A Single Dad Murdered at 18

updated 12/05/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/05/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

For 18-year-old Terrell Pough, this promised to be the happiest of Thanksgivings. Over the past few months he had achieved a measure of celebrity and widespread admiration for being a good father against fearful odds—singlehandedly raising his toddler daughter Diamond while finishing school, working nights and navigating the mean streets of Philadelphia's Germantown district. After PEOPLE profiled Pough in the Aug. 29 issue, letters flooded into the magazine, and readers offered him jobs, cash, even a car. He was in the process of buying a house and was excelling at a charter vocational school studying carpentry. Nov. 27 would be Diamond's second birthday: Pough had already picked up one of her presents—a Dora the Explorer chair set—and ordered the cake, with a picture of Diamond on top.

He will not be there to help her blow out the candles. After clocking out of work as general manager of a New Orleans Chicken restaurant the night of Nov. 17, Pough was expected to pick Diamond up from his grandmother Jean Pough and then bring her to his mother, Elizabeth. He didn't show. "I was freaking out," says Elizabeth, 41. "If he said he'd be there, he'd be there."

Instead Terrell Pough lay dead at the Philadelphia morgue. At 10:30 p.m., according to police, Pough was shot once in the back of the head, execution-style, outside his Wayne Avenue apartment. Police are investigating numerous leads but as of press time hadn't apprehended a suspect or established a motive. Pough's wallet was on his body, but his 1996 Honda, a gift from a New York City businessman moved by his story, was missing. An act of random violence? Possibly, given that Pough's murder was Philadelphia's 338th this year—up nearly 18 percent from this time in 2004. Pough's family believes he was targeted—for a reason as old as the Bible.

Jealousy, says his grandmother: "I think someone was setting him up." That view is shared by Charmaine Houston, Pough's 18-year-old ex-girlfriend and Diamond's mother, who remained friendly with Pough even after he won sole custody of Diamond. "Maybe it was that he was getting stuff because of the magazine article. Maybe they thought they could get something out of it," Houston says.

With much still unknown, one thing is for sure: Pough's murder leaves an immeasurable void in the life of his daughter, who, despite being told her father is in Heaven, doesn't yet grasp the concept of death—or that her loss is forever. The night after Pough died, Diamond refused to sleep in the dark and was jolted by nightmares. "She'd wake up yelling, 'Daddy, Daddy!' " Houston says. The next morning the little girl happened upon the Philadelphia Daily News, which ran a photo of her with Pough at a Nov. 1 Philadelphia 76ers game. "She said, 'Me and Daddy, I love my daddy!' " Houston says. "This morning I was getting her dressed. She said, I'm going with Daddy, Daddy's coming.' I said, 'No, Daddy's in Heaven. And she said, 'Okay.' "

If Diamond is struggling to understand what happened, so too are the adults whose lives Pough touched. "The positive sparkle that came into our lives has been stripped away, and for what?" says Damien Webber, Pough's adviser at a program for teen fathers—who attended the Sixers game with Pough and Diamond. "I can't believe how crazy this world is." It must have seemed that way to Pough, who, by all accounts, was a little embarrassed by the attention he had been receiving recently. Still, he was overjoyed by the gift of the car—which freed him from a four-hour round-trip bus ride to take Diamond to and from a sitter so he could attend classes at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School.

All that juggling, however, took a toll. In early November Pough had lunch with his cousin Richard Nesbitt and confided his concerns: "He was saying how hard it was, how he didn't have time for school and Diamond," Nesbitt, 37, recalls. When the family gathered at Pough's for a spaghetti dinner Nov. 15, Pough was uncharacteristically withdrawn, staying in his room instead of joining in the chit-chat. Terrell didn't seem himself: "I think he was just really tired," says Pough's brother Tyrique, 21, a chef in Frederick, Md. "When we left, it was pouring rain, and he came out to give me his old radio for my car. That image keeps sticking in my mind."

It seems no one can shake the image of the young man who told PEOPLE that Diamond was "what I work for, what I live for, why I wake up." Indeed, the grief was palpable before the 76ers-Cavaliers game at the Wachovia Center Nov. 19, when the home team called for a moment of silence in Pough's honor. A memorial service is scheduled at Temple University's McGonigle Hall at 11 a.m. on Nov. 28, the day after Diamond's birthday. Even as they discuss plans for the little girl's care—Pough had designated his mother, Elizabeth, her legal guardian, and Diamond's mother supports that arrangement—the family wants to celebrate Diamond's big day, just as her father expected to. Says Nesbitt: "It's what Terrell would have wanted."

Richard Jerome. Nicole Weisensee Egan in Philadelphia and Joanne Fowler in New York City

From Our Partners