EAST NEW YORK — The Royal Knights were more than just a marching band for Tanaya Copeland — they were her family.
The group honored the 18-year-old Long Island University nursing student who died after being stabbed repeatedly, chanting her name and banging out a final number at her wake.
"Today, basically, we are here to send her off like she deserved," band leader Osie Smith said in front of Bethlehem Baptist Church. "It's kind of hard for everyone, especially the kids because they're so close to her. We are just going to do our best to do what we do normally in support of her."
Police believe that Copeland was the first victim of Daniel St. Hubert, 27, who went on a stabbing spree about a week and a half after being released from prison where he served five years for trying to kill his mother.
Copeland was going to meet up with friends from the band after showering and changing at home after work. She was found dead on a desolate stretch of Stanley Avenue near her home in the Pink Houses.
Two days after attacking Copeland, police believe that St. Hubert stabbed 6-year-old Prince Jordan Avitt to death and seriously wounded his friend 7-year-old Mikayla Capers. Three days later the ex-con stabbed a homeless man in a Chelsea subway station.
Outside the memorial service, Smith said he struggled with a way to explain the senseless death to Copeland's bandmates.
"It's really not much you can explain. Basically the kids losing a best friend, a brother a sister, everything like that, it's hard to explain the reason and the purpose. The only thing we can say is keep her in your hearts," said Smith tearing up.
"It's an emptiness being that she is not there, and the kids feel it. The moment they step into the line and they realize she's not there. It's not only about the band, it's about the family that's behind it."
Family friend Sharon Barnaby, 49, just shook her head at the tragedy of someone so young and promising dying his way.
"You cannot fathom. You cannot comprehend. You think you will wake up and it was just a nightmare. She had everything going for her."