By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
June 5, 2011
The body of 13-year-old Tywonde' Jones lay under a white sheet behind a decrepit vacant home in Northwest Baltimore.
He had been stabbed and slashed 228 times. One-hundred and eighty-eight were puncture wounds, some as deep as six inches, piercing his skull, lungs, ribs, liver and kidney. He suffered injuries to his arms and hands as he tried to fend off the blows.
Word quickly spread, and the boy's mother, Monica, frenzied and grief-stricken, rushed down to Cordelia Avenue in central Park Heights. It was the night of Nov. 29, 2007. An unknown boy approached her.
"I'm so sorry," she recalls him saying. "This wasn't supposed to happen. But we know who did it. And we're going to get him."
Within four months, the teen whom detectives had developed as a suspect in Tywonde' Jones' death was fatally shot before police had compiled enough evidence to arrest and to charge.
In the code of the street, a boy's murder had been taken care of. But even the killer of a killer must be brought to justice.
Pattern of vengeance
In Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods, the slightest provocation can touch off the deadliest violence, and like cracking open a shaken-up bottle of soda, it can be impossible to contain. Many city shootings can be traced back to beefs that span months or years, grievances all too often settled on the street through a pattern of vengeance.
For some, it's a means of survival; to others, it can lead to a satisfying remedy.
Amid a flurry of conflicting stories and dueling allegiances, motive often gets lost, and the real reason for Tywonde's stabbing may never be fully understood. To piece together events surrounding his death, The Baltimore Sun interviewed family members and law enforcement officials, sat in on court hearings and reviewed police reports, autopsies and other records.
Police and prosecutors blame the killing on a dispute within gangs. But Tywonde's older brother, Anthony Jones, said the initial feud was more simplistic: it was because of him, and sparked by a Lil' Wayne rap song playing over a cell phone.
"You better cut that phone off before it get took," a boy said to Anthony Jones one day at Garrison Middle School.
He retorted, "By who?"
"By me," the teen replied.
And that was that. Anthony Jones, who at the time was 15, said he challenged the boy, a member of the Bloods, to a fight, and they and their friends walked to a bus stop for an old-fashioned schoolyard fight. He said the two squared up, and he landed a blow to the boy's jaw.
"I banged him one time, and he ran," Anthony Jones recalled in an interview.
Anthony said word spread that he had not fought the boy, but jumped him — a dishonorable offense — and his friends vowed revenge. Where fists had sufficed in the first encounter, the stakes had been raised. He says someone tried to shoot him in an alley, and a group of teens later showed up at his grandmother's house and told her that if they couldn't get Anthony Jones, they would get someone that he loved.
Anthony and Tywonde' Jones had grown up together in Park Heights, the youngest of five children. With their father gone and their mother battling drugs, child protective services threatened to put the boys into a foster home. Their grandmother came to the rescue and adopted them.
Relatives described Tywonde' as a precocious boy. His siblings suffered developmental disabilities, blamed on lead paint, but Tywonde' not only persevered but thrived. He did well in school and enjoyed reading Harry Potter books. An older sister would often get frustrated because she struggled to read and write, and he would patiently try to help her learn.
"Tywonde' was 'the one,'" said his mother, Monica Jones, who got clean and rejoined the family.
But as he grew older, Tywonde' encountered problems. He started fighting at his school, Garrison Middle, and was staying out late with friends. One month before his death, he was attacked and left unconscious in a gutter, a beating that cost him his front teeth. His family didn't know it then, and maybe they should have, but at just 13 years of age, the boy he was headed down a dangerous path.
Anthony Jones says the night of Tywonde's death, he received a MySpace message saying, "Go find your brother," and he and some friends drove around until they found the yellow police tape draped across Cordelia, halfway between Reisterstown Road and West Belvedere Avenue, where they saw Tywonde's body under the white sheet.
