45 murders in 31 days

Looking back at Baltimore's deadliest month

, and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
45 murders in 31 days: Looking back at Baltimore's deadliest month since 1972.

Taylor Street and Delvin Trusty began dating in high school after he sent her a message on social media. They attended prom together, and three years later were expecting their first child.

When she gave birth this month, she was surrounded with support, including Trusty's parents and brother, and her mother, sister and cousin — but not Trusty.

Their daughter, a 9-pound, 11-ounce girl named Avah, was born one month to the day that Trusty was gunned down in Northeast Baltimore. "I text his phone still," Street said. "I send pictures of the baby."

Trusty was among 45 people killed in Baltimore in July, a toll that matched the deadliest month in the city's modern history and came amid a surge in violent crime surge that followed Freddie Gray's death. The last time 45 people were killed in one month was in August 1972, when the city had about 275,000 more residents.

The deaths occurred across the city, overwhelmingly in historically impoverished neighborhoods. All but one of the victims were male, all but two of them black. Many had serious criminal records. The victims also included a 5-month-old boy and a 53-year-old grandmother, a teen stabbed to death in a dispute over a cell phone and a carryout deliveryman killed in a robbery.

They left behind scores of grieving relatives, including dozens of children and stepchildren who will grow up without fathers — a city's deadly legacy.

The Baltimore Sun sought to profile each of the victims, through interviews with relatives, friends, neighbors and police, as well as information on social media — and to chronicle the impact on those left behind.

Tamara Stokes hasn't been able to break to her young children what happened to their father, Robert Lee Jackson, 33, who was killed July 13 in East Baltimore.

"She doesn't even know that he's G-O-N-E," Stokes says, spelling out the word as her 3-year-old — one of two children they had together — babbles in the background at her home. "She doesn't know what's going on. She doesn't know that he was K-I-L-L-E-D."

Dechonne McNair, 22, tattooed a cross onto his arm in honor of his father, John F. Davis. The 48-year-old mechanic, who went by the nickname "Lucky," was gunned down near his Cherry Hill home on July 6. He had eight children.

"I still feel like he's still here sometimes. But he's gone," McNair said. "I miss my father."

The daughter of Damon Tisdale, 33, who was killed July 15 in West Baltimore, wrote a message in the program for his funeral at Perkins Square Baptist Church: "I miss you so much and I just can't take all this with me being so young Daddy. I love you so much.

"It hurts that you're not here to see me grow-up."

Dr. Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said growing up without a father can cause children to have questions about their identity, and seek out other role models. In many cases, they may find that in another relative, a coach, or pastor.

"But when positive role models are not there, sometimes it puts them at risk for getting involved with people that are not looking out for their best interests," Greif said. "Communities have to come together and help the children to realize that while this is a significant and very upsetting and huge loss, there are people in that child's life who are going to step up and try to support them."

Jahi Faw, an uncle of victim Shyteak Lawrence, said he's trying to be that role model for Lawrence's children, who came to his home on a recent weekend for a sleepover and to make S'mores. He wants to take them camping as often as possible, "just to get them outside of the asphalt living of the city, to give them another perspective on life."

"It's important to understand, we have to pay more attention to the people who are alive," Faw said. "I love [Shyteak] with all my heart, but I believe he's in a better place. If we're not telling people that we love them today, you may not have that chance tomorrow."

Myron Higgins grew up without a father but said he had filled that void with uncle Gregory Tavon Higgins, who, despite being incarcerated for 20 years, was always there for him.

"I just latched on to him. Even though he wasn't there physically, he was always there," Myron said. "He helped me change my life."

Gregory Tavon Higgins was released last year, and together they began pursuing business ventures including a trucking company, as well as producing music. During the protests over Gray's death, they grabbed a video camera and filmed a video for one of Myron's songs, a black power anthem called "Set It Off."

Higgins, 40, was fatally shot July 11 in East Baltimore.

"We were like one person," Myron said, "and I'm really trying to find my way, by myself."

The spike in violence began soon after Gray died in April from an injury sustained in police custody. In May, Baltimore recorded 42 homicides which at the time was the highest monthly total since 1972. That was surpassed by July's toll, and in August there has been an average of about one homicide per day. Already, the city has recorded more homicides this year than in all of 2014, when 211 people were killed.

In discussing the violence, city officials and police leaders have offered several theories. Among them: a dispute within the Black Guerrilla Family gang and the possible fallout in the illegal drug trade after pharmaceutical drugs were looted during the April riot.

