It was the summer, and Shawanna Rouse was at home in Little Rock, still, after taking off the second semester of her freshman year. But her cheerleading coach at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Karen Blunt, had called and told Rouse she wanted her to meet two new recruits at Park Plaza Mall.

She met them there, both recent high school graduates: Ira Williams, a lean, intense young man from Hope, and a girl named Dominique Hurd.

“It was like an immediate bond,” Rouse recalls now, nearly 20 years later, in a clear, bubbly voice that could still belong to a college student. “We were all walking through the mall, talking with each other like we’d known each other for eons. Like we were born together.”

Something clicked between the three cheerleaders that summer of 1997, the way things sometimes do among college students confronting adulthood at the same time. They became inseparable.

They were each unfinished in their own way. Shawanna was sheltered and often homesick. Ira was emerging from the foster care system. Dominique, whom everyone called Nicky, was special in a way that made others protective of her.

She had light brown skin and long, curly hair; narrow shoulders and a smile that sent blood rushing to your head. She could fix you with the wide, impish smile, her eyes narrowing to slits, a long tuft of black hair hanging down to one well-defined eyebrow. Sometimes, she would stick her tongue slightly between her teeth, then open her mouth and eyes wide and let loose a giggle, cocking her head to the side in a way that made her hair sway.

Everyone remembered that smile.

Blunt connected with her immediately, when Nicky and her mother visited campus from Fort Worth, Texas, on a recruiting trip. Nicky wanted to attend an historically black college, and cheer. When Blunt offered a cheerleading scholarship, Nicky accepted.

Not long after, Nicky expressed interest in coming to campus early to work on her skills during summer cheer camp. Blunt agreed to take her into her home. Ira was already there, Blunt says, through an agreement she had made with the Arkansas Department of Human Services to house him during the summer before school started.

Living together, the two freshmen-to-be bonded right away, Ira recalls. She was like a sister. The perfect sister.

Well, nobody’s perfect, he says. But she was almost the perfect person. Always nice to everybody. Smiling. Never mad, always happy. Like an angel, he thought.

“I thought that she was pretty,” he says. “And she was nice. And once I got to know her, I thought that she was very smart. A very smart person. Very honest. A genuine person.”

For Blunt, who had no children of her own, having Nicky around was like having her first daughter. The perfect daughter. Beautiful and buoyant, she unconsciously drew others to her. She provoked a ferocious maternal instinct in Blunt, an urge to protect her from potential harm resulting from her own good nature and her unwillingness to say no to anything as she transitioned from high school to college.

A girl, not yet a woman.

Everything was perfect

After moving into a dorm at the start of the school year, Nicky broke her arm cheering. She had to move back into Blunt’s home because the dorms only had showers, and she needed a bathtub with her cast.

“I was happy,” Blunt recalls. “I didn’t have any kids. Here was this beautiful young lady, and she was gonna get to stay with me.”

Nicky had a way of baking sugar cookies just the way Blunt liked them, serving them to her in bed. Blunt was trying to have a baby with her husband, and Nicky accompanied her on all her doctor’s visits. She told her coach she wanted to be a neonatal doctor.

Nicky’s kindness was no surprise to her mother, Vickie Williams. She used to babysit her younger siblings, then buy them gifts with the money she earned. Just a caring person, Williams says.

“Let me help you with this, Mom,” she says, mimicking Nicky. “Oh, Mom, I got it. Why you worried about that? It’s gonna work out.”

“She was a beautiful, high-spirit child,” Vickie Williams says. “Very friendly. Very friendly child. Beautiful child.”

Nicky had always enjoyed competing in beauty contests, reciting poetry, designing costumes, singing, acting — just being a character. She fit right in with the hams on the cheerleading team. At Blunt’s house, they danced and lip synched to syruppy R&B, the boys grinning at Nicky and pantomiming the soaring notes with an imaginary microphone, Nicky giggling and focusing on the dance moves.

Nicky, Ira and Shawanna lived much of the year at Blunt’s house. That first Christmas break, Nicky invited Ira to spend the vacation with her family in Fort Worth. Blunt hated to say goodbye to her before vacations, so Nicky would approach her from behind, place her hands on Blunt’s shoulders, and kiss her on the cheek.

