Sun Investigates:

Freddie Gray remembered as jokester who struggled to leave drug trade

A deeper look at Freddie Gray's life - his desire to find a job, have a baby and more about lead poisoning.

On a summer Saturday, several of Freddie Gray’s friends and neighbors — and dozens more who never knew him — gathered for a charity event to mark what would have been his 26th birthday weekend. Nearby, an artist was finishing a two-story mural featuring a larger-than-life Gray, surrounded by images of young black men raising their hands in protest, police wearing riot gear and firefighters dousing flames.

But like many in the region and around the nation, these West Baltimoreans had varied opinions on what Gray’s name has come to mean.

“It means black men in the struggle,” said long-time friend Zelly Smith, 29.

“It means [society is] closing more schools and building more prisons,” added Melvin Richardson, 44, a local barber donating haircuts.

Local resident Anthony Hughes, 53, offered a different view of Gray. “He was a drug dealer. I don’t know why people make him into a celebrity.”

The 25-year-old’s death from a spinal injury sustained in police custody made Gray a flashpoint in the nationwide debate over police brutality and sparked rioting in April that destroyed or damaged 380 businesses across Baltimore. Now, as Baltimore braces for the prosecution of six officers charged in his arrest and death, many in the city and around the nation see Gray as a symbol in the fight for equal justice — even as attorneys raise his past as an issue in motions related to the first trial, which begins Nov. 30.

The bare outline of the life of Freddie Carlos Gray Jr., is well-known: Poisoned by lead paint as a child, he dropped out of high school and compiled a string of arrests for drug dealing.

Interviews and court records show a more complex picture. There is the jokester who could lighten up a serious moment and who doted on the infants of friends and relatives. And there is the man, nicknamed “Pepper,” who took tentative steps to break away from his life on West Baltimore’s drug corners.

“People are going to remember him different ways,” said Brandon Ross, a friend who helped organize the mural and the back-to-school block party in honor of Gray. “I want to remember him as someone who made the city come together in a tragic situation.”

The softer side

That tragedy began to unfold on Sunday, April 12.

Early that morning, Gray and Jamia Speller, 25, lay awake in her two-bedroom brick rowhouse in West Baltimore. “He was perfectly fine. We was talking in bed,” she recalled several months after his death, in her first media interview.

They had been dating for four years and Gray was “always” talking about wanting to have a baby, according to Speller. “I said, ‘You have to get yourself together before we do that.’ He was trying.”

Speller dressed for her job as a personal nurse and left the house. Gray pulled on a Lacoste sweatshirt, dark jeans and electric blue New Balance sneakers, and headed to meet his two best friends on North Avenue.

Hours later, Gray’s friends called to tell her he had been arrested. When he didn’t call by the time she got off work, she grew worried. His friends speculated that he might be hospitalized, because he appeared to be hurt during the arrest.

Speller phoned several hospitals until she found him at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was in critical condition. She contacted his mother and sisters, and they all rushed there.

“They didn’t know how long his brain went without oxygen. So they didn’t know if he would wake out of the coma and be brain dead,” Speller recalled.

“It was horrible, like a nightmare.”

Now, Speller and others remember the softer side of Gray. “Freddie would give the clothes off his back to someone in need,” she said. “He didn’t care who you was.”

Gray was a father figure to her 7-year-old daughter, Paige, taking her to school and spoiling her with gifts. Once he drove to a Wal-Mart at midnight to get her a Wii game that she had requested. She rewarded Gray with a big hug and kisses.

Speller said she and Gray became “inseparable” after her cousin introduced them at Choppers, a West Baltimore bar. They raced at the Go-Kart Track on Pulaski Highway and watched movies at home — he preferred action and she liked horror.

Like many who knew him, Speller described Gray as a comedian who always brightened those around him, especially when he was with his twin sister, Fredericka.

“Yah, his sisters — they his bouncers, security, girlfriends,” said Prinshe Smith, a friend of Gray’s.

When Prinshe Smith was pregnant, he constantly asked about her health, while pretending the baby was his — “We’re having a baby,” he’d tell others. Gray would become the godfather to Parker, the son of Prinshe Smith and Terrell Evans, proudly posting photos of the child on his Instagram account.

