Fourteen-year-old Troy Neal grew up in Baltimore. It’s where his friends are, where he scraped his knees learning to skateboard in Carroll Park, and where he had planned to attend Mount St. Joseph’s High School this fall.
It’s also where the precocious teen’s stepfather was murdered in July in the second attempt on his life in a year. After that, Troy’s mother moved the family to the New York area, but the distance didn’t insulate Troy from the tragedies that continued to unfold back home as summer dragged on.
This time, the news came as he scrolled through Facebook while sitting in the living room of his new home: A friend, 15-year-old aspiring rapper Deshaun Jones, had been killed in Troy’s old neighborhood.
“It doesn’t seem real ...” he said quietly as he viewed the “R.I.P.” messages and candlelight vigil photos. When Troy first read that Jones was “gone,” he thought his friend had signed a contract for his rapping and was leaving Baltimore behind. “I didn’t know he died.”
This summer’s violence stretched across the city, coming in such regularity that many — like Troy — felt its toll more than once.
Though still far lower than totals Baltimore has seen in its recent history, shootings and homicides are up 17 percent in 2013, compared with last year. Particularly alarming to police: The number of shootings with multiple victims — indicating more indiscriminate gunfire — is twice as high as it was last year. Much of the spike was fueled by two violent spurts in late June and mid-August.
Seconds of gunfire have made an impact that some Baltimoreans will deal with for decades. The summer violence has turned husbands into single parents, transformed rookie cops into veterans, left missing verses in half-finished rap songs, forced politicians to personally confront the city’s crime problems, and sent longtime residents to new places and new lives.
”Did you eat?” William Irvin asked his son.
“No,” Shaquille responded.
“Do you want to eat?”
“Not really,” the 17-year-old said, as he slumped on the couch, eyes and fingers consumed with his smartphone.
The two are alone now in their Northeastern Baltimore rowhouse. Joyce Irvin, William’s wife and Shaquille’s mother, was one of two people gunned down on June 22 in the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a crime that remains unsolved. The home remains neat, but there are subtle signs of disorder — like the bottle of Tide on the dining room floor.
“I have to raise him by myself,” said Irvin, 48, a contractor. “Might sound corny, might sound however people might think, but she was the best mother to him.”
She could relate better to the boy, and was able to discuss Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross songs. But they worked together to raise him and keep the house.
“I cooked, she cleaned,” Irvin said.
Now, “dust accumulates every day,” he said as he continued to pace, checking the front-door lock, glancing out the screen door, pulling a dead leaf from a plant on the coffee table.
He feels equipped to handle the load that street violence has left him.
He knows Ajax and water can rub the grime out of kitchen counters and rowhouse steps. He knows how to sew, something his aunt taught him after his mother died when he was 6. “I can make a shirt, I can make a woman’s dress, I can cut out the patterns, take pants up,” he said.
He can cook chicken, steak — and a ham glazed with a family recipe that his wife loved. But his son prefers fast food, Irvin said, so that’s often what they eat.
Leaning against the living room archway, next to a framed painting of “The Thinker,” Irvin said he tries not to worry about Shaquille. Worry makes you sick and he can’t afford to miss work.
“I don’t worry about anything. ... “ he said. “I think about making sure he grows up to be the man he wants to be, not the man I want him to be. I think about him getting a job and taking care of himself and being responsible overall.”
Until then, he vows that he will not lose his son to violence.
“I’m going to protect mine,” Irvin said. “If it takes me, I’m gonna protect mine.”
His home is his “castle,” Irvin said. Outside, he acknowledged, he can’t always keep an eye on Shaquille.
“The hardest thing about being a father is making sure your kids are safe all the time,” he said. “But you can’t be everywhere. So you pray a lot.”
The streets are a lot different from the days when Irvin grew up in West Baltimore. Kids fought with their fists, not guns. When they returned home, they got “whooped again” by their parents, he said.
“You like it that way?” Shaquille asked.
“Yeah,” Irvin replied. “Discipline. Teenagers don’t have a clue what’s going on. They take a life in a minute.”
Young people don’t think about the aftermath: A victim’s family must decide which flowers to display at a funeral and what casket to order. When Irvin buried Joyce, he put her in the pink Adidas sweatsuit she loved and had “Loving wife and mother” engraved on the headstone.
