It didn't happen often, but sometimes a student - usually a boy - would poke fun at Jason Mattison Jr.
About his skin-tight jeans and funky sweaters. About his boisterous voice that seemed to run nonstop. About his exuberance in recounting the most mundane of events. About his flamboyant mannerisms. He was 15, a sophomore in high school, and he was gay.
When someone harassed him in the halls of West Baltimore's Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, he had a sharp, witty comeback at the ready, and he walked away smiling.
"Even if it hurt him, he gave the other person the impression he was stronger," recalled his English teacher, Ryan C. Jones.
But while Jason appeared strong and confident in the safe confines of his school on North Calhoun Street, unafraid to embrace his sexual orientation as part of his personality, the world outside did not offer those same protections.
Last week, at his aunt's house, one of the few occupied homes on a block boarded and sagging, he was found dead - raped, gagged with a pillowcase, stabbed repeatedly in the head and throat, and shoved into an upstairs closet. Jason's killing left his teachers, classmates and relatives in tears and family members asking questions of one another even in the days leading up to today's funeral.
Did Jason leave his mother's house and move in with his aunt, as his grandmother suggested? Or was he just visiting on that fateful day, as a cousin said? And why did people in his aunt's house open their door to the suspect, a convicted killer released early from prison because of flaws in his case?
"From now on, we do have to take more care in who we let in and who we trust," said Jason's cousin, Laquanna Couplin, who lives in the house on Llewellyn Avenue where Jason was killed.
She described Dante Parrish, 35, who is charged with first-degree murder in the case, as a longtime family friend, but she would not say whether he lived there or visited.
Couplin spoke briefly Monday while standing on her front porch, complaining that too many stories, too many accusations, made it difficult to grieve, and that she was tired of trying to set the record straight.
"He was a terrific boy, and we miss him very much," Couplin said. "We're hoping that justice is served and that the person who is responsible for this goes to prison and doesn't get out."
Of Jason, she said, "He was a sweet young man. He wasn't afraid of who he was. He had a life ahead of him. I just wish he could've had a chance to live it."
But his paternal grandmother, Wanda Williams, one of the first Jason confided in about being gay and who handed him a few dollars now and then for food and clothes, questioned how other relatives could have allowed the boy to be in the same house with Parrish, given his violent past.
"I haven't cried so much this entire life," Williams said. "My grandson hollering for help and there is nobody there to help him."
Jason loved texting and talking, and he spent his evenings chatting with friends on MySpace.
Jason was one of the most popular kids at school, his English teacher said, always first to class, always first to the cafeteria, where students fought to sit at his table, always first to turn in his homework and always getting near-perfect grades.
"He was outspoken and excited about everything he talked about," Jones said. "Walking into school, he was the first one to share what he did over the weekend. He was very, very popular, and he was everyone's best friend."
Jason wanted to be a pediatrician, Jones said, and the only thing the two debated was Jason's constant chatter.
"He was not a behavioral problem," Jones said. "He was a talking problem."
But after every dispute, Jason eased the tension by laughing, smiling and saying: "It's not that serious."
The Vivian T. Thomas school has about 425 students, about 80 percent of them female, and Jason quickly gained friends with his eye for fashion. He dressed in bright colors and scarves, and if there was a hole in his jeans, he had put it there to make a statement.
Jason hated conformity. He wanted to change the spelling of his name to "Jaysen," and that's how his classmates remembered him on their cards.
"Normal was ugly to him," Jones said.
Jatia Pledger, his best friend in high school, said girls at the school stuck up for Jason when boys gave him trouble: "We all had his back."
But as much as Jason talked, he remained secretive about his home life.
"When he was in school, he was a whole other person," Jatia said. "We were his family."
Jones, his teacher and confidant, said he never asked. "Looking back, I wish I would have," Jones said. "It was something that never came up. Personally, I wondered what his family thought of his orientation."
Jason's grandmother said the boy's father was out of the picture and that she became the de facto authority figure. His mother did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
When Jason came out as gay, there was some dissension in the family and though Williams said she stood by her grandson, his declaration caught her off guard.
"I accepted his sexual preferences," she said. "But I told him, 'You're young and don't understand life.' I told him, 'Plenty of young women would love to be with you.' He said he likes boys. Young people don't like to listen to adults, but I told him I'm not going to push him away."
Williams said Jason left his mother recently and moved into the house on Llewellyn Avenue, though family members there said he only visited.
A Baltimore police spokesman would say only that Jason "was staying at his aunt's house." It was there that Jason met Parrish, with whom the spokesman said the teen had a "forced sexual relationship."
Parish was 24 when he pleaded guilty to shooting and killing a man on Maryland Avenue in March 1999. In 2008, the Innocence Project, a group of attorneys who help people they believe were wrongly convicted, took up his case.
They found that Parrish had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder based on a faulty statement of facts read into the court record - there were two witnesses, not three, and a gun was found weeks after the shooting, not with Parrish when he was arrested.
A judge overturned his conviction, citing ineffective defense counsel, and in January, Parrish entered what is called an Alford plea, which allowed him to deny guilt but concede that the state had enough evidence to convict him. He was freed on time served, effectively cutting a 30-year sentence to 10.
Whether Parrish went from prison to live at the rowhouse on Llewellyn Avenue or frequented it could not be determined. Couplin would not elaborate beyond confirming that the man was a longtime family friend.
The day Jason's body was found, it was Couplin who called police, at 3 a.m. Nov. 10. She reported that someone had broken into the house and stolen a television from the living room. A police officer came and wrote a larceny report.
Couplin called police again at 5:09 a.m., saying that she saw blood on a banister leading to the second floor. She also reported Jason missing.
Police found his body in the back of a second-floor closet. Charging documents say that "several witnesses were identified and positively identified defendant Dante Parrish as the person responsible for this act." Couplin said she now believes the missing television was a diversion to make it look like a break-in.
Police arrested Parrish two days later at a convenience store on Moravia Road. A department spokesman said Parrish confessed to the killing the next day and is being held without bail.
Now, Jason's family and friends are left to mourn - informally at a memorial service at the school Tuesday night, and formally at a funeral at 11 a.m. today at Unity United Methodist Church on Edmondson Avenue.
Many of his friends learned of Jason's death from rumors on MySpace. They didn't believe it until they arrived at school and found his chair empty and a somber English teacher to break the tragic news.
"We were in shock," Jatia said. "We're still in shock."
Remembrances have filled Jason's MySpace page, which contains one note that seems indisputable, even amid the questions swirling around this death.
It reads: "Mood: Jason is loved."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun