Ja Nai Marie Johnson was an outgoing, witty girl who was to have been cheered by about 30 family members and friends at a birthday party planned for her on Monday.
Instead, they gathered at the family home in South-Central Los Angeles to mourn the 14-year-old sophomore at Crenshaw High School, who was killed by a stray bullet in an exchange of gunfire between two rival gangs Friday afternoon near the campus.
“She was a rose that was plucked too soon,” said an aunt, Gail Williams, one of the mourners.
Murders like Ja Nai’s are becoming more frequent, police say. An innocent bystander is gunned down, and grieving families are left to grope for answers.
“I feel cheated,” said Erika Brown, another of the the girl’s aunts. “Society has been cheated. Ja Nai had a purpose, and she was going to be a success.”
The girl’s mother, Brenda Williams, 40, added: “This madness has to stop.”
Ja Nai was walking with two friends in the vicinity of 52nd Street and 4th Avenue at 3:30 p.m. Friday when two cars carrying members of rival gangs approached the intersection and the occupants began to shout at each other, Los Angeles Police Lt. Joseph Freia said.
Shots then rang out, and two of the girls ran for cover, witnesses said.
But Ja Nai continued walking, family members said.
“They (the gang members) won’t bother us . . . and they certainly won’t shoot me,” one of her friends at the scene remembered her saying.
But detectives said the girl was hit behind the right ear by a bullet in the ensuing gunfire and was taken to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, where she died.
Her two companions were not hurt and the gang members sped away. Freia said no suspects were in custody but that the investigation is continuing.
The girl was described by family members and classmates at Crenshaw and Audubon Junior High School as a cheerful person who wanted to go into show business.
“She was always writing poems,” said one former Audubon classmate.
Her mother said Ja Nai would perform skits for family members.
“She wanted to be an actress,” she said. “Ja Nai was extremely excited about the drama class she was taking at Crenshaw.”
She also was a finalist last year for a syndicated television show called “Putting On the Hits,” her mother said. In the audition for the show, Ja Nai and the same two friends who were walking with her when she was shot lip-synced a popular song by Janet Jackson.
As friends and family members reminisced about Ja Nai on Monday, they were bitter over the circumstances that resulted in her death.
“I feel a loss for Ja Nai and a loss for those boys (who shot her),” Gail Williams said. “Each person must stand before God.”
Calling street gang members “teen-age terrorists with no purpose,” Brenda Williams said that parents can help stem the violence.
“I want to tell parents to talk to their kids,” Ja Nai’s mother said. “Find out what’s on your child’s mind. Be there for your kids. . . . I was blessed. My child was good.
“I keep expecting my daughter to come through the door any minute. . . . “