Covid's toll: Remembering the Detroiters who lost the battle

May 19, 2020, 11:00 PM

By Violet Ikonomova and Jack Thomas

In this ongoing series, we aim to memorialize Detroiters lost to Covid-19 who may not have earned headlines elsewhere. If someone you know has died from coronavirus and you wish to share their story, please contact us at

Cortney Jackson

Cortney Jackson. (Photo courtesy Shanelle Jackson)

Cortney Jackson, 64, approached life like he did his beloved game of chess: with focus and forethought.

“He always taught us to be prepared and look at the whole picture,” said his daughter, Shanelle Jackson. “There was a lesson behind everything with him.”

The longtime city of Detroit employee was a family man who raised three kids and remained active into their adult lives. He regularly met Shanelle for lunch downtown when she worked at nearby Quicken Loans, offering words of encouragement when needed to help get her through a tough day.

Jackson climbed the ranks through his 24 years at the city, ending as a supervisor in the building safety department. When he wasn’t in the field, he turned heads as a dapper dresser, often suited up or in a button-down.

For fun, he played games like chess and dominoes, and — on the other end of the spectrum — Halo and Call of Duty. He liked to start his days with mood music, jazz and ‘90s R&B.

Jackson died in the hospital April 13, when his condition unexpectedly took a turn as doctors considered his release.

In life, Shanelle says Jackson “always got up, brushed himself off and kept going even harder than before.” His battle with coronavirus, she said, followed the same arc: “He was fighting, he had a real strong fight.”

Jackson leaves behind two daughters, a son, and three grandsons.

Julena Gay

Julena Gay, front. (Photo courtesy Sherry Gay-Dagnogo)

Julena Gay is said to have been so full of life you could get exhausted just watching her. The 63-year-old was a licensed cosmetologist, drywaller and bricklayer; an avid baker, motorcyclist, and gardener; a political campaign volunteer; a mother of four and the de facto matriarch of her extended family.

“Even though she had all these gifts and talents she was always there for her family,” said her younger sister, State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit). “She was the one who would organize services if someone passed ... there are a couple of young cousins whose children actually think they’re her grandchildren.”

As a big sister, Gay began dispensing crucial life advice well before motherhood. She taught Gay-Dagnogo to fight her first fight, nudging her toward a confrontation with group of mean girls by threatening to otherwise “beat her ass.”

“She would speak her mind no matter what, but had a heart of gold,” said Gay-Dagnogo.

That outspoken nature may have rendered Gay an ineffective political canvasser, and indeed, her exchanges with voters could get heated. But, ultimately, her sister says, “After they spoke words they would become friends because she was just that kind of person.”

Gay died of sepsis on April 14 after showing progress in her weeks-long battle with Covid-19.

Thomas Cobb

Thomas Alma Cobb. (Photos courtesy Sabrina Nelson)

Thomas Cobb, 79, was a driven artist and independent businessman. At his commercial sign painting business, God And I Signs, he crafted delicate designs after clocking off his day job at the Ford Rouge Plant, where he worked for nearly 40 years.

Cobb didn’t keep his recipe for success a secret. His daughter, Sabrina Nelson, says he readily mentored others in the art of sign painting and entrepreneurship, telling them “Ain’t no reason for an artist to starve, if they know how to hustle!”

But art was more than a job — Nelson says it was also her father's saving grace. When he was drafted and sent to Vietnam during his junior year at Southeastern High School, his talents allowed him to avoid combat, as an artist assigned to a commanding officer.

Nelson, now herself an accomplished painter in Detroit, says she initially resisted following her father’s path and went to art school.

He pushed back, asking, “Why you gotta do that when I can teach you everything you need to know about art?”

“I don’t wanna learn how to be on no scaffolding learning how to paint on no buildings,” Nelson replied.

The fine artist recalled the conversation not too long ago, as she stood on a scaffolding, painting a commissioned mural.

Cobb died from Covid-19 on April 28, days after testing positive for the disease at the Detroit nursing home where he lived, The Bay at Elmwood.

He is survived by his daughters Sabrina and Kimberly Dowdell; grandchildren, Denise Diop, Mario Moore, Sudani Shaah; great-grandchildren Kamari and Anai; and siblings Gwen Valrie, Richard Small, Carolyn Flournoy, Herb Small, Anniwill Russell and Nancy Cobb.

Romester Patrice “Tricey” Ushery

Tricey Ushery. (Photo courtesy George Que Canady)

Romester Patrice “Tricey” Ushery, 47, was a devoted Christian with a musical passion that blossomed during her childhood.

She was a singer and pianist, serving in the choirs at Victory Fellowship Baptist Church and, previously, Henry Ford High School, where she also twirled as a majorette in the marching band.

Ushery was pursuing a master’s degree in Christian studies when she died. She’d earned her undergraduate degree in the same field.

Loved ones remember her as approachable and always willing to help.

“She had a gift for making those who confided in her feel uplifted,” a family member writes. “Tricey’s personality and bright smile could light up any room she entered.”

Ushery was diagnosed with lupus in 2009 and sought to spread awareness about the disease with a blog and advocacy page called “Love. Live. Lupus.”