Zelly Smith called Gray “a party animal. He was the life of the party.” Gray also had a taste for designer clothing, and dropped several thousand dollars in shopping sprees at Louis Vuitton and Gucci in the Tysons Corner mall in Northern Virginia, he said.

They all say Gray, who had never worked outside of the streets, according to court records, wanted a job, a family. He wanted to move on from the corner.

“He wanted to get himself together,” Prinshe Smith said. “I always say on Freddie: ‘No woman want no slouch; woman want a good man who can provide and be there for her.’ He was good at providing. But at same time, you want someone who doesn’t keep getting locked up.”

The job center

On a June morning last year, Speller walked Gray to a job center at Mondawmin Mall to help enroll him in a work program. In a busy reception area, Gray took a number and sat down, filing out questions about his work history and education.

“They would have him on a computer talking to people to try to help him find a job,” Speller recalled. “He was doing that. So he was trying.”

The “One-Stop Career Center” specializes in helping ex-offenders, those like Gray who may have never held a job, much less built a resume or interviewed with a potential employer.

The center’s beige walls and outdated furniture belie the importance of its mission. Gerald Grimes, manager of the center, estimates that a third of Baltimore’s African-American male population has gone through the criminal justice system.

In 2005 alone, when the city’s population was 640,000, about 100,000 arrests were made, as then-mayor Martin O’Malley pushed to reduce violent crime. Many arrests were for minor offenses like loitering, part of a “zero tolerance” policing strategy. That campaign has long since ended, but any arrest — even one for which charges were dropped or dismissed — becomes a barrier to employment, Grimes said. So the center helps expunge criminal records, if possible, and matches job-seekers with employers.

Stanley Boone was the counselor who worked with Gray. Sitting at his desk a year later, however, he had no memory of Gray.

“None whatsoever,” he said. “It’s just that so many come in here. I see them once or twice and don’t see them anymore.”

Reviewing Gray’s file, Boone found that he came to the job center at least twice over the summer of 2014. He referred Gray to warehousing and assembly jobs at three businesses: Olson Wire Products, B. Greene, a wholesale grocer, and Bakery Express.

Since 2005, the job center has worked with more than 32,000 ex-offenders. Fewer than 10 percent of those ended up getting placed in a job. That’s a significantly lower rate than the statewide average of 53 percent for all individuals — with or without criminal records — who go through job centers, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Boone said they face many hurdles — primarily their criminal records.

Gray had no convictions for violent crime, but enough drug arrests and convictions to turn off any number of employers.

Boone suspects he gave Gray his typical spiel when he handed over the list of potential employers. “I tell them, ‘These are not career jobs; you’re not going to retire at these places. This is a place where you get on your feet to have a foundation to do something else.’

“But a lot of ’em don’t want it because the jobs are only paying minimum wage.”

And that leads to a more significant challenge for Boone: competition with the city’s lucrative drug economy.

He said the average wage for those finding work through the job center — $10.85 per hour — can’t match short-term drug profits. Those can be as high as $1,000 a day — albeit with other complications.

None of the three businesses on Gray’s list had any record of him making contact or interviewing. Boone had no indication Gray found a job, but he noted that not all of the job center’s clients get back to him.

The surrogate father

Another man Gray was befriending at the time also was helping him with job applications.

On Sept. 14, 2014, Gray reported to the Rev. Keith Bailey, president of the Fulton Heights Community Organization, where Gray had 100 hours of court-ordered community service. Gray served them sporadically, four or five hours a time, sweeping the sidewalks, stacking cans in the pantry or handing out food during charity drives.

“He was a good worker,” Bailey recalled, adding that they got to know each other well over several months. “I believe out of all the people who came, he was the closest one to me.”

Gray boasted about the children in his life, showing Bailey pictures of Speller’s daughter and his niece. Bailey spoke to him about pulling his life together.

On a recent fall morning, Bailey, who also runs a floral delivery business called Eternal Flame Florist and Outreach, sat in a home office stacked with files and floral arranging paraphernalia.

