JACKSON, MI - A 9-month-old boy in sneakers squirmed in his mother's arm.
A curly-haired 10-month-old girl he nicknamed "Tootie" peered out from an SUV, while his oldest, a 15-year-old with long braids, pushed a child in a stroller.
"He left a lot of them behind," LaToyia Dempsey said of her brother, Rickey Dempsey, a 34-year-old father of 17.
"He did do for all of them... the best way he could."
Rickey Dempsey, released from prison last year and working construction, was expecting two more children when he was shot and killed early Sunday, Sept. 24.
Shots rang out about 3:12 a.m. in the parking lot of an automotive business across the street from a party at the Boogie Down motorcycle club on Detroit Street near Francis Street.
An acquaintance took him to nearby Henry Ford Allegiance Health, where he was soon pronounced dead, Jackson police reported.
Hours later, people and vehicles flooded the parking lot behind his mother's second-story apartment on Francis Street. They gathered in groups, leaning on or sitting in cars. Children moved among them. Music played from vehicle stereos.
Standing in her kitchen, his mother said she couldn't talk about her son, the oldest of her five children. She wasn't ready. Not now.
LaToyia Dempsey sat on the outside stairs, somber and easily moved to tears. The family is close. "They don't even know what they took from us," she said.
"They ripped our hearts right out of our chest."
The details surrounding Dempsey's death were not clear. Police did not release a lot of information and no arrest had been made.
"From my understanding, it had nothing to do with him," said LaToyia Dempsey, occasionally distracted by sympathetic visitors dispensing hugs and assurances.
"All these babies he got to remind you of him," Lakeisha Deloach, mother to the 9-month-old, told her.
Rickey Dempsey's girlfriend, Allie Navarre, who was not at the party, said he had been trying to break up a fight and "was just caught in the cross fire."
She and others repeated a familiar phrase: "Wrong place. Wrong time."
Navarre said he left the home they shared about 10 p.m. She later received a phone call, informing her he was at the hospital. He died before she arrived.
She and Dempsey have three children together. They are 7, nearly 5 and 10 months, and Navarre is pregnant with their fourth. The baby, a girl, is due in early December.
The two met in 2009. There were "rocky situations," but the couple "stayed strong," she said.
With the kids, he was playful, loving, nurturing and caring.
He had been doing well, she said. He was excited to be working. He was employed in the construction trade, his sister said.
Early last year, he had been released from federal prison. He has a long list of arrests and a history of felony convictions, mostly for drug crimes and one in 2000 for assault. He pleaded guilty in March 2012 in U.S. District Court to being a felon in possession of a firearm. A judge sentenced him to about four years in federal facilities.
Jackson police had initially detained him on weapons and cocaine charges after a four-month narcotics investigation. Upon his 2011 arrest, Dempsey talked to police. He acknowledged selling crack cocaine and indicated he was a member of the Vice Lords gang, but was no longer active, according to a court document.
In prison, he earned his GED and various certificates, including a forklift license, and called every day, Navarre said.
"He just really tried to change his life around and do for the better, focus on his kids," she said.
Her comments, and others' statements, painted a far different picture than police and prosecutors handling past cases.
Friends and family called him loving, protective, a peace-maker.
"He wanted to help everybody and he carried everybody's weight on his shoulders," LaToyia Dempsey said.
Rickey Dempsey would advise: "It aint' worth it," his friend Linitta Hall said, wiping her eyes. "He didn't want to see no one fighting or nothin."
Rickey Dempsey, a tattooed weight lifter with a chiseled physique, had a big heart, several people said. He loved, and he laughed, said his long-time friend, Michael Gant, who called Dempsey a brother, a "good guy."
"He loved everybody," Karen Gant, a close family friend, said outside her daughter's house in south Jackson, where another large group gathered. They sat on a porch, moving in and out of the house, sharing memories. "He would approach me and hug me and kiss me."
Just last month, he attended a birthday party for Karen Gant's daughter, Tarmara Gant, who would have been 39 on Aug. 28. An acquaintance, Curtis McGoughy, stabbed her to death in April 2002.
He posed for pictures in a gray memorial T-shirt. "Rest in heaven," it read.
"My heart goes out," Karen Gant said. "I am a mother and I can feel their pain."
Dempsey was among the "realest" people one well-traveled friend had known. He would freely dispense his last dollar, others said.
"Always clowning," a close friend said.
His laughter, his personality, brought people together. "He just always had something slick to say that was funny. He made people laugh, made people feel welcome," his girlfriend said.
The town will never be the same, she said.
"I ain't done crying," another friend, Gracia Gant, said. "None of us are ever done crying."