Catherine Puhnaty (left) and Cynthia Lloyd stand with mourners who gathered at a vigil in Germantown, Md., for Mariam “Shadé” Adebayo, a beloved 24-year-old who was shot to death in a Target parking lot. (Tom Fedor/The Gazette)

Her worries increasing, Nilly Kiankhooy drove toward a Target parking lot to find her best friend. It was just after 7:30 p.m. in Germantown, Md., about 20 miles northwest of Washington.

Shadé is fine, Kiankhooy told herself. I am just being paranoid.

Mariam “Shadé” Adebayo, 24, had broken up with a man who had responded with a barrage of phone calls and text messages. He said he needed the “closure” of a face-to-face meeting. Adebayo relented, but she insisted on a public place. She had promised to text Kiankhooy when the meeting was over.

Kiankhooy turned into the shopping center. She saw police cars, an ambulance, a wheeled stretcher being pushed. She could see only the side of the victim’s body, but she saw enough.

No, Kiankhooy was now telling herself, this is not happening.

In the two weeks since, the full, unconscionable weight of what happened has fallen on those close to Adebayo, an ever-smiling, ambitious young woman given to trying to see the best in people.

Mariam "Shadé" Adebayo and her mother, Cassandra Atkens. (Courtesy of Adebayo family)

Mariam “Shadé” Adebayo grew up in Germantown. She was killed on June 1. (Courtesy of Stephanie Evans)

“It gets more real every day,” Kiankhooy said Friday. “She really is gone.”

According to Montgomery County authorities, the ex-boyfriend, Donald W. Bricker, 27, mapped out the June 1 attack in chilling detail.

That day, Bricker received an antique-style replica handgun in the mail. He practiced firing it at his home in Hagerstown, Md., and headed out to meet Adebayo. He got into her car, police said, and started arguing. Adebayo tried to run. He got out, shot her, she fell, and he walked up to her and shot her again, police said.

Adebayo died a short time later. Bricker, who police said drove off in a pickup truck, was apprehended after a police chase.

“He was doing anything he could to control her, to the point of manipulating her into a final encounter,” said Capt. Darren Francke, head of Montgomery’s major crimes unit. “She still wanted to try to help him, and he preyed on that.”

The slaying is all the more tragic because of where Adebayo was in her life. A graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, she had just taken a job at Maxim Healthcare Services in Columbia, Md., and was seeking out graduate school programs in occupational therapy. The relationship with Bricker — a man her friends and family didn’t really know, who had a mysterious, criminal past — seemed behind her.

Donald W. Bricker (Washington County Sheriff’s Office)

Mourners Heidy Jimenez of Frederick, Dreux Thibeault from Baltimore, and Michelle Harris of Germantown gather with others at a vigil in Germantown. (Tom Fedor/The Gazette)

“She wasn’t dating him anymore,” Kiankhooy said. “She was going to go do great things like she always was.”

Several weeks ago, over lunch with her mother, Cassandra Atkens, Adebayo spoke about time she would have with others. “Now that I’m not seeing him anymore,” she told her mom, “we should do more things together.”

The friendliest face

The daughter of immigrants from Ghana, Mariam Folashadé Adebayo grew up in Germantown. Kiankhooy met her in 2003, during Kiankhooy’s first week as a scared seventh-grader at a new school. Walking into a science class, she scanned the room for the friendliest face, spotted Adebayo and took a seat next to her.

Three days later, Adebayo passed her a note, laying out plans for their friendship — how they would have a sleepover and go to the mall. Within three weeks, Kiankhooy remembers, she had a best friend.

At Seneca Valley High School, Adebayo seemed to greet everyone and was voted most talkative her senior year. “She was that girl who could float from group to group,” classmate Stephanie Evans recalled.

And she seemed to have mapped out her future. At one point, she gave her mother a CD of the singer Sade — whose name is pronounced the same as Adebayo’s shortened name — that included the song “By Your Side.” She said she would play the song at her wedding for a dance with her new husband and a dance with her mother. Her mom joked that the romantic song might not be appropriate for a mother-daughter dance.

“Of course it is,” her daughter replied, “because I love you.”

Mariam “Shadé” Adebayo, when she was a middle-school student, with her mother, Cassandra Atkens. (Courtesy of Adebayo family)

But she hardly seemed naive. In a Facebook post from last year, Adebayo recalled meeting a woman who told her that her joy was rooted in her youth. Adebayo wrote that she knew the world was full of hate, but she maintained that “there is still good, purity and happiness out there even on our darkest days.”

“Spread love guys,” Adebayo wrote. “It’s seriously the only thing that’ll keep you going.”

A 2009 conviction

Bricker graduated from North Hagerstown High School. By his 21st birthday, court records state, he had been charged with assault, trespassing and failing to obey a restraining order, cases that were dropped. But one accusation stuck — a statutory rape case from May 17, 2008, when Bricker was 20. He had sex with a 13-year-old girl, initially denied it when confronted by detectives, and eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree sex offense, according to records filed at the Washington County Circuit Court.

Bricker was sentenced to two months in jail, and he was ordered to register as a sex offender in a Maryland database.

Family members and lawyers who have represented Bricker declined to comment for this article. Activity on his Facebook profile suggested that after the 2009 conviction, he was exploring born-again Christianity. At some point, he met Adebayo, and by the fall of 2014, they were dating.

“Everybody loved her,” one of Bricker’s friends, Ian Bazzano, said via text message. “Donnie’s family absolutely loved her.”

Montgomery County Police said on Tuesday that Donald W. Bricker Jr. of Hagerstown, Md., would be charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of his former girlfriend Mariam “Shadé” Adebayo near a Germantown Target. (  WUSA9)

Adebayo spoke about their relationship occasionally on Twitter.

“My family. My boyf and my best friends are the most genuine/supportive people,” Adebayo wrote on Nov. 5. “Thankful for all of them.”

She was concerned about Bricker’s 2009 conviction. But when she discussed it with him, he apparently played down the incident and said that the girl was in high school.

Adebayo told friends Bricker was trying to move past the case, and she seemed to want to help him. He also had a certain quality, one she told friend Evans about: “Steph, you don’t understand. He listens.”

Evans concluded something else, as well: “If you are in Shadé’s life, you’re worthy of something.”

Early this year, though, Adebayo told her mother that she and Bricker were having problems, saying he did not have a steady job and called her too much while she was at work. “He’s not grown-up,” Adebayo said, according to Atkens.

By this spring, Adebayo broke things off, according to her friends and family. Bricker didn’t want to accept it, calling and texting her so much that she blocked his numbers, according to friends. So he switched to e-mail.

Catherine Puhnaty, a close friend from high school, had dinner with Adebayo at California Pizza Kitchen in Gaithersburg last month. At one point, Adebayo got up to take a call that Bricker’s mother had returned, Puhnaty said. Adebayo wanted her to know about his behavior, about him possibly falling into depression. “She was worried,” Puhnaty said.

Hearing a boom

Just before 7:35 p.m. June 1, Ricky Ashley Jr., 29, and Matt Kamachaitis, 28, were loading a door into a truck in a Home Depot parking lot — adjacent to the Target lot in Germantown.

They heard a boom, thought it was an air bag deploying from a car accident and ran toward the sound. They heard a second boom: This one, they were sure, was a gunshot. They saw a white pickup drive away.

Ashley and Kamachaitis kept going. They saw a woman on her back, her head raised slightly, looking toward them. Now they were standing above her and saw her bleeding.

Her eyes darted back and forth. Her hand moved slightly, as if trying to reach for them. They bent down and held her hands.

“Hold on,” Ashley said.

“Breathe,” Kamachaitis said. “The paramedics will be here soon.”

The two later learned the woman’s name, heard that her friends were organizing a vigil and decided to go.

More than 500 others went, as well. Adebayo’s friends spoke about how she wanted to help people, how loyal she was. They spoke about her cheerful habits — dancing, impromptu singing of Michael Jackson songs, always eating Nacho Cheese Doritos.

Adebayo, far right, with Tiffany Attakorah, her sister (far left), and her cousins Cedric Essiaw, Cordell Essiaw and Crystal Essiaw (center). (Courtesy of Crystal Essiaw )

Adebayo (left) with friend Nilly Kiankhooy in March 2013. (Courtesy of Nilly Kiankhooy)

During the vigil, Adebayo’s mother approached Ashley and Kamachaitis.

“Thank you for trying,” she said, hugging them.

After the vigil ended, the two men walked back to their vehicles. Kamachaitis let out an expletive — furious over what happened, heartbroken over someone he never knew.

“This girl was special,” he told his friend.

Adebayo’s memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, 205 S. Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, Md. More information is available here.

Magda Jean-Louis, Jennifer Jenkins and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.