The Life and Death of Ladarius Clardy
Kennesaw State quarterback Ladarius Clardy was murdered on July 1, 2021, in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida. Justice has proven hard to come by.
The Life and Death of Ladarius Clardy
The drive from Kennesaw State's campus northwest of Atlanta to Pensacola took around six hours. Ladarius Clardy pushed his black, 2016 Honda Accord down Interstate 85 and out of Georgia on June 30, 2021, then cut a path across Alabama until he hit the rural country highways that took him through the northernmost part of Florida, then finally home.
Clardy, who had just finished his freshman year at Kennesaw State, was looking forward to a brief break for the Fourth of July weekend before getting back to the grind of preparing for the upcoming college football season — he'd just finished his freshman year and was a promising young quarterback for the Owls.
Once Clardy got to Pensacola, he made a beeline to pick up his childhood friend, Eric Young, who'd caught passes from him at Pine Forest High just a few years earlier. Clardy and Young spent the rest of the night making several house calls to see friends, then headed to a house where a dice game was in full swing and stayed until shortly after midnight.
As Clardy and Young drove away, they didn't notice the two cars following them from a distance.
July 1, 2021
As Clardy and Young approached the intersection of Fairfield Drive and Hollywood Avenue, the two cars that had been following them since they left the dice game pulled up on both sides of the car and opened fire, raining bullets on the two teenagers.
Clardy slammed on the gas to get away as the shots continued to pepper the car, which sailed across an embankment and crashed into a small ravine. Nearby, a man on his bicycle watched Clardy's car lose control and crash. The man flagged down a passing EMS vehicle for help, and the EMS team phoned the Escambia County Sheriff's Office (ECSO).
At the scene, EMS directed sheriff's deputies to the bullet-riddled Honda Accord. Clardy was already dead from multiple gunshot wounds. Young, who had also been shot several times but lived, was immediately transported to Baptist Hospital.
Sheriff's deputies determined quickly that more than 50 rounds had been pumped into Clardy's car, with the majority of the shots landing on the driver's side. They also determined the shots came from three different guns — all 9mm handguns.
Around 3 a.m., sheriff's deputies went to the home of Clardy's mother, Tracey Marshall, to tell her what had happened. "What I encountered when I opened my door … was my worst nightmare," Marshall said.
'Cascade of Grief'
The news of Clardy's death hit Pensacola the next morning like a thunderbolt — Pensacola News Journal reporter Eric Wallace spoke with Clardy's friends and family the next day and called it a "cascade of grief," within the community. With the suspects still on the loose, authorities took pains to not identify Young, who was still in critical condition, referring to him only as a "19-year-old passenger."
The story of the star quarterback with movie-star good looks who had been murdered in his hometown spread like wildfire. People Magazine, the New York Post and E! News all ran stories. In Pensacola, the news overwhelmed the community at the same time the ECSO team was trying to get a grasp on the investigation.
ECSO Sheriff Chip Simmons spoke at a press conference later that day and implored the community to come forward and help. "This is not just a statistic," Simmons said. "This is a son. This is a friend. This is a teammate. And enough is enough. We cannot sit here and just keep saying 'Oh just another act of senseless violence.' So we need your help. We want to know what you know."
The entire ECSO investigations staff focused its work on solving Clardy's murder and the attempted murder of Young, with Simmons making a special plea to any local businesses along the route Clardy's car was believed to have been on for surveillance videos. He also gave the public the description of Clardy's car — a black, four-door Honda Accord — and asked anyone who saw the car "or any car chasing it or around it or near it," to come forward and share the video with them.
Local Pastor Joseph Marshall spoke on behalf of Clardy's family and asked for help from the community in solving the case, imploring the same people who'd come out by the thousands to watch Clardy play football to step up and help solve the case. There was a $5,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the killers, which was increased to $10,000 within days.
At Kennesaw State, the impact of Clardy's death hit there much like it did in Pensacola, with the school releasing multiple statements expressing its shock and grief. Kennesaw State head coach Brian Bohannon said he was "devastated and heartbroken" over the killing of one of his players and extended his support to Clardy's family.
Chasing the Killers
Less than 24 hours after Clardy's murder, Simmons' plea for help from the community was already starting to bear fruit. Video surveillance on Fairfield Drive showed two cars — a black Ford Fusion and a smaller SUV identified as a Nissan Rogue — trying to catch up with Clardy and Young. Several more surveillance videos along the same route showed the same thing.
On July 3, the ECSO put out three names of people they wanted to bring in for questioning — Taziah McHenry, 20; Melvin Hester, 18; and Nick Wells, 19, although none of the three were being looked at as suspects in the case. At the same time, Young was undergoing surgery for his wounds but could not communicate properly yet.
On July 7, police announced the seizure of a black 2014 Ford Fusion they believed was one of the two cars following Clardy. The Ford Fusion, which had been reported as stolen out of Okaloosa County several weeks earlier, was found abandoned in a wooded area near where the shooting took place. Despite this progress, Simmons and the sheriff's office still didn't have any solid leads, much less a motive for the killings.
On July 8, Clardy's father, LaDaron Clardy, went on a live-streamed public forum hosted by the Escambia County Commission and made an emotional, public plea for help solving his son's murder.
"I have to put dirt on my son on Saturday," LaDaron said, referring to his son's burial. "I raised my son for 18 years … never missed a day … his mom never missed a day, and that's the hardest part, watching his mom cry. Watching his little brother cry. One of the people they brought in for questioning called my phone after, and son, I hope you're watching, but you're messing with the wrong father. You're messing with the wrong family. I don't want to scare nobody, but you're sending the wrong message to a grieving family.
"I understand if my son was living this lifestyle, but he wasn't living this lifestyle … and I got to listen to the one daddy saying he needs to get his son a lawyer, but if y'all keep playing, you're gonna have to get your son more than a lawyer … I'm not sending a threat, I just want justice for my son.
"I have two other sons, but I can't bring [Ladarius] back … I need peace. I can stand up here as a man and face everything as a man, but my son didn't deserve this. We're out here giving murderers 10- or 20-year sentences, and drug dealers are getting life sentences. We need to switch that. We need death sentences for the murderers. It's time to make an example."
The family held its funeral services for Ladarius at St. John Divine Baptist Church on July 10. Ladarius was buried at Eastern Gate Memorial Cemetery in Pensacola.
One month after the murder, and still with no leads, the reward for information leading to an arrest in the case went up from $10,000 to $40,000. On Aug. 5, the family held a vigil in downtown Pensacola to once again plead with the community for help in solving the murder.
"Everybody around the community wants me to be strong, but how can I be strong when I am my family's protector, when I am Ladarius' daddy?" LaDaron said as he addressed the crowd. "I didn't miss one moment of Ladarius' life. Me and Tracey did everything in our power to do right by our son. To have my son taken when he wasn't raised in the streets, by the streets, will not stand with me, and you will not be able to walk around this community."
Ladarius' mother, Tracey Marshall, also spoke publicly for the first time, reflecting on the morning she found out her son had been murdered. "I needed to see him, hold him, protect him, and I couldn't," she said. "Since July 1, I have dealt with the unbearable pain of losing my son to senseless gun violence. Instead of traveling to Atlanta, where my son attended Kennesaw State University on a full athletic scholarship, I now visit him at his gravesite."
Marshall also gave the first clue as to the direction the investigation was headed in, saying she didn't believe Ladarius had been the intended target. "There are people in the community that can help us," Marshall said.
The ECSO staff continued to say they were missing key pieces of the investigation. Still, they were beginning to put together a picture of how the night unfolded after finally being able to interview Young. "The important thing is to not just get an arrest but to get a conviction," said ECSO spokesman Andrew Hobbs. "Which will give Ladarius' family the justice that they want. We are waiting for that one little piece that can put the whole picture together for us."
Football in Florida's Panhandle
Tucked away in the state's far northwest corner of the Florida panhandle, Pensacola owns a special chapter in the state's storied football history due almost entirely to the high school football talent the area has produced, including two of the greatest players of all time — Pro Football Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Derrick Brooks.
In 1988, Pine Forest High, where Clardy would eventually be the star quarterback, went 13-0 and won the Class 5A state championship on the way to becoming the first high school from Florida to win the USA Today High School Football National Championship.
Three decades later, Ladarius became the starter at Pine Forest as a junior in 2018, earning All-Area honors after the Eagles went 9-4, and he threw for 1,780 yards and seven touchdowns while rushing for 664 yards and seven touchdowns.
As a senior in 2019, Ladarius threw for 2,047 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 605 yards and seven touchdowns. He was selected as All-Area again as Pine Forest went 8-3 and made the state playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Ladarius signed with Division I FCS Kennesaw State in December 2019.
"(Clardy) does everything you want in a quarterback in terms of leadership," Kennesaw State quarterbacks coach Cody Worley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on National Signing Day.