Dozens of classmates attended the packed funeral, and relatives and young men from the neighborhood had T-shirts made with his picture on them. "To be only 13 years old, and impact so many people's lives in a positive way, it's a wonderful feeling for any parent," said Monica Jones, 41.
For detectives, the crime scene offered little physical evidence. There was blood spattered along the side of a concrete stairwell leading up to a crumbling house covered by a patchwork of boards. A can of Steel Reserve malt liquor lay at the base of the staircase, and a half-empty plastic cup of alcohol on the fifth step. A child's tricycle was nearby.
By mid-December, officers from across the Police Department were receiving tips in the case, from the streets and from the prison system. People were talking. Consistently, the tipsters said that the killing involved members of the Bloods gang, and provided the names of Tavon Burks and Tyrone Walker.
According to police records obtained under a Public Information Act request, Burks, a short 16-year-old, told detectives that he was familiar with Tywonde', but said he had been on the east side of town at a party at the time of the killing. As he spoke, detectives noticed a cut to Burks' right hand. He said that happened during a fight at the party.
Walker, then 19, denied knowledge of the "little boy" in the alley — except police hadn't yet asked him about that when he coughed it up. He said he was at a girl's house when the killing took place, but he couldn't offer a name or location.
There's what detectives suspect, and there's what they can prove. Without enough evidence to make an arrest, detectives waited on lab results, talked to anyone and everyone connected to the boy and the suspects, and met with prosecutors to discuss next steps.
The standards for probable cause aren't quite so high on the streets. Tywonde's brother Anthony claims in an interview that those close to Burks were boasting about what happened. But the most convincing evidence for him came when detectives, hoping to bolster their case, brought photos of their suspects to show to the family.
For Anthony Jones, that confirmed what he had suspected all along.
"Homicide shows me pictures, and every picture homicide show me is all the people that had something to do with my little brother's death," said Anthony Jones, who is now 18. "So that's how we knew, for real."
"I don't know what happened to the guy after that," he said. "I just look at it like this. That's what he get."
An execution ordered
Gang members, who live by rigid rules enforced by the gun, may mingle among rival groups through family, friends and other connections. That's true here too — Authorities believe Burks was a member of a Bloods gang set that also included the boyfriend of Tywonde' Jones' older sister.
And when gang members were satisfied that Burks and Walker were responsible for stabbing the young boy, according to court testimony, Bloods member Leroy "Kenny" Taylor was ordered by another member of the gang to kill them as punishment.
Burks' final moments alive, described in court testimony, came as daybreak approached on March 11, 2008.
After spending the night together, Taylor, Burks and Walker drove to Edgecombe Circle in Northwest Baltimore. It was a night like any other, and gave no reason for alarm.
Taylor was behind the wheel of an SUV with Burks and Walker in the back seat as they traveled downhill into an apartment building parking lot, toward woods and a trash bin. He backed the vehicle into a parking spot, shifted it into park, the engine still running, and all three got out.
Taylor got on the phone like he was calling someone, and then shuffled back toward the car.
"Something ain't right about this," Walker thought to himself. He tapped Burks on the arm, and they climbed back into the vehicle.
Suddenly, four men with hoods tied tight over their heads came running down a dark embankment. They pulled Burks out of the car, while Taylor watched from the front seat with a look of approval on his face.
"He was looking at us like, 'Yeah, I got y'all.' Like, 'I tricked y'all,'" Walker testified in court.
As Walker rushed to his friend's aid, he heard five gunshots. He turned to run, juked one of the hooded men, then heard another shot. Steps later, a searing pain shot through his back, and he fell to the ground.
The attackers piled into Taylor's car and sped off, driving right by Walker. Maybe they ran out of bullets, Walker said he thought. He staggered around the corner, where a police officer would later find him.
Burks lay on the pavement, taking his last breaths.
The 'Murder Police' man
Terrified residents called 911. "He's not moving, oh my God," one cried into the phone.
James Lloyd was the lead investigator assigned to find who killed Burks.
Impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, his head shaved bald, he looks every bit a "Murder Police." But his path to the premier police beat in one of the most murderous cities in America didn't come easy.
In fact, Lloyd, who turns 36 next week, has much in common with the victims and the suspect he encounters on his job nearly every day.
Growing up in small-town South Carolina, he was homeless and living out of a car behind a trailer park. He dropped out of school. His brother was a drug dealer. Born out of wedlock with a father who had another family, Lloyd was raised by relatives and in foster homes, and says he endured varying types of abuse.
He took a job working for a pool hall owner who paid him $2 a day, on the condition that he returned to school, and he eventually reconnected with his mother. She died while he was in his teens from an undiagnosed kidney disorder. He found her body after returning home from school one day.
That's when he moved to Baltimore, where a city schools teacher took him in, feeding and clothing him, and helped him to get into college, which led to graduate school. "I'm not supposed to be here," Lloyd says. "Life is hard. But it's all about choices. I made a choice, and I still make a choice every day."
Lloyd became a social worker, and, eventually, a cop on the Baltimore police force. He approaches his job with empathy and respect for his victims, and he considers those who cooperate to be "heroes." The "audacity to tell the truth," he calls it.
Initially, Lloyd got no cooperation from Walker, the surviving victim and eyewitness to the killing of Burks. Walker first told police that he had no idea who shot him. Double-crossed by his own friends and gang, he wanted to take matters into his own hands, he would later testify at Taylor's trial.
But word was going around that Walker was responsible for shooting Burks. Walker wanted to set the record straight, videotaping himself explaining what happened, a DVD testimonial that made its way around the street.
Holding the camera up close to his face and wearing a baseball cap backward, he explained his grief over seeing his friend get killed and pinned the crime on Taylor.
The video soon made it into Lloyd's hands as well, mysteriously landing on his desk in an unmarked envelope. And finally, Walker agreed to talk.
"If only for once in his life, he did the right thing," Lloyd said.
In that interview, Walker shrugged when Lloyd asked him why his own friends would want to kill him.
They "probably got a tip that they think we had something to do with the little dude getting murdered," Walker told the detective.
Detectives pushed forward, charging Taylor in the killing of Burks and with the shooting of Walker. The motive, authorities said, was retribution for the stabbing of Tywonde'. Taylor didn't say a word when police took him in for questioning. A tattoo on his hand of his gang leader's name indicates his allegiance. He would be the only one charged.
"Young people, they live by a code, whether it's gangs or drug organizations. It's an allegiance to one another, that you and I will never comprehend," Lloyd said. "Kenny Taylor was given a task to fulfill — killing Tavon Burks, and he fulfilled that task. In a sad sense of things, he's wearing a badge of honor."
Detectives also presented reports to prosecutors saying definitively that Burks was the person who stabbed Tywonde' Jones — they had recovered his DNA from one of the cups of alcohol found at the scene, and his alibi was a mess. Perhaps no evidence made a more compelling case, however, than the admission from his mother, Maureen Gray, as well as an older sister, that Burks had told them his role in the killing.
According to police records, the daughter told police that Burks "confessed to her that he was the one that 'brutally stabbed' the victim in this incident" and "went on to state, 'All I can do is pray for his soul for what he did."
On Sept. 23, 2008, police closed the investigation into Tywonde' Jones' murder, marking in the record, "abated by death." Walker was never charged in the stabbing. In April last year, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for an attempted armed robbery in Baltimore County.
Taylor went to trial in March on the charges that he killed Burks.
Assistant State's Attorney Charles Blomquist deliberately avoided mentioning Tywonde's killing. All jurors needed to know was that Walker had identified Taylor as one of the people who shot Burks, and that that was good enough for a murder conviction.
The jurors agreed, finding Taylor guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Taylor to life plus 50 years, and he is appealing the verdict. By Baltimore courtroom standards, the sentence was as stiff as they come.
"Justice served," Lloyd said outside the courthouse.
The sadness of mothers
And now, two mothers are left.
Their sons are dead, and justice came in different forms. Neither has soothed their pain.
In a Dunkin' Donuts near the downtown courthouses with her family, Maureen Gray confided that Burks was her favorite of her five children. "You can have 15 kids, but out of them 15 you got one child that you love a little more," she said, "and he was the one."
Gray raised her children by herself, first in a one-bedroom apartment where she worked and took classes to become a nurse. For the past seven years she's worked at an area hospital in the cancer unit.
"I've always worked in a hospital, as a life-saver," she said. "I couldn't save my son's life."
Her goodbye to her favorite son came at the morgue, where two days after Burks' death they let her see the chilled body, which she recalls dripping with water. Three years later, she remains angry, withdrawn and lost. She said she tried to kill herself twice. She said she became an alcoholic and abused her surviving children.
For a time, she visited her son's grave every day, and once tried to dig up his body.
"I don't have it in me yet," she said of forgiveness. "It's been three years. I'm angry, and I'm hurt. His birthday is May 22, and he would've been 20. I don't work on his birthday. I don't celebrate holidays. My life was full, and content. A piece of my puzzle is missing."
At Taylor's sentencing in May, Gray clutched a scrapbook of pictures and mementos including clippings of her son's hair. She read a letter she had written in her son's voice, as if he was addressing his infant son. "I wanted to be in the big life, in a gang," she wrote, making up his words. "Well, it put me here, eight feet underground."
Though police say Gray's admission that Burks confessed to killing Tywonde' was key to closing that case, Gray shakes off such a claim. "It was an allegation," she said of her son's involvement.
In fact, She believes the only appropriate punishment for her son's killer is death. "The justice system needs to start making example out of some of them. If you deliberately kill someone, you need to be killed yourself," she said.
Meanwhile, the mother of Tywonde' Jones is pleased with the swift retribution on the street.
When a police detective told Monica Jones in March 2008 that the suspect in the stabbing was dead, she said, "I was happy. … All I could think was, 'Thank God.'"
The startled officer responded, "Miss Jones, you don't mean that." "I said, 'Yes I do. Yes I do. I need to tell him thank you, whoever it is.'"
But like Burks' mother, Jones too struggled to keep it together. She said she had a nervous breakdown, and was sent away to rural Georgia to rest. She stayed with a relative for a year and saw a psychiatrist. She breathed in the country air, took in the slower pace of life, where nights weren't punctuated by sirens and gunshots, where she said boys didn't walk around with their pants slung low.
Since returning to Baltimore, Jones said, she still battles fits of depression. She said she never knew that someone had been arrested in the killing of her son's killer. She heard the name, and she gazed off into the distance and cracked a slight smile.
Yeah, she knew Kenny Taylor, she said. He lived four doors up from her, and used to hang out at her house.
"I tell you what," Jones said. "I'm gonna get Kenny's information. I'm gonna take care of him while he's there," she said. "I'll send him some money, so he can be all right while he in jail. Because he did me a favor. I'm grateful."
Nov. 29, 2007: Tywonde' Jones is stabbed to death in the 5000 block of Cordelia Ave.
March 11, 2008: In a double shooting, Tavon Burks is killed and Tyrone Walker is wounded in the 2500 block of Edgecombe Circle.
Sept. 23, 2008: Police and prosecutors close the investigation into Tywonde' Jones' death, listing Tavon Burks as the killer.
Dec. 27, 2008: Leroy "Kenny" Taylor is charged with killing Tavon Burks.
Feb. 24, 2011: Taylor's murder trial begins in Baltimore Circuit Court. Walker testifies that Taylor shot him and Burks.
March 8, 2011: Taylor is convicted by a jury on charges of murder and attempted murder.
May 24, 2011: Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch sentences Taylor to life plus 50 years in prison. Taylor files an appeal.
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