Here in a barber chair in a Baltimore shop near Charles Village called Conscious Heads, with one of his closest friends hovering above him with a pair of clippers, Dontee Stokes says he feels peace.
Other customers greet Stokes with enthusiastic handshakes and inquiries about mutual friends. Stokes, who gained notoriety in May 2002 when he shot the priest who he alleges molested him as a teenager, says he has found a kind of sanctuary in barber shops like this.
"It's healing just being around people who care," Stokes says of the barbers here. A barber himself, Stokes talks about opening his own shop, perhaps a franchise of this one, and using it as a platform for community service.
Stokes, 29, is preparing to testify as the star witness in the sexual child abuse trial of former priest Rev. Maurice Blackwell, 58, which is expected to begin this week. Once again, Stokes says, Baltimore's close-knit community of self-taught barbers is standing with him.
Blackwell declined to be interviewed. Through his lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, he has said that he is innocent of the charges against him, four counts of sexual child abuse related to Stokes' claims. Blackwell and his lawyer plan to hold a news conference this afternoon.
The barbers supported Stokes during his own trial for shooting Blackwell outside Blackwell's Reservoir Hill home during the height of the sex abuse scandal in the American Catholic church. They raised money to help pay for an attorney who successfully defended Stokes against attempted murder charges in December 2002. And, more important, he says, "These guys taught me how to speak up for myself."
By age 13, Stokes had become deeply involved in St. Edward Catholic Church in West Baltimore, serving as a youth group leader and working closely with the church's powerful and politically connected priest, Blackwell. The priest lived a few blocks from the Stokes' family home on Mount Royal Terrace.
One of the first two African-Americans to be ordained by the Archdiocese Of Baltimore, Blackwell was a popular priest who presided over the growth of the congregation at St. Edward's from 100 to 900 families. But he was stripped of his church authority in 1998, after admitting to having a sexual relationship with another teenage boy in the early 1970s. The archdiocese announced in December that Blackwell was defrocked in October by Pope John Paul II.
Stokes says his relationship with Blackwell morphed into something inappropriate. He alleges that several years of sexual abuse as a teenager culminated with rape when he was 17.
Soon after, Stokes says, he confided in several school officials at St. Francis Academy, where he was struggling with his studies, and a professional counselor, who called police.
Stokes says his life has been in a holding pattern ever since. Police investigated his claims, but the city state's attorney's office declined to press charges because, prosecutors said, they couldn't verify his story. Blackwell was reinstated in the church, and many members of the Stokes family, which has deep Catholic roots, say they felt shunned by the parish.
"Dontee Stokes is a clear example of what's going on in the African-American community and how it's being swept under the rug," says Sundiata Ifatoula, a barber and co-owner of Conscious Heads.
Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown, says "prosecutors dropped the ball way back when." After Stokes was charged in the shooting, Brown stood on the courthouse steps with a bullhorn, deriding prosecutors for the way they handled Stokes' abuse claim.
The state's attorney's office reopened the Blackwell investigation, and he was indicted in May 2003. His trial has been postponed six times, but it appears ready to begin tomorrow before Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger, who says he canceled his vacation for it.
"Blackwell's trial is very important to Dontee," says Brown, who is still in touch and says he, too, has been called to testify. "What he has sought all along is acknowledgment of what he did and an apology for what he did."
Ravenell says the evidence at Blackwell's trial will show he has been falsely accused and urged people to reserve judgment on Blackwell until the case unfolds.
"We fully expect him to be vindicated at trial," he says.
Stokes was seeking an apology, he says, when he drove past Blackwell's home May 13, 2002. He spotted the priest outside, rolled down his window and began talking to Blackwell, he testified at his own trial.
When Blackwell seemed to not recognize him, Stokes says he had an "out-of-body experience" in which he pulled out an illegally purchased .357 Magnum revolver and shot the priest three times.
Stokes drove off, but hours later he walked into a service at a Northwest Baltimore church, asked for salvation and confessed. He was charged with first- and second-degree attempted murder, first- and second-degree assault and weapons violations.
During an emotional trial in which Cardinal William H. Keeler apologized to Stokes from the witness stand, the defense attorney focused the jury's attention on what Blackwell allegedly did instead of the shooting his client was on trial for.
Jurors acquitted Stokes of the most serious charges, convicting him only of handgun violations. He served 18 months of home detention, during which he was allowed to work and attend church.
His barber friends say the shooting opened their eyes to Stokes' problems. For years, they say, Stokes had been talking to them about his history with the priest.
"We didn't know how to deal with it, so we brushed it off," Ifatoula says. "We didn't know how to handle the pain."
"He would say he was going through a lot," adds Jabari Natur, the other co-owner of Conscious Heads. "He would talk about it often, but I don't think I realized the seriousness of it."
The three men met when they were all in their early 20s, budding barbers who worked at a now-closed shop near Charles Village called Tru Cutz.
Ifatoula says Stokes helped him pass the test to get his barber's license by teaching him, among other things, how to roll curlers into a doll's hair. Stokes, who says he first picked up a pair of clippers at the age of 13 to shear off his cousin's bowl-shaped hairdo, became a licensed barber at age 19.
"Dontee helped pull me along," Ifatoula says. "I saw what he was doing with hair - how good he was - and that inspired me."
The men also discovered they shared similar values and desires for the African-American community, Stokes says. Together, they took a "manhood training program" run by Eddie Butcher, a world champion kickboxer and Baltimore native.
Butcher taught the small group of African-American men the discipline of martial arts and "how to walk in peace," Ifatoula says.
It was about that time, Ifatoula and Natur say, that Stokes began opening up about his past. A few years later, when they learned their friend had been arrested for shooting Blackwell, the barbers quickly organized a fund-raiser for his defense. The men say that more than 500 people showed up to donate money during a lecture at Sojourner-Douglass College.
"We felt his pain," Ifatoula says. "Dontee is someone we love, and everything we do is out of our hearts."
In the time between his own trial and Blackwell's, Stokes says he has been keeping his life simple. He works as a barber at a West Baltimore shop called Friend or Foe and is a father to two little girls. He also says he is working on his autobiography. He says he still studies the Bible and attends a church in Woodlawn.
Stokes has also had another encounter with the court system. His former girlfriend, the mother of his first child, charged him in August 2003 with second-degree assault. The charge was dropped that November, and the two have since broken up.
Stokes says he sees Blackwell's trial - whether or not it brings a conviction - less as a final chapter in one part of his life with Blackwell and more as the beginning of a new one. He begins most discussions about his future with, "After the trial..." or "Once this trial is behind me..."
He says his real interest is in community service, and he draws parallels between what barber shops and churches can do to bring people together. In addition to opening his own shop, Stokes says he'd like to give lectures about sexual trauma and become more involved with youth projects.
Natur and Ifatoula already organize community services like those - they coach a youth football team and host lectures nearly every month - but Stokes says he has shied away from them because of the impending trial.
"I just ... for some reason, I just don't want to get anything started until after I get this trial over with," Stokes says.