By Justin Fenton, Justin George and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
9:15 PM EDT, June 24, 2013
Surrounded by farmland at an Iowa facility for troubled youths, Gervontae Burgess' circumstances could hardly have been more different from those in his violent Baltimore neighborhood. Brad Knight, Burgess' football coach, remembers a bright young man with a broad smile and a desire to help others.
"Gervontae was one of those kids who soaked everything in. He wanted to be a great teammate and wanted to learn," said Knight, who coached Burgess at the Clarinda Academy. "My worry was always that when they went home, we were going to throw them right back to the wolves."
Burgess did come back, and he soon found himself locked up multiple times. Last weekend, the 20-year-old was one of eight people fatally shot across Baltimore. He died Saturday in a Pennsylvania Avenue shooting that also killed a 49-year-old woman.
Police scrambled Monday to stop the violence after a weekend in which 20 people were shot — the city's worst outbreak in years. Monday evening was marked with yet another shooting, this time with two men injured by gunfire in the Shipley Hill neighborhood. That shooting was reported about 8:20 p.m. near the intersection of Hollins Street and South Catherine Street in Southwest Baltimore.
As City Council members decried the bloodshed, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts visited the site of an East Baltimore quintuple shooting that took the life of Donyae Jones, an 18-year-old woman.
In his first public appearance since the shootings, Batts took a brief stroll through a block of Kenwood Avenue and embraced Joanna Harvell, who said she was Jones' mother-in-law.
"I'm scared to come out the door. I'm in fear for my grandkids to come out here," Harvell said. Her son, Anthony Harvell, said he was married to Jones and his life would never be the same. "She was the only girl I ever loved. I feel like I'm dead, too."
Gregory Stewart, 51, who lives one block south, said he appreciated the police visit to his neighborhood but wondered whether the violence would spur any lasting change.
"In two, three weeks when they drop back, it'll be the same situation," he said.
After the weekend, a total of 110 people had been slain in Baltimore this year, and homicides were up 10 percent compared with the same time last year. In Washington, by comparison, there have been 38 homicides in 2013.
"For us, this is a concern," Batts told reporters on Kenwood Avenue. "This is a spike. We will respond to the spike and be assertive about it."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is attending a conference in Las Vegas, said in a statement that the "this weekend's senseless violence will not diminish our resolve to target repeat violent offenders, gangs and illegal guns."
Flanked by police commanders from across the city, Batts said he was working with federal and state partners to crack down, including an increased role for the city sheriff's office. He said he met with City Council members last week and that they are "very supportive, very happy with the job we're doing."
But downtown, City Council members were questioning police Monday. Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents Northeast Baltimore, called for a hearing to look into the weekend's shootings, saying he wanted to make sure the Police Department was prepared for an upward trend in summer violence.
He said he was holding the department to the standard of 2011, when Baltimore saw a 30-year low in homicides.
"If we're not at 2011 numbers, then we're failing," Scott said. "As of right now, we're failing. Why aren't we having the success we had in the past?"
City Councilman Carl Stokes said he took exception to statements by police officials who said they were generally satisfied with this year's crime statistics. He said he spoke to many residents who were also upset by those statements.
"I really have no words," Stokes said. "I am as stunned as my community."
Councilwoman Helen Holton, who represents Southwest Baltimore, said residents are fed up with the violence and the inability of city government to quell it.
"We have low morale. People don't believe in the vision of this city," she said. "The citizens aren't buying into the plans for the future. There's a sense of people throwing their hands up the in air in total frustration."
Five of the weekend victims were shot in a four-block stretch of Northwest Baltimore, and police officials said the incidents appeared to have little in common beyond their geography.
On Monday, Virgil Martin wore work gloves, work boots, sunglasses and a floppy camouflage hat as he raked up trash on the sidewalk and gutters outside the Private Stock Social Club, a gray, windowless building at the corner of West Belvedere and Arbutus avenues.
He lives on the block, and at about 1:30 a.m. heard the shots and began filming on his cellphone camera from his second floor window as more than a dozen police cars arrived. The officers would find three men wounded by gunfire.
"They need to start some chilling and stop the killing," he said. "They're shooting each other over nothing."
As he picked up trash, Martin said the city doesn't seem to want to invest in the area. Martin has lived in the neighborhood since 1968. Teens and young men have nothing to do, he said. There are no jobs. Budget woes have closed some of the city's recreation centers. He said officers need to get out of their cars and get to know residents.
A half-block away, Angela Simonson spoke through a screen door about the apathy that seems to surround the block, where residents feel resigned to the violence. She said she heard 13 shots Sunday night.
"What are you going to do? I'm not used to it, but you have to be, living here," she said.
A handful of houses down, two homicide detectives studied a fresh memorial that had sprung up, with candles still burning in the hot sun near the carport of a boarded-up house. It was where Omar Shorter, 32, was killed about 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
A crime scene technician waved a green metal detector around the shrine, then stopped to look closer in the grass.
"I found a bullet," he said.
In another shooting in the area, 53-year-old Claude Nelson was shot dead in the 5200 block of St. Charles Ave. He joined Jones, Shorter, Andre Witherspoon, 27; Danquel Darden, 37; Maurice Taylor, 37; and 49-year-old Joyce Alston — who was shot along with Burgess — among the weekend's dead. At least one other victim was listed in critical condition.
At Clarinda Academy in Iowa, Burgess stood out to Knight as one of his more coachable players. "He spent more time trying to help players around him than maybe himself," Knight said. "He wanted to win, but he understood there was more to it."
Knight coached at Clarinda Academy until last year. He called Clarinda, which describes itself as a residential foster care facility for at-risk youth, a "prep school for kids who had made bad decisions in their past."
Youths came from across the country, but Knight said there were a high number of youths from Flint, Mich., and Baltimore, and they were some of the most personable kids. They were also the ones he worried about the most.
He once accompanied a student who was returning to Baltimore. "I've been a lot of places and never been uncomfortable," he said. "And I was uncomfortable."
Court records show Burgess got in trouble once back in Baltimore. First it was minor things, like trespassing and playing dice.
In May 2012, police said, "concerned citizens" called to complain about men selling drugs in the alleys and vacant buildings of the 1500 block of N. Monroe St., according to charging documents. Police on the scene said they observed Burgess handing out heroin gel caps to several people while another man collected money from them.
Burgess was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, with all but about three months of the sentence suspended. On Jan. 9 of this year, he was arrested and charged again with selling drugs and resisting arrest and had an open warrant at the time he was killed for violating his probation.
Knight remembers who Burgess was, and who he could have become. He called the death "devastating."
"I will remember the enormous smile on his face every day," Knight said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.
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