They can’t remember exactly when it happened. It might have been late that May night in the police station, when they saw their crying grandchildren. It might have been when the Baltimore couple was told that James Dunton Jr.'s daughter had been shot in the head. Or maybe it was when they were being driven through the dark in a police car to see her, on life support at Shock Trauma.
Dunton and his wife, Kim, made the decision without a word passing between them. With his daughter not likely to survive, the couple eyed each other and knew in that one look. They were going to take over the care of her children. The kids were a soon-to-be foursome: a 14-year-old boy, an 11-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl, and a baby, who was going to be delivered that night in an emergency surgery, on the same day her mother would die.
“In a blink of an eye, your life is totally changed,” remembered Kim Dunton, who had married James in 2012. “We just jumped in.”
Two and half years have passed since that decision, in which time they became legal guardians of Jasmine Alisha Kennedy’s four children — and reinvented their lives. From an older couple in a two-bedroom apartment who used to eat out almost every night, the Duntons are now making trips to Sam’s Club to haul home bags of groceries and helping with homework. Dunton left his job as a Baltimore City sheriff’s deputy to stay home and take care of the children. And they moved to a large home in Overlea in Baltimore County, with a fenced yard and plenty of bedrooms.
From the start, they were facing much more than regular parenthood. The man charged in the shooting is Eric Glass, Jasmine’s fiance, longtime boyfriend and the father of the 6-year-old girl, Cire Glass, and the baby. Cire and her two older brothers, Duronte Redd and Jakai Redd, Jasmine’s children from an earlier relationship, saw their mother after she’d been shot, lying on the kitchen floor.
What powered Duntons on their journey, almost a reverse one, from grandparents to de facto parents, was a credo they both carried about the value of family, and a belief that you take care of your own.
‘Just like your mother’
That night, May 1, 2018, the Duntons didn’t know what to expect. In their own way, each had been on the other side of this kind of moment for years.
Dunton, a gentle man of 6-foot-4, had put in 23 years for the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, and several years before that as a state corrections officer. Just a week before his daughter’s shooting, he had comforted a family who lost a loved one to murder. Now he felt powerless.
“You just feel like you got all this authority, but what can you do? You can’t do anything,” said Dunton, who was 49.
“I was scared, because, wow, Jasmine was 30 years old," he said. "Times change, people change, you got a newborn baby, and children.”
Kim Dunton was 47 and had worked for many years as a nursing technician, and then as a secretary in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the hospital where Jasmine had been taken. She was 34 weeks pregnant, and the medical staff delivered her baby just after 1 a.m. Dunton knew how fragile premature babies could be, and the complications and lifelong risks some faced.
Walking into the NICU to meet their new granddaughter for the first time, the couple imagined the worst: ventilators, brain damage. They wondered how long her mother had gone without oxygen in the time it took medics to arrive after the shooting. James Dunton didn’t know if the 4-pound, 9-ounce baby would make it. He was afraid to touch her.
Instead, they found Kennedy Love Glass, the name her mother had chosen, swaddled and at peace, hooked up only to one IV. They felt blessed.
Meanwhile, in the nearby University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, the baby’s mother’s life was ending. Doctors had told James Dunton that his daughter had no brain activity. He didn’t want his only child to live like that. A graduate of Lake Clifton High School, Jasmine had worked as a driver for MTA Mobility, taking elderly residents to appointments or other errands. She later became a stay-at-home mom — a job she loved.
“She was a loving mother,” Dunton said. “She wanted to give her children everything, that’s what she always said.”
He gave permission to doctors to turn off life support. He gave her a kiss on the forehead and whispered to her. Her head fell slowly to the side, as if she was just going to sleep.
His nightly check-in phone calls with his adult daughter would be replaced with the duties of a new father. Once they brought baby Kennedy home from the hospital after a five-week stay, Kim Dunton overheard her husband cooing and joking with the baby in the same distinctive tone of voice he had used with his daughter.
“Girl, you’re just like your mother,” he would say. “I remember when I changed your mommy’s diapers. I remember when she used to smile like you do.”
Room for everybody
In the couple’s apartment, they set up air mattresses in the living room for the boys, Duronte and Jakai. Sister Cire liked to bounce back and forth between her grandparents' room and the boys' makeshift room. It was crowded, they said, but comfortable.
Both Duntons had raised children before — Kim Dunton has three children. James had Jasmine. The couple found themselves tapping old skills: making lunches, buying school clothes, getting the kids on a routine.
They’d get up about 5:30 or 6 a.m. to get the older kids ready for school. They spent the rest of the day catching up on the mountain of paperwork that comes with taking custody of four children.
“It’s a whole lot more challenging,” James Dunton said. “It’s new again to me, and it’s new to them. We are just adjusting to each other so fast. The most difficult for me is that we are just so busy.”
By 2:30 p.m., they’d pick the children up from school. Then they moved onto homework and feeding the kids.
“We’re starting all over with an infant … and one from each age group,” Kim Dunton said.
Among their routines, the family attended counseling sessions at Roberta’s House, a grief support center, for a short time before the boys decided it wasn’t for them.
Although the children were doing well given the circumstances, Dunton knew it would be a long road ahead.
“They told me what they saw,” he said. “But the kids are very strong.”
In some ways, Jasmine had prepared her children. She had told them several times that people could die at any time. “She knew what type of world we live in,” said her oldest son, Duronte. “She would prepare us for stuff.”
James Dunton had even talked through death with his daughter the year before, after his mother died. One time, on the phone with him, Jasmine was upset, asking why God had to take Nana.
