RICHMOND, Va. — Wearing shirts bearing their son’s face, Renzo Smith and his wife swelled with pride as they watched their 18-year-old senior receive his high school diploma after overcoming challenges in the classroom.
“I was very proud of him,” Tameeka Jackson-Smith said of her son, Shawn Jackson. “He was struggling in school, and he came back and he actually did it.”
Then, moments later, the celebration was abruptly cut short as shots rang out at Virginia Commonwealth University, scattering hundreds in the crowd who had gathered on campus for Huguenot High School’s graduation ceremony in Richmond, Virginia.
The new graduate and his father were killed Tuesday evening, and five others were wounded, police said.
In the chaos, the couple’s 9-year-old daughter was hit by a car but survived, Jackson-Smith said.
On Wednesday, the mother struggled to speak through tears.
Her sister, Datrell Glover, said Renzo Smith, 36, was an Army veteran, always provided for his family and had a “heart of gold.”
Renzo Smith served in the Army Reserve from 2005 to 2006 as a motor transport operator before serving in the regular Army from 2006 to 2010, Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee said. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and held the rank of Specialist at the end of service, Dubee said.
Glover said her nephew was beloved by his sisters and cousins and “had a smile that would light up a room.”
The father and son were “very close,” Glover said, adding that both parents helped their son improve his grades in time to graduate.
Renzo Smith was “so happy and proud” of his son’s accomplishment, Glover said, that the parents had custom-made shirts prepared for the ceremony.
“We’re trying to be as strong as possible,” she said. “This is all I can say at this time.”
Police on Wednesday identified the suspect as 19-year-old Amari Pollard. The suspect and Jackson had an "ongoing dispute" over the last year and had a verbal confrontation shortly before the shooting, Richmond’s interim police chief, Rick Edwards, said at a news conference.
Edwards said the suspect was there to attend the graduation as a guest. After the interaction with Jackson, the suspect allegedly went to his car to retrieve a handgun and returned, Edwards said.
Pollard, arraigned in court Wednesday morning, has been charged with at least two counts of second-degree murder and is being held without bond, Edwards said.
Police and the mayor have referred to Renzo Smith as Jackson’s stepfather; the family describes them as father and son.
The shooting took place at 5:13 p.m. outside the theater, following the graduation ceremony, authorities and school officials said.
Stephanie Rizzi, chair of Richmond Public Schools, representing the 5th District, said she heard the gunshots but prayed that the sounds were fireworks amid celebrations.
“We were cheering. Everyone was excited and happy, and they walk out into this world of violence,” she said. “It was just unbelievable and surreal.”
Rizzi said she witnessed Jackson take his final breaths while he was lying on the ground, still in his graduation gown.
Superintendent Jason Kamras said that image is seared in his mind. About 20 minutes before he died, Jackson had just walked across the stage and shook the superintendent's hand, Kamras said.
“I can’t make sense of it,” he said. “Graduations are a time of joy, of celebration, of smiles, of accomplishment. All of that was ripped away from our kids when those gunshots broke out.”
Aaron Gilchrist reported from Richmond, and Melissa Chan from New York.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com