A review of the July cases with police shows mostly petty disputes and cases being investigated as drug-related.

Capt. Donald Bauer is commander of the city homicide unit, which has handled more than 215 cases so far this year. He sits in a tidy corner office on the fifth floor of police headquarters, a stack of case folders piled neat and high on his desk. As he flips through them, he notes the long criminal records of many victims, and says police are working diligently to solve the cases.

"We take every case on its merit, and continue to investigate individually," Bauer said. "We're drawing some connections, using science and technology with our federal partners, and hopefully additional cooperation from the community will help us put these down."

He notes that amid a sharply increased workload, police have solved more cases than at this point last year. Still, 11 of July's 45 cases have been solved, and the closure rate for the year stands at 33 percent.

Fifteen-year-old Josh Burnett was one of the youngest victims in July, and the person suspected of killing him was even younger — 13.

Burnett's parents said he was a hard worker who washed cars, cut grass and sold water to make money, and he was constantly engaged in youth sports.

He confronted the younger boy for stealing his cell phone on a Northwest Baltimore playground, and was stabbed in the heart, police say. The suspect, charged as a juvenile, has not been identified publicly.

"This, to me, is big boy stuff," said father Remus Burnett, who thinks the suspect should be charged as an adult. "He went straight to the heart, a decision you might look at as an adult decision. If you can make an adult decision, you can do adult time."

Bauer points to the July 24 killing of Daquan Mason, 20, as an example of another "innocent victim." Though his family could not be reached for comment, they recalled in his obituary that he enjoyed skateboarding, playing video games and making music. They also recalled his "protective spirit."

Police believe Mason was killed when he stood up for a relative who was getting picked on. "He steps in and intervenes, and winds up getting shot," Bauer said. The case is unsolved.

Then there is Marcus Downer, a 23-year-old who was gunned down in Northwest Baltimore on July 26 outside a relative's home. Downer, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, had performed in plays such as The Wiz and The Lion King as a youngster. Now, he was hoping to move to California with his mother to pursue an acting career, relatives said. Police said an argument led to his shooting death, but have yet to make an arrest.

Police attribute other homicides to drug-related issues. They are investigating whether Donte Dixon Jr., a 29-year-old rapper known as G-Rock, was killed over a drug dispute. Lamont Randall, 39, killed in a quadruple shooting that left two others dead, was a ranking member of the Black Guerrilla Family, according to police, who say at least three victims in other cases were members of the Bloods gang.

While the some of the victims' criminal pasts were believed to be tied to their deaths, for others it was only a footnote. Eric Renard Forrester had been charged with and acquitted of murder in 2002. But the reason for his death on a basketball court in Southwest Baltimore is believed to be a robbery of a dice game, police said. Raja'ee Sincere served more than 20 years for murder, but police believe he was killed because he stepped into a dispute at a bar.

The effect on families, many of whom relied on the victims to make ends meet, has been devastating.

Dante Barnes, who was killed July 11 in East Baltimore, was the breadwinner of the family, and fiancee Andrea Young said his death forced them to move out of their home and into hotel rooms and a relative's house, before finally finding a new residence.

Young is disappointed Barnes didn't get to continue on his second chance after spending 14 years in prison for assault and a gun crime. He was working a janitorial job and had just gotten an HVAC certification, while serving as a mentor to her four children.

Phyllis Poole, 59, has a large photo of her youngest son, Tyrone Johnson, from his funeral hanging on the wall of her living room. Poole said authorities haven't told her if they've made an arrest in his murder or what the motive was. She prays every night that the killer will turn himself in.

"This space is really empty in my heart right now," she said. "I think that's the only way I'll be able to rest, is that his killer be caught. ... I need to ask this person in court: 'Why did you take my child from me?'"

Poole said she is one of too many grieving mothers in Baltimore experiencing "a parent's worst nightmare."

"The murder rate in this city is terrible. It's sad in my heart to see all these young men getting killed down here," she said. "This is hurting a lot of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers."

Tona Burrell's boyfriend of 11 years, Steven Justin Lewis, was killed July 12 in Northeast Baltimore.

"When I see something on the news about the amount of people, homicides for that month, I always think, 'My baby is a part of that number ... '" said Burrell. "He is not just another number added to the countless homicides, he was a wonderful person with a huge heart and his family meant everything to him."

Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

Contact the reporter: jfenton@baltsun.com

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