‘He’s always going to be with me’: After the death of Da’Monte Neal, remembering a father, son and brother who ‘touched so many people’s hearts’

Da’Monte Neal and his daughter, Queen Harmony Sheree. Photo courtesy of the Neal family

Da’Monte Neal couldn’t wait to be a father. 

When his daughter, Queen Harmony Sheree, was born in Muskegon on Aug. 31, 2019, he scooped her up into his arms, and, just moments after she came into this world, the newborn was on her father’s chest, her tiny cheek nestled against him.

He couldn’t stop smiling; a photo from that day shows the elated and proud father—known as “Tae-Tae” to his family and friends—beaming at this tiny person who had just changed his life. And he couldn’t stop dreaming of her future: already, he was saving up for her first birthday party—and her college tuition.

“He wanted to be a family man so bad,” Da’Monte’s mom, April Denise Neal, said as she sat a few feet from an urn holding her son’s ashes. “I want her to know her dad. I’m going to do my best to make sure she does know him and what he wanted for her. He was saving up for her college already. He wanted her to have a good life.”

Da’Monte—a 2017 Muskegon High School graduate, Muskegon Big Reds football player, and student at Muskegon Community College who potentially wanted to pursue psychology for his career—will not get to see his daughter grow up. At the age of 21, he was shot and killed at a house on the 600 block of Orchard Avenue in Muskegon on the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 6. Antwan Crawford, a 21-year-old from Muskegon, has been charged with open murder for Da’Monte’s death, according to police. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Crawford, who April Neal said had been good friends with her son, is being held at the Muskegon County Jail; his next court date is Feb. 18.

A childhood photo of Da’Monte Neal. Photo courtesy of the Neal family

“The person who did this, he was so close with my son; he was someone who stayed at our house,” April Neal said. “I treated him like a son. I forgive him. I know my son would forgive him.”

“God won’t let me have hate in my heart,” she continued. “Even though he took my everything, I don’t hate him. Now his life is over too. I don’t hate this young man who I call my son; I still call him my son.”

It is unclear what happened the afternoon Da’Monte was killed. Police said he was shot in his back; officers found him lying on the front porch of the Orchard Avenue home—a house on a street where he had grown up playing.

“We all used to play on that block; it was a friend’s house,” said Raquis McDonald, Da’Monte’s cousin and lifelong friend. “All my memories of us are us playing, laughing and cracking jokes. There was never a dull moment with Tae-Tae. His laugh would make you want to laugh even harder.”

Born May 1, 1998, Da’Monte was the oldest of four brothers—Germaine Neal, 20; La’Trell Neal, 17; and La’Marion Neal, who turns 15 this month—and grew up in Muskegon with his brothers, mother and step-father, Larry Pulluiam. His biological father was in prison for much of his son’s life, but he was released in time to spend the last three and a half years with his son.

Part of a huge extended family in Muskegon, Da’Monte loved his family and friends more than anything and was always pushing for them to spend more time together. 

“He was a role model to his brothers; they looked up to him,” April Neal said. 

An urn containing Da’Monte Neal’s ashes is surrounded by his football trophies. Photo by Anna Gustafson
The urn containing Da’Monte Neal’s ashes now sits in April Neal’s living room. Photo by Anna Gustafson

And it wasn’t just his brothers who looked up to him. McDonald said his friends were forever turning to Da’Monte for advice.

“He was that person who kept everybody together,” McDonald said. “He was an old soul. He was like the grandfather of the group. He was too mature, too wise for his age. That’s why he was the best person to go to for advice. There were a group of us—a group of boys and girls—who grew up with each other; he was the person who kept all of us sane.”

And, McDonald said, Da’Monte was the one to whom others turned in need of kindness at a time when so many of their friends were dying. He and McDonald were good friends with J’Mari Harris, who was shot and killed at the age of 16 in 2016; Davion Hewlett, who was shot and killed at the age of 15 in 2017; Ja’Mall Kitchens, who was shot and killed at the age of 19 in 2016; and Mervin Bonner, who was shot and killed at the age of 18 this past August. Funeral service programs for Harris, Hewlett, and Kitchens line the wall in Da’Monte’s bedroom, where, now, the program for his funeral is hung as well.

“It’s a sad thing to say, but it’s nothing new,” McDonald said of his friend’s death. “Everybody around me has been losing friends back-to-back. It’s sad to say, but I’m kind of numb to it a little bit.”

The 21 years Da’Monte spent on this earth were ones filled with family and friends, with playing football and basketball and wrestling, with attending Beulah Missionary Baptist Church, with his girlfriend and mother of his daughter—Cynthia Robertson, with the dancing and singing and laughing with his brothers that now fill the videos on his mother’s and aunt’s phones. Like any life, these were years that could never be fully described in a single article—these were years of falling in love, of becoming a father, of dreaming of the decades to come.

“He was so excited to be a part of his daughter’s life; he wanted to be with her every day,” McDonald said. “Every five minutes he’d be calling and asking what she’s doing. She was always on his mind.”

