Legal troubles nothing new for 'Wire' actress

Felicia "Snoop" Pearson has spent much of the past two decades drawn to the gritty glamour of life on the streets, and nearly as much time and energy struggling to break free.

Critics will see the arrest of the 30-year-old Baltimore actress on Thursday on drug charges as evidence that she's a career criminal — an image that only was heightened by her portrayal of a cold-blooded assassin on HBO's "The Wire."

But Pearson's friends, and there are many, are profoundly saddened by her latest run-in with police.

"It's an American tragedy," says Pat Moran, the casting director for the acclaimed cable series that transformed Pearson into a star for three seasons between 2004 and 2008.

"It's easy to sit back and judge, but Snoop overcame so much. From what I know of her early life, it's a miracle that she's still walking on two feet. But, once she got on the show, I thought her story was going to have a happy ending. I thought, 'Here's one girl who we as a society were able to save.'"

David Simon, the Baltimore writer who created "The Wire," said in a statement:

"First of all, Felicia's entitled to the presumption of innocence. And I would note that a previous, but recent drug arrest that targeted her was later found to be unwarranted and the charges were dropped. Nonetheless, I'm certainly sad at the news today. This young lady has, from her earliest moments, had one of the hardest lives imaginable."

Pearson declined to comment for this article, but in her 2007 biography, "Grace After Midnight," which she wrote with David Ritz, she describes her beginnings as a crack-addicted infant. When she was born prematurely on May 18, 1980, she weighed just three pounds and had to be fed with an eye-dropper.

Because both of her biological parents were addicted to crack cocaine, she was placed in a foster home.

"I used to wonder if my mom was going to come back and knock on our front door," she said in 2007, while participating in the Stoop Storytelling series that features local people telling real-life anecdotes. "I used to dream about her face. I used to wonder what she smelled like."

Young Felicia was raised by Levi and Cora Pearson, who later adopted the girl. Though the Pearsons were senior citizens who lived in one of Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods, Pearson has said in several interviews that the couple reared their children with lots of love and according to strict Christian principles.

Her life changes

But Felicia was just 12 when Levi Pearson, whom she referred to as her grandfather, died at age 81. Shortly after that, the girl stopped going to school and started dealing drugs.

On April 27, 1995, the then-14-year-old got into a fight with a stranger named Okia "Kia" Toomer. Pearson pulled out a gun and fired two shots, according to court records. The 15-year-old Kia died two hours later on the operating table at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The teenaged gunwoman was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to eight years in the Maryland Institute for Women in Jessup. Pearson wrote in her book that while she was incarcerated, she was jolted by the shooting death of the drug dealer Arnold Loney, who had functioned as a kind of mentor.

It was Loney who sent Pearson money while she was behind bars, she wrote, and it was he who christened her "Snoop" because she reminded him of the beagle in the comic strip, "Peanuts."

Pearson decided to turn her life around. She earned her G.E.D. while still in prison, and was released in 2000 after serving five years of her sentence.

"Snoop is bright, she's alive, and she has a phenomenal sense of humor, usually at her own expense," said Ed Burns, the former Baltimore homicide detective who co-created "The Wire" with Simon.

"She was always able to see a glimmer of hope, a silver lining. The number of people who have grown up in that world, and who can step outside of their situation and laugh at themselves can be counted on one hand. She's an amazing person, and I'm very fond of her."

Pearson wrote in her book that she had trouble holding down jobs once her felony record became known and, as an adult, she drifted back into dealing drugs. Then, in 2004, a chance encounter in a bar with actor Michael K. Williams, who portrayed the stick-up artist, Omar, on "The Wire," led to her big break.

As the story was related to Burns, Pearson, who is just a little more than 5 feet and weighs about 120 pounds, grabbed the much taller actor by the lapels. She pulled his face down to hers, and said: "You ain't going to believe this, but I'm a girl."

Williams can recognize a star when he meets one, and he persuaded Pearson to visit the set and audition for the show.

"We wrote her in as a minor character," Burns recalled. "When the day came to shoot that particular scene, she didn't show up. That happens a lot, so I didn't think much of it.

"That evening, I get this phone call from her: 'Oh, man, Mr. Burns, I'm so sorry. I didn't know the car was stolen.'"

Pearson had driven to New York with several friends, and the driver apparently had hot-wired their means of transportation, Burns says. Though the fledgling actress wasn't charged with a crime, she couldn't make it back to Baltimore in time for the scheduled shoot.

The producers agreed to film the scene again, liked what they saw, and wrote her into other episodes. Her character — an androgynous hit woman also named Snoop — began as a small role. But, there was no keeping Pearson in the background.

"There was a tremendous audience response," says Moran.

The horror writer Stephen King once described her character as "perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series."

The actress was profiled in The Washington Post and appeared on "Larry King Live." But, not everyone was delighted with television's newest star.

Kia Toomer's mother, Carlene Smith, told the Post in 2007 that she was "devastated" to learn that the teen who shot her daughter was playing a killer on television.

"It's like they're glorifying it," Smith said in the article. "If she were playing a different role, I know I'd feel differently."

Real talent

Those who knew about Pearson's murder conviction occasionally made the mistake of dismissing her talent, of assuming that she was just playing herself — a misconception that Moran quickly corrects.

"Snoop has total emotional recall," Moran says. "That's the ability to take something that happened in your own life and use it in a scene. It's not easy, and not everyone can do it.

"She tried very hard to achieve what we were aiming for in the scene. She didn't want to disappoint us."

While she was working on the show, Pearson stayed mostly out of trouble. But in 2008, she allegedly witnessed a murder. When she refused to testify, prosecutors issued a warrant for her arrest. Steven James Lashley later pleaded guilty to the stabbing, so Pearson's testimony wasn't required.

After the series went off the air in 2008, the actress auditioned for other roles, but she has met with little success.

"Whatever good fortune came from her role in 'The Wire' seems, in retrospect, limited to that project," Simon says in his statement.

"The entertainment industry as a whole does not offer a great many roles for those who can portray people from the other America. There are, in fact, relatively few stories told about the other America."

Pearson was out of a job at precisely the time when the financial crisis in the U.S. was at its worst. She had bought a home at the height of the housing bubble, found herself unable to make the mortgage payments, and lost the property to foreclosure.

"She saw acting as a way out, and she really tried very, very hard to make it work," says Burns.

"But people still have to put bread on the table, and what Snoop knows how to do is sell drugs. If we have no interest in helping these people or employing these people, why should we be shocked if they try to make it any way they can?"

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