Ushery worked at Comcast and had numerous side hustles, including selling life insurance and fashion accessories, her children say.

She leaves behind her husband of 14 years, James Lavon Ushery, and four children: Keara, Khalia, James and Jordyn. She’s survived by her grandmother, Essie; mother, Romester; grandson D’Angelo Jr.; siblings George, Kimani, Johari, Tuere, Sakina and “bonus family” James, Delores, Brittany, Dauwna and Kevin.

Marilyn Careathers

Marilyn Careathers and her brothers. (Photo courtesy Melvin Jackson)

Marilyn Careathers is remembered as a bubbly, loving woman with a restless spirit. She was social up until her death at age 70, and enjoyed catching up with friends and family and traveling to different cities to play slots.

“My sister did what she wanted to whenever she wanted to do it,” said her young brother, Melvin Jackson. “She could not sit still, she always had to be going.”

Careathers was a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Before she had her two sons, she was a mother figure to her six younger brothers, protecting and guiding them no matter how hard they resisted.

She attended Washtenaw Community College and worked at the old J.L. Hudson’s Department Store downtown.

Careathers lost her battle with Covid-19 on May 6. Even with the funeral wrapped, Jackson remains stuck on the senselessness of her death.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said.

But he adds, “There’s a cause and effect for everything … If the president made the decision [to act on the outbreak] a week or two earlier, or a month earlier, would I still be burying my sister?”

Careathers leaves behind one son, Thomas Careathers, four brothers, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Robert Lee Mulkey 

Robert "Fat Rob" Lee Mulkey. (Photo courtesy Alyssa Clark)

Robert Lee Mulkey, known to friends as “Fat Rob,” had just asked his longtime girlfriend to marry him when he was diagnosed with Covid-19.

He and Alyssa Clark had barely left each other's side since they met in 2012, when she walked past his house on the west side.

“We lived together from that point on,” she said. “Like Bonnie and Clyde, everywhere I went, he went. We just basically did everything together.”

The 34-year-old father of two is remembered for his humor — a class clown whose antics as a kid meant many trips to school for mom — and impeccable style.

“He didn’t go anywhere without his (Cartier) Buffs or his jewelry,” and would sometimes iron his clothes twice — at night and in the morning — to ensure they weren’t wrinkled, a funeral program said. Even in the hospital, he remained focused on staying “fresh,” having Alyssa try to track down the latest pair of Jordans and soliciting help from his sisters in Chicago and New York when she came up short.

Mulkey leaves behind three boys: his sons, “Lil Rob,” 12; and Skylar, 14; and a stepson, Antwon.

“We wish for you to come back,” the boys were quoted as saying in the funeral program. “It’s hard trying to understand why you had to leave.”

Lisa Long 

Lisa Long. (Photo courtesy Iainis Long)

Lisa Long died doing what she loved: caring for her grandkids.

The 55-year-old is believed to have contracted coronavirus when she took over parental duties for a daughter who was herself hospitalized with the illness. Long sanitized the home before moving in, but it wasn’t enough. On April 4, she woke up with shortness of breath and died at the hospital two hours later.

“She was a sensational grandmother,” said her sister, Ianas Long. “She watched her grandkids all the time, and when I say all the time, I mean all the time. That was her pride and joy.”

The Wayne resident grew up in Detroit and attended the now-shuttered Mackenzie High School, on the west side. She was the oldest of six children and tended to keep to herself, her sister said.

As a single mom, much of Long’s energy went into raising her four children and, eventually, five grandchildren. In her spare time, she enjoyed doing crossword puzzles.

Jesse Villegas

Jesse Villegas. (Photo courtesy Elena Herrada)

Jesse Villegas is remembered as a brilliant artist with quick wit. 

The 79-year-old father of four was a playwright, director, visual artist and music aficionado. He remained sharp through his final days, never failing to ask about current events and proffer a sarcastic quip about the people involved, said his ex-wife and friend, Elena Herrada.

“He was charming, extremely witty and literary, just this understated and dry wit,” said Herrada. “But he had demons, he was a tortured soul … it didn’t make him any less loved.”

Villegas was born and raised in Houston’s troubled Fifth Ward, where, as a Tejano, he endured state-sanctioned racism, including a policy that punished students for speaking Spanish in school.

In 1967, he moved to Detroit with his wife and two daughters, then remarried and had another set of girls, this time twins. He spent his days as an audio visual technician at universities in the metro area.

On March 28, he was rushed to the hospital with coronavirus symptoms from the nursing home where he was living. He died about two weeks later.

Villegas leaves behind four daughters — Zoë Villegas, Alejandra Villegas, Halli Villegas and Jenni Villegas Wilson — and some 10,000 CDs, mostly jazz.

Costa Willa Gresham 

Costa Willa Gresham. (Photo courtesy Latise Douglas)

87-year-old Costa Willa (Moss) Gresham was “not your typical grandma,” her eldest granddaughter, Latise Douglas says. As the mother of children who had children when they were young, she was the family matriarch, raising five of eight grandkids.

Gresham was generous with a “big heart,” but her love meant keeping it real. “I’ll say what I’m gonna say” was her famous line.

