In the living room of the Oceanside home where Khaseen Morris lived with his family is a still-growing memorial to the teenager.
There’s a skateboard that a friend painted with a smiling visage of Khaseen against a blue sky, a halo surrounding the top of his head. On the wall is a poster with pictures of Khaseen and his buddies at the beach. A photo atop a table shows him in the same T-shirt he wore when he was stabbed and died Sept. 16, one with a green alien figure and a thought bubble that says, "I don't belong here."
Yet many of the teddy bears, drawings of Khaseen and “RIP Kha” posters with dozens of signed condolences are from people who barely knew the 16-year-old — or never met him, his family said.
The objects provide a small measure of comfort to a family numbed by the killing of a teenager whom family, friends and teachers described as unusually caring, empathetic and gentle, a kid who, his father said, died a “senseless” death because he was kind to someone who asked for his assistance. According to the Morris family, he walked a girl home from a party, which led to a fight in a strip mall parking lot the next day, and the stabbing.
“It does help in a way to know that my son was so loved and so loving,” his mother, AnnMarie Morris, said last month as she sat near the memorial and several feet from Khaseen's beloved skateboards, which stood leaning against a wall.
A senior at Oceanside High School, Khaseen would have turned 17 on Oct. 24. Eight people, all teenagers, have been charged in connection with his slaying.
“We know as a family how special he was,” said Keyanna Morris, a sister. “Just to hear it from everyone else, it means a lot. Now we know he didn’t just spread his energy and spread his love to us. He spread it to anyone he could get in contact with.”
Another small consolation, family members said, is how exuberant Khaseen had been about life since moving to Oceanside in June.
AnnMarie Morris recalled how, not long before Khaseen died, the two were in the kitchen and she said, “‘Khaseen, you seem so happy.’ And he said, ‘Mom, I’m so high right now, high on life. This is the happiest I’ve been in years.’
"And he came up and said, ‘Give me a hug, give me a hug.’ And he hugged me and kissed me. That was the last conversation I had with my son. At least I knew he was happy.”
People in Freeport, where he spent most of his life, and those who knew him at Oceanside High, which he had attended for only two weeks, also continue to grieve and struggle with Khaseen’s death.
Longtime Oceanside High teacher Frank Nappi said “the way this transpired, there’s a shroud of sadness and disbelief in the school. It’s still surreal.”
“Everyone is still hurting,” said Christine Waters, a Freeport resident and education chair of the state NAACP who attended a Sept. 18 vigil for Khaseen at the strip mall, along with hundreds of others.
Police said Khaseen was killed after the ex-boyfriend of a girl Khaseen was friendly with threatened to fight him. The Morris family said Khaseen walked the girl home from a party the night before his death at her request and had no romantic interest in her.
Keyanna Morris said even though the ex-boyfriend had messaged Khaseen saying he wanted to fight Khaseen, Khaseen didn’t take the threat seriously and didn’t act scared.
“In his mind, he’s like, ‘Why would someone want to fight me for someone I don’t look at in that type of way?’” Keyanna Morris said. “He said he explained that to the guy. I guess the guy wasn’t hearing that.”
Khaseen’s father, Bryan Morris, said his son dying because of a misunderstanding over a girl he was just trying to be nice to makes the loss especially difficult to comprehend.
“The whole thing is senseless," Bryan Morris said. "It’s something that plays in your mind, and it’s just not connecting.”
The primary suspect in the slaying, Tyler Flach, 19, of Lido Beach, is being held without bail on charges that include second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty Thursday. Flach allegedly stabbed Khaseen in the chest during the fight, which started around 3:45 p.m. at the small strip mall on Brower Avenue in Oceanside. Police said Khaseen was unarmed. He died just before midnight at South Nassau Communities Hospital, police said.
Flach did not know Khaseen before the fight, according to the Morris family.
Seven other teenagers allegedly involved pleaded not guilty to second-degree gang assault and also face misdemeanor assault charges. Arrested, all from Long Beach, were Haakim Mechan, 19; Marquis Stephens Jr., 18; Javonte Neals, 18; Taj Woodruff, 17; and Sean Merritt, 17. Police did not name the other two, who are 16. The 16-year-olds’ cases were referred to youth court. All entered not guilty pleas.
The attack also sent a second teenager, an unidentified 17-year-old who was one of Khaseen's friends, to a hospital with a broken arm and swelling to his head, police said.
Court records show bail was set at $25,000 for Mechan, Stephens Jr., Neals, Woodruff and Merritt, and the Nassau County Sheriff’s Department said they had been released from the Nassau jail.
Attorneys for some of those defendants said their clients did not know anyone had brought a knife to the fight. Police have not publicly said whether the ex-boyfriend of the girl Khaseen was said to have walked home was among those charged.
A 'hippie' who loved tie-dye shirts
Khaseen was a "hippie" who loved tie-dye shirts, voraciously read "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and animé books, and taught himself how to draw animé characters, Keyanna Morris said. Family members have been wearing tie-dye shirts and a T-shirt portraying Khaseen as an animé character to court hearings of the defendants.