“Throughout the year, everything was great,” Blunt says. “We had fun. I had the opportunity to have some kids. Everything was just perfect. When she moved back to the dorm, I cried all day.”

For Mother’s Day in May 1998, Nicky left her a card.

“Happy Mother’s Day for a soon 2 be mahmah. Thanks Mrs. Blunt for everything. Love always.”

She signed it with the names, “Birlea Dominique.” That was always curious to Blunt. Birlea was her grandmother’s name. How did Nicky know?

'Where’s Nicky? Where’s Nicky?'

The many nights at Blunt’s house forged an unshakeable bond between the three cheerleaders.

“A lot of people kind of considered us like the three stooges,” Shawanna recalls. “You’d see us all together, and wouldn’t have one without the other two.”

As part of that bond, Blunt demanded that each look out for the others. That was a particularly difficult task with Nicky, whose outgoing nature and beauty made her one of the most popular students in school.

Even though she was a beautiful girl, it never seemed to occur to her, according to Ira.

“It was like the whole campus, all the boys, everybody was trying to talk to her,” Ira says. “I mean, I’ve never seen — every time we walked across campus. It was so crazy, everybody was just always stopping her. And of course, she’s so friendly, she’s always gonna stop and talk to them.”

A broken ankle suffered during another cheering stunt at the start of her sophomore year in 1998 didn’t keep Nicky from hopping around campus in a cast. One time, Ira and Shawanna grew tired of waiting for her while she socialized in the student union, so Nicky suggested they go on to Blunt’s house. But they started to get nervous on the way. Ira grew animated, explaining to Shawanna how he would tell on Nicky to Blunt, about how she had told them to just go on without her. But then they arrived.

“Where’s Nicky?” Blunt demanded. “Where’s Nicky?”

Ira turned to his friend. “Tell her, Shawanna!” he said, Shawanna recalls today with a laugh. They had to go back and get her.

Ira grew up singing in church, and both he and Nicky loved watching the UAPB gospel choir. So they joined, despite the fact that, according to Blunt, Nicky “couldn’t sing no way.” But she was popular, and other students wanted her around. Blunt didn’t want her in the choir, where she would be outside the close-knit family of the cheerleading team.

Most of the time, the coach kept an eagle eye out for boys who had designs on her young cheerleader. Finally, later in that first semester of Nicky’s sophomore year, a player on the basketball team had his coach ask Blunt for permission to take Nicky to a carnival. He pleaded, promising to be a gentleman, and Blunt reluctantly agreed. When they returned, Nicky carried an armful of stuffed animals.

“He claimed he won all these stuffed animals,” Blunt says. “But I don’t know if he bought ’em [instead]. He couldn’t have won all these stuffed animals.”

At the beginning of December, Blunt and Nicky were walking through Park Plaza when Blunt received a call from her father. Her cousin, Sharon Hence, had been held at gunpoint at an ATM in Pine Bluff by a young man who climbed into her car with her. The man took her cash and her jewelry and instructed her to drive to a dead-end road. Then he let her go. Her car, a black 1997 Mercedes, was later found burning on Hazel Street.

“Oh, wow!” Nicky remarked. She said they needed to be careful when they got back.

What’s left over

When you take a life, it’s as if you are taking an entire world, considering the offspring which could have sprung forth had that life not ended prematurely.

So wrote Kenneth Williams, inmate number 000957 in the Arkansas Department of Correction, in a letter to the Pine Bluff Commercial in 2005.

By then, Williams was serving two sentences of life in prison and one sentence of death by execution. His crimes included the 1999 murder of Grady farmer Cecil Boren; causing a car wreck that killed 24-year-old delivery truck driver Michael Greenwood of Springfield, Missouri; the kidnapping and armed robbery of Sharon Hence; and the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Dominique Hurd.

Williams, now 38, received the death penalty for Boren’s slaying. After killing him, he stole Boren’s truck and headed north. He was captured only after a high-speed chase in Missouri during which he crashed into a vehicle and killed Greenwood.

In his letter to the Commercial, Williams said he had become a born-again Christian. In the same letter, he confessed to killing 36-year-old Jerrell Jenkins on Dec. 13, 1998, the same day he fatally shot Hurd after kidnapping and robbing her and a friend outside the Bonanza Steakhouse on Olive Street.

Williams is scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 27.

At his clemency hearing March 31, he said he suffered childhood trauma from being molested as an 11-year-old, from watching his parents abuse drugs and alcohol, watching his father beat his mother and from taking part in gang activity beginning at the age of 9. He apologized for his crimes and asked for forgiveness from the families of his victims.

Williams said that on the day he killed Hurd, he planned to rob someone to help pay his rent, and that she and her friend crossed his path. Initially he took their money and left them on Hardin Reed Road. But driving away, he recalled how a “relentless” voice whispered to him, “Aren’t you a bit curious how it feels to kill someone?”

He began to think that they had seen his face. Because he was on parole, he worried he would get caught and sent back to prison. So he returned and shot them.

“I was beyond feelings and high as a kite,” he said.

The prospect of Williams’ execution has provoked mixed reactions among the family and friends of the victims. Genie Boren, Cecil Boren’s now-73-year-old widow, said she’s been waiting a long time for the state to follow through. If it doesn’t, “I may be dead without getting justice,” she recently told the Los Angeles Times.

A recent illness prevented Genie Boren from speaking with the Commercial.

Kimberly Jenkins, 30, the daughter of Jerrell Jenkins, says, “Honestly, I don’t wish death on [anyone].”

Vickie Williams says she has mixed emotions. She would like to see Kenneth Williams’ execution go forward. But she feels for his family. Having lost a child, “I don’t wish that on anybody.”

The one thing the families share is the knowledge that an execution won’t change the past. Instead, their loved ones are suspended in time:

— Cecil Boren, a 57-year-old grandfather whose daughter would kiss him on the forehead each night, according to a court report by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

— Michael Greenwood, a 24-year-old water-delivery driver who left behind a 5-year-old daughter and a wife five months pregnant with twin boys, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch obituary. Greenwood planned to name the boys Dylan and Joseph. Bill Lockett, a fellow driver at Culligan Bottled Water in Springfield, Missouri, told the paper that Greenwood was looking forward to the birth of his sons, and wanted mainly to be a good father. He had worried about his wife driving in recent months while she was pregnant, fearing she could get in an accident.

A customer service representative at Culligan said Thursday that Bill Lockett hasn’t worked at the company for “many, many, many years.” Asked if there was a way to contact Greenwood’s widow directly, the representative demurred.

“Some things are just better left undisturbed,” he said.

— Jerrell Jenkins, a 36-year-old father and stepfather of three sons, two daughters and several step-children, according to his obituary.

His daughter, Kimberly Jenkins, says her father was “outgoing.”

“He didn’t have much, but he did what he could,” Jenkins says, adding that he was working at the time. “He came around whenever he could. If we ever needed something, he’d always call and come by and get it for us.”

Growing up without a father figure was difficult, Jenkins says, particularly for her brothers and younger sister.

“What would life be like if he was here?” she asks out loud. Jenkins’ own five children are growing up without a grandfather.

Kenneth Williams, in the letter to the Commercial confessing to Jenkins’ murder, said that he robbed Jenkins, then shot him twice in the chest with a handgun. His body was discovered in a ditch by a young student on the way to school.

“That had to be tragic for that little kid,” Kimberly Jenkins says. “I don’t know how to reach out to whoever the kid was.”

— Dominique Hurd, forever a 19-year-old student at UAPB majoring in communications and minoring in biology; a member of the cheerleading team.

Time moves on

Ira Williams had planned to go home with Hurd again for Christmas break in 1998. Despite her death, Hurd’s family honored the invitation. Back on campus, Ira Williams didn’t leave his dorm for about two weeks. He couldn’t handle people staring at him, knowing how close he had been with her. He stopped going to church. He dropped out of school.

Shawanna Rouse never got to deliver the Christmas present she bought for Hurd. It was a picture frame decorated with characters from a recently released Disney movie, “A Bug’s Life,” that Hurd liked. Hurd had already bought Rouse a Mickey and Minnie Mouse picture.

“We were Disney fans, obviously,” Rouse says.

Pine Bluff was too familiar for her after Hurd’s death. She began preparing to transfer. One memory from that time, as she walked across campus, still brings her up short.

“Someone saw me,” she says, choking back tears. “And they looked at me and said, ‘How’s your ankle doing? Is your ankle better?’ And it wasn’t me. I didn’t have the broken ankle, it was Nicky.”