“When his daughter came into the world, he really changed, not in a bad way but a good way,” McDonald continued. “He wrote a page of goals and every goal had to do with his daughter. He was very determined, very smart. He was always in good spirits. When I would feel down about something, I would call to talk to him. He would always make it better.”

At the time of his death, Da’Monte was working the third shift at Shape Corp.; he had been planning to begin a new job at Cole’s Quality Foods in January. He too was taking classes at Muskegon Community College—and, being someone who loved talking and who was deeply sensitive and empathetic, he was pulled towards the field of psychology, his mother said.

“He loved to work with people and kids; he loved to talk; he loved to listen,” April Neal said. “He was good with people.”

Always one who loved spending time with children, he was a girls’ basketball coach for Oakview Elementary School—and Da’Monte, whose all-time favorite basketball player was Kobe Bryant, dreamed of his daughter one day playing basketball as well.

Now, his girlfriend of two years who had known him for much of their childhoods, Robertson said she plans on sharing his love of basketball—which she too played—with their daughter as she grows up, as well as countless other memories. 

“It’s all he talked about, her becoming a basketball player,” Robertson said, smiling. “She’s definitely going to be like him.”

Already, the baby is looking “just like Tae-Tae,” Da’Monte’s aunt, Shereka Neal, said. 

“He wanted everything for her—everything he didn’t have and more,” she said. “He was just in love with that little girl.”

Like so many of those in his life, Robertson loved Da’Monte fiercely; in his bedroom, there is a poster she made for him that is filled with photos of the two of them and writing that says: “I wish I could explain your eyes and how the sound of your voice gives me butterflies.”

Da’Monte’s aunt, Shereka Neal, and mother, April Denise Neal. Photo by Anna Gustafson

“As a dad, he was awesome,” Robertson said. “He was really caring and overprotective. I want people to remember he was a good person; he touched so many people’s hearts. He was a good son, brother, father. He was a very great person, inside and out.”

As Robertson spoke, her baby’s smiling face popping into the phone screen every now and then, April Neal’s eyes filled with tears: this is not the conversation she should be having. She should not be sitting in a room filled with her son’s urn; she should not be wearing a necklace filled with her son’s ashes. Her other sons should not have to face a life without their brother. Her granddaughter should not be growing up in a world without her father.

“I didn’t think in a million years this is the way I’d lose my child,” she said, sitting across from a wall filled with photos of her children playing football and a stenciling that says “Bless this home with love and laughter.”

“I’m taking it one day at a time,” said April Neal, a shift manager at Muskegon Laundromat who’s planning on starting her own detailing business that will have a name honoring both her son and mother. “It’s hard for us. I read my Bible every day. I pray every day with my sons. I tell them to stay prayed up. I know I’m going to see my son again; I’m going to keep doing what I need to to see him again, and for my grandbaby.”

Kobe Bryant jerseys line the wall inside Da’Monte’s bedroom. Above them are the funeral service programs for Da’Monte, April Neal’s grandmother, and three of Da’Monte’s friend who were also shot and killed. Photo by Anna Gustafson
The funeral programs inside Da’Monte’s bedroom. Photo by Anna Gustafson

With faith, family and friends by her side, April Neal said she is getting by. As she wades through this new world without her son, she often finds comfort in the support from the countless people surrounding her. Gemini DaPoet, a poet from Muskegon, for example, wrote a poem for the Neal family that she read during Da’Monte’s funeral service. Titled “Letter From Heaven,” the poem (the full version of which is at the end of this article) ends with:

“To everyone else I know you dreaded today,

So this letter from heaven was my way to say,

I’m good,

God welcomed me home,

A place where the streets are lined with gold,

The streets so cold,

Every time I get dressed you know I strike a pose,

Though it hurts to lose the one you love,

I vow to protect you all from above,

Protecting you all from the seen and unforeseen danger,

Love,

Your Guardian Angel.”

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As those who knew him try to make sense of a senseless death, there are many messages they’re hoping the community at large will remember and hear—that Da’Monte loved and was loved, that they will never stop honoring his memory, that he will live on through his family and friends.

And, his aunt said, another important message she’s hoping the community will hear is “to put the guns away.”

McDonald noted that he has “lost more friends than my mom and dad have in their lives,” many of them to gun violence.

“There’s more negativity, more guns around,” said McDonald, who played football with Da’Monte and is now working in Muskegon while taking a semester off from attending college in Ohio.

The violence has gotten so bad that McDonald is encouraging the younger generation to “work hard and get away from the things that bring you down in Muskegon.”

“It’s sad; a friend passes away and a couple months later another friend passes away,” he said. “There’s more to life than losing friends and going through sad situations. Work hard. Get away from here.”

