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Scores turn out to mourn teenagers, decry persistent violence in Baltimore

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From Cherry Hill to a West Side high school a few miles away, scores of families and friends turned out Wednesday night to mourn teenagers killed in recent days, and to decry persistent violence in the city.

On the block where 14-year-old Najee Thomas was killed, residents attended an anti-violence rally.

Standing on the curb was the boy who lost his best friend, now too scared to go to the school bus stop alone. In the back of the crowd was the attorney who came because she was touched that Najee had aspired to be a lawyer like herself. Holding the bullhorn and challenging the crowd, a gray-bearded pastor called for peace and prayer.

And receiving nonstop hugs in the middle of the crowd was Pamela Thomas Ingram — Najee's grandmother — who described her grandson as a tree just starting to branch out before he was cut down too early.

"He was everything," she said. "He was a good child, and he was reaching out."

At Edmondson Westside-High School, vigil attendees held candles to remember Michael Mayfield, 17, a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps member who volunteered as a peer mediator and worked to change perceptions about teens causing trouble downtown.

His father, Michael Drake, spoke softly about his son's murder from behind a pair of dark sunglasses.

"I'm devastated right now," Drake said. "I don't know what to say. I don't have an answer. I keep going, 'Why? Why?'"

Three teens have been killed in the past 10 days.

The killings have galvanized city officials, who are pledging to give young people more attention and opportunities to help keep them off the streets. Today, Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake and a group of local ministers plan to hold a moment of silence and prayer for the victims' families before Mayfield's viewing and memorial service. Kevin Harris, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, said the mayor plans to attend the boy's wake afterward.

Rawlings-Blake also announced that she has scheduled a May 13 forum with teens on violence so she can learn how to improve city services and outreach.

While 10 fewer homicides have occurred in Baltimore this year, compared with the same time last year, the killings of the teens stand out. Raysharde Sinclair, 18, a Friendship Academy of Science and Technology student, was first, fatally stabbed April 14 in the lot of a gas station in the 5100 block of York Road. Mayfield, 17, a promising baseball player, was fatally shot April 16 in a minivan in the 2300 block of Lyndhurst Ave.

Thomas was found inside his Cherry Hill home at 1:15 a.m. on Tuesday. A day later, teddy bears were stuffed in the chain link fence of his front yard, serving as a makeshift memorial.

"It's a very sad situation to have someone that young lose his life," said Edward Reisinger, City Council vice-president, who attended the Safe Streets-sponsored rally for Thomas. "We can do our programs, create youth centers, but what this community did tonight with their praying and coming together … it was healing."

Police have strong leads in Thomas' murder, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said, and homicide detectives were working all three cases around the clock.

"It's upsetting when young lives are lost," Batts said. "I have a sense of anger with the same energy as if one of my officers were injured."

Thus far, only one suspect has been arrested. Jimy James Jackson, 24, has been charged with murder in Sinclair's death. Police say Jackson held Sinclair during a fight, allowing another attacker to fatally stab him. But Jackson's lawyer, Warren A. Brown, has said his client may have held Sinclair to defend himself during a fist fight, not to set him up to be stabbed.

The man police believe did the stabbing has not been found; police have not named a suspect.

Thomas lived with his mother in a two-story rowhome in the 600 block of Roundview Road, where the rally was held.

Najee's father, Ronnie Thomas, is currently serving a 19-year sentence at a high-security U.S. penitentiary in Sumterville, Fla. Better known as "Skinny Suge," Thomas was producer of the notorious "Stop Snitching" videos that gave Baltimore a national identity as a city that shunned police cooperation and prided itself in intimidating witnesses.

The videos, released on city streets in 2004 and 2007, prompted Baltimore police to counter with its own videos titled "Keep Talking."

In 2010, Thomas was convicted of federal charges after a racketeering investigation tied him and several others to narcotics trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder, robbery and other offenses.

Prosecutors said Thomas was a state leader of the gang Tree Top Piru Bloods, and he was accused of conspiring to retaliate against a store owner who refused to sell the "Stop Snitching" sequel.

Ingram, Ronnie Thomas' mother, said detectives seem to be focusing on connections between her son and the killing of her grandson.

But she said, her son "doesn't have anything to do with it."

As she was consoled by several of more than 60 people who attended the rally, Safe Streets workers held giant signs with Najee's baby face pictured on them and the words "Victory over Violence." Hymns were sung while police cars stopped traffic from disrupting the event.

Bonnie Farrow, the mother of Najee's best friend, Dante Wooding, stood nearby chanting anti-violence slogans. She said an arrest would help her son sleep.

"I have to stand out there with him at the bus stop, "she said. "With them not having found a suspect, he doesn't want to be alone."

Marilyn Mosby, a candidate for state's attorney for Baltimore City and a former prosecutor, stood silently in the back. She said she felt moved to come to the rally, knowing that Najee wanted to be a lawyer himself.

"It's about supporting this young man who wanted to be an attorney," she said. "How outrageous. … It hits home. I lost a loved one when I was 14. They're kids."

At the Edmondson high school vigil, where the school's flag hung at half-staff, classmates told stories about Mayfield, who was team captain on the baseball field and a leader off it.

When Dara Calhoun, the school's psychologist, requested a peer mediator from classrooms to help settle disputes among students, she always hoped teachers would send Michael — "the most reliable."

"He didn't want to see anybody not getting along," she said. "He would always make himself available."

He excelled academically, too, and had already fulfilled his graduation requirements, so missing the time in the classroom to be a mediator wasn't an issue, Calhoun told the group.

Mayfield's cousin, Andre Baldwin, 21, said the two had gone to an Orioles game two weeks ago. Baldwin was in church when he got the call from his sister that he had been shot.

"I broke down crying," he said. "All I want to know is why."

Karl E. Perry, Edmondson-Westside's principal, told students and family members to be inspired by Mayfield's life and do something.

"We need to stop this violence," he said. "It's not just in the street. It's the bickering in the halls."

"Baltimore is a great place to live," he added, "but right now it's not the safest."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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