Eventually she transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She cheered there, graduated and later moved to Texas, intending to make it to California, before deciding to stay. She’s now married, with a daughter, and says she thinks about Hurd every day.

“What do I remember about her?” Rouse says. “Everything. Everything. And I miss everything about her. Her smile, her personality, her love, her joy. She just had, just a shining star. A shining star. Never a dull moment, never upset. Just a bright person.”

Ira Williams, who joined Rouse at UALR, says he thinks about Hurd “all the time.”

“I see all her friends on Facebook that we went to school with back in the day,” he says. “And I see their careers and their kids. And I just think, ‘If Nicky were here, what would her kids and career look like?’ And I’ll never get a chance to see that.”

The year after Hurd’s death, Blunt became pregnant. In 2000, she gave birth to a daughter named CeAnna Birlea Blunt.

“I wish she was here,” Karen Blunt says. “Cause today she [would be] 38. I wish I could tell you. This 38-year-old right here, is the most sincere-hearted person you will ever meet. Ever meet.”

Dreams and waking nightmares

Two times of year always stick out for Vickie Williams. One is April 7, Nicky’s birthday, which falls around Easter. The other is two days before Christmas, when they buried her.

The day of her daughter’s death remains surreal for her. At first, she was simply in disbelief. Then she and her husband arrived at the hospital in Little Rock.

“I saw that long, curly hair, and I knew that was the child,” she says.

It was like a nightmare that she kept expecting to wake up from.

“That particular day she died, I wondered, ‘Why are people still walking around?’” Vickie Williams says. “How can they move? Why are they going to work today? Can they understand that?”

As time passed, she saw other people lose loved ones in tragedies such as car wrecks, and understood the feeling from the other side.

Later, she saw her daughter one more time.

“One night I actually had a dream,” she says. “I promise you I’ve heard people talk about this. I had a dream one night, she was there. I said, ‘Well, Nicky, you came back.’”

Her daughter pointed on her body to the three bullet wounds she suffered from Kenneth Williams’ gun. The dream lasted about a minute.

“I remember waking up my husband and saying, ‘Did you see her? Did you see her?’ And he said, ‘See what?’”

“You know, like, if you ask God, can I see her one more time? I pray for him to comfort her,” her husband said.

The one question Vickie Williams had, and still has, is why Kenneth Williams chose her daughter to kidnap, rob, and eventually shoot that day. She hardly had any money. Karen Blunt believes it was because in her, he saw a girl he would never be able to attain.

Hurd’s mother spent three years pondering the question of why, before dismissing it. Even if Kenneth Williams did give a reason, “it would never be good enough,” she says. “He could never answer that question for me.”

The Sunday after Hurd’s burial, Vickie Williams and her husband were back in church. They kept attending, a decision she describes as “very helpful” for weathering the grief. Hurd had a lot of friends, and to this day they invite Vickie Williams and her husband to their weddings and showers. That can still be hard.

“Why is she not here?” Vickie Williams asks. “Why is she not a part of this? Cause you wanted five dollars. I become angry in that sense.”

Homecoming

A voice drones over the P.A. system at a Golden Lions home basketball game. The grainy home video shows cheerleaders standing on the baseline behind one basket. Nicky hops into the arms of a male cheerleader, rises on her right leg like a flamingo and turns her body toward the court, fists raised as if in triumph, smiling.

Slowly, she curls her left leg behind her, reaches over her shoulder, and grabs her foot with one hand, then another. She pulls, arching her back, until the back of her head is touching her toe. For a moment, she holds the pose, aloft, as the other cheerleaders look on.

The video cuts to another night, also in the gym. Smiling as she approaches the camera, she’s chewing gum and wearing a heavy, floor-length leather jacket. Her hair is worn up, in a styled bun, with flat bangs and ironed curls dangling by her ears. It’s Homecoming.

“Wait a minute,” the cameraman teases. “This is a tape for my momma! So you’re going to have to take off that coat and thangs.”

She crinkles her nose into a different, more skeptical smile.

“Yeah!” he says, encouraging.

In the next clip, she sets down her backpack and stands with her back to the camera. Then she turns, and theatrically opens the coat to reveal a glittering black and gold evening dress. The coat drops.

The camera pans slowly down over length of the dress, then back up to her face. She stares back, with the hint of a knowing smile.

A girl, almost a woman.