Sitting beneath a photo of a smiling Da’Monte as a child, his cheeks looking much like his daughter’s now, April Neal looked ahead at the football trophies and wrestling medals earned by her son. This is a home filled with her first-born—his presence is everywhere. She wakes up expecting to hear his voice asking for her car keys; her phone is a constant loop of photos and videos of him, of him laughing and dancing and singing. There is a hole that cannot be filled; April Neal knows this. But, around that hole, there is life: there is her granddaughter, there are her three other sons, there is a world filled with those who too loved the boy who made her a mother. And they will all continue to tell his story.

“I love my baby so much; I miss him so much,” she said. “I want him back. I never thought this would be how my baby left, but God needed him more than me. He’s resting peacefully, watching over us. He’s always going to be with me.”

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The following is the poem that Gemini DaPoet wrote for the Neal family.

“Letter From Heaven”

Right now it feels as if life is not playing fair,

So many people are hurting because physically I’m no longer there,

If it was up to me I’d erase your pain,

And though you all feel life will never be the same,

I came,

To tell you all I’m still here,

So do me a solid and wipe away your tears,

To my friends I know right now the betrayal has you feeling a rage that you doubt will ever end,

I ask you to allow God to handle the vengeance so we can see each other again,

When you get upset speak to him and allow any ill feelings to be prayed away,

That is the only way we will be able to reunite someday,

To my daughter, my world,

You always were and will continue to be daddy’s little girl,

Things didn’t happen the way we planned,

But I promise I’m still there protecting you and guiding you by the hand,

God called me home to a place like no other,

I am able to rest peacefully because I know my parents, family, brothers, and your mother,

Will make sure they do everything in their power to make sure you remember me,

Queen they will make sure you are well equipped to carry on my legacy, 

To my parents THANK YOU,

It’s because of you that they can,

Say I am such an amazing man,

Those words are oh so true,

Because I could not have been one if it wasn’t for you two,

Please don’t blame yourselves you all did everything right,

Know that I’m always watching over you even as you all sleep at night,

I hate to see you hurting because you still can’t believe it,

Lean on God’s word like you installed in me and show the devil you won’t be defeated,

To everyone else I know you dreaded today,

So this letter from heaven was my way to say,

I’m good,

God welcomed he home,

A place where the streets are lined with gold,

The streets so cold,

Every time I get dressed you know I strike a pose,

Though it hurts to lose the one you love, 

I vow to protect you all from above,

Protecting you all from seen and unforeseen danger,

Love,

Your Guardian Angel

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

2 thoughts on “‘He’s always going to be with me’: After the death of Da’Monte Neal, remembering a father, son and brother who ‘touched so many people’s hearts’

  • February 11, 2020 at 7:35 pm
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    I can’t imagine the pain, the daily tears and thoughts your family is going through. I don’t know your family, but my heart is weeping for you also.I can testify to who is sustaining you though, and He won’t let you down. You have my deepest condolences and will continue to be in my prayers. Barb, better known as granny to the young folks.

    Reply
  • February 12, 2020 at 2:03 pm
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    Man This is soo sweet Im crying reading this because I know the pain I know all of them watched them all grow up. NO ONE KNOWS THIS BUT MY GRANDSONS AND DAUGTHER AND GRANDDAUGTHERS TAE TAE WAS WORKING AT WENDYS SHANYA AND I WENT IN TO EAT HE CAME FROM BEHIND THE COUNTER HEY GRANNY HE SAID GIVING ME A BIG HUG AND MY FOOD HE SAID GRANNY DO JACOREY AND LIL COREY COMES TO SEE U I SAID NO THEY DONE GOT OLDER I DONT SEE THEM SO MUCH HE SAID IM GOING TO TELL THEM TO COME SEE U WELL HE DID BETTER THEN THAT ONE DAY A KNOCK ON MY DOOR AT 1189 CHESTNUT I WENT TO IT AND OPEN THE DOOR AND THERE WAS MY TWO GRANDSONS AND TAE TAE HE SAID I TOLD U GRANNY I WAS GOING TO MAKE THEM COME SEE U HE SAID YALL COME VISIT GRANNY SHE WALKS TO OUR GAMES BRING US JUICE SND FOOD YALL COME AND SPEND TIME WITH HER THAT MELTED MY HEART HE WILL BE MY GRANDSON FOREVER WHERE EVER THEY WERE I WAS THERE CHEERING FOR THEM I LOVE HIM MY HEART IS BROKE SENSELESS ACT THAT AFFECTS US ALL IM IN JEFFERSONVILLE INDIANA VISITING MY MOMS ONLY SISTER BUT WHEN I COME BACK I WILL BE STARTING SOMETHING IN MUSKEGON TO HELP AND HONOR THE FALLING SONS OF MUSKEGON COUNTY IM HURT AND MAD I LOVE ALL OF U APRIL SHEREKA U UPLIFT ME SEEING THE LOVE OF GOD IN U IS AWESOME I LOVE THE LORD HES ALL I HAVE TO SEE U LEANING ON HIM IS LOVE SEE U ALL WHEN I GET BACK

    Reply

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