“It’s been really busy recently,” he said, shaking his head at the funerals for homicide victims that were driving his business.

As he walked from his North Avenue rowhouse to the Greater Bethesda Baptist church, where he meets the parolees doing community service, a grandmother called. Her grandson, who was scheduled to appear that afternoon, had not shown up.

“Most of the children — I say children, but they’re adults — were raised by their grandparents because their parents were never around,” Bailey said. Most of the men he works with never fully matured; they grew up without a male role model who held a job, he added.

Gray was no exception; his father, Freddie Gray Sr., was largely absent. His mother, Gloria Darden, at one point went into rehab for her heroin addiction, and his stepfather, Richard Shipley, was jailed periodically, according to court records.

Bailey, who has no children of his own, was honored this year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for being the neighborhood “dad.” Of those he considers his children, Bailey said Gray was the closest and most open. As soon as Gray found out Bailey drank coffee, he began bringing Bailey a cup in the mornings. After doing his work, Gray would sit with Bailey talk about issues in his life.

Bailey said Gray told him, “I am trying to do right. I don’t want to go back out there [on the streets]. I’m trying, but I cannot get a job. I have a record.”

“That was our issue every week,” said Bailey, who helped Gray with job applications and references. In April, Gray stopped showing up.

His death, Bailey said, “tore me up. I came in here and I just cried at the altar.

“Freddie was just different and he wanted to make a change. You have to realize this.”

The corner

Gray was ordered to perform community service after a 2013 charge that originated at North Avenue and Mount Street, just a block from Bailey’s home. It was the same corner where police pursued Gray in April.

Surveillance video of the incident provides a rare window into a drug transaction in which Gray allegedly acted as a lookout. By that time, he was 24 years old and had already been arrested more than eight times on various drug charges. Prosecutors dropped three of those cases, but he was found guilty five other times, serving more than three years behind bars.

On the afternoon of Sept. 28, 2013, a Saturday, Gray sat on a front steps with friends along North Avenue. Video from city surveillance cameras shows Gray slapping hands with acquaintances as they walked by, wandering in and out of a neighborhood bar, and walking along the wide sidewalk with friends.

All the while, a retired police officer working in the CitiWatch program followed the actions of Gray and his friends by manipulating cameras stationed in the area. The video shows the officer zooming in and out, and turning the lenses to track the men up and down the street. The cameras are not a secret; they’re part of a 603-camera closed-circuit system spread across Baltimore. At night, bright blue lights blink from the cameras, alerting those below that someone is watching.

The footage shows Kemonta Johnson, 20, taking money from two middle-aged men and then handing over small packets. After several minutes, Johnson, Gray and another friend walk quickly away from approaching police. Johnson ditches a packet in a flower pot just before being apprehended. A police officer, taking instruction from a device in his ear, quickly retrieves the packet, which turns out to hold 25 heroin pills, according to court documents.

Gray stands calmly as officers search and arrest him. The other friend walks away and is not arrested.

Johnson was convicted of drug distribution and other charges.

Gray’s lawyer in the case, Creston Smith, said the footage contradicted police allegations that Gray was a “look out” for the drug transaction. “Mr. Gray was standing on the sidewalk or sitting on steps, talking to people, watching a girl walking by, but not acting as a lookout.” Smith said.

Gray took a plea deal to have charges indefinitely postponed. He was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service.

Gray’s stack of drug arrest records shows a familiar pattern: Detectives in unmarked cars observe him and his friends, they are in an area “known for high volume of [drug] activity” and they are engaging in activities “suspected to be drug transactions.”

His criminal record has been raised as an issue as the officers’ trials start to roll out. Prosecutors have sought to prevent defense attorneys from mentioning Gray's past encounters with law enforcement, saying they are irrelevant to the allegations against police.

Even though he was arrested time and time again, Gray kept returning to the corner.

When Gray ran from police at North and Mount on April 12, he had five pending charges. Most were drug-related.

“In Freddie’s case, there were some learning issues,” Smith said. “He had some learning disabilities from lead paint exposure. He didn’t read or write perfectly, and that causes a person to seek economic independence other ways.”

