Baltimore City

Marine found way in foster family, death near home

In Lennice Hudson's home, a refuge for foster children, Darius Ray found stability.

He became a track star at his Gaithersburg high school, graduated, flirted with college and ultimately joined the Marines. Between his foster brothers and sisters and Hudson's two biological children, he had a family, one he would join every week for dinner.

On Sunday, the family was planning to celebrate his 20th birthday.

"I love you and I want a red velvet cake," he texted Hudson in anticipation.

But Ray would not make it to his own celebration. He was fatally stabbed in Northeast Baltimore the day before at a party thrown by friends.

Three American service members or former service members have been slain in Baltimore since Dec. 20, more than the number of U.S. troops who have died in combat in Iraq during the same period.

Police say Ray was killed by group of "neighborhood boys" who crashed a surprise birthday party his friends had thrown for him at a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex. After being kicked out, the men returned with a knife.

Ray was born during the first Persian Gulf War in Bethesda Naval Hospital to a Marine corporal mother, Carmien Ray, who raised him as a single parent. In a telephone interview, she declined to speak in detail about what led to her to give him up, but said that by junior high there were behavioral problems emerging that she felt she could not manage.

"It was hard, but it was a decision that had to be made, because things were getting out of control," she said, choking back tears. "They say if you love someone, set them free. I had to do what was best for him."

Hudson, 57, took in her first foster child about 15 years ago, after her two biological children had grown up and moved out. Over the years, she would open her four-bedroom home to seven foster children, plus other youngsters who, by design, would stay for shorter periods of time.

Tim Gibson, the first foster child taken in by Hudson, said her home provided a "stable environment."

"All I did was go from this foster home to that foster home; I was always bouncing all around," said Gibson, 24, who now works with vulnerable children with the National Center for Children and Families. "Even though I messed up many times, they didn't give up on me and put me out.

"We're all a family. The boys, we're brothers. We understand we come from troubled backgrounds, whether it was our fault or our parents' fault. That's our bond."

Ray joined that brotherhood at age 17, and he quickly learned the drill: church, chores, school. He wanted to fit in.

"He was a troubled child that needed love, attention, praise, guidance, discipline, nurturing, and some God in his life," Hudson said. "He had confidence in himself, and with a support system to follow him, there was nothing - nothing - that he could not accomplish."

At his new school, Magruder High, Ray joined the track, basketball and football teams. At 6-foot-5, with rippling muscles, he set school records for the long jump and triple jump, and tied for the school record in the high jump. At church, he was an usher who assisted with audiovisual needs for services.

After graduation, he attended Montgomery Community College with an eye toward an accounting degree. But he dropped out and, along with a friend, visited a military recruiting station. Following in his mother's and grandfather's footsteps, he chose the Marines.

Carmien Ray, 42, who says she kept in touch with her son over the years, said she brimmed with pride at his decision, and her family piled into the car to attend his graduation at Parris Island last fall.

Mother and son met not long after for lunch and a "heart-to-heart," she said. "There was a lot of hugs, apologies," she said.

Honored with an assignment to the color guard and stationed in Southeast Washington, he made sure to get back to his foster family every week for Sunday dinner, a Hudson family tradition. Elsie Rose, 39, one of Hudson's biological children and the host of the dinners, said he loved fried chicken, banana pudding and homemade macaroni and cheese. Afterward, they'd play Yahtzee and Monopoly, where he had luck with the dice and wasn't afraid to rub it in.

"He'd have headphones on and be kicking out butts," Rose recalls.

Relatives say Ray was in Baltimore on Jan. 22 for a surprise birthday party, though a Twitter account he started using on Jan. 17 indicated that he had been "stuck in bmore" since at least then. Rose said Ray texted Hudson with his request for a red velvet birthday cake at 3:41 a.m. Saturday, just moments before police say the fight broke out.

Hudson, who would respond to one of Ray's texts at any hour, responded, "Your wish is my command."

The first police officer who responded to reports of the stabbing encountered a large group of people and followed a blood trail through the parking lot of the Dutch Village apartments, two miles north of Morgan State University, to a nearby residence. Within 24 hours, police arrested three suspects - Vernon Hadley, 22, Michael Wiggins, 26, and Nicholas Woodward, 27 - who are being held without bond on charges of first-degree murder. All have criminal records.

Hudson and Rose were called early Saturday and told to come to Sinai Hospital, where doctors delivered the news. Uniformed Marines knocked on Carmien Ray's front door that night.

Ray's death follows the Dec. 20 killings of Army Pvt. Clifford Jamar Williams, 22, a soldier on Christmas leave from Afghanistan who was shot while driving home from a grocery store, and 28-year-old Stephen Makia, an ex-Marine found shot to death in his apartment. Police have not made arrests in either of those cases.

A police spokesman said that one of the detectives handling the investigations of the deaths of Makia and Ray, Daniel Nicholson, is a former Marine.

On Sunday, the day after he was slain, the Hudsons made Ray's favorite fried chicken, and bought the red velvet cake he requested.

Everyone signed a card. They sang "Happy Birthday."

"We weren't going to let anybody take away celebrating his birthday," Rose said.

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