After days of furious searching for Marcus "Chip" Lesane, missing and presumed dead, Baltimore homicide detectives brought his childhood friend -- the last person to see him alive -- into an interrogation room. They spent eight hours questioning him, but Dawnta Baskerville wasn't talking.
There was another option left. They opened the door to the chilly, brightly lit room and let in Lesane's older brother, then stepped back as he took a seat across from Baskerville.
Robert Lesane was no cop, and the 29-year-old shuttle bus driver's law enforcement experience consisted of watching "The First 48," the reality series about detective work. But he also knew the uncomfortable truth about his brother and Baskerville: They made their living by robbing drug dealers.
"Stick-up boys," as they're known in the criminal lexicon, represent a niche in particularly chaotic and thriving drug markets in cities like Baltimore. Their dangerous schemes promise a quick buck, but also the possibility of a sudden death.
The detectives' unorthodox maneuver would pay off, with Baskerville agreeing to take Robert Lesane and the officers to the area where he said he had left Marcus Lesane stranded after a robbery went awry.
The pieces of the investigation were coming together, but one thing was still missing: Marcus Lesane.
Stick-up boys "keep the street scene at a boil," said David Kennedy, a criminologist who has run anti-violence initiatives around the country.
They heighten the need for drug dealers to be armed and complicate things for police officers. When the door gets kicked-in on a stash house before sunup, the targets don't know whether the intruders are undercover cops on a raid or someone looking to shoot everyone with a sawed-off shotgun, he said.
After helping engineer the "Boston Miracle" crime turnaround in the mid-1990s, Kennedy came to Baltimore to set up a program and was confronted with the phenomenon for the first time. Though he's since seen such behavior elsewhere in places like Detroit and Oakland, Calif., he said it remains a feature of "the worst kind of out-of-control drug markets."
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has recently been trying to crack into this world through a series of Baltimore stings in which undercover officers propose the operations to suspected criminals, then arrest them when they show up armed. City police say the stick-up crews drive a considerable number of homicides and shootings.
"It's really almost the most extreme part of the street crime culture that you can find," Kennedy said. "There's nothing more intense than what goes on around these guys."
And when a stick-up boy ends up dead, the pool of potential suspects grows beyond that of a typical investigation to include just about every low-level dope slinger on every burned-out corner in the city. Court documents, police files and interviews in Lesane's disappearance tell the story of how one such case played out.
Getting a lead
Homicide detective Gordon Carew had a tough case. In his 15-year career investigating murders as a Baltimore "murder police," he has seen plenty of kidnappings and home invasions. Still, each case carries its own imperatives: a victim and a family that deserves closure.
Marcus Lesane was a new father -- a 27-year-old grocery store employee who called his mother every day and was extremely popular among those who knew him, despite his reputation on the streets.
Concerned that Marcus Lesane was already dead, officers began marshaling resources around the city to search for his body, including flyovers from the Foxtrot helicopter unit and neighborhood canvasses -- "no stone-unturned" kind of stuff.
Robert Lesane had hit the streets, too, checking vacant homes and wooded areas. He knew his brother risked ending up in jail over the robberies, but he hadn't anticipated having to scour the city for his body.
They had grown up in a middle-class family in Southwest Baltimore. Marcus always had a roof over his head and a supportive family, Robert Lesane thought. They had cars in high school. Robbing drug dealers? Why would his brother do that?
"I know people say this a lot, but he wasn't that person," Robert Lesane told a reporter at the time. "To me, ever since he was younger, he always wanted to follow the crowd."
A vigil is held for Marcus Lesane at Beechfield Elementary School. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun)
Though people were speculating that Baskerville was responsible for Marcus Lesane's disappearance, his brother thought otherwise. "We grew up with him," Robert Lesane said of Baskerville. "It doesn't seem like he woulda did something. ... Everybody's a suspect to me at this point."
The fact that Marcus Lesane's burgundy Buick LeSabre was found near Baskerville's house with the keys dangling from the door solidified Baskerville as a person of interest, however, and police brought him in for questioning April 16.
Carew wanted Baskerville to know that investigators had him in their cross hairs, even if they were well short of probable cause for an arrest.
His versions of events were inconsistent enough to arouse further suspicion. If the missing man had been harmed, Baskerville would be left holding the bag, Carew and partner Martin Young told him. The detectives sensed that he wanted to say something but was holding back.
About 10 p.m., the detectives turned to Robert Lesane.
In Carew's search for a family member willing to speak frankly about the victim and provide a backbone for the investigation, Robert Lesane had emerged as the detectives' go-to contact.
The officers told him not to put his hands on Baskerville, then let him in to try to persuade Baskerville to open up.
Robert Lesane's strategy was to emphasize that -- responsible for his brother's death or not -- Baskerville was becoming the subject of revenge talk on the streets.
"Everybody thinks it's you, and everybody's gunning for you," Robert Lesane said, adding that Baskerville's family was at risk, too. If Baskerville wasn't involved in the killing, he needed to help police.
Mozita Lesane and Robert Lesane, the parents of Marcus Lesane, attend a vigil for their son. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun)
For two hours they sat at the table on the fifth floor of police headquarters, two guys from Southwest Baltimore burning through a pack of cigarettes. Finally, Baskerville broke down and described what happened.
Baskerville said he and Marcus Lesane had hopped into the LeSabre on the night of April 10 with a plan to rob a man named Antonio Braxton at an apartment building in the 2400 block of Loyola Northway. Braxton, 21, had agreed to sell them $1,000 worth of cocaine, Baskerville told police -- but they planned to steal it instead.
Braxton hadn't brought the full amount to the meeting spot, so Marcus Lesane led him at gunpoint to a home in the 2500 block of Oswego Ave. to get the rest. Baskerville said he stayed outside, then panicked and took off.
Detectives took Baskerville and Robert Lesane to the scene, where there was no sign of the missing brother.
But yellow police tape left on the ground triggered the realization that this crime scene was also at the center of another mysterious case.
Finding a gunman
A 19-year-old had arrived at Northwestern High School on April 11, the day after Marcus Lesane was last seen. The student was fresh out of the emergency room at Sinai Hospital. He didn't look well, and word was getting around that the popular athlete had been shot the night before.
The rumor eventually made its way to city schools police Officer Gerard Owens, who took the student aside for a chat that day. In the principal's office, the teen provided few details, saying that he didn't remember what he was doing, who he was with or how he got shot. It was similar to the story he had told detectives who had visited him at the hospital.
Owens, who in his role is as much a guidance counselor as a lawman, took the teen into the police office within the school for a private conversation.
They had developed a rapport over the past three years; as an athlete, the teen was seen as a leader at the school, and Owens had impressed on him that his actions resonated. In turn, the teen had confided in Owens when he felt negative influences tugging on him.
As they spoke, the teen broke down crying and confessed that he had shot someone.
The Sun is not identifying him because he has not been charged with a crime.
The night in question was his birthday. He had been playing video games and smoking marijuana at Braxton's house when his brother got up and walked outside.
When he returned, Marcus Lesane was holding a 9 mm Beretta to his back. He told the three to hand over whatever drugs they had or he would "kill everybody," the teen said.
Fearing they might be shot even if they complied, they made a quick decision to jump Lesane and try to disarm him.
The body of Marcus Lesane was found behind this vacant house in Northwest Baltimore. (Justin Fenton / The Baltimore Sun)
Bullets started flying. The teen was shot in the side. Braxton was shot in the foot. Gunshots went into the floor, window, walls and ceiling as the struggle toppled furniture and broke chairs. One bullet shot out a light, and the room went dark. Lesane at some point fell to the ground.
The teen bit Lesane on the back and wrested the gun from him. And in that moment, he squeezed off two shots.
"We ran out of the house," he told police. At a Rite-Aid down the street, he paid someone $5 to give him a lift to Sinai Hospital. He had no idea who Marcus Lesane was but assumed he was dead.
That day at school, the teen agreed to take police to the crime scene. Inside were signs of a struggle, but the mess had largely been cleaned up -- bullet holes in the living room floor, for example, had been filled with putty, and the carpet had been ripped up.
The teen professed no knowledge of this aftermath, but he showed police where he ditched the gun in the 2500 block of Loyola Southway, pulling from a bush a 9 mm Beretta with two live rounds. He'd never been in trouble before and said he'd worried police wouldn't believe him. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't get the events of that night out of his head.
Later, at the scene with Baskerville, homicide detectives made the connection. They now had a shooter in their missing-person case, but still no bead on Lesane's whereabouts.
The answer would come a week later. On April 23, a man sweeping an alley a few blocks away on Southway encountered a pile of garbage that included a sign for a now-closed bar called the Preakness Lounge, a big screen-television, a storm door and a pile of wood.
The man went to grab a discarded child's crib and uncovered a decomposing body, clad in a yellow shirt and blue jeans with plastic bags covering his head and feet. In his back were bullets that had severed his spinal cord and punctured his lung and heart. They were instantly fatal, the medical examiner would later determine.
For detectives and prosecutors, the next steps presented a challenge.
If there was one person whose hands might be truly clean in the killing of Marcus Lesane, it was the 19-year-old who pulled the trigger of the gun that ended his life.
The gunshots had been fired wildly, and there was no evidence of any other injuries except the bite mark. But the shooter hadn't been truthful to the detective who questioned him at the hospital. Braxton and the shooter's brother were refusing to talk to police. The body had also been moved; it remains unclear by whom.
Yet all indications were that Marcus Lesane had died as his victims thwarted an armed assault and robbery.
Prosecutors took the case before a grand jury and ultimately decided that no one would face criminal charges. Lesane's death, which had been Baltimore's 64th homicide of the year, is no longer classified as a murder at all, but a justified case of self-defense.
A time to mourn
On April 30, a week after Marcus Lesane's body was found and the day he would have turned 28, at least 100 mourners gathered in the parking lot of Beechfield Elementary/Middle School and huddled around two enlarged photographs of him on posterboard.
As they sang and lit candles on lily pads floating in a bowl of water, friends and relatives recalled his good qualities. One woman who said she had lived with him for more than a year called him the "kindest, gentlest man I've come across in my life."
Others hinted at his troubles. "A good kid gone bad," lamented his aunt, Pat Redmond.
Months later, his mother, Mozita Lesane, continues to struggle with the official account of the killing. She blames Baskerville, and wants whoever moved her son's body to face charges.
"Who's on Marcus' side to say he didn't do it? How do I know my son wasn't set up for a murder? Those guys are speaking, and my son can't," she said in an interview.
Some of those involved in the case have since been picked up by police.
Braxton has been charged in an unrelated homicide in Northwest Baltimore, the killing of Davon Ockimey. His trial is tentatively set for Jan. 10. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Mozita Lesane, mother of Marcus Lesane, and Pat Redmond, Marcus' aunt, pictured in the background, arrange photos of Marcus during a memorial vigil held for him behind Beechfield Elementary School. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun)
Baskerville was locked up after police said drugs were found in his home the day he was picked up for an interrogation, and is currently awaiting trial in another crime -- the March 7 killing of LaConte Mitchell, 28, whose nude body was dumped behind a railroad car on property in South Baltimore owned by the B&O Railroad Museum.
A woman who answered the door at a trim rowhouse listed as an address for Baskerville declined to comment, as did his attorney.
Police wrote in charging documents that Baskerville had contacted Mitchell, a Spring Grove Hospital security guard who had no criminal record, about purchasing marijuana and ambushed him as he approached.
Police say Baskerville had an accomplice: Marcus Lesane.
For Robert Lesane, the idea that his brother's conduct brought about his demise is somewhat reassuring. He said the family struggled with anger over the idea that he may have been set up, or that he was being held and tortured while missing. But his death was quick, and unplanned.
It was his own fault.
Robert Lesane said of the shooter: "He did what he had to do."Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun