The two Honduran men sitting on the front steps of a Southeast Baltimore rowhouse couldn't help but chuckle at the sight of a 14-year-old girl clutching a silver revolver and demanding money.
But Arteesha Holt wasn't like most girls her age. A tomboy who liked playing football and basketball, relatives say she also had an explosive temper and was prone to uncontrollable outbursts.
Once, she destroyed her family's home, slinging an ashtray across the room, tearing pictures from the wall and kicking out a heating vent, all because her infant nephew stepped on a bowl of strawberries. The girl's mother says she tried repeatedly to get her daughter help through the juvenile justice system, to no avail.
But the men enjoying the humid night didn't know all that. So they laughed. And, police say, the seventh-grader pulled the trigger, striking both in the head and killing 43-year-old Jose Rodolfo Gonzalez-Coreas.
Holt was arrested late Tuesday and charged as an adult with first-degree murder. District Judge Theodore B. Oshrine ordered her held without bond, following prosecutors' appeals that she is a "danger to the community."
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi described the shooting as "heinous."
"It speaks to the guns that are out there and the frustrations we in law enforcement have at trying to deal with all this," he said.
Holt's 18-year-old brother, Shawn Palmer, has been charged with being an accomplice to murder. Police say that he helped her escape from the neighborhood and took the silver .32-caliber revolver off her hands, toting it around in a black bag and showing it to people.
The girl's mother, Raichelle Johnson, 39, said she was horrified by the allegations. Speaking from the porch of her Southwest Baltimore home, she said she worried for her daughter and sought help, but never anticipated "in a million years" the situation she faces now.
"I don't condone my child taking a life — if she took this man's life, then she needs to be prosecuted," said Johnson. "But she's still a child. She needed help, and when we asked for help, they wouldn't give it."
Johnson said she ran a strict house, often creating tension between her and her rebellious daughter.
"In my house, there are rules," she said. "You have to clean up, can't cuss. A child has to be a child, like children should be."
Something was wrong with Holt, however, her mother said. Her rage often got bottled up, erupting with terrifying results. Though she was a good student, she began having trouble in the classroom. She was shifted from school to school and charged with disturbing the peace.
"Arteesha is … ," Johnson paused, searching for the right words. "Unstable."
The girl frequently expressed suicidal thoughts, she said, and over the past two years often packed her few belongings and hit the streets when she got frustrated, bouncing from relative to relative.
In East Baltimore, tears streamed down the cheeks of cousin and close friend Chernise Sample, 17, as she hinted at deep problems Holt was battling.
"A person will just take only so much from so many people," she said. "She's not no bad person, but she do got a lot of stuff on her mind."
A simple motive
Initially, investigators theorized that the circumstances of the crime suggested a gang initiation — that the girl may have been pressured into a shooting as a rite of passage. Attorney Gil S. Amaral, who represented Holt at her bail review, told the court that she acted to protect herself and "may have been the actual victim."
But her motive may have been much simpler than that, relatives said.
Her older brother, Arthur Holt Jr., says she told him afterward that she stole the gun and "started working."
"She felt she could get some money, you feel me?" the 17-year-old said on the steps of the family home. "So she out there, and she ain't expect it to happen. She broke down."
His face is pocked with scars.
"Every mark on his face, she put on his face," Johnson said.
But he protested: "Don't make her a monster, 'cuz she ain't."
Johnson said she asked for her daughter to be locked up or committed for her own safety, but that she was told that for that to occur, her daughter would have to commit a crime or Johnson had to sign away her parental rights.
When Holt was eventually arrested for theft, Johnson left her in the detention facility overnight, which enraged her daughter. She was placed in foster care with her aunt in Northeast Baltimore for two weeks. But this wasn't the kind of help Johnson was looking for.
Child mental health advocates say that families seeking help for troubled youth may be told that removing a child from the family home will cost a lot, or they are given other reasons to discourage them from pursuing "voluntary placement," which requires the state to pick up the bill for expensive round-the-clock treatment.
The process "can be daunting for some families," said Jane Walker, executive director of the Maryland Coalition of Families for Children's Mental Health. "Oftentimes, when a family is desperate to get help for their child they are told that they have to give up custody."
In other situations, youths aren't eligible for available programs because they haven't committed a violent crime.
"We heard frequently of families who will come to us and say, 'We've tried to get help here, there … so many doors are either the wrong door or the door is no longer open due to funding or regulations," Walker said.
Girl faced 'tough times'
The shooting occurred in the 100 block of N. Linwood Ave., just north of Patterson Park. Police said an officer was flagged down by Wilmer Bonilla, 26, who needed help. The officer found Gonzalez-Coreas lying on the front steps of a rowhouse with a gunshot wound to the head.
Gonzalez-Coreas was rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital and was listed as brain dead on Aug. 17. Police said he was kept alive so that doctors could harvest his organs. He was pronounced dead at 5 a.m. Friday.
The victims in the case were Latinos, two of several who have been attacked in recent weeks in Southeast Baltimore. One of the latest attacks was committed, police say, by a mentally disturbed man who told detectives he hated Mexicans. Guglielmi said the killing involving the girl was during a robbery and not considered a hate crime.
Officers stopped Palmer, Holt's brother, and arrested him on a handgun violation after they say he showed the gun to people and was later seen by police carrying the bag. They said investigators then linked the gun to the robbery attempt.
Palmer was being held on $75,000 bail.
At her bail review, Holt looked at the floor as attorneys discussed her background and the case.
The judge ordered a suicide evaluation after pretrial officials said Holt's mother and aunt said that the girl had been receiving psychiatric treatment and that she discussed suicide, though she had made no attempts.
Her cousin, Chernise Sample, cried as she talked about Holt's inability to get help for the problems she was facing. She said her cousin had essentially been living on the streets in recent months, a sad existence for the girl she used to play baseball with at a local park.
"She ain't no cold-blooded killer. She's a nice girl. But tough times — [things] get hard. You gotta do what you gotta to do to survive out here. This is a dirty world."
Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Hermann, Frank Roylance and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.