Having worked in building trades for the past 30 years, Irvin chose the materials: Granite because that’s how tough Joyce was. Bronze because it doesn’t tarnish.
Does Irvin think about revenge?
“All the time,” he said. Then he looked toward Shaquille.
“But if I were to get even it’d be senseless,” Irvin said. “Another life gone. It ain’t going to bring her back. But it’d let them know what they done to my son.”
The patrol officer
Just after 1 a.m. the busy intersection of Pennsylvania and West North avenues was lit up like Oriole Park. The Western district, which has recorded the highest number of shootings and homicides in the city this year, had recently been besieged by robberies and police were stopping people at three different corners.
Officer William Quigley, 24 years old and just a year out of field training, came up on a group of young men walking briskly through the block and singled one of them out. “Hey my man. You got ID?”
“For what?” the man responded. His friends pushed past without breaking stride as Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” blared in the distance.
The man had short twists in his hair, just like a carjacking suspect who was terrorizing the area, according to police. Quigley jotted down information in a notebook in case it proved useful later, and sent him on his way.
“We’re not trying to pick on people,” Quigley explained. “We want citizens to be able to enjoy themselves without worrying about getting robbed or assaulted.”
Like Quigley, many officers in the Western District — which had to pay overtime to fill the cars on this night — are young, an increasing trend as the police department struggles to retain personnel. He’s a Dundalk native who attended Archbishop Curley and played soccer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before suffering an injury.
Now he’s tasked with breaking up gangs and finding illegal guns in the 735 post of the district’s third sector, better known as the Coppin Heights area.
“A lot of what goes on around here stems from gangs and drugs,” he said of the residential neighborhood, which is vibrant and not plagued by vacants. “We try to keep them as broken up as possible, to take them down one-by-one. … We’ll get there eventually. Hopefully.”
Earlier this year, the area was exploding with shootings and the department brass flooded the streets with foot patrols. The shootings have largely subsided here, but the potential for violence always looms large.
Quigley’s calls to begin the night consisted of domestic violence reports: a man who became combative while picking up his things from an ex, a woman hiding in her car from a boyfriend, and a woman who had a lemon-sized welt next to her eye — she had been arguing with her boyfriend about who she was texting.
“She probably hit herself,” the boyfriend asserted to Quigley.
A short time later, a call came for 15 shots fired a half-mile away. Another caller reported what sounded like two guns exchanging fire.
Quigley’s cruiser screamed through the streets, slowing only at intersections, and when he pulled into the 1200 block of Whitelock St., a 31-year-old man was lying on the front steps of a row house.
“I heard gunshots, and ducked,” he told the officers, wincing. “I felt something in my back, so I just stayed there.”
Police would later determine the man was not shot, but was injured when he fell on an object. Still, the incident rattled the street. The man was taken away on a stretcher as women consoled each other on the sidewalk. A half-dozen officers searched an alley with flashlights. Employees of a corner bar, who said they heard the shots, scanned their vehicles for bullet holes.
Quigley cordoned off the block with crime tape, and waited. His shift still had four hours to go.
“It’s been quiet out here,” he lamented.
But the lull in violence did not last. Three days later, someone would be shot in the 2200 block of N. Fulton St., where three people were murdered inside a home earlier in the year. And on Thursday night, a 20-year-old was fatally shot in the heart of Quigley’s post.
Cornelius Owens stood alone on a West Baltimore corner, his usual hangout. In front of him mostly vacant row houses reflected the bleak opportunities provided by a life on the street. A block away, a makeshift memorial for his slain teenage friend represented a common, and fatal, dead end.
Owens, 21, lives nearby on West Lexington Street but violence isn’t going to make him move from the neighborhood. He pulled out a battered smartphone, and found a music track: So stuck in my ways, get the [expletive] out of my way …
The tinny speakers blasted the rap song he recorded, a street-hustling anthem as well as a personal statement. He vowed not to be taken from his corner, his way of life, his goals or the 1-year-old son who bears his name.
It’s brash talk considering gunfire has taken three friends in three years.“Only certain ones survive,” he said. “The good ones, they get took.”
Deshaun “Lor D’Shaun” Jones was one of them, a teen who helped make up a group of amateur rappers. They included Owens — who goes by “C” — “Icon” and “Lor David” — Jones’ brother, all plying their trade on YouTube and at area clubs with some success.
