally right there with it... When you address my story, you know, don't forget to, you know, address his name. Don't forget to say his name too."
Connor Verkerke would have turned 17 on March 14.
Many may not realize that Lawhorn shares the same birthday with his victim.
He plans to pay tribute to Verkerke each year on their birthday from now on.
This year, Lawhorn started by speaking to returning citizens and juvenile offenders at 70x7 on March 14, encouraging them to own up to their wrongs and realize that every action has a consequence.
"He kept saying that we are not our mistakes, and it's true," said Bethani St. James, a 70x7 participant. "I actually watched his trial on the news when it happened... to see him today at 20, it's incredible. It gives me hope that what I did, I can overcome it."
Lawhorn said he is still in the process of forgiving himself for what he did. Although, he has made peace with Connor's grandmother Toni Nunemaker.
Nunemaker would go on to write a book about grief and forgiveness, following the tragedy.
"She said that she had forgave me, and that helped a lot," Lawhorn said.
When asked what his message would be to the Verkerke family, Lawhorn had this to say:
"I would say, 'I'm sorry.' And I know that they're hearing it from me a lot. But, you know, I really can't... I can't give back what I've taken. And I want them to know that, you know, no matter what, through me, [Connor's] name would definitely be known in a positive way.... I can't have all the recognition. Because at the same time... for [the Verkerke family] to keep moving, they've done more work than me. And I want people to see that."
He continued, "I want to apologize... to the community, you know, that was affected, indirect victims and my direct victims. I've shown everything. I've shown in every way that I could change. And I have changed."
On the day of Jamarion's release from custody in 2021, Potts made a post to her Facebook page about forgiveness.
Connor's mother Dani Potts issued this statement:
"I feel I have made my peace with Jamarion by letting go of any intentions or wishes about his future... his life is his."
In her statement, she also shared much more about Connor's life that has not been told before. You can read in the article "Remembering Connor."
Potts says that she is in the process of launching a soap company and making a soap in Connor's honor.
She plans to use the proceeds from that soap to fund a dance scholarship in his memory.