Five Men Arrested
The investigation into the murder of Ladarius and the attempted murder of Young finally began to gain some forward momentum toward the end of September.
Police arrested two men, Quaderis Stallworth, 19, and Erick Smith, 20, for the theft of the Ford Fusion believed to have been used in the shooting after Smith and Stallworth's DNA was found in the car. Smith was charged with additional counts of larceny, burglary, probation violation and another separate count of vehicle theft.
Video of the car being stolen in Okaloosa County showed three people stealing the car — Smith, Stallworth and an unknown man. Smith, who had an extensive criminal record, was held without bond, while Stallworth's bond was set at $50,000. The sheriff's office quickly established that, while neither of the men was considered a suspect in the shooting, they were both key to the case being solved. Stallworth would remain in custody until May 2022. Smith wouldn't be released until June 2022.
On the night of Sept. 30, 2021, the ECSO announced the first two arrests in the case after brothers Amos Snowden Jr., 21, and Da'Quavion Snowden Jr., 22, were both arrested on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder and first-degree conspiracy to commit murder. Arrest warrants were issued for three more men on the same charges: Kobie Jenkins Jr., 21; Timothy Knight Jr., 20; and Terrell Parker, 23.
Jenkins was arrested on Oct. 15, while Parker and Knight were arrested on Oct. 22. On Oct. 29, all five were indicted by a grand jury on charges of first-degree premeditated murder, attempted first-degree premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder.
"We have caught the killers of one of Escambia County's own," said ECSO Sheriff Chip Simmons. "We have caught the killers of LD Clardy … the monsters who did this to LD are behind bars."
Ladarius' parents stood just to the side of Simmons during his press conference. "A lot of tears have been shed during the last three months; my son was only coming home to visit the people who he loved," Marshall said after the press conference. "He was coming home to visit his friends and family, and he was killed. It's unfair. To the mothers with sons, grab ahold of your sons tonight. Squeeze them tight. Squeeze them tight for me because I can no longer put my arms around my son."
LaDaron addressed the men arrested for his son's murder directly. "To his killers, justice will be served as we always said," he said. "I will keep you guys in my prayers, but just understand this, you must serve your time for taking my son's life."
Despite the assurances of the ECSO that the case had been solved and despite a public declaration of victory by the local newspaper — "Justice for Ladarius" was the headline in the Pensacola News Journal the day after the arrests — the case would prove far more complicated than anyone could imagine.
A History of Crime and Violence
At 23 years old, Parker was the oldest of the five men arrested for Clardy's murder and the attempted murder of Young. He also had the most extensive criminal record.
In March 2017, police arrested Parker for possession of marijuana, cocaine and meth as well as for carrying a concealed weapon. In September 2017, he was arrested for cocaine possession and criminal trespassing. In March 2018, he was arrested for cocaine possession for the third time and, this time, also charged with resisting arrest. Parker would remain in jail until September 2018, and by December 2018, he was in jail again, this time for marijuana possession. In February 2020, he was arrested again for marijuana possession, carrying a concealed weapon and resisting arrest.
Knight, 20, had just one previous arrest from December 2020 when police arrested him on battery and cocaine possession charges alongside another one of the accused killers, Jenkins, as part of a large-scale drug bust in Pensacola.
According to the ECSO investigation, on the night of June 30, 2021, Parker and Knight were together at the house where the dice game was being played when Clardy and Young arrived. Either one or both of them misidentified Clardy as a man who was rumored to have taken out a paid contract to have them killed.
Knight and Parker contacted the Snowden brothers and Jenkins to inform them of who they believed was at the house. Those three came to the house and laid in wait for Clardy and Young to leave. The Snowdens and Jenkins followed the two boys away from the home in one car, while Knight and Parker followed in another. As the two trailing cars saw Clardy's Accord approach the intersection at Fairfield Drive and Hollywood Avenue, they sped up to catch them, opening fire as they pulled up alongside and as Clardy tried to get away before crashing into the ravine.
"We have determined that the victim's car and then the Snowden car and then the third car were in a row following each other," Simmons said. "The Snowden car fires a volley, then the second car fires a volley, and that is obviously the second time they got shot."
More than 50 shots were fired into Clardy's car, which ran off the road and crashed into an embankment. Jenkins, 22, was arrested on a separate charge of resisting arrest less than a month following the shooting on July 29. In his mugshot, he has a knowing smirk.
The Snowden brothers, like the other three arrested, had criminal records. Amos, 21, was the younger of the two brothers and had an arrest for marijuana possession following a traffic stop in January 2021. De'Quavion, 22, had been arrested four times since 2019, including for felony aggravated assault in September 2020.
