When Vashun Ramsey's violent death was reported, many didn't realize it was Kojak, the boy they'd reached out to over 20 years ago

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMay 4, 2013 

Kojak was the name I knew him by.

His nickname was unforgettable and as a kid so was he. He was burdened with sadness but blessed with a magnetism that attracted everyone who came in contact with him and made them do whatever it took to keep this charming, troubled young person off the ledge.

He was always Kojak to me, so when it was reported during the last weekend in April that Vashun Lemont Ramsey had been killed by a gunshot to his face it was nothing more than our 11th homicide of the year.

A Sunday night message connected Kojak to the 36-year-old man who died flat on his back in an apartment building on Buena Vista Road, only a few feet from his young child.

Since his death, people who knew him have tried to make sense of a senseless act. They prefer to remember the charismatic youngster who played basketball with the neighborhood kids. They hold on to the potential they saw in him and the hope that he would escape the streets.

They thought they knew Kojak.

They knew very little about Vashun Lemont Ramsey, but in a final act of love some of those old friends helped bury him.

Helping a lost soul

The late Jack Swift gave Kojak a personal letter of introduction.

As executive editor of the Ledger-Enquirer, Jack knew a lot of people and he began to tell them about a promising elementary school student that had wandered into his front yard.

Kojak was born June 21, 1976, at Fort Benning. His mother named him Vashun after a character on "Hawaii Five-0." She called him Kojak because, like a bald TV detective, her baby had no hair.

Jack encouraged his neighbors to hire the youngster if grass needed cutting, leaves needed raking or garages needed cleaning. He became a neighborhood fixture and before long a network of caring people invited this stray child into their lives.

There was just something about him.

"Kojak was a lost soul," said Terry Hurley, the owner of Dinglewood Pharmacy. "He had all the charisma that anyone could have but it was wasted."

What started out as kindness turned into Christian love. His benefactors were real estate developers, lawyers, pharmacists, housewives and newspaper editors and all they wanted in return was the opportunity to be there when Kojak was old enough to find himself and find his way.

They were givers and Kojak was a taker. Even then there were patterns that his mentors were unable to accept. They saw his smile, not his slip-ups.

"We'll never know all he did and it really doesn't matter," said Otis Scarborough, the president of the George Woodruff Co. "We should always help other people. The effort is more important than the outcome."

People offered him unconditional support.

"Jesus didn't give up on me and I didn't give up on Kojak," Scarborough said.

Violating a home

Jack Swift was first my friend and later my boss. He was a gifted writer and a full-contact fighter who taught karate as a way of life, not a way to break bricks.

Jack came to town in 1973 and made his mark as an outrageous columnist. After a stint in the lieutenant governor's office he worked his way to the executive editor's office.

After the promotion he moved into a white-columned house in the heart of Overlook. But beneath the bravado, he was troubled, as the community learned on Nov. 15, 1990.

That morning, after putting out his dog and bringing in the paper, he shot himself. He was 46 years old and, in most people's eyes, on top of the world.

When Kojak came to Jack's memorial service at St. Luke United Methodist Church, people aware of the circumstances were upset. Wearing new clothes that someone bought him, he sat on a pew down front.

Afterward, I learned why some people were upset. They talked about a burglary of Jack's house that occurred months before his death. Charges were never filed but some folks -- including Jack himself -- believed it was Kojak.

The break-in wasn't about money. It was personal. The burglar didn't take things you could sell or pawn. He stole a samurai sword that Jack cherished along with other keepsakes important only to him. He rambled through a closet filled with memorabilia from Vietnam and took an ornate nameplate that Jack's brother and sister gave him when they were young.

A single mom in a simple neighborhood of St. Petersburg, Fla., reared Jack and when life provided the means for him to afford such a home he saw it as a symbol of how far he had come.

To have it violated hurt deeply. So did the idea that a young person he tried to help may have been the culprit.

Looking back, friends realize Jack was increasingly depressed. He had been on a downward spiral for months before the intruder broke into his home. He was in pain for reasons known only to him, and he couldn't talk about what was festering inside.

The break-in was part of the package.

"After that Jack lost his sparkle," Hurley said.

Two different views

Kojak was 14 years old when Jack Swift died and his road to adulthood became a struggle.

How people describe those years depends on where they sat.

Scarborough could never ignore his promise. When Kojak graduated from Kendrick High School, Scarborough offered to pay his way through college if he would stay out of trouble.

"He was smart and he always had such potential. We could see all that he had going for him but he just couldn't stay on track," he said.

Sgt. Lance Deaton of the Columbus Police Department's Robbery/Homicide Division also met Kojak when he was young.

"I've been fooling with him for a long time and my dealings were in an entirely different setting. Mine were in the course of criminal investigations," he said.

In a guarded conversation, the officer talked about Kojak's drug problems and what a monster drugs can be. He talked about his police record, but since the homicide investigation is ongoing declined to provide details.

A simple web search brings up an assortment of police mug shots and confirms that past charges include burglary, cruelty to children, possession of a firearm by a felon and stalking. Muscogee County Jail records confirm Kojak had been booked in more than 20 times since 1993.

Scarborough was aware of his brushes with the law: "We visited him in jail several times, not to condemn him but to remind him we were his friends and that we weren't going to give up on him."

People loved him, and Otis believes that love was returned. "He loved us, but in a very strange way."

The Scarboroughs showed their love last December when Kojak called on Christmas Eve and said he didn't have money to buy gifts for his children. Otis and Sandy didn't give him money. They went shopping and personally delivered presents to his seven children.

That was the last time they saw Kojak.

Streets don't love

Life was putting the squeeze on Vashun Lemont Ramsey.

His best friend tried to warn him.

"Stay focused out here, because the streets don't love nobody. You've got to stay prepared," Julius Dowell said in a television interview.

For such a long time, Linda Robinson had prayed for her son's salvation. Early Sunday morning, Vashun called her and said he wanted to go to church with her.

She'll never forget that service.

"When my pastor asked if anybody wanted to get saved, he almost ran down the aisle. When he did, the Lord shot the power all through the church. He got saved on the 21st of April and died on the 28th," she said.

Believing the Lord answered her prayers has helped her endure a trying week.

Sgt. Deaton, who had known him so long, is now investigating his killing. It came just before 8 p.m. in the apartment of one of his girlfriends. She was nearby when the shooting occurred and performed CPR on him until police arrived.

The officer isn't surprised that Kojak died violently. Such endings often come to people who live in that world. His lifestyle may make finding his killer more difficult but that isn't stopping Deaton's squad. They're working long hours to find the shooter, who by firing into Kojak's face sent a personal message.

A few days after his death, Robinson met with some of his old friends. Remembering the child with the winning smile, they paid for his burial. His funeral was Saturday.

Everyone prayed his story would have a happy ending but it ended tragically. However, to Otis Scarborough, a man of faith, news that Vashun Ramsey got saved for God overshadows everything.

"In the middle of this tragedy," he said, "is a love story."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent who can be found at www.twitter.com/hyattrichard.

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