The teens were throwing rocks and ringing doorbells at random houses in their Randallstown neighborhood — mischief so common they borrowed a name long linked to pranksters' shenanigans: "knicker-knocking."
Christopher Brown had expressed disapproval of the vandalism that had residents complaining to police. But a friend said the high school junior and church usher — dubbed "Mr. Congeniality" by his teachers — reluctantly agreed to join the prowl late Wednesday.
They approached a house on Susanna Road, according to a friend, who said he accompanied a separate group trailing behind Brown. The friend said 17-year-old Brown did not throw the rock that thumped against James D. Laboard's front door.
But it was Brown who was caught after Laboard, an off-duty Baltimore County police officer, chased the teens through yards and between houses, cornering him several blocks away. Police said a struggle ensued, and Brown ended up dead by asphyxiation, ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner.
"He's not the type of guy who would fight you," said the friend, 16-year-old Darien. Because he is a juvenile, The Baltimore Sun is identifying Darien only by first name at the request of his family.
The account from Darien, interviewed Friday along with his parents, is the first to emerge of the deadly encounter that has put a nine-year police veteran in the midst of a criminal investigation, with an angry family pressing for answers and a high school mourning the loss of a student.
Police have kept a tight lid on details of the investigation as they prepare a case for review by prosecutors, who will decide whether the 31-year-old officer's actions were justified. Police have said Laboard pulled Brown from some bushes after the youth refused to surrender, and that he fell unconscious as the two struggled.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz promised a thorough and fair investigation, but added in a statement issued Friday that "regardless of the facts, the Brown family has lost a son, and our thoughts and prayers are with them during this difficult time."
Authorities, including police and prosecutors, declined to comment Friday. The officer's attorney also has declined to provide his client's version of what happened. Darien said he knows two friends who have been interviewed by homicide detectives, but that he has not talked with police.
Darien said he doesn't think any of the teens out that night knew that a police officer lived on Susanna. It just happened to be the final house targeted in their game Wednesday night. He said it typically involved ringing doorbells and running away.
But he said some members of the group were acting unusually rowdy and broke away from the rest of the pack. He said he was behind the rowdier group of teens who went to Laboard's house, and heard two bangs — possibly from a rock and a kick on the door — but was too far away to see who threw the rock or the officer rush out.
Darien said he saw Brown in the street at the time, too far away to have thrown anything. He saw people scatter — Brown was slowed by a knee brace — and one of the youths asked him, "Where's Chris? Where's Chris?"
About five minutes later, he said Brown called him on his cellphone before the off-duty officer found him hiding. "There's people looking for you all," Darien said Brown whispered. "Get in a house and stay there."
Darien said he thought Brown was calling him from his house and was speaking in hushed tones to keep his mother from hearing. Later, when he saw county police officers and a helicopter in the area, he thought they were searching for vandals.
Christopher Brown's mother, Chris Brown, has said that her son told her two weeks ago that kids were throwing rocks at houses and that he was upset about it. She surmised that he had been out walking to exercise his injured leg and simply got caught up at the scene.
The mother said that the off-duty officer "took matters into his own hands."
On Friday, Brown's family hired attorney Russell Neverdon, who said he believed rage may have led to the attack.
"This is a situation in which the person was very emotionally charged," Neverdon said, referring to the long pursuit by the officer through his own neighborhood. "To give chase to someone that distance — to me that's a state of rage and anger. As an adult, at best I may chase you long enough to get a description of you to give to police."
Neverdon said the family wants answers but understands an investigation takes time.
"We are at this juncture going to patiently wait and see what Baltimore County's investigation reveals," he said. "We're doing some fact-finding ourselves to see what unfolded."
Brown had just finished his sophomore year at Randallstown High School, where he had been on the wrestling, lacrosse and football teams, as well as in a military officer training program. His mother said he was mischievous but wouldn't do anything that would attract the law or even draw discipline from his teachers.
He worshipped at Colonial Baptist Church, where he was a junior usher and a member of the youth ministry. His pastors and teachers at Randallstown High described Brown as well-mannered to a fault.
Shelia D. Reed, the assistant principal at Randallstown High School, said the extent of Brown's misbehavior was "being in the hall a little too late. He was no prankster, by any stretch of the imagination. He was a kind-hearted kid and a sweet child."
Reed said Brown was in what is called an Individual Education Plan, which is part of the school's special-education program. She said she could not disclose his precise learning disability, but she said students at his level typically are slow at reading, math or comprehension.
Brown was in classes with other students, Reed said, but needed extra help. She said his mother visited the school whenever his grades fell, "and she was working with us, working with him, trying to make sure that Chris was on target."
She described Brown's death as "a tremendous loss to our school. Everybody is heartbroken." Of what happened Wednesday night, Reed said the details that have emerged so far "do not fit the person I know."
The assistant principal said, "He may have been frightened and ran away. I could see that possibly happening. We tell our kids all the time, 'If you are approached by someone and you're not doing anything wrong, or if it's not that bad, don't run.' We just can't say what a kid will do if they feel they are in trouble for something."
In fact, Reed said, Brown was typically the first student to tell a teacher about someone else's wrongdoing.
Ray Wright, one of the high school's football coaches, described Brown as a fun-loving kid but one who shied away from confrontation.
That Brown would have sought refuge during a confrontation between neighborhood kids and the officer makes sense, the coach said. "For him to be hiding in a bush, that's Chris Brown."
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun