PALMDALE – Several family members wept openly Friday evening, as Clemmie Graves recalled the last moments she spent with her son.
“He was squeezing my hand, and I was saying ‘just breathe for me baby, breathe for me,’” Graves recalled through tears. “I said, ‘come on God, please don’t take my son from me!’”
But less than an hour later her son was gone.
Authorities say James Fitzgerald McElroy, 21, was shot and killed Tuesday night at the Parkwood Patio apartment complex in the 38000 block of 20th street east in Palmdale.
Deputies from the Palmdale Station responded to a call of shots fired around 8:50 p.m. and found McElroy at the location suffering from a gunshot wound, according to Lieutenant Mary Leef of the Sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau. He was transported to the hospital and pronounced dead at 9:44 p.m., according to Los Angeles County Coroner’s Assistant Chief Ed Winter. Deputies reportedly recovered two firearms from the location.
McElroy’s roommate, Nicholas Harper, 23, was detained at the scene on suspicion of manslaughter, according to Lt. Leef. Inmate records show Harper was booked at 4:25 a.m. Wednesday morning at the Palmdale Station jail. Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau detectives are still investigating the motive for the shooting, but have reportedly said that the incident appears to be accidental based on preliminary information.
McElroy’s family members vehemently dispute this conclusion.
“There is no way this could have been an accident, he meant to kill my son,” said Graves.
“He was murdered by a friend of his that is being a coward right now and trying to run from it,” said father, James McElroy, Sr.
McElroy’s girlfriend of more than two years, Carla Morales, 22, was at the apartment with both men on the night of the shooting. Morales said the two were having problems because Harper could not come up with his share of the rent for February, and that Harper had appeared drunk on the night of the shooting.
Other family members said Harper had been jealous of McElroy, who appeared to have everything going for him while Harper was suffering a series of setbacks.
“James had everything, he’d just got hired for a job, he’d just got his car, and he had a whole lot of friends who loved him,” said McElroy’s cousin Connie. “He (Harper) was losing everything, he lost his license, his baby mama, and he was drinking and doing drugs.”
Family members said Harper’s jealously had caused tension between the roommates and the two had argued frequently since living together for about a month. They said McElroy suspected that Harper had been stealing from him.
“He was saying I need to get out of here, me and Nick ain’t getting along, he’s stealing from me and I’m gonna have to confront him,” Graves said. “He was trying to figure out a way to confront him.”
She said her son had also grown to distrust Harper, even though the two had been best friends since her son was 13.
“He was saying he had to get the gun out of the house because he didn’t trust Nick, he had a feeling Nick was going to do something,” Graves said. “He was trying to get rid of the gun and sell the gun, but nobody wanted it because it was a gun.”
On the day of the shooting, family members said McElroy and friends had hung out in Los Angeles all day without Harper. Morales said she accompanied her boyfriend back to the apartment later that day, and they found Harper drunk, unhappy and looking to pick an argument.
“He (Harper) was arguing with him for no reason, he was just mad because of the fact that the mother of his child had just left him and he didn’t have anyone, he was just going through some stuff,” she said.
Morales said she was in the bedroom sleeping when the gunshot woke her up. She said she rushed outside into the living room and saw McElroy had been shot and Harper appeared to be on the phone with a 9-1-1 operator. Morales said she immediately called McElroy’s mother to the apartment.
Graves said when she got the call she rushed over and saw that her son had been shot in the mouth.
“I started screaming, who did this to my son! Who did this to my son!” Graves said.
She said she cradled her son’s head in her arms and begged him to breathe and to stay with her. She said McElroy could not talk but squeezed her hand. Graves said when her daughter stood close to Harper, McElroy pulled the girl away from Harper, which she took as a sign of her son’s anger toward Harper.
Graves said she believed Harper purposely shot her son, and said he first tried to lie and cover it up.
“He was saying at first that two black guys busted into the apartment and shot my son but didn’t shoot him, and that the black people wiped their prints off the door when they left,” Graves said. “I was like ‘that doesn’t make sense!’”
Morales said Harper tried to convince her to say that two blacks guy had busted into the apartment, but she refused. Morales said she did not see the gun after the shooting and suspected Harper had hidden the gun in order to support his story. She said there were two guns in the apartment, and deputies found both guns in the bushes outside.
Graves said Harper eventually admitted to killing her son once he got to the Sheriff’s station, but said the shooting had been an accident.
“He said he was cleaning a gun and it had a bullet in it and it got lodged so he had James help him to unstick it, and then he shot James in the face,” Graves said, adding that she doesn’t buy that story either.
“My son knew enough about guns not to put a gun in his face,” she said.
Harper was held on suspicion of manslaughter Tuesday. A spokeswoman at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said Harper had not been formally charged in connection with the killing as of 3:30 p.m. Friday afternoon. But according to the LASD Inmate Information Center, Harper was still in custody as of late Friday night. Deputy Gomez at the Sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau said Harper was still being held on suspicion of manslaughter. (We will have more details on the charges as information becomes available.)
Graves said she would like to see Harper charged with first-degree murder.
“I want 187 premeditated,” she said. “My son was a good son and a good father, he helped take care of me, he helped take care of his daughter, he was the support system for our family… he didn’t deserve this.”
“He (Harper) needs to be locked up to pay for what he did,” said Morales. “He took a great person away from everybody.”