Jones, just 15, was one of the best, Owens said. He was killed Aug. 24 when, police say, someone shot up a dice game, wounding six others, near North Gilmor and West Fayette Streets.
“He was a ‘hood legend,” Owens said. His videos have amassed more than 16,000 online views. Rumors have surfaced since his death that a nationally known rapper was starting to take an interest in his music.
It’s something the entire group dreams of.
“I’m trying to put it all in my music, so I won’t have to be in the streets,” said Kevin “Icon” Ben. “I love my city but it’s quicksand.”
Owens loves Franklin Square, too — his “hood,” his community. But he wants to rise out of it, as well. He is proud that he graduated from high school last year at 20. He had almost given up when a two-month stint in jail for assault put him too far behind to stay with his class.
He’s reluctant to abandon his home even after losing two other friends: David Mitchell, 16, in 2010 and Davon Dorsey, 18, “shot in the head” in 2011.
“The last couple of years, you have seen the violence rise,” he said. “East Baltimore, West Baltimore, Cherry Hill. ... For all the little kids around here and my son, of course I’m scared.”
Had Owens not been working a day-labor job, hauling junk and abandoned mattresses out of an East Baltimore yard, he said, he would’ve been with Jones that fatal summer night.
“Probably would be a victim myself. Probably wouldn’t be standing here,” he said.
Owens said he knows what’s causing the violence. It’s not drugs or money, though they are fuel. Triggers are pulled over “respect” — and it doesn’t take much.
“It can be words,” he said. “It can be eyes. Eyes can be disrespectful. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true.”
Turn the other cheek today and someone will take advantage of you tomorrow.
“At the end of the day, if someone feels disrespected, what’s the first thing they think about?” he said. “They have to respond to disrespect. You can’t walk away from where you live at.”
We do this every day, every day we live …
The song “Stuck in My Ways” on Owens’ phone ends abruptly. Jones was supposed to go to a studio and rap the last verse.
“Didn’t get the chance to be on it,” Owens said. “So we had to end it right there.
The survivor’s brother
“It’s not looking good,” Joshua Dixon’s grandmother told him over the phone July 4. “This might be it.”
A day earlier, his younger brother, Ranard Taylor, had been shot six times as he was robbed of a moped just down the street from their Southwest Baltimore home. Taylor, 18, was paralyzed from the waist down and possibly worse, and Dixon was being summoned to Maryland Shock Trauma Center before, as he put it, “the inevitable happened.”
“I thought he was gone, when I seen him,” Dixon said, recalling that night in the ICU. “They cut your body open to retrieve the bullets or do the surgery, and when the air gets into the body, it blows you up. You look like you’re in a casket. You look like you’ve been embalmed.”
The family leaned on prayer on those nights. His grandmother Sandra Meekins would pray anywhere, and, in the weeks since, Taylor’s eyes have opened. Still held in the Intensive Care Unit, on a floor where there are so many recovering shooting victims that city police officers are assigned to stand watch, he is hooked up to a tracheotomy tube and unable to talk. His prognosis is uncertain.
“No one has really said to him, ‘You are paralyzed. You’ll never be able to walk,’” Meekins said.
Police quickly made an arrest, locking up a 24-year-old from the neighborhood. This is little solace to the family. Though Taylor is the victim, and the legal system provides that an arrest and conviction will deliver justice, those facing prison often don’t see it as just. And that raises the fear of intimidation — or more violence.
Dixon has no criminal record and said he is “not a street guy.” He’s a contemplative 27-year-old who graduated last year from Ohio’s Wilberforce University, the oldest black owned and operated university in the country, and has been involved in acting and stand-up comedy.
At the time of the shooting, Dixon and some friends were reviving a socially-conscious play they wrote 10 years ago that explores the origins and use of the word “nigga.” They developed it with an acting coach, the late Robert Chew, better known as the character Prop Joe from “The Wire,” and performed it in early August at the Theater Project on West Preston Street.
He believes his brother was mixed up in something — court records show that in the month preceding the shooting, Taylor had been arrested twice, on drug and theft charges. And he knows that a shooting is a likely outcome of that life.
