CHARLOTTE, NC (Anna Douglas/Charlotte Observer) - Their wedding day was just three weeks away when Aura Davis' fiance went missing.
Davis had seen 27-year-old Alkenyatta "Al" Wilson at work, just hours earlier on July 27, 2001. He stepped outside and met her at her car. They held hands, laughed and he kissed her. They were looking forward to a honeymoon in Jamaica.
When Wilson didn't come home from work that night, Davis knew something was wrong.
She reported him missing that night. A couple weeks later, the wedding was canceled.
Wilson's disappearance stumped police in the small Alabama town. "It's like he just fell off the face of the earth," one police captain said.
Months passed, and detectives could find no trace of him.
Finally, two-and-a-half years later, they found Wilson's body at the bottom of a well.
He had been beaten and violently dropped, head-first, 40 feet down into an old well shaft, his hands and feet bound by rope and his mouth taped shut, forensic evidence revealed. His green Ford pickup truck was buried eight feet underground in a remote field.
Davis was devastated. Her worst fears were confirmed:
Her fiance wasn't coming back. And, their son would grow up without a father.
Al'Mahn Wilson was almost 3 years old. He was an infant when his father was brutally murdered.
Davis felt the odds were against her son.
A better life
Davis and Wilson had great expectations for Al'Mahn.
"We had this very structured way we were going to raise him ... We used to play classical music while he was in the womb. We would talk to him just like he was an adult. I would read to him, even in the womb," Davis said.
Al'Mahn's life, she hoped, would be better than hers. She was raised by a single mom in Atlanta.
"My mom didn't encourage me to go to school," Davis said. "I really always wanted to have a better education for (Al'Mahn) – a better upbringing."
Wilson, from Florida, had shared the same values. His parents were teachers.
"He had this family life that I had always wanted," Davis said.
Their attraction was instant when Davis met Wilson at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama. She was 18, a freshman away from home for the first time. He was a senior in college, handsome, kind and funny.
They dreamed of moving to a new city, buying a home and opening a daycare business. One of the places they imagined settling in was Charlotte. Wilson saved money from his job selling mobile homes for a national company with an office in Opelika, Alabama.
But, something went wrong in the sales office.
A plot to kill
Roderick "Rock Man" Johnson, Wilson's boss, was just a few weeks away from standing trial for stealing from the mobile home company.
Wilson was the key witness. Johnson and his two brothers wanted Wilson dead before he could testify, state prosecutors would later say.
In their plot to kidnap Wilson then hide his body, Johnson's older half-brother Raymond Walton posed as a customer, police said. He lured Wilson to a storage lot where repossessed mobile homes were kept.
Walton abducted Wilson, beat him and drove 60 miles into rural west central Georgia, where he threw Wilson into an abandoned well.
The case was cold for more than two years. Then, police got a tip from Walton's ex-girlfriend. Investigators found Wilson's truck in January 2004. A month later, his body.
By then, Davis and Al'Mahn lived in Atlanta, where she worked part-time jobs. She struggled with depression and anxiety – yet she did what she could for her son, putting money aside to pay for a prestigious preschool.
Police arrested the three brothers within months of finding Wilson's body but the court process dragged on.
Davis began looking for a fresh start.
A new home
She moved in 2006 to Charlotte, as she and Wilson had once planned.
"It was an up and coming city. Black people had a better opportunity in Charlotte than anywhere else," Davis said.
Davis worked, saved money to buy a home in northeast Charlotte and eventually started her own event planning business. She tried to shield Al'Mahn from the gruesome details of how his father died and she went to court alone when hearings arose for the men accused of murder.
She wanted Al'Mahn's life to be different.
"His father was unfortunately cut short at 27," she said. "So, for me, Al'Mahn making it to 28 would be phenomenal ...
"I don't want my son to be a statistic."
In Charlotte, Al'Mahn thrived.
He's been in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' talent development program for academically-gifted students since third grade. Davis recalls his teachers sending cards and notes home since elementary school, commenting on his ability to quickly understand new material and his potential to further excel in the classroom.
When Al'Mahn was accepted to an early college program as he entered the ninth grade in 2015, Davis was inspired.
She would go back to college, too.
A 'cheerleading' squad
Still, she and her son were battling the odds.
Charlotte is a city where, statistically, being poor or black means a young person faces the greatest obstacles to moving up societal rungs. Charlotte recently ranked 50th – last in the nation – in a study on economic opportunity for children born into poverty.
The study found societal barriers are far greater for poor children. Charlotte's segregated neighborhoods and schools restrict upward mobility for minority children. Single mothers, especially, are more likely to be poor and their children are more likely to fall behind in school.
Without education and a good-paying job, a mother raising children on her own will likely struggle and the cycle of poverty will continue, says Susan Andersen, founder of ANSWER, a scholarship fund and mentorship program in Charlotte exclusively for moms, of any race, who want to start or go back to college.
"We don't want (Charlotte) to stay 50th in the nation ... We're providing scholarships to these women and thus, changing the destiny of their children," Andersen said.
In 2017, ANSWER awarded Davis a scholarship. She's finishing the college career she dropped at Tuskegee when Wilson was killed. ANSWER's "Mentors for Moms" program is the first time Davis says she's felt she has the support she needs to finish school – both financial and emotionally.
"You see other women who are going through the same thing," Davis said. "Their story is different but they have that same desire to go back to school and better themselves ... I feel like they're a cheerleading squad."
Now, Davis and Al'Mahn are both enrolled at the UNC Charlotte. Al'Mahn wants to be an architect and he has a passion for writing. He recently self-published his own fiction novel on Amazon.
Davis wants to be a mental health counselor. Her own experience with grief and anxiety will help her help others, she said.
"It's hard to ask for help," Davis said. "I really wanted to go back to school and be able to help my community. For most people who are suffering from mental illness, they look like me."
On her days off from class, she's a substitute teacher at CMS and drives for Uber. She and Al'Mahn squeeze family time in between class and work and homework. They enjoy watching TV together in the evenings on the couch with their two dogs.
Now, together, they are again facing the crime that changed their lives.
A son's wish
It's been almost five years since a Georgia Superior Court found all three brothers guilty. The youngest brother, Alexander Johnson, pleaded down his murder charge and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for kidnapping and theft. The eldest, Walton, received the longest sentence: two consecutive life terms, with another 10 years added to his time in prison.
Wilson's old boss, Roderick Johnson, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Now, he's the first of the three to come up for parole.
Members of Wilson's family have been given the chance to write a letter to the parole board describing the impact the crime still has on their lives.
Al'Mahn has written his own letter. He says there's been no relief for his mother all these years.
"There's no day that she does not wonder how different our lives would have turned out if my father had not been ripped from us."
When he was a young child, Al'Mahn wrote, his mother would hold him in her arms.
"We would sit in her bed and she would sob for what felt like hours ... I would cry with her. Crying because I knew there was this great, overwhelming sadness in her heart."
Davis was surprised when she read her son's letter.
"I'd never really heard how he felt," she said. "It's me that is affecting him and not the crime."
"I'm now working to change that ... I should be able to change me and make myself stronger for him."
But Al'Mahn wants her to know what she's already given him.
"I understood (my father) had been taken away," he said. "But, she did any and every thing she could for me."
His mom spent years helping with homework and volunteering in his classes. They have memories of trips to Disney World, New York and San Francisco. He visits Florida every summer to see his father's parents. And when he told his mom he wanted to be an architect, she took him to Paris to see the old buildings.
Others, Al'Mahn said, may see their family story simply as tragedy and triumph.
To him, though, their story is told by the in-between years – by his mother's gift of sacrifice, resiliency and hope.