That the five had been motivated to kill Clardy on the basis of thinking he was someone else was almost too cruel to comprehend. "I think the fact he was not the intended target really hits home," Simmons said.
In the year following the murder, Clardy's memory was kept alive in his hometown of Pensacola and at Kennesaw State, where he'd made a huge impression on coaches and teammates in the one year he was on campus.
In the fall of 2021, Kennesaw State honored Clardy throughout its entire season, going 11-2 and 7-0 in the Big South Conference, winning a third consecutive league championship and finishing the season ranked No. 10 in the FCS Division I rankings.
Following the season, Kennesaw State announced the Ladarius Clardy Memorial Impact Award to be given annually to the "member of our program that embodies his love for the game, the example he led by on and off the field, and the level of excellence we know he would want his teammates to live up to."
Kennesaw State head coach Brian Bohannon called it "the most prestigious honor in our program," with DeAngelo Hardy, the other quarterback signed alongside Clardy in December 2019, as the inaugural winner. Ladarius' family has been on hand to present the award both times.
In Pensacola, Ladaron and Tracey honored their son by creating The Ladarius Clardy Memorial Scholarship and sponsoring the Ladarius Clardy All-American Youth Football Game.
In the fall of 2021, the Pine Forest High football team had its greatest season since winning the national championship in 1988, making it all the way to the state championship game against national powerhouse Tampa Jesuit. The Eagles played the season with a special logo on the field that read "L.L.L.D. 2" for "Long Live Ladarius Clardy" along with his high school jersey number.
Pine Forest's players brought a portrait of Clardy with them on the bus to Fort Lauderdale for the state championship game. Jesuit had to score the last 21 points of the game and rally from a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter to win, 35-29.
Clardy's younger brother, Ladarian, was an All-Area defensive back for Escambia High as a sophomore in 2022. By the spring of 2023, he had eight Division I offers, including ones from Kennesaw State, South Florida, Florida Atlantic and a pair of SEC schools with Kentucky and Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, the family who had already been through so much — so much pain and loss — still had another gut punch coming.
Is This Really How Justice Works?
On Feb. 23, 2023, the State Attorney's Office announced it was dropping all charges against Jenkins, Parker and Knight in regard to the murder of Ladarius and the attempted murder of Young. The charges against brothers Amos Snowden and Da'Quavion Snowden remain in place, with a trial scheduled to begin in summer 2023.
Jenkins, who had already had jury selection for his trial scheduled for March 13, was released the same afternoon the charges were dropped. Parker and Knight remain in custody on probation violations.
"The lawful arrests were made based on probable cause after a comprehensive investigation by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office," the State Attorney's office said in a statement. "The legal standard for the Office of State Attorney to prosecute a crime requires a greater standard of proof beyond and to the exclusion of reasonable doubt. Currently, the evidence does not meet that standard.
"The Office of the State Attorney and the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office will continue to diligently investigate and gather information in this case. Upon developing sufficient admissible evidence, charges against Knight and Parker will be reinitiated."
The decision by the state attorney's office did not disclose specifically why the charges were dropped against the three, citing the "ongoing investigation and criminal cases pending" against the Snowdens.
Arrest reports obtained for all five arrested for Ladarius' murder were heavily redacted but seemed to imply the warrants and indictments were largely based on police interviews with Da'Quavion Snowden and Amos Snowden, as all five initial arrest reports cited the interviews as the basis for obtaining the arrest warrants.
Da'Quavion Snowden would later say he was "falling asleep" after taking Xanax bars when police obtained his statement and that he was pressured to say whatever he said to the police.
What Happens Next
The questions of how things got to this point have yet to be answered. Why were the charges dropped? Why did the sheriff's office take such a definitive stance when the arrests were made yet seemingly get upended by the state attorney's office? What ultimately led to three of the men (who the authorities said killed Ladarius and tried to kill Young) escaping from any justice to this point?
LaDaron chose not to comment on the charges being dropped other than admitting to being "confused" as to how things came to this point — a common sentiment among those following the case. "I'll be at the trial or trials whenever they happen," he said. "There are some dates that have been changed, but I'll be there."
LaDaron has always worn his heart on his sleeve — he now wears a chain with Ladarius' face embossed on the front. And he doesn't try to hide his emotion when speaking about his late son.
"What do I miss about him most?" LaDaron asked, his voice cracking. "It's talking to him every day. It's that. Hearing his voice. That's what I miss the most."