Though she was “Bigma” to her grandkids, to others she was “Cadillac Connie” — an elegant dresser who loved to drive nice cars. She was a General Motors retiree and devout Christian, serving on the board at her church.

Gresham died in the hospital March 31 after apparently contracting coronavirus at a nursing home in Livonia. The virus ripped through Regency At Livonia, reportedly killing at least 15 people as of April 10.

“The worst part is she had to die alone with no one by her side,” Douglas said.

Gresham leaves behind a daughter, Sandra McClendon, and seven more grandchildren: Lontenia Young, Henry Knotte, Arron Tayne, Costawilla Jacob, Delmar Jones, Derek Jones and Durell Jones.

Valerie Messiah

Valerie Messiah graduated from ministry school last year. (Photo: Facebook)

Valerie Messiah, 53, spent her working days helping addicts recover at a Detroit treatment center and off hours volunteering. She mentored children, coordinated cancer walks, fed and clothed the homeless, and checked up on seniors.

“She was full of life,” said former Michigan Rep. Brian Banks, who met Messiah in 2012 when she volunteered for his campaign. “She was such a big giver. If she had a dollar she would give you 99 cents. Just a very compassionate person.”

Messiah retired early from her job at a Chrysler plant in Macomb County to become an ordained minister. She was a member of Greater Emmanuel Temple of Deliverance on Detroit’s northwest side.

In the days before her death, Messiah posted a list of “activities not canceled by coronavirus” to Facebook. It included “praying, worshipping, being thankful, sharing the love of Christ, and giving hope to others.”

Messiah leaves behind three adult children, Darius, Destin and Dranessia; a grandson, Jeremy;  and a sister, Wanda.

Gino Alvito Taylor

Gino Alvito Taylor. (Photos courtesy Iray Malcolm Taylor)

Gino Alvito Taylor, 49, worked as a guard at Motor City Casino for more than 20 years, since the facility opened. He stayed on after the coronavirus outbreak began, despite urging from his family.

“He shouldn’t have been at work,” his brother Iray said in a Facebook live video. “These companies, these jobs people go to, they don’t care about you.”

Loved ones remember Taylor for his biting humor, charisma and generosity.

“Even when he was complaining, you would laugh,” said his brother, Shawn Taylor, adding that one of Taylor’s favorite words was “turrible.”

Although his jokes sometimes required “thick skin,” Taylor’s brothers say he cared deeply about his friends and family, providing gifts, guidance and attention – always ready to lend an ear and keep an open mind.

Though he was the middle child, “he was really the big brother,” his older brother Iray said.

Gino graduated from Henry Ford High School in 1988. He was an avid collector of comic books and baseball cards.

He leaves behind a wife, Lescine; parents Charli Ruth and Laverne Taylor; brothers Shawn Ali and Iray Malcolm Taylor; nieces and nephews Josiah, Amari, Antonia, Amaya, Jacob, Ania; and a grand-niece, Janayah.

Jason D. Scott

Jason D. Scott. (Photos courtesy of Tina Scott)

Jason D. Scott, 43, worked as a security officer at MGM Grand Detroit. His wife of nearly 20 years, Tina, remembers him as “a wonderful father and a loving husband,” with “an infectious smile and great personality.”

Scott graduated from Martin Luther King Jr High School in 1995. In addition to Tina, he leaves behind two children, Janae and Jason Jr; his father, William Scott Sr.; a brother, William Scott Jr; and sister, Angela Scott.

Pastor Eric Maxie

Pastor Eric Maxie led U-Turn Outreach Ministries in Midtown with his wife, Charise. He was in his mid-50s.

Pastor Eric Maxie with his wife, Charise. (Photo: Facebook)

On Facebook, one mourner remembered him as “REAL” and “so down to earth.”

“This guy right here was the best,” Zan Merideth wrote. “He believed in me and always encouraged me whenever he saw me.”

Baron Coleman, a former high school friend, remembered Maxie as a gifted athlete – “the best point guard in the history of Cody High School.” The two reconnected in recent years through the Cody alumni association, teaming up for turkey giveaways on Thanksgiving.

Maxie and Coleman were in the same graduating class as another Detroit pastor who recently died of coronavirus, Jeremiah Brooks, Jr.

“They were good people,” Coleman said of Maxie and Brooks. “They grew up in a harsh environment in Detroit, had some disadvantages, but they made good lives for themselves and they did it clean.”

Dwight Jones

Jones with the Mumford girls basketball team after winning the city championship. (Photo: Mumford High School)

Dwight Jones, 72, was a retired educator and basketball coach in Detroit. He served at Mumford High School for 48 years. 

He had a ready grin and deep commitment to his students, according to longtime Mumford educator Harrison Duke III.

“He was that bright light,” Duke said. Jones gave back physically, financially and emotionally. “He didn’t ask any more of you than he would do – staying after late, making sure that kids got home safe.”

Post-retirement, he returned to coach the girls’ basketball team, leading them to  victory in the city championship. The Mumford gym is named after him.

Jones graduated from Tennessee State University. He was a Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity chapter member.

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