MANATEE -- Sitting at their own big table toward the back, their laughter was contagious on that fateful night a little more than three years ago.
Bradenton certified nursing assistant Gwenette Matthews, then 38, a lover of old-school music like Mary J. Blige, was enjoying a night of music and dancing at Club Elite, 704 10th St. W., Palmetto along with her sister, Patricia McCray, now 47, and McCray's daughters, Latoya Matthews, now 28, and Shadarria Matthews, now 27.
Also at the table were McCray's niece, Dontria Reed, now 24, and numerous other friends.
At 12:23 a.m. Sept. 10, 2011, McCray left the club while Gwenette Matthews and other family members stayed. About an hour later, Gwenette Matthews said: "Let's dance."
As she stood, a hail of bullets pierced the club walls from the street and everyone inside hit the floor to take cover, said Gwenette Matthews' daughter, Charnekia Matthews, 22, who has collected details of the attack from eyewitness Shadarria Matthews.
Gwenette Matthews did not get up as the rest of her party rose.
"Shadarria yelled: 'Auntie, get up, get up,' " Charnekia Matthews said Sunday. "But my mom was gone. She had died instantly."
Trayon Goff, 25, Rubonia, was also dead in the drive-by shooting that wounded 22, including Dontria Reed, who was shot in the knee.
The crime remains unsolved, leaving the Matthews family in anguish.
"Our family is changed forever," said Shawn Matthews, Gwen Matthews' niece, at a family gathering Sunday to mark what would have been Gwenette's 42nd birthday Friday, Dec. 12. "This senseless crime has left the family with questions and lots of grief."
Gwenette Matthews would have changed the world had she lived, said Linda King, her oldest sister at 62.
"She loved to help people," said King, one of 12 children in the family of Clinton and Mattie Matthews, who came to Manatee County in 1954.
Gwenette Matthews, the baby of the family, loved to dance and play cards. She enjoyed her job as a nurse at the Langdon Hall assisted living center in Bradenton. She read black romance novels by the author known as "Zane." She liked to surprise her children with day trips to Orlando and Tampa. She teased them, too.
"Our parents taught us all to be independent and she was," said Vicky Matthews, 49, the eighth-oldest Matthews child.
"If she were still here there is no telling how many people she would have touched," Shawn Matthews said.
Gwenette was a caring mother to Charnekia and her son, Corbett Mabry, 19, her family said. She was grandmother to Charnekia's son, Dominique Wortham Jr., now 4.
Now, in the words of her family, she is "a grandma with Jesus" to Charnekia's son, Cameron Williams, 6 months, who looks like her. She is also a grandma with Jesus to Mabry's daughter, Gwenyia Bing, 1, who is named after her.
Lack of leads in case
"There is nothing new with it," Palmetto Police Department Deputy Chief Scott Tyler said Sunday. "It continues to be a very active, open case. But we need new information that will help us crack it and put those responsible behind bars."
Tyler said he would like to bring closure to the families who lost loved ones.
"We have had people come forward and share what they know, but no one is willing to cooperate with the investigation," Tyler said, meaning authorities need someone willing to testify.
Though all their pain and anger, the Matthews family decided to turn something bad into something good, Shawn Matthews said Sunday. The result is the Gwenette Loving Hands Association Inc., a foundation started in October 2013 by the family.
For Christmas 2013, the Gwenette Loving Hands Association toy drive helped 387 children, Shawn Matthews said.
In August, the foundation donated school supplies to needy children through the state Department of Children and Families.
This year, the Gwenette Loving Hands Foundation is again collecting new toys for needy children from G.D. Rogers Elementary School, Shawn Matthews said.
"I think if she knew what we were doing she would say: 'Thank you," Shawn Matthews said.
"I think she would be very happy," Vicky Matthews said.
New toys can be dropped off in collection boxes at two Dollar General stores, 1525 Ninth Ave. E., Bradenton, or 3611 First St. E., Bradenton. Donations of money for toys can be made at Florida Central Credit Union in the name of Gwenette's Loving Hands. For those who would like toys picked up, email email@example.com or call 941-580-8687.
Those with information on the Club Elite case are asked to call the Palmetto Police Department at 941-721-2000.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.