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Juan Grant, a close friend of Freddie Gray's who led protests demanding answers in the week after Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody, was fatally shot in West Baltimore on Saturday, his family said.
Juan Grant, a close friend of Freddie Gray's who led protests demanding answers in the week after Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody, was fatally shot in West Baltimore on Saturday, his family said. (Colin Campbell / Baltimore Sun)

Juan Grant, a close family friend of Freddie Gray’s who led protests in front of the Western District police station demanding answers after Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015, was shot to death in West Baltimore on Saturday, his family said.

His death came on the four-year anniversary of Gray’s funeral and the riot in Baltimore later that day.

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Grant, whose brother had a child with Gray’s twin sister, was best friends with Gray and considered the two brothers-in-law. As tensions rose in the days after the 25-year-old died of spinal cord injuries following his arrest four years ago near Gilmor Homes, Grant returned daily to the police station and met with then-Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and then-Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis, desperate for information.

“He was trying to make a difference in his own way,” said Frederina Grant, his grandmother. “He was determined that he was going to march and have people march with him to find out what happened.”

Detectives told Frederina the 33-year-old had been driving back to his grandmother’s Westwood Avenue home about 8 p.m. Saturday after dropping off a cousin who had done work on her house when his black Cadillac collided with a dirt bike in the 1800 block of N. Payson St., his grandmother said.

He got out of the car, she said. “I don’t know whether it was to confront this person or to see if this person was OK.

“Whoever it was just shot him,” Frederina Grant said.

He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead with gunshot wounds to the head.

Melvin Russell, a former police commander who headed the department’s community relations efforts for decades before retiring last week, recalled the “frustration, anger and hostility” from Grant and the others who yelled at him and other police officials, demanding to know more about the circumstances of Gray’s death.

“That’s how we met,” he said, “through the frustration of what was going on.”

Grant did not trust the police, Russell said, so when the lieutenant colonel offered to give him and a friend a ride up Fulton Avenue after one of the protests, he was skeptical. A relationship eventually developed, and Russell was able to get Grant and others their meeting with Batts and Davis.

Russell and Grant spoke sporadically on the phone over the past four years. But as the only officer who had any relationship with Grant, Russell said, he can say that any speculation that he ever served as a police informant — one of the rumored motives for his killing — is false.

“It was not a situation where he was providing information to the police,” he said. “Our conversations were not about police matters — they were just about the state of our city.”

Russell, who retired from the police department last week, called Grant’s death “a waste.”

“It’s a tragedy,” he said.

William H. “Billy” Murphy, the attorney who won Gray’s family a $6.4 million settlement from the city, called Grant’s death near Sandtown-Winchester, the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was arrested before his death, “beyond ironic.”

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After Freddie’s death, he became an activist in every sense of the word,” Murphy said. “He participated in almost every demonstration about it and continued after Freddie’s death to be a spokesperson in his and Freddie’s neighborhood about the evils of police brutality and misconduct and what had to be done to reform the department.”

Grant “will be sorely missed,” the attorney said.

In the years after the riot on the day of Gray’s funeral, with relationships between police and Baltimore residents unraveling and the number of killings skyrocketing, Grant had avoided the Gilmor Homes where he and Gray had spent much of their time growing up, his grandmother said.

He devoted his time to his family, Frederina Grant said, and kept his vow to buy a gravestone for his mother, who had been shot to death in 2003.

Grant and a girlfriend in Northeast Baltimore had a child, Juan Jr., who, at age 2, had already claimed Grant’s Cadillac as his own — once locking his father out of the car. Grant loved to take him and the other children in the family to play at Easterwood Park on nice days, his grandmother said.

Now, Juan Jr. has begun asking: “Where Juan?”

Before he left her house for the final time, Grant’s grandmother asked him whether she should fry fish for dinner. If he wasn’t coming home, she told him, she wouldn’t bother. He assured her he’d be right back.

Safe Streets Sandtown-Winchester organized the event to show community strength in Baltimore.

On the way home, he posted a video on his Facebook story of himself behind the wheel, singing and rapping along to Rich Homie Quan’s “Ain’t Worried.”

“He wasn’t worried about nothing,” said Linda Nelson-Williams, his great-aunt. “This was senseless violence, but not on his behalf.”

Shantia “Micey” Mcneil, Grant’s cousin, said the two were close friends and told each other everything. He was “an awesome person” who loved his family, she said, especially the kids.

“He didn’t deserve what he got,” she said. “He didn’t deserve that at all.”

Their grandmother trembled and tears ran down her face as she clutched a balled-up tissue. She’d been through all this 16 years earlier — nearly to the day — after losing her daughter, his mother.

“The family has suffered a great loss,” she said. “If you love your family, hold onto them.”

A vigil for Grant is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Payson Street and North Avenue, where he died.

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