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.