Born out of tragedy, Furlesia Bell found a calling ministering to grieving families

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Furlesia Bell, who was a major force behind a cold cast unit for Montgomery County, is the Advertiser’s Community Hero for October 2020.

Montgomery Advertiser

As a soft rain fell outside Kershaw YMCA, dozens gathered to listen as Furlesia Bell talked during an annual prayer vigil and balloon release for homicide victims. 

She held a butterfly — plastic and pink and covered in glitter — but the metaphorical representation of the bauble was the important part.

She held the physical representation of change. Of a metamorphosis that she underwent, at first unwillingly, but then accepted with grace. It represented the change that all family members of homicide victims would too go through, or were in the process of navigating. It’s a burden to be on the journey.

Bell describes the butterfly in three parts. 

There is the “ugly stage.” The stage where the caterpillar slinks along with unknowing purpose. It knows it has a job to do, but doesn’t quite know why. It moves through life until the second state where it tucks itself away in a safe shell for its transformation before reaching the final state, its re-emergence into a strong being. 

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Furlesia Bell poses for a portrait in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (Photo: Jake Crandall/ Advertiser)

It’s a journey that Bell — an ordained minister — has dedicated herself, over and over again. The first time not by choice, but now she willingly goes on this journey supporting other siblings, parents, children and spouses who too have lost a loved one to homicide. 

Ask those who know Bell how she’d best be described and you won’t get the same answer twice. 

Fireball. Tenacious. Driven. Mentor. Minister. Warrior queen. “Shero,” as her friend Cubie Rea Hays describes her. 

Her work has brought a community of grieving Montgomerians together online in her “Murder in Montgomery” Facebook group, giving them a space to cry, to be angry, to laugh, to talk about their cases or to talk about anything but them.

Her work with the Triple J Initiative, the nonprofit she started in honor of her brother,  has brought together the children of Montgomery for Summer camps, taught them God’s guidance and prepared them for school with supplies. 

Her work has cracked cases and her determination and tenacity for justice in her own brother’s case, has led to justice for families of other cold cases. And for that work,  Bell is the Montgomery Advertiser’s October Community Hero.

Finding purpose in tragedy

Bell’s own transformation started six years ago when her brother, Charlie Jay McCord, was gunned down in his barber shop on Mount Meigs Road.

She can recount these moments with striking clarity. 

“The doctor looked at me and he said he got shot, he told me how many times and he told me where he got shot,” Bell said, “and he said ‘I tried to do everything I could to save him but it was the bullet to the head that killed him.'”

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Seeking justice in threads of evidence: One woman’s determination leads to cold case unit

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Mayor Steven Reed fist bumps cold case advocate Furlesia Bell after District Attorney Daryl Bailey and the cold case task force announces charges in cold case murders at the Montgomery County Commission Chambers in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Photo: Jake Crandall/ Advertiser)

Bailey and Bell met at a time when she was highly frustrated with the investigation into her brother’s murder.

“As time went by, we had conversations about how to try to provide help to the cases that went unsolved,” Bailey said. “And because of her, it sparked an interest on my part to look into that and, you know, began to notice that there were literally hundreds of cases in Montgomery that were unsolved.” 

In an effort to remedy that, Bell brought the idea for a cold case unit to the table. The jurisdictional ping pong that occurred between the police department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and Bailey’s office though slowed progress on the unit.

Once it was decided Bailey’s office would oversee the work, funding had to be secured. Bell wrote to her commissioner, Harris, pleading for funding for the unit, calling him every two weeks to get an update.

On the day of the commission vote, Bell said she felt she’d gone as far as she could. 

“I had this spiritual awakening and it was like God was telling me ‘you’re at 100 and you can’t go any farther,’ ” she said. “They wanted me to speak at the meeting and I couldn’t. I knew that I couldn’t speak because I’ve got to be obedient to the Lord.”

So she was, and therefore she didn’t speak. But others did, unbeknownst to them. Davis, one of those who spoke, thought she was simply singing in to say she was present for the meeting, not to speak. God works in mysterious ways, Bells said.  

Before the meeting, Harris was sure they had secured a 3-2 vote in favor of the unit. 

“Several members of her group were at the meeting and several of them got up and really testified,” Harris said. “And I think, at least one, maybe more, commissioners were touched. Ultimately the vote passed 4-1.”

More: Teenaged convicted robber charged in 2016 cold homicide case

Since the inception of the unit, warrants have already been issued in two cold cases to include one against Ibraheem Yazeed, the man accused of killing Aniah Blanchard. 

Community Heroes Montgomery

The 12-month Community Heroes Montgomery, sponsored by Beasley Allen Law Firm, will profile one person every month this year.

Every monthly winner will receive a travel voucher from the Montgomery Regional Airport and American Airlines, a staycation from Wind Creek, dinner at Itta Bena restaurant and a certificate of appreciation from Montgomery’s mayor.

At the end of the 12 months, the Heroes will be recognized at a banquet, and a “Hero of 2020” will be honored.

January 2020 Community Hero: Surgeon Brian Gary keeps hometown on cutting edge

February 2020 Community Hero: Chappy’s Deli owner David Barranco carves out a life of service

March 2020 Community Hero: Kevin King works to improve his neighbors’ lives

April 2020 Community Hero: Patrick Aitken gives homeless a voice and is a person we need in our lives

May 2020 Community Hero: Curtis ‘Chap’ Browder serves the unfree and unfed

June 2020 Community Hero: At 18, she leads. Grace Jackson seeks truth, change

July 2020 Community Hero:  ‘He never says no’: Dreamland’s Bob Parker builds a reputation for giving

August 2020 Community Hero: ‘$1 million worth of work for a hug and a smile’: Cubie Rae Hayes rarely stops and Montgomery is better for it

September 2020 Community Hero: ‘Part of her DNA’: Whitney Griswold Califf a strong supporter of work geared toward helping Montgomery

The 12 categories the Montgomery Advertiser will focus on: educator, health, business leader, military, youth, law enforcement, fire/EMT, nonprofit/community service, religious leader, senior volunteer, entertainment (arts/music) and athletics (such as a coach).

Do you know a Community Hero?

To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, email [email protected] Please specify which category you are nominating for and your contact information.

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Kirsten Fiscus at 334-318-1798 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @KDFiscus

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Friday July 8, 2022