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Stoop Storytelling at 10: Revisiting three impactful Baltimore stories

If you've sat in the audience and listened to the stranger-than-fiction stories, chances are you'll never forget them.

There's the medical intern who witnessed her first death. The man who "fished" for rats in Baltimore alleys. The Baltimore business owner, a new U.S. citizen — and former illegal immigrant — from El Salvador. The transgender artist who discovered that his adoptive father also had begun life as a woman.

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One decade, more than 70 shows, and 800 riveting, real-life tales. That's the legacy of Stoop Storytelling as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

7 p.m. at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road, Baltimore. $20. <a href="http://www.stoopstorytelling.com/" target="_blank">stoopstorytelling.com</a>.
7 p.m. at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road, Baltimore. $20. stoopstorytelling.com.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The series was created by Laura Wexler, 44, a Baltimore-based writer and producer, and Jessica Henkin, 41, now an administrator for Baltimore City's public schools, because they thought storytelling could foster empathy and build a community. Though the organizers don't verify the tales in advance, they emphasize that they are a showcase for true anecdotes and ask their storytellers, all based in the Baltimore area or who have some connection to the area, to be honest.

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"I'm constantly surprised by the way that this very simple idea benefits everyone in the room," Wexler said. "The storytellers are empowered by being the authors of their own stories in front of a group of strangers, and being supported and even loved. The audience benefits from trying on somebody else's life in a way that stretches their humanity."

Stoop will begin its second decade with a show on Feb. 10 featuring stories about — not coincidentally — the awkward adventures of adolescence.

The All Mighty Senators will perform live at 7 p.m., and then one hour later, a roster of seven speakers will take the stage. They'll include Asif Majid, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who'll talk about getting lost on a pilgrimage to Mecca; Mount Washington resident Larry Doyle, a former writer and producer for "The Simpsons" who will describe being chauffeured by his mother on his first date; and Doyle's son, Ben, who will relate his own troubles with romance.

"The stories that people remember are told by people who can take the risk of being that vulnerable and authentic, not necessarily the people with the best storytelling skills," Henkin said. "We push people in what can be the scary direction of being emotionally present, because the payoffs are huge."

The Baltimore Sun reached out to three memorable speakers of the past 10 years and asked them to fill us in on what's happened in their lives since they appeared at Stoop.

Feb. 4, 2013: The Foster Father

"I became a dad for the first time on Oct. 19 of 2007," K. Darrow Brown told a Stoop audience. "I became a dad of two on Oct. 25, 2009, some two years and six days later."

Brown, paused for several seconds, because the next sentence he had to get out was still as hard, heavy and sharp as it had been on the day in question. "In April of 2011," he continued, "I was a dad of one."

Over the next quarter-hour, Brown described the day he and his now-spouse, Juan Calvo, returned the little boy they called "T" to his biological parents after they'd lived with and loved him for 31/2 years.

Brown kept his composure, barely. But by the time he'd finished telling his tale, some in the audience were sobbing.

In the past three years, the couple, who have an adopted 6-year-old son named Lucas, have deliberately put themselves through that same heartbreak two other times. And they're gearing up to do it yet again.

They became foster parents for a 2 1/2-year-old boy and his 15-month-old sister during the 2012 Thanksgiving weekend. The siblings were returned to their biological parents four months later.

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In March 2014, Brown, a social worker, and Calvo, who works for the U.S. Department of Justice, took a 1-year-old girl into their Mount Washington home. Little "Baby D" has been with the family ever since. But Brown says he knows that someday she, too, will go back to her birth mother.

"It's hard to say no when you get a call in the middle of the night that there's a 3-year-old who needs a home," Brown said, "We have a five-bedroom house. We have financial resources. And we have room in our hearts. It doesn't make sense not to let little kids have some of that room."

This time, Brown, 50, and Calvo, 54, are trying to stay focused on the idea that one day they will have their hearts broken.

"Baby D will be going back," he said, "though we thought that day would come before she'd lived with us for two years."

Brown has not had contact with T or with his other two foster children after they were returned. He knows it's unlikely he'll see them again, though he thinks about them every day.

"What I've come to realize is that even if they don't have any memories of their time with us, their spirits will remember us," he said. "Our hope is that giving these children a great beginning will allow them to be resilient and flexible as they move into adolescence and adulthood."

But he said that parenting these three children has been among the great privileges of his life.

"I would do it all over again in a heartbeat, even if the outcome was exactly the same," he said. "I would love the chance to be T's dad again for 31/2 years."

Sept. 24, 2007: The Forensic Sleuth

"Never suck a dead man's hand," Dana Kollmann told a fascinated — and horrified — Stoop audience.

Kollmann, now 47 and a former crime scene investigator, went on to relate how she fingerprinted a man in a cornfield after he'd died in a car crash on a freezing cold night. She figured the man's family was worried about him, and she wanted investigators to be able to contact them soon. But rigor mortis had set in, the corpse's fingers were clenched and Kollmann couldn't pry them open. All she needed to do, she figured, was supply warmth and humidity and … you can guess the rest.

As the Catonsville resident told her story, the audience was in ... well, stitches. Yet the compassion and determination Kollmann showed that night continue to distinguish her career.

In 2010, she received a call from a Bel Air man begging for help in finding the remains of his 28-year-old son.

The missing man, William "Mike" Hogan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and had vanished on May 16, 2005. His father and mother had just been notified that a hunter had found their son's skull in the woods outside the Vermont treatment facility where the young man been living. The parents were told that the skull and a few other bones were all that remained of Mike's body.

With the blessing of the treatment center and Vermont police, Kollmann, now an assistant clinical professor at Towson University's department of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice, brought 38 students to the woods in May 2010. Just 10 percent of Mike Hogan's bones had been recovered, and Kollmann was certain there were more.

"The detective took us to the location," she said. "Some students went into a swamp up to their knees. The most amazing moment was when one girl reached down into the water flow and found the capped front tooth that Mike had broken when he was riding his bike as a kid."

Kollmann and her students recovered 50 bones, plus Mike's keys, sweatshirt, water bottle and lighter.

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An autopsy later revealed that he died from fractures to nine vertebrae.

"They're not the kind of injuries someone could get by falling from a tree," Kollmann said. "We may never know if Mike's death was an accident or if someone killed him."

Mike Hogan's parents were so grateful that they established the Hogan/Kollmann Fund at Towson University. So far, the fund has sent the professor and her students on nine other searches nationwide for the remains of missing people.

"Because of Dana and her students, we were able to bring our son home and give him a funeral and a burial," said the young man's father, Michael Hogan. "Everybody who knew Mike and grew up with him could finally say goodbye."

Oct. 27, 2006: The Former Mobster

By 1995, Charlie Wilhelm loathed the man he'd become. He'd been a loan shark, a drug dealer and an arsonist. He'd covered up a murder by hiding the victim's bloody clothes.

So one day, after he'd been ordered to help kill two people, Wilhelm went instead to the FBI, turned informant and wore a wire for four months to gather evidence against his former friends. At the time, he wasn't in legal trouble himself. Wilhelm didn't seek immunity from prosecution. He didn't even ask for a lawyer.

Wilhelm's evidence and, later, his court testimony helped send his former best friend, Billy Isaacs, to prison for 15 years and another friend, John Derry, to prison for 10 years on charges of second-degree murder.

The case was covered extensively by The Baltimore Sun, among other media outlets.

"When I'd get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I'd think, 'What a piece of crap,'" Wilhelm told the Stoop audience. "I didn't want my children to turn out like me. This was the only thing I ever did right."

Wilhelm, now 60, says he refused the opportunity to enter a witness protection program, to move away from the Baltimore area or even to use an assumed name.

Today, he works as a carpenter and takes measures that, in the criminal world, amount to common-sense precautions.

"If it's pouring rain, I try to make sure I'm in my house," Wilhelm said.

"When it's raining hard, people have their windows and doors shut. If there's trouble, they won't see anything. I don't answer the door on Halloween. Anyone could dress up as anyone or anything. It would be easy to go after me. These days, I get up at 4 a.m. and I'm home by 5 or 5:30 in the evening. And I don't go to bars."

It's a stressful way to live. But for Wilhelm, the self-respect he's gained is all the reward he needs.

"Now when I look in the mirror," he said, "I see a hardworking grandfather."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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