“What he got shot for had nothing to do with the stuff he was caught up in, but because you’re in that life and that lifestyle — walking the streets at 3 in the morning — it’s one of them double-edged sword type things,” he said. “You have sympathy for what happened, but at the other end of the sword, with the stuff that you were into …”
Sitting on his porch in the Allendale neighborhood, Dixon balanced a cigarette between his index and middle fingers, and a blue plastic lighter between his pinky and ring finger. He has trouble sleeping at night and says he has become paranoid.
“You don’t know the minute, the hour, the day when certain things might go down,” Dixon said. “I’ve always got that third eye open.”
The summer violence came to the city council president’s doorstep on Aug. 17, as Bernard “Jack” Young and his wife laid down on their living room floor waiting out the gunshots.
It was pushing 10 p.m., and Young, still wearing a dress shirt and pants, was settling into a meal of crabs; his wife was preparing a meal for the next day. They heard seven or eight gunshots outside. Sometimes he and his wife can hear them in the distance, coming from Greenmount or Ashland Avenues, but they’re rarely so loud.
“I ain’t never ducked in my life before, but I ducked, because it sounded like they were close,” the 59-year-old Young recalled.
The shots were indeed close — on East Eager Street, just steps from his home. Young waited to make sure it was over before pulling out his cell phone and calling the Eastern District commander, Keith Matthews. “Get some officers over here,” he told Matthews.
Outside, two adults and a 7-year-old child had been struck in an apparent drive-by shooting that remains unsolved. Young stood outside in the dancing blue-and-red lights with his neighbors, absorbing the crime scene.
“We have a close-knit neighborhood,” he said later. “We’re not used to that level of violence in our community.”
As a politician, Young sets policy and spending priorities for the city, and violence is always a major part of the discussion. As a resident of East Baltimore, he often sees the results of those decisions on full display.
Young said police have done a good job tamping down drug dealing at the nearby Latrobe Homes complex, and he and other neighbors try to be diligent about addressing suspicious activity on the street.
“When we see things out of character, most of us will go say something,” Young said. “‘We noticed you’ve been around. What are you looking for, who do you want?’ We tell them we don’t tolerate drug dealing on this corner. We do it in a nice way, but we tell them we don’t want them around.”
In May, a cousin of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was killed in Northwest Baltimore, a shooting that remains unsolved. And though the shooting outside Young’s home left a child hospitalized, he believes those not involved in drugs are unlikely to be victimized in Baltimore.
“I got criticized for saying this, but if you look at the drug-related deaths, if you take them out, we don’t have a problem in Baltimore,” he said. “Most of our crime in terms of killings, most of it’s drug-related. So people visiting Baltimore really don’t have to worry about getting hurt.”
Young said the city needs to direct more money to recreation and parks “instead of constantly letting overtime for the city Police Department chew up the budget,” as well as federal dollars for youth programs.
As council president, Young could live in a neighborhood more removed from the violence. But he said that would send a bad message.
“If all the good people abandon the neighborhoods and abandon the city, then we’re giving up to the 2 or 5 percent ... doing all the wrong in this city,” he said. “If the 98 percent of us start saying, ‘No more of this,’ we could have a very safe city.”
The neighborhood watch
On a warm, breezy summer night, investment consultant Michael Beczkowski waited outside the Ace Hardware Store with a small group of volunteers assembled by Canton’s fledgling Public Safety Committee.
“Let’s start,” Beczkowski said, and the second neighborhood Citizens Oriented Patrol Walk began, an event borne from residents’ frustration over several summer burglaries, muggings and street robberies in Southeast Baltimore.
The five marching behind Beczkowski had different reasons for participating. One man was worried about the rash of burglaries. A woman joined because of reports she had heard of area women being mugged or chased.
“Our mission is to own Canton and take over Canton,” said Beczkowski, 44. “We want to make citizens aware that we want to own every street, every alley, every avenue.”
Violent crime is rare in the thriving neighborhood but events of the summer led the community association to create a Public Safety Committee and appoint Beczkowski to lead it. On this night, the group’s second outing, members picked up litter, documented code violations such as overgrown weeds, and met neighbors.
Beczkowski, who had come straight from work, tucked his gray suit jacket over his left arm as he led the group, his gold patterned tie dipping as he picked up a coffee cup lid, an empty four-pack of mini wine bottles, and cigarette butts.
Beczkowski’s family roots run deep in Canton. His grandparents moved there in the late 1940s, one of a number of Polish families who made kielbasa for family dinners and adorned windows with porcelain Catholic figurines. His father was a firefighter for 35 years, serving on Engine 5 in the firehouse on Eastern Avenue.
But as Baltimore industries closed, Beczkowski’s father moved his family to Bel Air, which promised better schools. Mike often visited his grandparents as a child but couldn’t wait to get away from the trash and rats of Canton. “Just a scary place for young people to see,” he recalled.
Twelve years ago, when his grandmother moved into a nursing home, Beczkowski shrugged off stories about the dangers of the city, and bought her home to cut down on his commute.
He gutted the small row house on Port Street, replacing obsolete two-prong sockets and a makeshift bathroom. He installed an electric fireplace and rooftop deck — and watched Canton undergo a renaissance.
Still, crime was a concern. He saw police shut down an alleged brothel on his block, recover a stolen ATM machine in his alley and arrest two men who tried to break into his back door. He feels safe but said this summer’s events show the neighborhood is not immune from crime — one reason he volunteered.
The first COP walk drew about 30 residents; Beczkowski didn’t know why the second had far fewer. Maybe because it was the first day of school, he guessed.
At the end of the hourlong walk, the group’s trash bags were filled with leaves, illegal door fliers and disposable cups. “Guys, thanks for showing up,” Beczkowski said. “Sorry we didn’t get a bigger crowd.”
One volunteer asked, “When’s the next one?”
The family that fled
Nsowaa Stewart spent months living in hotels and safe spots after her child’s father was shot and wounded in West Baltimore last year. They dealt with the stress and anxiety that comes with a life of living in the shadows.
But when, despite all of that, Dwing “Dwayne” Webb and his sister were gunned down in daylight on July 10, Stewart’s resolve for staying in Baltimore reached its breaking point. She says she was surrounded by Black Guerrilla Family gang members who told her Webb was a snitch, and that she could end up like him.
So after laying Webb to rest, Stewart took a good-luck check for $188 from city prosecutors, packed her things in a U-Haul and took the boys to live with people she knew in the New York area. As she works to start over, she struggles with guilt over the fallout from the first shooting.
“I should have never said nothing when I was in the police station,” she said through tears at her new home. “Sometimes I wonder … did this all happen because of what I did, or what I said?”
New York-born and raised, Stewart, 33, enjoyed the communal atmosphere of West Baltimore. Now, she has to bring her 5-year-old son to a park to play with kids his age.
“What do you miss about Baltimore?” Stewart asked little Dwayne, the young child she had with Webb.
“My friends at my school,” he said glumly, looking at the floor. “I don’t go to my old school anymore.”
Her older son Troy, from a previous relationship, is trying get used to his new surroundings as well.
Stewart met Webb at a club six years ago and found him to be protective and resourceful. Court records show there were frequent episodes of domestic violence, but she says the relationship was a work in progress.
On June 2, 2012, Stewart was in a corner store when a gunman opened fire on Webb outside, striking him several times in the head, arm and back. Court records show Webb identified his shooter to detectives, scrawling his initials under the picture of 32-year-old Grameco Redd, who was arrested a month later.
Webb’s father had died when he was four, and the parallels with his own son being four years old were overwhelming. Webb had frequent nightmares, according to a psychiatric evaluation provided by Stewart, and at one point tried to hang himself from a shower curtain — but Stewart intervened.
“He described a sense of thinking that if he killed himself, then he would not be killed by the man who had tried to kill him,” the doctor wrote in the report.
Stewart told police she had seen Redd in the area but did not witness the shooting, and now says Redd should not have been convicted. The evidence was enough for prosecutors to secure a guilty plea, though, and on June 12, 2013, Redd was sentenced to five years in prison.
One month later, Webb was at his sister’s home on North Fulton Avenue around lunchtime when someone opened fire. Webb was struck, as was the older sister who had raised him, 40-year-old Natasha Bates. The attack had all the hallmarks of a hit, police say.
Stewart says she is at a loss for a motive. An explanation for the shootings also eludes police and prosecutors.
Even hundreds of miles away, she is fearful. “I look at the whole world in a different light now.”
—Justin FentonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun