A life marked by confusion, an arrest full of questions

Linda Trinh
Donta Maurice Allen's prom picture is a mess. The photo of the murder suspect has been torn in two. The colors are mottled. Tape has shredded spots of the generic blue background.

"It's really in pieces now," says Allen's sister, Chikia Forbes, as she holds the bits that have fallen apart with age and rough handling.

The photo is a fitting symbol for Allen, a 27-year-old transient restaurant worker accused of suffocating a Johns Hopkins University senior in January. Described as a boy as having a personality that shone like "a light bulb," Allen is now in jail, awaiting trial for a crime that drew national attention and shocked a city accustomed to homicides in abandoned rowhouses but not near its vaunted institutions.

Allen's arrest last month was puzzling for many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious question: How did a high school dropout with no fixed address charm his way into the social circles of one of the nation's most prestigious universities?

The well-dressed man could make friends across racial and social lines, his friends say. He had turned his life around after at least one suicide attempt and psychiatric hospitalization, and, to his supporters, it's not surprising that Allen could become a regular part of the Hopkins social scene, hanging out with largely white, privileged students who were years younger.

But Hopkins students and authorities view Allen as a smooth-talking man damaged by a fractured family life and frequent moves - including a juvenile detention stint at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School - who romanced a naive Hopkins student and later killed one of her friends.

Some believe Allen's warmth was an almost desperate need to find acceptance, even among students who called him "Mr. Sketchy" behind his back. They say he had a tendency to lash out when rejected - threatening an ex-girlfriend, according to court records, and getting fired from several jobs for insubordination, according to former co-workers.

"Without growing up with a family and being used to all the family stuff, he probably missed some [things]," says his high school guidance counselor, Bruce Seward. "He didn't really know boundaries."

From the beginning, Allen's life was marked by confusion. He was born on Valentine's Day, 1978, and his mother, Karnia Forbes, named him Donta. But "nobody ever got it right so people just called him Donte," she says.

A family picture taken when Allen was 4 shows a beaming child sitting on his mother's lap with a cousin and his sister. Underneath, his mother wrote: "Donte."

Youth in Cherry Hill

He grew up in the Cherry Hill neighborhood, where most of his family lived, and was nicknamed "Donahue" because he often acted like the talk-show host.

"He never gave me any trouble," his mother says. "When he broke a glass, he'd tell me about it."

But Allen chafed at his Cherry Hill surroundings, seemingly frustrated by a neighborhood where residents pile old furniture on their lawns, drug dealing is rampant and slow-moving police cars are ever-present. "He didn't want to come up in the scene. He wanted to get above and beyond," says his aunt, Vida Forbes.

Allen tried to separate himself in little ways. He would say "isn't" instead of "ain't" and never uttered "yo." "He didn't know no slang like the rest of us," says his sister, Chikia Forbes.

The family moved several times, including a brief stint in Los Angeles, before returning to Northwest Baltimore when Allen was 11 or 12.

Around that time, Allen broke into a shoe store with a friend and was sent to the Hickey school. "We're not sure why he did it. We think it was a peer pressure thing," Forbes says.

That was the last time Allen lived with his mother. He hadn't yet started to shave, his mother says.

After he was released from Hickey, Allen went to live with a counselor from the facility, his family says.

Fitting in at Perry Hall

Allen enrolled at Perry Hall High School in 1996, according to Seward, his former guidance counselor.

Perry Hall's student body is largely white, but Allen fit in easily, telling his classmates stories about his rough upbringing, according to Seward. "His stories were kind of riveting to middle-class America."

"That personality was like a light bulb. It was warm. I think he drew people to him," Seward says. "Young women were very much at ease with him."

All of his girlfriends were white, according to his family, and Allen was dressing more and more conservatively, using the money he earned at part-time restaurant jobs to shop at stores like Gap and J. Crew.

While Allen was thriving socially at school, his home life was choppy, bouncing from place to place. Allen lived with classmate Aaron Smith's family in a two-story suburban home for much of the 1996-1997 school year. "At one point, I thought he didn't have any family," Smith says.

For some of the summer of 1997, Allen lived with Seward and his family. He worked odd jobs, enjoyed independence and stayed up late listening to music. "It was like having a college guy living with you," Seward says.

Family members say Allen's deepest wound seems to be his relationship with his father, which involved little more than a single outing to see Return of the Jedi. "That was Donta's only memory of his father," his mother says.

Struggling academically, Allen dropped out of Perry Hall in July 1998 after his junior year but eventually earned a GED.

Allen continued to work at restaurants, generally in the kitchen. He had always been an avid cook, specializing in quesadillas and chicken parmesan, his sister recalls.

In 1998, Allen was arrested and charged with destruction of property. His only other adult arrest was for marijuana possession, according to court records.

Allen tried to kill himself by slashing his arm from his wrist to his shoulder in 1999, according to relatives. They say he may have also tried to commit suicide in 2003, when he was hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder.

