SOUTH FORSYTH – The yellow crime scene tape had been taken down by Thursday. What drivers passing by could see was the pile of stuffed animals resting against the sign for True Way Baptist Church on Old Atlanta Road, surrounded by candles and a small wooden cross.
A note from a classmate rested on the ground. Above it sat two small, framed pictures. Each one showed the faces of the Smith brothers, 8- and 9-year-old Jared and Jacob, who were shot to death along with their mother Wednesday morning by her boyfriend.
While a community of about 30 was inside the church Thursday evening to mourn the loss of Rebecca Manning and her two sons and pray for the survival of her father, Jerry Manning, one of the family’s last remaining members set up the stuffed animals with some family friends.
The church sits directly across the street from the home where the shooting occurred.
“They were the sweetest boys. They loved anyone,” said Olivia Ruis Rhoads. “They would get off the bus every day and run straight to Mom and to Pops. They were mama’s boys, but they were also Pops’ boys.”
Rhoads said she has not come to terms yet with “what’s going on.”
“I had to call Michael [Manning, Rebecca’s brother] and tell him. He [is in prison and] was on a work detail, but they took him away from everyone to talk.
“I’ve never heard my cousin cry. I’ve never seen my cousin cry. When I told him his sister and nephews and dad had been shot he just dropped the phone and started screaming.”
She said Jerry Manning, 75, has a 50/50 chance of surviving the multiple gunshot wounds he suffered before his daughter’s boyfriend killed himself.
“Pops adored them. They were his babies. They always spent time with him. He just loved them so much,” said Danielle Earhart, Rhoads’s close friend who brought most of the stuffed animals. “All they wanted was their mother and their grandfather all the time.”
They also loved climbing trees, she said. It was their favorite thing to do.
“Their mother always called them her little monkeys,” Earhart said. “They were always climbing so it made sense. They were her little monkeys.”
Rhoads said she stayed “out here [in front of the church] for over two hours last night, just sitting here.”
She began to rearrange the animals around the church sign.
“I kept feeling a weird presence, and I’d move stuff around, and I finally got it to where this [large teddy bear], the small monkey and the medium monkey were all together, and the feeling went away,” she said. “I felt like Jacob was here and Jacob wanted me to move them in a certain way.”
As those attending the vigil stood in the parking lot and released balloons to honor the memory of the family, some with notes tied to the strings, they floated up. Maybe some of them reached Rebecca Manning and her monkeys.