“Death is nothing to fear,” he remembers telling her. He explained his belief: that death is a transition. He encouraged her to go to church. And he says she did develop some relationship with God. “I believe in my heart that’s where she is. She was called to the next chapter … That gives me peace.”
He and his wife say they have forgiven Glass, the man charged with shooting Jasmine. He is awaiting trial on charges that include first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder, as well, because Jasmine was pregnant. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. His attorney declined to comment for this article.
Now, the Duntons look back and feel that somehow, they were readying themselves for what was to come. For some reason, about six months before the shooting, they had purchased a Ford Explorer SUV. Dunton had already been thinking about retiring from his job. And with the lease scheduled to be up on their apartment in the fall of 2018, they had been considering buying a condo or house.
They also had occasionally talked about what they would do if anything ever happened to one of their children. They had confided to each other that in that theoretical case, they’d want to take in any grandchildren. (There are nine grandchildren between the two of them.)
They both grew up in families where everyone took care of each other. Kim Dunton was raised in West Baltimore’s Edmondson Village by her mother and grandmother, who believed it took a village to raise a child. "You always have to have somebody to turn to or go to, a place to learn life lessons and morals,” she said.
James Dunton grew up in West Baltimore, too, in a home in Sandtown with his siblings, mother and grandparents. When he was 8 or 9 years old, his mother’s sister suddenly died. His grandparents brought her two children to live with them in the five-bedroom house they had on Stricker Street. Later, when Dunton’s grandmother’s brother became ill, he also was taken in.
“They made room for everybody,” Dunton said.
‘She’s still here'
The fall after Jasmine’s death, the Duntons moved to a sprawling house that reminds him of the one he grew up in. The remodeled yellow home on a quiet corner has a slate roof, five bedrooms, a grill out back and a swing on the wide front porch.
The couple’s focus is on the children, and trying to make sure they have the best life possible.
They hung a sign in the living room that reads: “Tough Times Don’t Last Tough People Do.” There are reminders of Jasmine throughout the home, including a large poster of her in the finished basement. Another picture sits on a shelf in the dining room, along with Dunton’s retirement certificate from the sheriff’s office.
The older children are finding comfort in a new routine. They like to run around the house and scare each other. They love to go out to Texas Roadhouse to eat. The oldest, Duronte, 17, has transferred to Overlea High School from Frederick Douglass in the city. Jakai, 13, and Cire, 9 stayed at Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School.
Kim Dunton continues to work as a secretary at the same hospital where Kennedy was born. James Dunton stays at home.
“It’s me and Kennedy home all day,” he said one day last fall, answering the door with the baby and a small, pink Mickey Mouse backpack in his big arms. “I had an easier job at the sheriff’s office,” he said with a laugh.
They consider Kennedy their miracle. Because she was premature, a nurse came to do a home study to make sure she was feeding well and assess any special needs, but she concluded that Kennedy didn’t need any help, Kim Dunton said.
On a recent day, the now 2½-year-old danced around in a shimmery pink dress and shiny silver sandals on the family’s porch, jumping and clambering on the back of her grandfather and snuggling with Kim Dunton, whom she calls Mom Mom or Ma Ma. The family keeps a scrapbook for Kennedy of pictures of her mother, as well as pictures of Kennedy, like when she first visited her mother’s grave. Rather than mourn on the anniversary of Jasmine’s death, the family celebrates Kennedy’s birthday.
“We’re together, and we’re raising her kids, and it’s like … God is giving us children,” said Kim Dunton.
James Dunton sees his daughter’s quiet demeanor in Jakai, and her expressions on Duronte’s face. “I look at these children every day, and it’s like she’s still here," he said. “She’s still here with me through them."
They are taking on the added worry of the dangers and bias faced by the two boys, who are getting tall and big. James Dunton finds himself explaining to them how to act if they are ever stopped by the police. The pandemic has made things tougher, too, as the grandfather helps Cire every day with her Zoom school classes while trying to keep an eye on Kennedy.
Always present is the memory of their mother. The family talks about her a lot. She’s a part of many conversations: something silly she did, what she might have said.
On a recent visit to the cemetery with their grandmother, Cire, now 9, swept off the dry grass covering the ledge around the heart-shaped gravestone. Jasmine is buried next to her grandmother, James Dunton’s mother, in King Memorial Park in western Baltimore County.
Cire cuddles against the stone. She rubs her face in it, hugs it from behind, whispers to the picture of her mother. She traces her hands on the lettering of the phrase she declared must be inscribed at the bottom: “Best mommy in the world.”
Every night when she tries to go to sleep, Cire said she sees it again. She hears the boom she later realized was her mother falling after being shot. She finds her mom on the kitchen floor. She touches her finger to her mom’s head. She lays her hand on her mother’s chest and feels her heart still beating. “Mommy? Mommy?”
“I called to her, but she wouldn’t answer,” Cire said. “She wouldn’t answer.”
Standing nearby, Kim Dunton watches Cire. “I wish I could take all of it on. Take all the pain, and they could be happy,” she said.
Toddler Kennedy, getting tired, is tugging on her Mom Mom and starting to fuss. Dunton takes a deep breath, full of resolve. “We try to uplift each other as much as we can,” she said.
Then she sweeps Kennedy in her arms, kissing her and snapping her into her car seat. Once Cire is also tucked inside, seat belt on, Dunton starts the car, promising snacks. With the wind rustling the leaves of the trees, the family drives off, following the winding road out into the bright afternoon.