The flowers left in condolence are a kind but painful reminder that De'ontae Smith is gone, as is the funeral program his mother carries around to remember the boy stabbed to death downtown just hours after the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl victory parade.
Chevita Bumbrey and her husband, Donae Wright, have struggled with De'ontae's conspicuous absence. He could usually be found slouching on the couch playing video games or dancing the "mump" to rap music — shuffling wide-legged on the wood floor.
But among the hardest things to accept, Bumbrey said, is that their 15-year-old son's death seems to have become invisible — nobody claims to have seen it — even though he was the victim of the most public of killings just weeks ago.
Police, who have not made an arrest, have not divulged much information about the investigation. De'ontae's friends, including those who watched him die, haven't shared what they know with the family, either. The silence is another indignity, after the family says city officials played down his death once before. Frustration builds as closure eludes them.
"No one seems to know or have seen anything with so many people there," Bumbrey said. "They all say they were there, but they don't know anything."
She wonders whether police are getting shut out like she is and bemoans a street culture in Baltimore that discourages witnesses from cooperating with criminal investigations.
On the morning of Feb. 5, De'ontae put on his Patterson High School uniform, said goodbye to his mother and left his Southeast Baltimore rowhome. He then changed into another set of clothes and joined several of his friends among nearly 200,000 people downtown for the Super Bowl celebration.
After the parade wound from City Hall to M&T Bank Stadium, police said, De'ontae and his friends were in a large fight outside a McDonald's at North Howard and West Fayette streets, where the teen was fatally stabbed and two others were injured.
The area was unusually crowded with parade-goers, according to witnesses, and grainy surveillance images police released a few days later captured the killer in a purple shirt and white hat — apparently raising his knife, about to plunge it.
"People fighting. … They got guns. Somebody got stabbed. We need everything. There's so many people here!" a woman who identified herself as the manager of the McDonald's said on a 911 call police have released.
Even with eyes and cameras all around, police have not made an arrest, though officials said they are following good leads.
Bumbrey believes if De'ontae's friends aren't telling her anything, they probably aren't sharing much with investigators. She blames the silence on the "Stop Snitchin' " street culture that discourages cooperation with police through fear or peer pressure.
Bumbrey understands the risk of talking to police. She was sitting on steps in the late 1990s when a car pulled up and shots were fired at a friend next to her, hitting him in the leg. At the hospital, she said, she told police everything she saw.
"Back in '98-'99, we weren't hooked up on the 'stop snitching,' " she said.
But that changed just a few years later when the phrase became as much a threat as a street mantra.
An underground DVD released on the streets in 2004 titled "Stop Snitchin' " drew national attention to witness intimidation, pushing Baltimore police to launch a "Keep Talkin' " counter-campaign and the Maryland legislature to pass tougher laws against witness interference.
"The culture made them fear," said Wright, 36, who helped raise De'ontae since the boy was 6.
Wright said he was trying to teach De'ontae to resist that culture. What he misses most, he said, is giving his stepson life lessons — looking him in the eye and "teaching him how to stay alive" on Baltimore's streets.
"They make it real easy for you to lose your children," he said.
Until police make an arrest, Bumbrey said, she will continue passing out Metro CrimeStoppers fliers and posting them in stores and gas stations in hopes that a $2,000 reward for information will prove more tempting than a code of silence.
Capt. Stanley Brandford, commander of the homicide detective division, said some people have spoken with investigators, but he wouldn't comment on who they were or the nature of the conversations.
He said detectives are still looking to the public for help.
"We still have some work to do," he said. "In all these cases, you always have people for whatever reason who don't want to come forward. It's a Baltimore thing, I would imagine."
Police in cities across the country struggle with witness intimidation, but Baltimore has been home to several notorious incidents that illustrate the stubbornness of the problem.
In 2002, a family in East Baltimore died in a firebombing that was retaliation for telling police about drug dealing and other crimes on their street. And in 2009, an FBI informant was shot execution-style in South Baltimore. A witness caught bragging in a recorded phone conversation later told a grand jury she didn't see anything — because of the "code of the streets," according to a federal prosecutor.
That code is what worries Bumbrey and Wright the most as they pray for an arrest in De'ontae's case.
"I talked to a few of them who went to his high school," said Wright. "Only they know why they're not coming forth. But if he had friends who cared, it's just human nature to want to help. That's the culture we're in: People have a heart of stone."
Just "one little girl," a friend of De'ontae's who wasn't even at the parade, has come to Bumbrey volunteering to speak to detectives and be of any help she can, Bumbrey said. Meanwhile, she said, it feels as if everyone else is trying hard to forget De'ontae's killing.
After the stabbing, police initially said they had no information linking the individuals involved to the Super Bowl parade. His family felt the city purposely tried to shift attention from De'ontae's killing so Baltimore's violent reputation wouldn't spill into televised parade coverage and mar a proud moment. His mother knew from friends and from the school uniform they found in his backpack that he had skipped school to attend the parade.
A day later, police acknowledged that the teen was downtown for the parade and that they didn't have sufficient information to confirm that in the hours after the incident.
As Bumbrey and Wright sat recently in their living room, blinds closed, they expressed frustration with their son's friends who don't acknowledge his death. At Bumbrey's feet was a cardboard Luvs diaper box filled with pictures of her son.
"They can do what they want, but it's not going to go away," Wright said of the violence. "It's going to get nearer to their doorstep."
De'ontae Michael Smith was born to Allen T. Smith and Bumbrey on June 19, 1997, when she was 16. Forced to drop out in the 10th grade, Bumbrey lived with her mother, raising her son while she obtained her GED.
She rode a bus most mornings to drop De'ontae off at his grandmother's house, then headed to community college classes before working a 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at Bennigan's. She would return to pick up her son late at night, usually getting home around 11:30 p.m
She tattooed his name on her left arm just above a Tasmanian devil because, she said, he was such a "little monster."
"We were really close because he was my only child for eight years, so he got all my attention," she said.
With short hair, a metal stud under her bottom lip and tattoos all over, Bumbrey, 31, is young enough to identify with the same music as her teenage son. They danced together, took pictures as if they were best friends and played board games like Candy Land, Monopoly, Life and Connect Four. She introduced him to Sega Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog.
He had attendance problems at school, and Bumbrey said she had been keeping closer tabs on him and had been negotiating with teachers and administrators about his truancy.
She knew many of his friends. But after De'ontae's death, she said, few of them would talk to her.
Some told Bumbrey they weren't there, but she suspects otherwise. A picture posted to Facebook shows De'ontae and about 20 friends posing near the Ravens stadium shortly before the fight.
One boy told her that the fight was supposed to be between two other teens — not De'ontae, who was somehow drawn in.
"He said they were fighting together and they were beating up another boy, and another guy came out of the crowd and started stabbing my son," she said.
The boy said he didn't know anything further.
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