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N.C. school grapples with teen’s death

ROTC cadet wanted a life in the military

Delvonte Tisdale was often seen in dress uniform or wearing ROTC sweatshirts. In a paper for a class, he wrote that he wanted to be “a high-ranking Marine officer.’’ The teenager spent up to 12 hours a week taking classes on the history of the Air Force and the science of flight and participating in ROTC activities, such as marching and volunteer work. Delvonte Tisdale was often seen in dress uniform or wearing ROTC sweatshirts. In a paper for a class, he wrote that he wanted to be “a high-ranking Marine officer.’’ The teenager spent up to 12 hours a week taking classes on the history of the Air Force and the science of flight and participating in ROTC activities, such as marching and volunteer work.
By Maria Cramer and David Abel
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Delvonte Tisdale was a sophomore at North Mecklenburg High School for only three months, but the 16-year-old impressed fellow ROTC cadets and instructors as a hard worker who was passionate about joining the military.

“He’s one of those kids who came in and dove in,’’ said Major Mark Miller, who teaches classes as part of the school’s Air Force ROTC program. “Not everybody does that.’’

Miller said in a paper that Tisdale did for the class asking him to describe his ambitions, the young man wrote, “I want to be a high-ranking Marine officer.’’

Early yesterday, school officials held a moment of silence, asking students to think about the life of the teenager whose mangled body was found last week on a street in Milton after he disappeared from his father’s home in Charlotte.

Some students cried. Others could not understand what happened, wondering how he could have been found so far from home.

“How did he end up in Boston?’’ asked Emily Mercer, a 16-year-old junior, as she left school later in the day. “Why would something like this happen?’’

Grief counselors were available at the school yesterday, said Kathleen Johansen, a spokeswoman for the school, which has more than 1,700 students.

The new principal, Matthew Hayes, who started his first day yesterday, and Miller called Tisdale’s father and stepmother to express condolences, she said.

“It’s heartbreaking to learn something like this has happened to one of your students,’’ Johansen said.

Investigators in Massachusetts continued to search for suspects as well as answers to how Tisdale ended up about 900 miles north of his home.

“The investigation is ongoing,’’ said David Traub, a spokesman for the Norfolk district attorney’s office, declining to answer questions about the investigation.

Police in Milton did not return calls.

Some relatives said last week that Tisdale may have run away, as he had done several times. Tisdale had a contentious relationship with his father and may have been heading to Baltimore, where he had family, they said. Relatives also said he may have hitched a ride with someone bound for the Boston area.

In Huntersville, Miller said the 30 students in Tisdale’s ROTC unit are coping and have asked how they could honor their friend.

“For the small group that we have . . . it’s a hole,’’ Miller said. “Those kids were spending extra time with him, and now he’s not here.’’

Tisdale was a first-year cadet, so his classes were with students a year younger. But he spent much of his time with the older students in the ROTC program, in which 125 students participate.

“He never let us forget he was older,’’ Miller said, smiling.

It was the first time Tisdale had joined ROTC. He enrolled three months ago at the school and told instructors he came from a family of military men.

Tisdale spent up to 12 hours a week taking classes on the history of the Air Force and the science of flight and participating in ROTC activities, such as marching and volunteer work. He was often seen in dress uniform or ROTC sweatshirts.

Miller said the teen often stopped by his office, peppering him and the other instructor with questions about ROTC activities. “He liked us enough that we would have to send him back to class,’’ Miller said. “He was having a great time.’’

Tisdale spent weekends emptying garbage cans and directing cars at school football games and the Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville, where ROTC junior officers volunteer to raise money for their programs.

Miller last saw Tisdale on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, during a drill practice, and he appeared to be in good spirits.

Three days later, the last day his father reported seeing him, Tisdale was scheduled to help out at the Renaissance Festival, but apparently did not go, the festival producer said. Last weekend, Massachusetts investigators interviewed fellow cadets working at the festival.

Thalik McDaniel, a 15-year-old sophomore who took the bus with Tisdale, said the school is rife with speculation about how the teen disappeared.

“It kind of scared me,’’ he said. “I don’t want to go outside anymore.’’

Tisdale was quiet but had made friends in the short time he was in school. “He was so friendly,’’ McDaniel said.

Tisdale’s aunt, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Laura, said the family is wondering whether the boy’s openness led him to trust a dangerous person.

“I think a lot of it is because he had a good heart; he just believed and trusted people,’’ she said. “We don’t want to speculate. We’re just not sure.’’

His aunt said the family hopes investigators find answers soon.

“Whoever knows what happened to him, I don’t know what I could say that would make that much of a difference, but whoever they are, justice will prevail,’’ she said. “Whether it takes 15 years, 20 years, or 30 years, time will catch up with you.’’

Neighbors of Anthony Tisdale, the teen’s 38-year-old father, left condolence cards and notes at the family’s home. Over the weekend, a neighbor left flowers, and others brought a dinner of chicken, potato casserole, green bean casserole, and rolls.

“There is nothing, nothing, any of us wouldn’t do for them,’’ said Shauna Stoll, a neighbor.

“I don’t think they’re really in a place to know what they need,’’ she said.

The northern Charlotte neighborhood, where the houses are about 17 years old, is tight-knit. The Tisdales, who moved to the area from Greensboro about five months ago, quickly made an impression with their warmth.

They had renovated their brick house and cleaned up the yard, with the help of their son, who often helped his father trim bushes and clear brush.

“This is a good family,’’ Stoll said.

She said the news has unsettled the neighborhood.

“We’ve had our fair share of problems over the years,’’ she said. “But nothing this painful.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.; David Abel at dabel@globe.com.