Margaret Pearson doesn't ask the Almighty why violence stole two of her children.
"I never ask God that," she said. "Never."
She relied on her faith to endure the murder of her daughter, who was strangled in a hospital room in 1982 while she was being treated for a rare illness that had stolen her basic motor skills.
And when her son died last October from injuries he suffered during a robbery in West Baltimore, Pearson turned to God again.
Thirty-one years separate the crimes. Both remain unsolved.
Pearson believes God must have his reasons. She says she is satisfied with the serenity and strength he has given her. She recites the 23rd Psalm over and over: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. … He leadeth me beside the still waters."
Answers can be elusive in a city where hundreds of people are murdered each year. Baltimore police have made arrests in only half of the 235 homicides recorded in 2013. If the past is any guide, many of the killers will never be found.
Lt. Richard Gibson, who oversees detectives in the police homicide unit, has seen a handful of cases in which parents have lost more than one child. He says he understands how heavy the toll is for Pearson.
"It's kind of harder to get closure when you have multiple victims," Gibson said.
While police say the majority of murders in the city are related to the drug trade, investigators have found nothing in the lives Pearson's son or daughter that might have contributed to their murders.
Gibson said Steven Pearson was a "legitimate victim," a fact he said must make his killing all the more unfathomable for his mother. At 86, Pearson never thought she would outlast two children.
Pearson has wondered what her family — her remaining six children, 28 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren — had done to invite such an ordeal.
"All my families are nice families," she said. She has wondered whether she has been a good mother, as if she were being punished. "I don't think I was hard on them."
She continues to drive from her home in Parkville to Southwest Baltimore to volunteer weekly at her church's food pantry and soup kitchen — continuing to give even when so much has been taken away.
"She's always here," said Theodore Bonds, an elder at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. "Never missed."
An only child, Pearson says she treated her children as if they were the siblings she had always wanted. She'd dump a box of puzzle pieces on the dining room table and the family would sit around locking pieces together.
The children followed her like ducklings as she led them to Druid Hill Park, carrying charcoal grills and toys for picnics. She'd gather them around her before bedtime next to the warm stove and dance the cha-cha to entertain them.
Her oldest, Fannie Pearson, began having mysterious seizures when she was in school. In time, they grew more violent. She had difficulty walking and talking and was mostly confined to a wheelchair.
Eventually, she was diagnosed with Kufs disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that mimics mental illness.
When she was 33, the family moved her into the John L. Deaton Medical Center, a private chronic-care facility near the Inner Harbor.
Early on Oct. 22, 1982, Pearson's roommate alerted nurses that she was on the floor suffering from an apparent seizure. It looked as if she had thrown her body over her bed's guardrails.
Nurses strapped Pearson back in using a cloth restraint that went around her chest and under her arms like a vest. Some time after 4 a.m., she was found dangling from her bed, partly held by the chest restraint. Nurses again put her back to bed.
At 4:30 a.m., a hospital worker found Pearson dead, her body once again dangling from her bed.
The medical center called the Medical Examiner's Office to determine if the restraints were to blame. The autopsy report came back with a different conclusion: She had been killed.
Baltimore police homicide detectives told The Baltimore Sun in 1982 that neck marks and tracheal hemorrhaging indicated Pearson had been strangled. They said the evidence showed that she was killed with a thin cord that didn't match anything in the hospital room.
Detectives spent more than 12 hours interviewing hospital staff but arrested no suspects. The Deaton center's internal investigation turned up no leads, either.
Julia Briggs, Fannie's sister, could never recall another time seeing her father, Ninmark Pearson, cry so openly. The murder was "overwhelming" for her mother, too, Briggs said. But Margaret Pearson continued to lean on Mount Moriah Baptist Church, serving as a church usher, even as a detective told her the case would always be open.
It remains that way today, years after Ninmark Pearson died. It is currently being reviewed for possible re-investigation, Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said.
Margaret Pearson says Steven was her most independent child. He refused to walk next to his mother when she took him to kindergarten. He often crossed the street, she says, or ran ahead and yelled, "Boys don't need anyone."
He joined the Marines because he wanted to get out of the house and served for three years in the 1970s. Family members said discipline shaped his life.
"His house was so clean, you could eat on the floor," Margaret Pearson said. "Everything had to be in order and place."
He built his own house, finished his sister's basement and built her an elaborate two-level deck with a white gazebo. He taught his brother Maurice how to cut crown molding and rewire light switches.
Steven Pearson told his family he was heading for a building estimate appointment on Dec. 17, 2012. He didn't mention whom he was meeting, and when he didn't come home that night, the family notified police.
Three days later, Baltimore police found a "John Doe" lying unconscious in the hallway of a building in the 1600 block of McCulloh St. Police said he had been struck in the head and the impact had caused bleeding in his brain.
That night Margaret Pearson prayed, "Lord, pray we find him, dead or alive."
The next day, the family learned John Doe was Steven Pearson. Maurice Pearson said several tools had been stolen from his brother's white truck, which was parked outside the building where his body was found.
All indications point to robbery as the motive, Baltimore police Det. Eric Ragland said.
At first, Pearson breathed on his own. But a doctor told the family he was brain-dead.
Margaret Pearson refused to believe it.
"I have a doctor and his name is Dr. Jesus," she would say.
She talked to her son at his bedside daily — "like a mother would do," she said. "I would call his name."
She recited the 23rd Psalm.
"I would say it to Stevie, and he'd blink his eyes," Pearson said.
Pearson watched as her son bounced between hospitals and long-term care facilities with bed sores and pneumonia.
"I prayed for God to give him peace," she said. "He had suffered enough."
When Steven Pearson's organs began shutting down in October his extended family jammed his room, spilling out into the hallway to say goodbye.
Briggs asked her brothers, sisters and other family members to say something to let Stevie know they were there. Just then, Briggs said, he opened his eyes wide. He held on for another week.
"After he died, I said, 'Thank God you have him in your hand, and I feel better,' " Margaret Pearson said.
Her anger turned toward whoever had killed her son. She imagines someone who was too lazy to work.
She labors to put her loss in perspective. In an era in which mass shootings have become common, she says, she tries to remember that she is not the only parent dealing with loss.
She stays busy at Mount Moriah Baptist, where she has been an usher for more than 60 years. A quiet woman, she does more listening than speaking when she helps out weekly at the church's food and clothing bank.
Many who come have told Pearson they have been in and out of jail. Pearson can't help but wonder if any of them have been desperate enough to rob or kill.
"I think about that all the time," Pearson said.
Yet she greets no one with wariness — just warmth, remembering the 23rd Psalm, again.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."
"I go up to them and hug them," she said.
When she leaves church, Pearson frequently spends hours with dollar-store word-find puzzle books. She searches among pages of letters for phrases, content with the answers that she can find.
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