Leilani Gennings stands over a headstone on a warm August day. Her great-niece Nina Casey embraces her as they weep.
The song Gennings chose for her son’s memorial plays in the background, “See You Again,” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth.
The headstone below them shows off a heart-shaped picture of Wesley Gennings at 16-years-old, just weeks before he was murdered in a Taco Bell parking lot Feb. 13, 2016. Also decorating the headstone of Gennings’s only child is his favorite car, a Chevrolet Chevelle adorned with his Decatur High School football number — 49.
Gennings often visits her son. But on that afternoon, she reflected on her son’s murder — and how the justice system seemingly failed them.
Michael Rogers, also 16 at the time of Wesley’s death, was sentenced on Aug. 9 to eight years in prison for first-degree murder; his accomplice Diante Pellum received a total of 16 years.
To Gennings, the sentences are a slap in the face to a mother who will never hold her child again — and she wants justice.
God’s greatest gift
January 1999 was one of the happiest months for Gennings. After struggling to have a child, she found out she was pregnant with twins.
Her doctor told her she would never be able to have children, so Gennings was ecstatic to find out she’d be bringing home two babies one day.
It wasn’t an easy pregnancy, though. Before she gave birth, she was told there was a strong possibility neither of her twins would survive. Her doctor recommended abortion.
Gennings decided to carry the pregnancy to term anyways, and in October 1999, she gave birth to her beautiful boy, Wesley, named after Gennings’s twin brother.
“He is the greatest gift God ever gave me,” she said, thinking back on her only child.
Gennings raised her son to care for others, to be kind and help out in any way he could. Wesley was the kind of boy whose smile could light up a room. His friends gave him the nickname “Light Bright.”
“My son was a good kid,” she said through her tears. “Those kids didn’t have to do that to him.”
Knowing that she will never see Wesley’s smiling face again is a reality she’s forced to live every day.
“I’m still expecting my son to walk in the door. Every time somebody knocks … I didn’t move (from Federal Way), and I didn’t want anybody to know I didn’t move, because for the longest time I thought he was going to come home, and if I left he wouldn’t know how to find me,” Gennings said, weeping. “I know that’s not true now, but every time somebody knocks I keep thinking that he’s going to walk through the door.”
Gennings wishes more than anything she could go back to the night of Feb. 13, 2016.
“I would have traded places with him in a heartbeat, so that he could have a life.”
Wesley made a decision though, that cost him his life on a cold February night in 2016.
More than three years ago, 16-year-old Wesley hugged his mom goodbye and told her he’d be right back, he was going to give his friend a ride.
Gennings couldn’t explain why, but she had a bad feeling after he left the house. She tried calling him, but he didn’t pick up.
“We had a rule,” she said. “When mom calls — you answer.”
When Wesley didn’t pick up, Gennings knew something was wrong. She drove to the store, and along the way noticed her son’s car in a Taco Bell parking lot in Federal Way surrounded by flashing red and blue lights.
She pulled over and walked to her son’s car, when a police officer stopped her.
“I figure the kids just got in trouble. Got a ticket, whatever.”
Gennings told the officer that the car was her son’s, and she remembers the officer looking down at her and saying he was sorry.
“Well what are you telling me sorry for?” She recalls asking.
Gennings couldn’t accept what the officer was telling her at first.
“I was scrolling through pictures [of Wesley] on my phone, showing the officer, saying, ‘Are you sure, are you sure?’” Gennings said. “Next thing I knew I was on the ground.”
It came out during the course of a long police investigation and three-year court trial that Wesley had met with two other boys, Diante Pellum, 14 at the time, and Michael Rogers, also 16, to sell them marijuana.
While marijuana was legal in Washington state, it is still illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to consume or sell it.
A police investigation determined the deal was a ruse; Rogers and Pellum planned to rob and murder Wesley, which is exactly what they did.
Wesley was sitting in the driver’s seat, Rogers was in the passenger seat and Pellum was sitting directly behind Welsey. Before the deal happened, Pellum put a gun to the back of the driver’s side headrest and shot Wesley through the back of his head, killing him instantly, according to court documents.
After Wesley died, Pellum and Rogers stole his iPhone, his wallet, a chain he wore around his wrist from his grandfather, and a small baggie of marijuana.
When asked about the marijuana deal Wesley was involved in, Gennings said she believes he was doing it to help her.
“If I had known about it I would have put a stop to it,” she said. “But one of his best friends told me he was doing it to help out.”
Gennings said after Wesley died, she asked his best friend why he didn’t tell her, and why her son was involved in that in the first place.
“He told me, ‘Did you ever pull money out of your purse you didn’t remember putting in there?’ And I said yes. And he told me, ‘That was Wesley.’”
Justice for Wesley
A trial for the murder of her son is the last place any mother would want to be, but that is where Gennings found herself every day of the trial against Pellum and Rogers.
She remembers how it felt to sit in the same courtroom as the young men who stole her only child away from her. She remembers the sentencing more clearly than anything, though.
Gennings couldn’t believe the cavalier attitude Pellum seemed to have after everything he took from her.
She said when the judge asked Pellum if he had anything to say, he stood up, grinning, and said, “I didn’t do it.”
“I was sick a lot, I went down to 123 pounds … it was very difficult,” she said. “Not once did I get a ‘sorry for your loss’ from the family.”
Both Pellum and Rogers got well below the average sentence in Washington state for first-degree murder, which Gennings said was a slap in the face she wasn’t prepared for.
While Pellum recieved 16 years, Rogers only got eight. Gennings couldn’t understand why the sentencing was so lenient, especially after they were both tried as adults.
Sitting in the courtroom hearing the sentence Pellum got, Gennings lost it.
“[The judge] couldn’t look at me. And of course I lost it, I yelled. I said, ‘Shame on you, you know he’s coming back,’ but she couldn’t even look at me.”
Before Roger’s sentence, Gennings got up to speak to him about what he took from her. She told him that he had a chance to straighten out his life, but he needed to pay for what he did and try to right his wrongs.
“You have to be able to ask forgiveness, you have to show that you’re making an effort to reform yourself,” she said. “Otherwise they might as well keep you here. If you don’t care about life you could have just traded places with my son.”
Gennings added, “I don’t have a problem with people being rehabilitated, but you have to want to … some people in their life just don’t have what it takes. How many more crimes do they have to commit and how many more families have to suffer before something is finally done?”
According to statelaws.findlaws.com, in Washington state a first-degree murder conviction holds a penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Both Pellum and Rogers were convicted of first-degree murder, so their sentence should have been life in prison, Gennings said.
Pellum, the one who actually shot Wesley to death, received a total of 16 years to be served in a juvenile corrections facility. Rogers, who was part of the pre-meditated robbery and murder of Welsey, recieved an eight-year sentence.
Gennings said she is OK with the sentencing Pellum received, but she is asking for a re-sentencing for Rogers.
“I’m pretty satisfied for what [Pellum’s] got,” she said. “I expected Michael Rogers to get at least that, if not more, because he’s the one that set my son up. He put all this in motion. My son didn’t even know Diante Pellum.”
According to sentencing documents for Pellum, he was convicted of first-degree murder with weapon enhancement and unlawful posession of a firearm in the second degree.
Rogers, on the other hand, was only sentenced for the first-degree murder of Wesley. According to the King County prosecuting attorney’s office, the weapons charges against Rogers were thrown out due to an unlawful search of his backpack at his high school.
Prosecutors said the sentence ranges for Pellum and Rogers were the same as the ranges other defendants received for first-degree murder convictions. Rogers’s range was 321-407 months; Pellum’s was 310-393 months, much higher than the months they are actually set to serve.
Rogers submitted a request for an exceptional sentence, meaning one of 84 months total rather than the over 300 months for the standard range.
According to sentencing documents, just over two weeks before Rogers helped lure and kill Wesley, he had also set up another person to be robbed during a marijuana deal. Rogers shot at the young man involved in the other marijuana deal, but none of the bullets hit him.
However, Rogers was “significantly immature” because of his age, and his neurodevelopmental defects impaired his ability to understand the consequences of his actions, the documents continue.
Rogers had no behavioral issues and earned his GED during his time in jail, getting a 4.0 his last two semesters. Because of this, the court ordered Rogers to serve 106 months in confinement with no additional time for weapons enhancement, and 36 months in community custody.
Life after losing a son
“It’s been a struggle, it’s been hard.” Gennings said. “I’ve watched my son’s friends go off, get married, have kids, go to college, go to the military.”
Gennings is haunted that she will never have the opportunity to see her son do those things too.
But there is one bright spot she holds on to in the aftermath of losing her son. Gennings said her purpose in life is to advocate for other parents who have lost children, so they can have justice for theirs like she’s fighting for justice for hers.
“I’m not gonna be the only parent to come along with this situation, there’s gonna be many more so I’m gonna be that parent that advocates for other parents.”
Still, this doesn’t ease the pain she’s felt every day the past three years.
“During the daytime I try to advocate for other parents, during the nighttime I cry myself to sleep. That’s how I live my life. It’s been the worst three years of my life.”
Gennings forgave Pellum and Rogers for what they did because holding on to her anger only hurts her more, but part of her advocacy is to tell parents they may never get to a point where they can forgive and that’s OK.
“I felt for me that I had to forgive because for the last three years it made me so sick it almost took my life.”
In court when Rogers was sentenced, Gennings told him she had to forgive him, but that didn’t excuse his behavior and he needed to pay for it. It was hard for her to forgive the boys that took her son, but that’s what she taught Wesley to do.
“You have to practice what you preach when you have children, whether they are here or not,” she said.
Every day, multiple times a day, she goes to the cemetery he is buried at to talk with him and spend time with him.
Gennings bought her own plot, right above Wesley’s, so that when it’s her time to pass on she will still be watching over her son. She can feel Wesley telling her to keep going and not to give up.
Looking back, Gennings said it’s overwhelming how it seems like some parts of Welsey’s life were foreshadowing his own death.
“He used to tell me, ‘Mom, I’m going to have that car dead or alive,’” Gennings said. “You got the car that you wanted, son. Just not in the way I wanted you to have it.”
Gennings told another story, standing over her son’s grave, of a time when he broke some angel figurines she collected. Wesley held a garbage bag full of the figurines and apologized.
“He kept saying, don’t worry mom, I’ll fix them or I’ll replace them. I didn’t realize he meant with himself.”
Wesley may not have known Pellum before the night he was murdered, but Gennings and her great-niece Casey said they remember living three doors down from Rogers and his family.
There was one night in particular where Rogers and his younger brother showed up on Gennings’s doorstep, soaked and hungry, six years before Rogers helped murder Wesley.
“It’s pouring rain, I get out of bed, and here’s these two kids just soaking wet, they’re hungry. You live three doors down from me, of course I’m gonna bring you in and feed you,” Gennings said.
A large part of the boys’ defense was their difficult childhoods, Gennings said. But she doesn’t believe that is any excuse for what they did to her child.
“There’s a lot of kids that come from broken homes,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they pick up a gun and murder somebody.”
Casey, Wesley’s aunt, agrees with Gennings and still struggles to understand how this could happen to her nephew.
“There is no excuse for murder. Period.”
Gennings never leaves her home without her cross necklace and Wesley’s watch. Before she interred Wesley, she gave him her cross, and she wears his. That way they are never without each other.
To ensure her son’s legacy lives on, Gennings created the Wesley’s Heart Foundation, which aims to nurture children and teach them that there are other ways to live than succumbing to a life of violence.
“I’m trying to advocate and get across to these young kids, there’s a better way of life.”
Gennings is also calling for others to contact King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and asked him to allow Rogers to be re-sentenced for his involvement in Wesley’s murder. She is filing an appeal with her lawyer to have Rogers re-sentenced, but she is still looking for help from her community to make that happen.
“I need everybody.”