In an instant last year, Amanda Crowder's family grew from two kids to five.
Two days before Thanksgiving in 2015, Crowder's sister, 37-year-old Monica McMillon, was shot to death inside her Alton Park home while her three children watched a movie upstairs.
In the days after, Crowder planned her sister's funeral. Picked out the flowers and the obituary. She and her husband took in McMillon's children: 4-year-old Matthew Nichols, 7-year-old Tatianna McComb and 17-year-old Malik Jones. Somehow, they got through the holidays.
The first few months were a blur, Crowder said.
"It's been a year, I'll tell you that," she said. "It's been a year."
Crowder and McMillon both grew up in East Chattanooga.
Crowder's oldest sister, McMillon was soft-spoken, shy and nice to everyone. Growing up, Crowder never argued with McMillon.
"Me and my middle sister argued every day," Crowder said. "But she was so calm that you couldn't. You couldn't have a conflict with her."
She was the sweetest person in the family, Crowder said. As an adult and a mother, she loved taking her children to Chuck E. Cheese, loved visiting the park with them.
Eventually, Crowder got married and moved to Ooltewah, but McMillon stayed in East Chattanooga, stayed close with the people she grew up with.
A couple of months before she died, McMillon started dating Jereme Little, a well-known member of the Vice Lords gang with a complicated criminal history.
The 41-year-old man served seven years of an 18-year prison sentence for aggravated kidnapping before he was set free in May 2015 when a local judge overturned his conviction.
Little was free for just over a year — then an appellate court overruled the local judge and ordered Little back to prison to serve the rest of his sentence. He couldn't be found, however, and is now one of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Top Ten most wanted fugitives.
It was during that year of freedom that Little briefly dated McMillon. He was in the house the day she died, Crowder said, and was likely the intended target of the drive-by shooting that took McMillon's life.
"It was possibly some young gang members trying to make a name for themselves," Crowder said.
McMillon had never been involved in gangs, Crowder said. And she'd never known her sister to even date anyone in a gang until Little. She never met the man before her sister's death.
She wishes her sister could have gotten out of East Chattanooga.
"She just — single parent, dead-end jobs, so that's where she was forced to live," Crowder said. "It's not like that's where she wanted to be. That's where she had to be, and that is where the violence is right now. I really wish she could have gotten it together quicker."
Police have not arrested or charged anyone in McMillon's death. Crowder isn't expecting them to, and she's not waiting for it.
"I have kids to raise," she said. "I know whoever did this will pay for it eventually. I just try to let it go and not dwell on it, because that's not going to bring her back, it's not going to close any voids."
As the one-year anniversary of McMillon's death passed on Thanksgiving Day, the new life that was such a blur in the months after the shooting has begun to feel normal, Crowder said.
Matthew moved in with his father, so Crowder and her husband are now raising Malik, Tatianna and their own two sons.
McMillon's 7-year-old son has started calling Tatianna his "sister-cousin," even though she hates the phrase. Crowder is getting used to seeing dolls and purses around the house in addition to trucks and baseballs. Malik is finishing high school and thinking about college.
When Tatianna first moved in, she never wanted to be alone, Crowder said. She fell behind in first grade, and Crowder is pushing her to refocus. She's gotten better since, Crowder said, and likes to help out around the house. Sometimes they talk about her mom and look at old pictures.
"It's always a watching game," Crowder said. "Just watching them to make sure they're OK. It's hard to make sure they're all OK."
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