Like the television character he helped inspire, Donnie Andrews lived by a code.
In his earlier years when he was robbing rival dealers as a young hustler in West Baltimore — experiences that would later form the basis for the popular Omar Little character on the Baltimore crime drama “The Wire” — he vowed to never involve women or children in his crimes.
But after confessing to a murder and helping authorities bring down a crime syndicate, he took on a different mission: working to prevent youth from going down the same path that he did.
Andrews died Thursday following heart complications while in New York City, where he was attending an event as part of his efforts to promote a non-profit outreach foundation. He was 58.
“Donnie was truly a rare bird, a fierce street warrior who had been to hell and back,” said Sonja Sohn, an actress who worked with Andrews in youth outreach, “and lived not only to tell about it, but to transform that pain and darkness into the brightest of lights, infused with the love he had for youth and communities suffering from the injustices of that life, often times, unfairly doles out to those born with the short end of the stick.”
Andrews, whose full name was Larry Donnell Andrews, had been around violence most of his life, physically abused by his mother and watching at age 10 from behind a washing machine as a man was bludgeoned to death for 15 cents. He grew up in the housing projects of West Baltimore, where he was mentored by hustlers and drug dealers. He became a stick-up artist, robbing other drug dealers with a .44 Magnum.
“The word ‘future’ wasn’t even in my vocabulary, because I didn’t know if I’d be alive or dead tomorrow,” he told The [U.K.] Independent. “They had a bet in my neighborhood that I wouldn’t reach 21.”
In 1986, roped in by drug kingpin Warren Boardley and looking to support a heroin addiction, he said he took on a contract killing, teaming with Reggie Gross for the fatal, close-range shootings of Rodney “Touche” Young and Zachary Roach on Gold Street.
The former lead prosecutor, Charles Scheeler, said Andrews was different from other suspects: not only did he turn himself in, but he never angled for a lesser sentence. He simply confessed to the killing, which Scheeler said they had little evidence to convict him of otherwise.
“I prosecuted hundreds of people but this was the only person this happened to,” said Scheeler, who developed an unlikely friendship with Andrews even before his conviction. “Everyone else in his position has been ‘I will cooperate for less time.’ Donnie was ‘I will cooperate because I want to repent.’ I’ve never had anyone like that. He convinced me.”
Andrews also agreed to wear a wire with great personal risk — Edward Burns, a former police detective, said Andrews once went through three layers of bodyguards to get to a kingpin — and picked up conversations implicating Boardley and Gross.
“Donnie wanted change, more than he wanted to breathe air,” said David Simon, the former Sun crime reporter.
Though Andrews believed he’d receive a 10-year prison term, he was sentenced to life in federal prison. His first tries at parole were unsuccessful, but he availed himself of every opportunity within prison to make things right. He studied, beat his drug habit, and read the Bible.
Michael Millemann, an attorney who represented him in his fight for release, recalled meeting Andrews, who was still behind bars and had no clear path out but was counseling younger inmates. He talked about how, if he were to ever be released, he wanted to help children at risk.
“The day he turned himself in, I’d say from that day on, he became a counselor and a supporter to other people. The transition was day and night,” Milleman said.
While incarcerated, Burns, a co-author of the non-fiction book “The Corner,” helped connect Andrews with Fran Boyd, one of the book’s drug-addicted protagonists. They struck up a relationship, speaking on the phone daily. Boyd was as tough as they come, Simon said, and Burns’ hope was that Andrews could get through to her.
“She’s smart, and I knew she could get herself straight,” Andrews told the New York Times in 2007, “so I kept pushing and then I got hooked on her.”
Starting in 1998, Boyd, Simon, Burns and Scheeler were among those lobbying for his release. It happened in 2005, and he and Boyd married in 2007.
The Times featured their story on the front page, describing it as “a lengthy courtship that was as much about turning their lives around as it was about finding each other … a source of inspiration for the grittier parts of West Baltimore, where few people who end up on the corner using and selling drugs manage to break free, and even fewer return to make a difference.”
Simon had sent Andrews copies of the newspaper while he was incarcerated, and Andrews would call him with information about crime taking place on city streets. Simon made him a consultant on his HBO show “The Wire,” where Andrews was among the inspirations for the Omar, the drug assassin with a moral code who was based on several real-life stick-up men that Burns had encountered.
President Obama said in March that Omar was his favorite character on the show.
Andrews appeared on screen as one of Omar’s crew, and died in a shootout scene where Omar leaps from a four-story building and escapes. Andrews said that really happened to him — but he had jumped from the sixth-story.
On Friday, Michael Kenneth Williams, the actor who played Omar, wrote on Twitter: “R.I.P. to the original gangsta and a stand up dude.”
Andrews had spent recent years trying to ramp up work through his “Why Murder?” foundation, and he has been featured in documentaries about the drug war and in talks at Harvard University, where “The Wire” is taught in a class.
“He turned his life around. He patiently waited for 18 years and came out and became a remarkable asset to this community,” Scheeler said, mentioning he last saw Andrews a week ago when they were working together on the project to have greenhouses for the urban farming initiative in the Oliver neighborhood.
Said Simon: “On paper, he’s a murderer. We’ve constructed a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow for the idea of redemption, and Donnie puts a lie to that.”
He was in New York with Boyd for a screening of a documentary, Simon said. Andrews died after suffering an aortic dissection, which begins with a tear in the wall of the major artery carrying blood out of the heart.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun