To rebuild her life, Felicia "Snoop" Pearson had to destroy her reputation.
The actress who portrayed a cold-blooded killer so memorably on three seasons of the HBO cable series "The Wire" pleaded guilty this month to a crime she says she didn't commit.
In exchange for her conviction on a misdemeanor count of conspiracy to sell heroin, the 31-year-old Pearson received her freedom. And she swears that when her face appears in public in the future, it will be because of her acting accomplishments, not her legal troubles.
"I'm not a criminal," she says.
"Don't make me into one. I pleaded guilty, but that doesn't make me guilty. I made a decision in my life to do what was best for me without involving or implicating anyone else. Don't use my background against me. Let me move on."
Pearson presents something of a conundrum. For those who know only her public face as it is depicted in court records, on the cable television series and from her 2007 biography, "Grace After Midnight," two contradictory portraits emerge.
There's the former street kid known as "Snoop" with the past she'd just as soon forget. In her autobiography, she admits selling drugs and committing crimes that were at times violent.
And then there's the young woman who prefers to be called "Felicia." Described by friends as "gentle" and "a good person," she wants more than anything to justify their faith in her.
"I come from nothing," Pearson says, "but I'm going to do the right thing."
The "nothing" refers to her origins. Born May 18, 1980, she was a premature, crack-addicted infant who weighed just 3 pounds, according to the autobiography, which was co-written with David Ritz. On her only unsupervised visit, Pearson's biological mother, Loretta Chase, stripped the toddler, locked her in a dark closet and sold her party dress for drugs.
Pearson writes that she witnessed her first slaying when she was just 10 or 11 years old, and a man who was running for his life tripped over her bicycle, sprawling in the street. Another man approached carrying a gun.
"Just like that, he pumped four shots into the dude's head," Pearson writes. "Never had seen a murder before. Never had seen anyone shot up right in front of my eyes, inches from where I was standing."
After the killer threw away the weapon, a 9 mm handgun, the girl picked it up and took it home.
By age 13, she admits in the book, she was a fledgling thug and was paid $100 to beat up a woman, breaking her leg and a shoulder.
According to court records, she was just 14 when she fatally shot another girl (Pearson says it was self-defense), and she didn't step out of jail for more than five years.
After Pearson was freed and couldn't find employers willing to hire a felon, she turned to dealing drugs. She concedes that she continued to sell cocaine and heroin during her first season on "The Wire."
"That first season, I was an extra," she says. "They were only paying me $50. When they brought me back as a regular, I shut down my shops. I haven't sold any drugs since 2004."
But Baltimore law enforcement officials weren't convinced. They continued to view Pearson with suspicion, especially once the television series ended. Pearson made the news in 2008 after she allegedly witnessed a killing and was briefly arrested in an effort to compel her testimony. The defendant later pleaded guilty to the stabbing, so Pearson wasn't required to make a statement.
On March 10, she was among 63 people arrested in a predawn drug raid by city police and federal agents, provoking international headlines about life imitating art.
Pearson says now that she's guilty only of providing a friend with a place to stay. She says she never allowed drugs or cash proceeds from narcotics sales to be stashed in her condominium.
"No one came to my house with packs," she says. "And who would store drugs where they laid their head? They wouldn't. That's rule No. 2."
Pearson's attorney, Benjamin Sutley, thinks prosecutors had little solid evidence against his client. (The Baltimore state's attorney's office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Sutley noted that Pearson was charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony. Her case was assigned to state court instead of to federal court, where convictions carry stiffer penalties. And Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill placed the actress on probation, which typically is reserved for minor offenses, and is allowing her to leave the state.
"The state didn't have a very strong case factually," Sutley said.
"If we'd gone to trial, I think she would have been found not guilty, but the wait to go to trial is well over a year. It was costing Felicia $400 for every week that she wore the electronic monitor, and she wouldn't get that money back if she were acquitted. She wanted to move ahead with her life, so we decided to plead guilty."
For the next three years, Pearson will have to check in regularly with her probation officer. If she stays out of trouble, she'll stay out of jail. If she messes up, she faces a prison term of nearly seven years
Wherever she goes, Pearson will always wear the mark of Baltimore's toughest streets. It's not at all clear that she'd want to erase those marks, even if she could. Those same streets — and cemeteries — contain some of the people she loves the most.
Her left arm bears an elaborate tattoo of a cross and the words, "RIP Arnold." It's a tribute, she says, to Arnold Lonly, the neighbor she knew as "Uncle" who gave her the nickname of "Snoop" because she reminded him of the beagle in the comic strip "Peanuts."
"He's always saying cute things," Lonly told the child. "He's sweet, but he's sad."
It was Lonly, she writes in her autobiography, who shielded her from police after the 1995 shooting and later visited her in prison. Lonly was killed in 1998 when a drug deal went bad.
And some childhood lessons are so ingrained that they might as well be tattooed inside her skull.
It's important to Pearson, for instance, to make it clear that she has not spoken to police about and will not testify against any other men and women charged as a result of the March 10 drug sting. The only person she ever implicated in a crime, she says, is herself.
"Rule No. 1," she says, "is that you don't snitch."
But Pearson isn't merely a product of the streets, and she can't be reduced to her rap sheet. Far from it.
Part of the disconnect that some people feel upon meeting the actress begins, but does not end, with her appearance.
Even standing on tiptoes, Pearson barely hits 5 foot 2. She has the large eyes and delicate facial features that remind one observer of a silent movie star, another of a Renaissance portrait.
It's difficult to imagine this woman as "muscle," difficult to imagine her harming anyone — which is precisely what made her enforcer character on "The Wire" so chilling. Horror writer Stephen King described Pearson's portrayal as "the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series."
Fiercely loyal herself, Pearson inspires loyalty in others. All her life, she has had a knack for finding people who want to help her, perhaps because of the way she combines a certain vulnerability with an unstoppable determination to please those whose good opinion she craves.
Before he became a writer and producer, Ed Burns spent 20 years with the Baltimore Police Department investigating drug violations and homicides. Burns has seen plenty of hardened criminals in his day, and he's not easily deceived.
"Felicia is a good person," he says.
"She's smart and alive, charismatic and funny. She has the rare ability to look at herself from the outside and to learn from her mistakes. If people are going to judge her by her past and for the world she's come from, what room does that allow for Christianity? What room is there for love and forgiveness, for empathy and compassion?"
Pat Moran, who cast all five seasons of "The Wire," was struck by Pearson's work ethic and by her utter lack of ego or entitlement.
"How many rotten cards can you be dealt in life?" Moran asks. "From the moment this kid drew her first breath, it was a struggle.
"I complain hourly, but I never heard this kid complain about anything, not once. She's not a drama queen. She's not a victim. There's a gentleness about her, and she just keeps going forward. You've got to admire that."
When explaining his fondness for Pearson, Burns describes her as "honest." And indeed, she comes across as almost compulsively truthful.
She doesn't hesitate in her autobiography to put herself in an unflattering light. And, she is perhaps the only woman ever born who doesn't automatically shave off five to 10 pounds when asked to reveal her weight.
A visitor who guesses that Pearson clocks in at about 120 pounds is instantly corrected.
"No," she says, and then makes a rueful reference to the unhealthy consequences of house arrest. "Now I weigh 130. I put on a few pounds when I was on the [monitoring] box."
So when Pearson tells Burns that she wasn't guilty of conspiring to sell heroin or any other drug, he believes her.
"She came from a life where the only economy in her neighborhood was the drug game," he says. "She played it for a while. But as soon as the opportunity came to earn income from another source, she dropped it."
But not everyone believes that Pearson has been rehabilitated.
Sylvia Williams, 81, is the grandmother of Okia "Kia" Toomer, the 15-year-old girl Pearson fatally shot on April 27, 1995.
Sitting on the front porch of her row home in Darley Park, Williams' face clenches with pain. She wishes that Pearson's most recent arrest had ended with a prison sentence, not probation.
"She's a bully and a thug," Williams says. "I don't think she's turned away from that life. She keeps carrying on and getting into predicaments. If she really has changed and lives happy, good for her. But it won't be good for me."
It's that kind of reminder, repeated again and again over the past 16 years, that has persuaded Pearson to leave Baltimore as soon as possible. Every time she is interviewed by a reporter, she says, she is asked to relive the murder. How can she build a future for herself when she's constantly being hauled into the past?
"I'm deeply sorry that it happened," she says.
"I keep apologizing, but my apologies won't bring her back. I wish they would. If I had to do it over again, I would never have crossed that street. But I did cross, and it took all of her life and part of mine."
Pearson says she is no longer the same person she was at age 14, or even at age 24.
"The life I lived when I was growing up does not appeal to me anymore," she says.
"Now, I would never go and beat up nobody. I would never go back to dealing drugs. That's what I did when I was young. Now, I'm older and wiser. I've grown."
So in a week, she will move to Los Angeles. She has a plane ticket, a place to live and enough acting projects to provide her with an income for now. (She'll return to Baltimore regularly to fulfill her probation.)
She recently finished filming "Must Be the Music" in Philadelphia, a movie written by and starring Charles Dutton. (Pearson portrays his daughter.) .
She's working on a sequel to "Grace After Midnight."
And Burns is crafting a screenplay with Pearson in mind about the relationship between a woman from a privileged background and one who grew up disadvantaged. If the script gets filmed, he says, she will star.
The actress also has made the rounds as a motivational and educational speaker. She's spoken at schools up and down the East Coast, and recently participated in a panel discussion at Harvard University on the topic of urban revitalization.
Burns thinks it will be good for Pearson to leave a place where, he says, she's likely to be hauled off in handcuffs if she so much as jaywalks.
"I've been asking Felicia to leave Baltimore for four years," he says. "This town is a petty little town, and the whole point of locking her up was because of who she is. In L.A., actors more famous than she is get locked up all the time, and it's no big deal."
Of course, success in a career as brutally competitive as acting is by no means assured. Pearson is gifted, but she's also untrained and relatively inexperienced.
"The rejection rate is 90 percent," Moran says, "and that's being optimistic."
"I think there's a place for Felicia in show business if she stays within her range. I'm not expecting to see her in 'Twelfth Night,' but she may do well in music videos."
Pearson is blessed with a questioning mind and many talents. She likes to cook, she's good with her hands and she's adept at household repairs. But she has only a high school diploma (she earned her GED in prison) and few marketable skills. If acting doesn't pan out, how will she survive?
"If she's dedicated to her craft, I think she'll find work," Burns says. "If she can't support herself acting, she'll try something else. She could teach. There are a lot of things Felicia could do. But, being a drug dealer is not on her list."
When Pearson is asked the same question, she responds obliquely, by telling a story.
"Before I was 2 weeks old, I almost died twice," she says.
"They were saying I was gone. They'd given up hope. But I came back. Every time the odds are against me, I've come back."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun