KENTWOOD, Mich. (WWJ/AP) - A 9-year-old boy who died after being repeatedly stabbed while playing with friends spoke about how much he loved his family as he was clinging to life.
Jim Stearns, the great-uncle of slain 9-year-old Michael "Connor" Verkerke, spoke on behalf of the boy's family during a vigil Wednesday night at the scene of the attack -- a playground at the Pinewood Village Mobile Home Park in Kentwood, near Grand Rapids.
According to police, Verkerke was playing with his 7-year-old brother, his 9-year-old best friend and 12-year-old Jamarion Lawhorn around 6 p.m. Monday when the older boy pulled a knife and stabbed Verkerke in the back.
Verkerke ran to his home and collapsed, bleeding on the porch, while Lawhorn, the alleged attacker, went to a neighbor's home nearby to call police and turn himself in.
While Verkerke's mother screamed for someone to help her son, Stearns said Verkerke turned his attention to his brother, who helped the critically injured boy home after the attack.
"If anything happens to me, it's not your fault. I'll always love you," Stearns said Verkerke told his brother. Verkerke died a short time later at a hospital.
Stearns said Verkerke's death has left the family "absolutely numb."
"Their top priority right now is the mental health of their three remaining children," he said.
Lawhorn pleaded not guilty to an open murder charge in juvenile court Tuesday afternoon.
Lawhorn is designated as an adult in the juvenile court system, which would allow the boy, if convicted, to be sentenced as a juvenile and then as an adult once he turns 21, according to Chris Becker, Kent County's chief assistant prosecutor.
WWJ is identifying Lawhorn, who turned 12 in March, because he is charged as an adult.
Authorities are continuing to investigate what led up to the attack. It wasn't immediately clear if the children knew each other. According to reports, Lawhorn does not live at the mobile home park.
Tiffany Armijo, whose son was playing with Verkerke when he was attacked, said she's never seen Lawhorn before. She declined to discuss any details about the attack, but said Verkerke was her son's best friend and "a good kid."
"They always played together. He was at my house almost every day," she said.
Lawhorn has been described as behaving "very calmly" after the stabbing. Witnesses said the boy mentioned that he was upset because nobody loved him, and that he had taken multiple pills earlier in the day.
Defense attorney Charles Boekeloo told a court referee he may seek a mental evaluation to determine if Lawhorn is competent to stand trial. The boy was ordered held until an Aug. 13 preliminary hearing.
Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Laura Clifton said she believes Lawhorn is the youngest defendant in Kent County charged with open murder.
A online fundraiser has been established to help Verkerke's family with funeral expenses. As of Thursday morning, more than $13,000 had been raised. To donate, click here.
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