In a boxful of documents stored in Baltimore City Circuit Court, the outlines of an all-too-familiar inner-city childhood emerge.
The life of Freddie Gray Jr., who died Sunday from a severe spinal cord and other injuries sustained in police custody, had a beginning as tragic, in a way, as his end.
As children, he and his two sisters were found to have damaging lead levels in their blood, which led to multiple educational, behavioral and medical problems, according to a lawsuit they filed in 2008 against the owner of a Sandtown-Winchester home they rented for four years.
With so much of its housing stock predating laws banning lead in paint, Baltimore continues to wrestle with the after-effects on thousands of children who have inhaled or ingested the toxic metal.
While the property owner countered in the suit that other factors could have contributed to the children's deficits — poverty, frequent moves and their mother's drug use, for example — the case was settled before going to trial in 2010. The terms of the settlement are not public.
The following year, Gray's sisters purchased a home on East Lorraine Avenue where the family has been living.
The case and the four fat volumes of documents it generated provide details missing from the current public snapshot of Gray, the 25-year-old man at the center of national furor over allegations of police brutality.
Gray was found unresponsive in the back of a prisoner transport van under circumstances that remain unexplained and died a week later. His death is being investigated by local and federal authorities.
Included in the lead paint case file are photographs of a chubby-cheeked, smiling boy, his two sisters and a dog, as well as a deposition during which Gray acknowledged that he didn't particularly like animals. In the background of photos are the walls and windows with crumbling paint that is alleged to have poisoned them.
All three of the children — Carolina, now 27, and twins Freddie and Fredericka — were born "preemie," Gloria Darden said in a deposition.
"They were real small and they had to keep them inside the hospital for a couple months, like until they gained five pounds," Darden said of the twins. "I had them too early, had to have them like when I was seven months pregnant."
While the family lived in a number of different houses during Gray's childhood, the lawsuit focuses on 1459 N. Carey St., where he lived from ages 2 to 6. The "beat up" house, as Darden described it, had "peeling and peeling" paint in every room. The rent was $300 a month.
The siblings filed the lawsuit against Stanley Rochkind and several corporations associated with him. (Originally, the suit also targeted the owner of another home where the family lived, but that defendant was ultimately dropped.)
Rochkind is well known for owning hundreds of rentals in the city over the years, many of which have drawn lead paint lawsuits. In 2001, he was fined $90,000 by the Maryland Department of the Environment as part of a consent agreement that required him to rid some 480 rental units in Baltimore of lead paint.
When news of Gray's death spread, one of Rochkind's attorneys, Ryan Naugle, remembered the name, especially when a picture of him started circulating.
"Particularly in a Baltimore lead paint case, you're thrust into a person's life," Naugle said. "I remember working on those depositions and feeling like I had a good understanding of who these people were and the challenges they faced.
"Regardless of who I represented, or what the issues were, I have nothing but sympathy for Ms. Darden and her other surviving children, and my heart goes out to them as a human being for what they're going through."
Neither Naugle, of the Bodie Law Firm, nor the Grays' attorney in the lawsuit, Cara O'Brien of the law offices of Evan K. Thalenberg, would discuss the details of the case or the amount of the settlement.
Among the evidence were the results of blood tests conducted on the siblings as children that showed all of them had lead levels above the 10 micrograms per deciliter (mg/dL) that state law defines as the threshold for lead poisoning. (Experts say there are no safe levels of lead, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider anything above 5 mg/dL cause for concern.)
Freddie Gray, for example, was tested as having between 11 mg/dL and 19 mg/dL in six tests conducted between 1992 and 1996, court documents show.
The siblings were treated for lead at Kennedy Krieger, the documents show. Family members said Darden and her partner, Richard Shipley, who is considered the children's stepfather, tried to ameliorate the lead problem.
Shipley said in a September 2009 deposition that the children should be on "certain diets" to help prevent lead absorption. (Iron- and calcium-rich foods, among others, help minimize the amount of lead absorbed by the body.)
"We kept them on a pretty nice diet," Shipley said. "I did because I did most of the food shopping."
He said they also were told to keep the windowsills clean.
"Gloria was an excessive cleaner," Shipley said.
The house had three bedrooms, for Darden, the two girls and Freddie. But in Freddie's June 2009 deposition, he said that because he was so young then, he mostly remembers sleeping with his mother.
"I used to end up in my mother's bed," he said. "She always used to say like I used to sleep with her. She used to call me 'the mama's boy.'"
As tends to happen in such litigation, the background of the plaintiffs and their family came under scrutiny.
One doctor, called by the defense, noted in her deposition that in 2002 the family came to the attention of Child Protective Services, which reported they were living in a house without food or electricity.
And Darden was questioned about her education, parenting and drug use in an April 2009 deposition.
She said she had never been to high school, and when asked if she had been told to leave middle school, responded, "Yeah, something like that." She also said she couldn't read, which hampered her ability to help Freddie and his siblings.
Darden said she helped her son learn to count, but "that's it, you know. I can't teach him nothing else. … I can't help him with nothing else but raise him."
Under questioning, she said she began "sniffing" heroin when she was 23, according to the deposition transcript. She said she had used it perhaps once a day but then entered treatment.
"Now I don't do it," she said. "Since I went into a program and I'm doing good now."
William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., who has been representing Gray's family since his death, declined to comment or make them available for an interview.
During Freddie Gray's deposition, he talked about the peeling paint in almost all the windows. He said he had been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. His sisters spoke of having to repeat grades and other problems.
As is common in lead paint cases, the defense argued that the children's troubles in school were not necessarily caused by lead poisoning. Rather, poverty, parenting issues and other socioeconomic forces might have come into play, the defense experts said.
But Ruth Ann Norton, a longtime Baltimore-based advocate for lead-poisoned children, said the science is clear on how exposure can damage the developing brain of a youngster.
"This is the toxic legacy of lead-based paint," said Norton, who heads the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative and is a founding member of the Maryland Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission.
"Our kids are ill equipped to stay in the classroom, finish school. They're very unlikely to go on to higher education. They're less likely to be able to hold a job," she said. "They're less equipped to be able to overcome the poverty and other circumstances that pull them down."
Norton said she is angered when people try to diminish the danger of lead poisoning and instead point to other factors. At high levels, doctors say, lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain and central nervous system.
"Children with lead poisoning will have defects, regardless of whether their parents are 'nice' or not," she said.
The Grays' case was scheduled to go to trial in February 2010. It had been postponed to that date because the Grays' lawyers had four different lead paint trials scheduled to begin in the first two weeks of December 2009. All were against Rochkind.
Lead paint litigation is "all we do," according to the website of Evan K. Thalenberg, whose firm represented the Grays. The site also says the firm has "recovered over $100 million for our clients and changed their lives." Thalenberg did not return calls for comment.
Naugle, the defense lawyer, recalled that he deposed Freddie Gray in prison. The case file showed a request that he be brought from the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup for the trial. He was then serving time for a conviction of drug possession with intent to deliver.
But both sides agreed to a settlement. It is not known if the Gray siblings received a monetary award, but a friend said the house on Lorraine Avenue was bought with lead paint money.
State property records show Carolina Gray and Fredericka Gray purchased the home in 2011 for $112,000.
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