At times, the criminal justice system was confusing for Gray. He had so many court dates for various cases that for one charge, he went to the wrong courthouse. He missed the hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Court video of his hearings shows him as a largely passive, unengaging defendant, traits that Smith and other lawyers confirmed.

“He wasn’t a big-time drug dealer,” Smith said. None of the men working the corners are major dealers, Smith said, because that’s the easiest way to get arrested and convicted.

But that’s the world Gray knew. While some Baltimoreans grow up where there are lawyers, doctors or other businessmen on the corner, “Gray grew up where there were drug dealers,” Smith said.

And there are more police to catch would-be lawbreakers in those neighborhoods.

With all the cameras and police cars, local residents say the Gilmor Homes area is the closest thing to prison outside prison walls. Some like the attention from police, but others say it makes them feel like they are always under suspicion. Gray was arrested a total of 16 times as an adult; most of the charges were dropped and his last conviction came in 2012.

“The corner is their social network,” said Smith. Sometimes, they’re dealing drugs, but sometimes they’re just talking sports and are arrested anyway.

He said it’s not easy for people who have a better life — those born “on third base” — to understand Gray or why kept returning to the corner.

“Gray was sent up to the plate with two outs and a broken bat and someone says, ‘Freddie, get in there, we need you to score a run, OK?’”

The lawsuit

Photos from Gray’s funeral program portray a childhood like that of millions of Americans: a smiling toddler posing over a red toy car, a bundled-up boy on Santa’s lap. In another snapshot, he and his sisters are dressed in matching light blue suits and dresses, looking like they are headed to church. In his Sandtown Wolverines uniform, he kneels and hugs a football.

Gray was self-described “mama’s boy” who slept with his mother so often in his early years that he didn’t remember having his own bed. At age 11, he was an usher and choir member at the Mount Royal Missionary Baptist Church.

His immediate family -- which won a $6.4 million settlement from the city in his death -- did not respond to interview requests, but boxes stored in a Baltimore courthouse reveal a more frightening reality of those early years. Dozens of witnesses and experts testifying in a civil lawsuit poked and prodded into the Grays’ lives for years.

The family filed the lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of Carolina, Freddie and Fredericka Gray against a former landlord of their home on North Carey Street in West Baltimore, alleging that lead paint lead to “permanent injury to their nerves and nervous system and permanent brain damage,” according to the court records. The result is a comprehensive view of Gray’s life until 2010, when the landlord settled the suit.

According to court records, Darden, Gray’s mother, started using heroin at age 23 and was still taking the drug while pregnant with Caroline Gray — who, like her brother and sisters, was born premature.

Gray’s older half-brother, Raymond Lee Gordon, was “the smart one.” according to his mother’s testimony. He graduated from high school, but was convicted for robbery and second-degree assault in 2005 and 2006, respectively. By 2013, Gordon was dead at the age of 31 from a shooting near the Inner Harbor.

In 2002, when Gray was attending William H. Lemmel Middle School, his mother checked into rehab and his stepfather, Shipley, was incarcerated for second-degree assault and narcotics possession. Child Protective Services was called and found no food and no electricity in the house, court records show.

City school records show a good attendance in fifth grade, but there was no record of his attending elementary school before that. The lawsuit indicated that Gray had a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder and frequent absences in elementary school — and not because he was skipping school on his own. “His mother probably wasn’t taking him if she was on drugs,” said Dr. Marianne Schuelein, an expert for the defense, in a deposition.

If Gray had a rough home life, he didn’t show it.

“He was always the little comedian,” recalled Lawrence Jackson, who coached Gray from age 10 to 13 on the Wolverines, a rec league team. In middle school, Gray played left guard but was so small for his age that Jackson wrapped a belt around his waist to keep his pants up.

Gray played “with a lot of heart,” said Jackson. “He was a fiery little kid and always funny. I remember telling Freddie to be quiet and quit the jokes, while turning my head around so the other kids couldn’t see me laughing.”

Jackson pays much of the cost for the rec league teams from his own pocket, along with another coach. He laments the fact that there is little for youngsters to do in the neighborhood.

After Gray aged out of the Wolverines, he tried out for the football team at Carver Vocational-Technical High and made the junior varsity, where he played his freshman and sophomore years as a reserve on special teams, said Jackson, who has served as assistant football coach at the school.

But Gray never graduated from Carver.

As a freshman, his attendance began to drop precipitously; as a sophomore, he was at school less than half of the time. That year, in 2005, he was sent to a Department of Juvenile Services facility and never re-enrolled in the city’s schools.

“It’s sad, but Gray, like a lot of kids around here, didn’t make it out,” Jackson said. “He was a product of his environment.”

The lead poisoning

One overriding factor defined that environment: lead, a potent neurotoxin that can cause long-term learning and behavioral problems.

Every few months during Gray’s childhood, nurses pricked his skin with a needle and pulled out blood to be tested for lead. Every time, tests results came back positive. This happened for at least four years, according to court records. As Gray returned to the same house, or moved to a new house, the dangerous blood lead levels persisted.

Today, had tests come back with similar results, Gray would have been “fast-tracked” for a relocation, according to Ruth Ann Norton, who heads the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative and is a founding member of the Maryland Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission.

Lead is a toxin that irreversibly impairs decision-making; it can have an impact at a concentration as low as 2 micrograms per deciliter of blood — the equivalent of a few grains of sugar. Lead is a common ingredient in paints that were used in Baltimore’s older housing stock. The paint would flake and turn to dust, making the toxin a danger to crawling infants. A picture of Gray during this period shows bare splotches on the wall and window sills where paint had come off.

Before Gray’s second birthday, his lead level was 37 micrograms per deciliter — significantly higher than the federal threshold level of 25 micrograms per deciliter. Today, the federal reference level is 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Dr. Herbert Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh scientist, has led several studies that have linked low-level lead poisoning to learning and behavior problems. A 1991 review that he conducted found several studies drawing links to severe developmental issues, including one that showed lead-poisoned children have a seven-fold risk of dropping out of school. A 2002 study found delinquent high school students were four times more likely to have lead concentrations in their bones.

Lawyers for the Gray family wrote in court papers that Carolina, Fredericka and Freddie “suffered nausea, vomiting, loss of weight, lethargy, permanent disability, brain injury, including injuries involving head, neck, body and limbs as well as the central nervous system.”

At the time, Baltimore had so many lead poisoning cases and so many houses laden with the toxin that health officials rarely enforced anything below 45 micrograms per deciliter — then nearly twice the federal enforceable limit, Norton said.

The brick rowhouse at 1558 N. Fulton Ave. served as a case study of the persistent lead problems plaguing Baltimore’s children. Children of three separate families, including Gray’s, living there in 1987 and 1998 tested positive for lead poisoning, according to city health records that The Baltimore Sun obtained in a Public Information Act request.

Multiple inspections and emergency violation notices were sent to the owners of the house. Some abatement measures were taken, according to the records, but lead tests continued to show problems well after the Gray family left the house.

Before the Grays moved to 1459 N. Carey St. — the house that was the focus of the lawsuit — Maryland health department officials tested throughout the house and found that lead levels were “well above the threshold limit noted by the Health Dept.” Again, measures were taken to mitigate lead paint, but environmental tests showed ongoing issues.

“It’s mind-boggling that we let it happen,” Norton said. More than 37,500 children have had lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher since 1992, according to the lead registry at the Maryland Department of the Environment. The number of new lead poisoning cases has fallen drastically since 1993, due to new legislation and tougher enforcement; Gov. Larry Hogan recently said his administration would require that all 1- and 2-year-olds in Maryland be tested for lead poisoning.

Norton said that when she started working on the issue in 1993 — the year before the state passed lead legislation — she walked down the streets in Sandtown-Winchester, the area where Gray grew up. “Parents could tell me their kids’ lead level right off the bat, before they could tell me the name of their child’s school or their teacher.”

Recently, as she examined documents outlining Gray’s blood tests, she wondered whether he might have stayed in school and avoided the drug trade if he hadn’t been poisoned by lead.

“I look at this and think he was doomed by the time by the time June 1991 came around when he was barely a year, not 2 years of age.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica Green contributed to this article.

crentz@baltsun.com

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