MIAMI – When Arlene Byrd got to the hospital on the night her son was killed, she couldn’t believe the number of bullet holes that riddled Kijuan’s body. The bullets scorched his skin between his tattoos – including three in the names of his daughter, his grandmother and his mother.
She worked for Miami-Dade County alongside Trayvon Martin’s mother and aunt, and she’d helped organize a fundraiser for the Martin family after the teen’s high-profile shooting death. She’d thought: “That could have been my son.”
Now, she realized, it was.
The killing outside a popular strip club devastated the Byrd family. During an April 4, 2014, court hearing, Kijuan Byrd’s father, Donald, raged at the man in the orange jail jumpsuit and shackles: security guard Lukace Kendle, who was found mentally unfit to stand trial after he rejected his paid attorney and insisted on representing himself.
“My son is dead,” Donald Byrd shouted, rising from his seat and jabbing his finger over and over at Kendle. “You need to go to prison. You don’t need to be laying in no mental hospital. … He wants to play crazy? He wasn’t crazy when he killed my boy, my son, man. … All of a sudden, he’s crazy now?”
Whether and when Kendle became mentally ill are important questions, and not just inside Miami’s Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.
Under federal law, those judged mentally defective or committed to a mental institution – along with drug abusers – are not allowed access to guns.
Yet that violent night in Miami exposes the danger in how regulators in Florida and across the country have approved guard licenses without conducting mental health evaluations or checking for evidence of substance abuse. Only four states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and New Mexico – require armed-guard applicants to undergo a mental health evaluation, which is standard for law enforcement officers.
The shooting at Club Lexx also followed years of mounting evidence that Kendle’s employer, Force Protection Security, was not adequately screening its guard applicants.
On his armed-guard license application, Kendle had disclosed that he had a criminal history. But he did not mention the alcohol-related problems that resulted in his discharge from the U.S. Navy or his past addiction to crack cocaine, cited later by his mother in court documents. He’d been arrested for marijuana possession and disorderly intoxication, requiring him to complete a treatment program.
Later, friends and co-workers would talk about Kendle’s violent confrontations, two head injuries and increasing paranoia. But his status as an armed guard never changed.
His mother, Cris Kendle, says that her son was the victim in the Club Lexx shooting incident and that his time in isolation at the Miami-Dade County jail after the shooting made him mentally ill. Lukace Kendle had asked officers to put him in isolation for his own protection, reports show.
“My son has been terrorized in our system. And for what?” she said.
Kijuan Byrd was not Kendle’s only victim at Club Lexx that night. He also shot Byrd’s friend Michael Smathers, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Smathers lives with his father, sister and niece and rarely leaves the house, except for doctor’s appointments. The aide who attends to him six days a week has become one of his closest friends.
Smathers struggles to understand the shooting that left one of his best friends dead.
“For me to wake up and find out he’s already been buried – I didn’t believe it. I did not believe it,” he said. “What is the reason behind the shooting? I don’t know. I can’t explain it to myself.”
Multiple shots fired
On June 1, 2012, Kendle arrived for his 11 p.m. shift at Club Lexx, steering his Chevrolet Avalanche into the parking lot. Girls in skimpy tops and short skirts teetered on high heels as men with low-slung pants clustered around cars. The smell of marijuana and sweetly smoking barbecue clung to the humid air.
Club Lexx – or Rol-Lexx, as longtime regulars call it – is a concrete fortress on a busy six-lane road just off Highway 924, also known as the Gratigny Parkway, in Miami. The strip club operates on full alert, with at least 10 surveillance cameras and a security guard manning the door.
Standing beside his truck, Kendle began strapping on his gear for the night – a black bulletproof vest with two clips and a shiny metal badge, a holster with a nightstick, black gloves, a Glock 19 and a 17-round magazine.
He noticed two men inside a gray Ford pickup backed into the space next to him. Kendle – a former 190-pound bodybuilder nicknamed “Juice” – later said they were watching him menacingly and rolling what he thought was a joint.
Kendle, 26 at the time, walked over to greet two colleagues from Force Protection Security, then went back to his truck to retrieve his cigarettes, he later told police. As he approached his truck, he said the two men – Byrd and Smathers, both African American – opened their doors simultaneously.
Kendle, who is white, told police that one of the men shouted, “I’m gonna kill you, nigga,” while the driver, Smathers, looked like he “might have been pulling something upwards.”
In an interview, Smathers said neither he nor Byrd said anything to Kendle. Smathers said he opened his car door and the guard told him to put his hands up. He said he did what he was told.
Kendle pulled his Glock out of his holster. The shots came quickly. Patrons fled, some ducking behind cars as shots blasted across the busy parking lot.
Kendle fired at least three times into the windshield and continued along the driver’s side, striking Smathers four times. Byrd, 29 years old and a father of two, fell from the car onto the asphalt, grasping for cover under the pickup.