Allen refused offers of help from his family. "He felt like he didn't have support, but he never asked for any support," his mother says.

In October 2003, a woman he had dated and occasionally lived with during the previous 11 months sought a restraining order against him.

The woman, Sarah M. Long, alleged that Allen had made violent threats and was harassing her at work and over the phone after they broke up. "Over the past three weeks, numerous violent threats have been made by Dante ... toward me and my family," Long wrote. "He has threatened to 'kill me,' 'beat the crap out of me,' and do damage to my car and home."

Allen's family says Long was the one making the threats because she was upset that Allen had broken up with her. Long declined to comment. The restraining order was denied, but Allen was banned from the Towson Town Center, where Long works, because of disruptive behavior, according to mall management.

Dating a student

In the fall of 2003, Allen got a job as a line cook at the Rocky Run Tap and Grill in Charles Village, according to former employees. The St. Paul Street restaurant is part of a trio of bars at the epicenter of Johns Hopkins social life. Rocky Run owners confirmed Allen's employment but declined further comment.

During that time, Allen met a sophomore at Hopkins who had transferred from the University of Oregon, according to students who requested anonymity because police asked them not to discuss the case.

Allen and the woman began dating, and he would visit her room in McCoy Hall and attend undergraduate parties. The woman was also a member of the Alpha Phi sorority, and Allen would occasionally attend their events, according to students.

Many students say they were initially surprised by the relationship because Allen is not a Hopkins student and was older than typical undergraduates. But most became used to Allen's presence, says Thomas Cusack, a junior neuroscience major who worked at Rocky Run at the same time as Allen.

"We've all shared a drink with him and had fun," he says.

One undergraduate in the Alpha Phi social circle was Linda Trinh, the popular biomedical engineering student whom Allen is accused of killing.

Sorority members have declined to discuss Allen, following the advice of university officials.

Though Allen was around, many students remained uneasy about him. Some nicknamed him "Mr. Sketchy."

Students' suspicions

Some students also suspected he stole from them. McCoy residents complained last spring among themselves that their belongings would go missing after Allen had visited.

Despite the nicknames and occasional stares, Allen and the Alpha Phi member continued dating last fall. He was living with relatives east of Charles Village on Mathews Street but often spent the night at her apartment in the Charles, a popular high-rise for Hopkins upperclassmen.

In the fall, Allen attended an Alpha Phi formal dance. Several wallets were taken, according to students, and suspicion again fell on Allen.

After the dance, Trinh and her two roommates told him to stay away from their second-floor apartment in the Charles. But because he often visited his girlfriend, who lived on the third floor, he saw them frequently.

Johns Hopkins officials say they have no record of any complaints against Allen.

Forbes says her brother would occasionally take things from her, but "if you holler at him, he'll shrivel up and give it back," she says.

Allen and the Hopkins student continued to date, according to his family. His family invited her to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, although she didn't attend. The woman and Allen stopped by his sister's house this winter so he could borrow some money to take the woman to lunch. "They were more than cordial," Allen's sister says.

Allen's girlfriend left school several days after Trinh's death and did not return phone calls.

During the university's winter vacation, Allen broke into Trinh's apartment several times, prosecutors said at a court hearing.

Trinh's death

Investigators said that on the night of Jan. 22 - just before most undergraduates were due to return from break - Allen broke into the apartment and found Trinh in the room, killing her. The next day, one of Trinh's roommates found her facedown in their half-full bathtub, wearing only a bra and T-shirt.

After initially suspecting suicide, detectives quickly focused on Allen, who was seen on an apartment surveillance tape and was disliked by Trinh's roommates.

Allen knew he was a suspect in the case, and he initially voluntarily talked with police. Less than a week after the killing, detectives took oral swabs from Allen, hoping to match his DNA to evidence found at the scene.

As police concluded their investigation of the killing, Allen became a suspect in the disappearance of a young woman's wallet from a bar near the university, according to a source familiar with the case who requested anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

Allen's arrest

Allen was arrested March 23. His attorney and family discount the significance of the evidence, saying Allen had visited Trinh shortly before her death when he used the phone in her apartment.

"He was nervous because he had seen her and he thought he might be a scapegoat," his mother says.

During a lengthy police interrogation after his arrest, Allen admitted that he forced his way into Trinh's apartment and hit her. He maintained that he did not kill her, according to his lawyer.

Allen did not discuss the case with his mother during a recent phone conversation, she says, other then to say he is innocent and scared in jail.

As Allen's family waits for his trial, his prom photo haunts them for another reason. Allen rarely smiles for the camera, they say, and looks stern in his tuxedo, a sharp contrast to the normal nervous smiles of most teenagers. He looks exactly as he does in his mug shot, his mother says.

"I don't believe that he could do something like that," she says. "He might steal something from you, but he won't kill you."

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.