A memorial grew at the spot in the strip mall where Khaseen collapsed after being stabbed, until that section of sidewalk was carpeted with votive candles, flowers, photographs, a wooden letter K, a small American flag and notes from his friends.
Even after the candles and flowers were removed, and only the stain of melted wax remained on the sidewalk weeks later, teenagers continued to visit and sit by the curb. They refused to talk about Khaseen's death — except for one boy who leaned down to leave a candy bar as his offering for Kha, as they knew him. He said: “It’s over. He’s gone.”
Residents who frequent the strip mall's Chinese restaurant, cleaners, pizza shop and other stores lamented what happened and said they wanted to see the community heal. Shop owners said they were doing their best to get back to normal.
E. Reginald Pope, president of the Nassau County chapter of the National Action Network, the organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton and advocates on issues affecting the African American community, said Khaseen’s death has had “a harrowing effect” because it’s another young life robbed of its potential.
Pope said he cried when he first saw a video of the fight that has circulated on social media.
“It was just so painful to see an innocent kid come to the end of his life,” said Pope, of Freeport.
Devastated by Khaseen's loss
The fight appeared to originate from a confrontation between two groups representing “different strands of young people” who weren’t getting to know and accept one another, said the Rev. Phillip Elliott, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church of Hempstead, where he has ministered to Morris’ relatives. Elliott delivered the eulogy at Khaseen’s funeral.
Elliott said there should be more programs to give young people “a feeling of belonging and safety” in their communities so more of them stay away from needless confrontation.
He said he has told those devastated by Khaseen’s loss that they can ensure his death “is not going to make for more negativity and retaliation and fear” by channeling their sadness and frustration into helping create programs that unite young people from different communities.
Oceanside and Freeport high schools provided grief counselors for students after the stabbing. The psychological toll of the slaying of a friend or classmate can be traumatic for teenagers, especially those who witnessed the crime, said Anthony Pantaleno, a longtime psychologist at Elwood-John H. Glenn High School who now is in private practice.
“The adolescent brain isn’t fully formed,” and most teenagers don’t have the same experience with the deaths of loved ones that older adults typically have, so for any type of death, they don’t have the same coping skills as adults, Pantaleno said.
The Morrises were struck by how even people who barely knew Khaseen were so affected by his death.
At Khaseen’s Sept. 28 funeral, which hundreds of people attended, a cousin read letters from Oceanside teachers who marveled at how a teenager who attended the school for only 10 days made “the kind of impact that grown adults would work a lifetime for.” One recalled how Khaseen had asked a shy student who had no friends to be his partner in a school activity.
Khaseen told Keyanna Morris how one day he saw a girl crying in the hallway of Oceanside High, asked her what was wrong and made a point of then talking to her every day.
“That’s one thing about Khaseen,” Keyanna Morris said. "He refused to see someone sad. Even if he annoyed you until you smiled, as long as he could bring that smile out of you, he accomplished his goal.”
Move to Oceanside
Khaseen was generally a happy kid, except for when the family moved from Freeport to Covington, Georgia, near Atlanta, several years ago. He became more withdrawn there and stopped skateboarding, Keyanna Morris said.
The whole family missed New York and moved back after about a year and a half. A few months after their return, they moved into their house in Oceanside.
Khaseen thrived in Oceanside, Keyanna Morris said. He had close friends in Freeport and skateboarded there regularly to hang out with them, but he found Oceanside a better fit for his free-spirit approach to life, she said. There's more of a skateboard culture in Oceanside than in Freeport, and Khaseen believed kids in Oceanside tended to be more nonconformist, she said.
He quickly made friends. “He literally just skated around saying, ‘Hi my name is Khaseen’ and just introduced himself,” Keyanna Morris said.
After moving to Oceanside, Khaseen dyed half his hair — first red, then orange. He changed his wardrobe, switching from skinny jeans to cargo pants, even though he knew cargo pants weren’t considered cool.
Khaseen didn’t worry about being different, Keyanna Morris said.
A lot of teenagers think that “if you’re not the same, if you’re not in this box, you’re weird,” Keyanna Morris said. “But Khaseen loved being weird. He never tried to fit in. He just always wanted to be him.”
Throughout his life, Khaseen was affectionate with his family. If a family member gave him a hug from the side, Khaseen would say, “‘No, you’ve got to give me a real hug,’” AnnMarie Morris said. “‘No sideways hugs.’ ‘Give me a kiss.’ Then he’d say, ‘Say you love me.’”
Keyanna Morris said her brother sometimes came to her bedroom door just to say he loved her. Other times, he’d jump into her bed with her to watch animé shows.
“Or just to lay there, even in silence,” she said. “He just wanted to have that closeness and that bond with everyone.”
Keyanna Morris said Khaseen filled whatever room he was in with his energy. Now that vitality is gone, and the house is a different place.
"There’s no one waking us up to music. He’ll usually play music in the morning, start dancing while he’s getting ready. It’s like he was never tired."
"It’s so quiet now," she said, her voice trailing off.