Hundreds attend vigil to honor Wayne State student killed in Dec. 26 shooting

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

One of six siblings, Casey Willis was not the talker of the bunch.

She wasn't the loud one or the outspoken one. She wasn't one to demand the attention of everyone in a room. 

A portrait of Casey Willis is on display during a vigil at University Prep Academy High School in Detroit on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Willis, a Wayne State University student, was killed in a shooting in the early morning hours of Dec. 26.

She was the soft-spoken one, the responsible one, the one whose actions communicated more than any words. 

Willis was killed in what police called a random shooting the day after Christmas on Detroit's east side, leaving her family and friends with the memory of her benevolent and kindhearted spirit. 

"She was just so precious," said close family friend, LaKita Gantz. "She didn't have to speak ... you saw her doing more than talking." 

Carol Bush, facing, is given a hug during a vigil held for her daughter, Casey Willis, at University Prep Academy High School in Detroit on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.  Willis, a Wayne State University student, was killed in a shooting in the early morning hours of December 26.

Several hundred people attended a vigil for Willis Tuesday night at her old high school, University Prep Academy.

They braved bitter cold while listening to speakers extol the young woman and, in her honor, simultaneously released purple and white balloons they had held during the ceremony.

The speakers spoke from a stage set up at the front of the school. Two photos of Willis were placed at both ends of the stage.

"We're hurting tonight. The enemy has stolen our loved one," said Pastor Daryl Harris of Total Life Christian Ministries in Detroit. "We're angry at the situation, angry at the perpetrator, angry at the violence that has riddled our streets every night."

Derrick Kellam, principal of University Prep Academy, said the school has a vision of what it wants graduates to be, and Willis fulfilled every requirement. She was self-aware, culturally aware and a great communicator, he said.

"It has been a great loss," he said. "We're all suffering."

Kellam told the crowd the school would establish a scholarship in Willis' name. The scholarship, to be called Vision of a Graduate, would ensure Willis' name would live on and on, he said.

In two days, a GoFundMe page that was set up to cover funeral expenses and help Willis' family has raised almost $28,000 as of Tuesday evening.

Willis, 19, was known for being motivated and driven. The University Prep Academy graduate planned on going to a historically Black college or university in Alabama but COVID-19 forced her to start her freshman year at Wayne State University.

Willis was studying sociology. Working as a board member at Alternatives for Girls, Willis developed a passion for helping women in need after watching her single mother, Carol Bush, raise six children on the east side of Detroit. 

She worked two jobs while in school full-time, working as much as she could to accomplish her goals to leave Detroit.

"She was definitely just different from most kids who grow up in this city, knowing it's hard to grow up living in Detroit, but she knew she needed to do certain things to change into what she wanted to become," Gantz said. 

Willis and an 18-year-old male friend were sitting in a Honda Civic about 1:55 a.m. Saturday in the 18000 block of Cardoni when multiple shots from a long gun were fired into the vehicle, police said.

Willis was pronounced dead when medics arrived. No other injuries were reported. Two suspects possibly left in a Chevy Impala, police said.

Gantz said a Ring security camera that captured the shooting on video showed how "uncaring" the suspects were. 

"She knew exactly what she wanted to get out of life," said Gantz. "She'd say 'This is what I want to do, I want to help give back to other women because I've seen a very strong woman in my mother.'" 

Willis, Gantz said, was the child Bush always said she didn't have to worry about. 

The two were very close. Anything Bush asked of Willis, she would do. Willis would still ask her mom for permission and for advice. Gantz said Bush would tell it to her straight. 

"Living in a single-parent household, you have to grow up faster... and you have to figure out what it is you want to do so that those tough times don't end up tough the entire part of your life and I think that's what drove all of Carol's children," Gantz said. 

Casey Willis, 19, with her mother, Carol "Bay" Bush, siblings and other family members at her high school graduation party. Willis was shot and killed on Dec. 26, 2020.

Willis was a leader, even at a young age. The third oldest of the siblings, Willis took on responsibilities such as cooking for the family, which became a favorite pastime. It was just in Willis' personality to take care of others, Gantz said. 

Willis also loved to sing and to watch movies. Some of her favorite songs came from movies such as "The Preacher's Wife" and "Dreamgirls." 

"Growing up she just learned how to love and serve people and that's what she wanted to do with her life," Gantz said.