“I pursued the assailant,” Kendle later told police. “And when I got into a position to fire, I did again.” Kendle couldn’t see Byrd’s hands and didn’t hear gunfire, he said, but he thought Byrd had a gun and “I feared for my life.”
In total, Kendle shot Byrd eight times – at least four in the back – according to the autopsy report.
Security guard Juan Lopez ran over to provide backup but noticed, to his surprise, that Smathers did not have a gun, Lopez later told police. He holstered his weapon, then felt a tug on his foot.
“Help,” moaned Byrd, grabbing Lopez’s shoe from underneath the car. Byrd didn’t have a gun, either.
Dozens of people poured out of the club, surrounding the bloody scene. Lopez and another guard tried placing pressure on Smathers’ wounds. Kendle called 911.
“How you doing?” he greeted the dispatcher in a calm, steady voice. “There’s a shooting at Club Rol-Lexx.”
“Where’s the gunman now?”
“I am the gunman,” Kendle said. “I’m the security officer here.”
Mental health unexamined
Seven days after the shooting, police arrested Kendle on charges of murder and attempted murder.
In December 2012, while in jail, Kendle was diagnosed with impulse control disorder and antisocial personality disorder. A year later, after he demanded to represent himself in court, another court-ordered psychiatrist concluded that there was a “substantial likelihood” that he had a delusional disorder.
Two months later, two additional court-ordered psychiatrists diagnosed Kendle with unspecified schizophrenia spectrum, alcohol use disorder, specified personality disorder with antisocial and narcissistic features, and what they described as an “other psychotic disorder,” court records show.
Jail reports say Kendle frequently started fights with other inmates and destroyed jail property. At one point, he went on a fast, refused to wear clothes and threatened to kill himself and an officer.
Amid a public uproar over the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, Kendle compared himself to the shooter, George Zimmerman, and told a psychiatrist that his arrest was a conspiracy created by the black community.
Kendle initially agreed to an interview for this story, but in November, the court again deemed him mentally incompetent to stand trial, and he was involuntarily committed. A doctor treating Kendle denied the interview request.
The shooting at Club Lexx was the culmination of years of violence and disruption in Kendle’s life.
In 2008, he befriended a small-time drug dealer in Miami and started partying and getting into fights. In 2010, another drug dealer struck him in the face with a brick, breaking four bones and leaving a scar across his face, according to Kendle’s interview with Miami-Dade County detectives.
The next year, his parents bought him a gun, which was registered to his father, and Kendle began working as an armed security guard.
In July 2011, after partying at a club until 4 a.m., Kendle went to smoke weed at the house where he had been attacked. As he sat on the porch, someone hit him in the back of the head, according to police reports.
When he regained consciousness, he saw the dealer who had previously struck him with a brick screaming at him, a metal bar in his hand. Kendle staggered away and was airlifted to a hospital.
Fearing retaliation, Kendle moved temporarily to Pennsylvania, where court records show he got into more trouble, for driving under the influence, public drunkenness and shoplifting.
Those convictions could have disqualified Kendle as an armed guard. But the state of Florida never found out about them.
“For those that happened outside of Florida, it’s very hit or miss. Sometimes we get notified, sometimes we don’t,” said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. A bill that would establish automatic arrest notifications now is making its way through the state Legislature.
Kendle returned to Florida, where the court had issued a stay-away order against the drug dealer who attacked him. Kendle had changed, his family and co-workers said.
“He was always paranoid,” security guard Juan Lopez told Reveal. “He was always complaining about his head hurting. He was always looking over his shoulder. Apparently, he never wanted anybody behind him.”
Security firm under investigation
The shooting brought unwanted attention to Kendle’s employer, Force Protection Security, whose owner, Belgrave Arellano, had been investigated by the state four times before the shooting.
Arellano had been a security guard for years before starting his own firm in 2007. He advised his $12-an-hour guards to be aggressive with drunken clubgoers, according to Lopez, one of his former guards.
Paychecks sometimes were late, and Arellano did not pay benefits or overtime, former employees said.
A former guard also complained that Arellano was hiring armed guards who were untrained and unlicensed. When he received the state’s request to review his payroll records for evidence, Arellano told state investigators that he had destroyed them.
Instead of suspending or revoking his license, the state let Arellano keep it in exchange for a $250 fine.
Arellano’s attorney described the state’s investigations as minor. “He is not some guy who doesn’t know what he is doing. He was in the Army,” said attorney Doug Jeffrey.
Arellano declined to speak with Reveal about his business, except to say about the Kendle case: “We’re deeply sorry, and we offered our apologies to the family. Our attorneys are handling it. … I’m not going to make comments about something I wasn’t there for.”
Facing several lawsuits in recent years, Arellano shuttered Force Protection Security and began operating another firm, Camelot Protection Group, full time. Camelot’s license expired in October. A new security company, operating at Camelot’s business address with Force Protection’s phone number, is now advertising job openings for armed guards.
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.