MANATEE -- As they have done for nearly every Christmas, New Year's, Halloween and birthdays since her death, about 30 friends and family of Bradenton's Crystal Johnson gathered at her gravesite at Skyway Memorial Gardens Friday to mark the day she died with balloons, swapped stories, smiles, tears and a shot of rum.
The 19-year-old was fatally shot during a July 2009 home invasion in her DeSoto Village Apartment at 3810 Fifth St. E. that also claimed her unborn daughter, later named Lariah, who shares her burial site.
But Friday's fourth anniversary of Johnson's death
will always be remembered by her mother, Susan Moore, for another reason.
"This day is special because this is the day Houston is going to finally get justice," Moore said at the gravesite.
Moore was referring to 31-year-old Everrick J. Houston, who was arraigned Friday on charges stemming from Johnson's death with Moore seated close by in the courtroom.
"I've been waiting for this for three years," Moore said.
Houston was originally charged with Johnson's murder on July, 17, 2009. But the charges against Houston were later dropped after a judge ruled that law enforcement illegally acquired blood samples from his clothing that linked him to the crime.
Houston is believed to have been shot by Lawrence Funsch, Johnson's fiancé and the baby's father, who returned fire during the break-in.
Houston was picked up about a half-mile from the DeSoto Village Apartments and taken to the hospital where he told authorities a man had shot him.
"Houston thought he could get out of it by telling detectives that he was a victim in the case," Moore said at the gravesite. "But the detectives were relentless in investigating and found that he was involved."
"This has been a long time coming," Moore said. "I know there have been a lot of times that he lay in his bed while I lay in mine crying, thinking he had beat this."
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office said at the time of his new arrest that they had never stopped its pursuit to charge Houston with the crime. According to Dave Bristow, blood samples that match blood found at the scene were obtained legally while Houston was in prison.
Houston was eventually indicted by a grand jury on April 22 on two counts of first-degree capital murder and armed burglary.
He was transferred to Manatee County jail on June 18 from a federal prison where he was serving a sentence for drug charges.
Johnson died at Manatee Memorial Hospital shortly after the home invasion in which three men allegedly stormed into her family's home and sprayed the apartment with bullets.
Her baby girl, Lariah Funsch, died eight hours later after being delivered by emergency C-section and taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
A second defendant was convicted in the case on Feb. 17, 2012. Gregory Kennon, 25, was convicted on two counts of murder and armed burglary and later sentenced to life in prison. The case is currently under appeal.
Cassie Hunt, one of those who came out Friday, often comes to the grave just to talk to Johnson.
"She was amazing," Hunt said of Johnson. "She was fun, outgoing and cheerful. There was never a dull moment with her around."
Johnson was famous for looking sensational even when she just had to run out to a 7-Eleven, her friends said.
"She was our Barbie doll," Moore said.
Sharon Williamson, Hunt's mother, said the family has gotten over the initial shock that Johnson is gone, but can't get over the loss.
"That's why we are still coming out here." Williamson said.
Kylie Lawson, 3, held a string of balloons Friday just before they were released for Johnson. Craig and Candis Barfield brought out sky lanterns that had a wick and floated across the blue sky when lit and filled with hot air.
"Beautiful," Moore said as she watched them float into the heavens.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686.