When a man on a killing spree walked into an East Baltimore barber shop earlier this month and shot a barber to death, only to be killed by an off-duty police officer getting a haircut, the story went national and sparked outrage at the city’s latest run of violence.
But even before that happened, word already was spreading among Baltimore barbers that Saturday, Nov. 13. That’s because another of Carlos Ortega’s rampage also was a barber, friends and colleagues of the victims said Monday at an East Baltimore vigil marking their deaths.
Ivan Rodriguez said a friend called him that afternoon to make sure everyone was safe at his shop, Bmore Cutz on Eastern Avenue in East Baltimore. Rodriguez said he then began calling nearby barbers and learned one of the victims in the shooting spree was his friend, Javier Villegas Cotto, 44.
Police said that Cotto was fatally shot outside his Eastern Avenue barbershop. A short time later, police said, Rafael Jeffers, a barber who worked at Bladi Style on O’Donnell Street, was fatally shot by Ortega, 38, who then was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer getting his hair cut.
A third person was shot and critically wounded in East Baltimore’s Armistead Gardens neighborhood earlier that afternoon to kick off the spree. Police still have not said what prompted Ortega to commit the shootings.
On Monday, Rodriguez hosted a group of barbers from across the city and members of the Baltimore City Council to discuss safety measures for barbers, and to create a fund for the families of the victims.
“We are concerned about the families,” Rodriguez said. “They are going through a lot of trauma.”
But many of the barbers say their shops have long served as a safe space where people can find a friendly face to talk about their problems while getting a haircut or shave. And in the wake of the recent violence, they remain a constant that community members can depend on.
“We have to reassure the community,” said Troy Staton, a longtime barber who has been a victim of violence himself.
Staton said he was in the middle of giving a haircut on Halloween night in 2018 at his shop New Beginnings on Hollins Street in Southwest Baltimore when he was shot in the neck three times. He said police never made an arrest. The shooter, he said, was wearing a mask.
Still, Staton said, the barber shops must remain open and and welcoming places serving the needs of their communities. Staton founded a program called More Than a Shop where clients can receive food distributions, get a quick health checkup and receive important information.
“Barbershops and salons are sacred spaces,” he said.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen and Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who serve on the city’s Trauma-Informed Care Task Force, which looks for ways to address trauma and bring healing to communities that experience violence, also attended Monday’s event, held at the Bmore Cutz barbershop.
Cohen said that the barbershop killings, as well as other recent violence, such as the slayings of a 13-year-old girl at a West Baltimore rec center and a 69-year-old woman inside her East Baltimore church, hurt the entire city.
“Every unnatural death causes devastation and trauma in our city, not just to the victims’ family but the entire community,” Cohen said.
Cohen asked residents to help support families.
“We as a city we need to step up. This is an all-in moment for Baltimore,” he said. “Every single one of us can do more to heal our city.”
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Ramos said the barbershop killings are especially traumatic because that’s where people go where they feel safe.
“They come because they trust the person who is making them feel better about themselves,” she said of the barbershops and salons.
“We need to provide support to the men and women in the barbershops,” Ramos said, so they can help get clients help, if needed.
“The violence is caused by trauma and if we can inform and work together to address that trauma, then I think we will make a big difference,” she said. “This is one of the first steps.”
Several of the barbers gathered on Monday said they knew Cotto.
Rafael Otero recalled Cotto as “a legend” in the barbershop community. He said Cotto was the first Hispanic barber to cut his hair, and would inspire others like him to cut hair and run a business.
“It hurt,” he said of Cotto’s death. “It hit home.”