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Homicides decline in 2014, but year also saw unsolved slayings of children

Homicides, shootings and other violent crimes declined in Baltimore in 2014. But killings of children reached a three-year high, leaving absences in homes across the city.

Najee Thomas was 14 when he was fatally shot in Cherry Hill in April. His family has left the plastic letters that spell out his name on his bedroom mirror — just the way he left them.

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"Right now, he'd be playing a game, Xbox," said Randall Gilliam, his grandfather. "It really hurts, man. Being in this house, period. It really hurts."

Fifteen juveniles were killed in Baltimore in 2014, the most since 2011. While police and city officials have noted progress in their fight against crime, including a 10 percent decline in homicides, the rallies, vigils and curfew that followed the deaths of the children threatened to overshadow those gains — and left local leaders grasping for solutions.

The youngest victim was 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was killed by a stray bullet as she played on the porch of her Waverly home in August.

"The increase in juvenile homicides certainly concerns me, especially when we have incidents like McKenzie Elliott," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said this week. "As a mother, a day doesn't go by when I don't think about that."

One eight-day stretch in April saw the deaths of three teens, including Najee and Michael Mayfield, who played baseball and baritone horn at Edmondson-Westside High School and was a member of the school's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

On May 26, 15-year-old Oscar Torres was shot to death in a robbery four blocks from his home. Police believe the shooter fled in the white Ford Fusion in which Torres had been riding. A day later, that car slammed into a minivan in East Baltimore, killing 12-year-old Shanizya Taft, a sixth-grader at Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School.

A suspect was arrested in that case, but the killings of Najee, Michael and McKenzie remain unsolved.

Police held a person of interest in the death of McKenzie, and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said at the time that police would have an arrest within days. But detectives ultimately cleared that man and continue to search for the shooter.

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"The frustrating part for me is that I know that somebody knows something," Rawlings-Blake said. "I beg them to come forward. It doesn't sit right with my spirit that I know that somebody knows something."

McKenzie's death became a focus of the city's National Night Out event in August. A prominent local defense attorney felt so strongly about the unsolved crime that he took the unusual step of petitioning fellow lawyers to ask their clients if they knew anything about the case.

Community leaders say they long for an arrest.

"If I was there and I saw something, I'd be snitching from the highest mountain," said Regina T. Boyce, president of the Waverly Improvement Association, which is based in the neighborhood where the killing occurred. "When it comes to a 3-year-old child, where are the morals and standards of individuals who want to stand up and say, 'Hey, I saw this person' or 'I saw this happen'?"

The total of 15 juveniles killed in 2014 was up from 10 in both 2012 and 2013. The number matched the 15 killed in 2011, but was down from 26 killed in 2008.

The city Police Department's homicide closure rate stood at 45 percent in early November figures, the most recent data available. Police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said the investigations of McKenzie's slaying, and of the killings of Michael and Najee, remain active.

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"Those are cases where we're going to need the public's help," he said.

Rawlings-Blake noted some positive signs in the fight against crime last year. Baltimore saw declines last year in nearly all major crime categories, including robbery, rape, auto theft and assault. Only carjacking and commercial robbery increased.

A total of 211 homicides were reported in 2014, 24 fewer than the 235 killings in 2013, which had been a four-year high.

Nearly all of the decline can be attributed to West Baltimore, traditionally one of the city's deadliest regions. Homicides there were halved, from 42 to 21.

Rawlings-Blake and police attributed much of the drop to the return of Operation Ceasefire, a data-driven program in which police and prosecutors monitor ex-offenders who have been linked to repeated violence.

Police said the program, which was based in the department's Western District last year, helped them make a $3 million drug bust in September and dismantle a widespread dog-fighting ring late last month.

Rawlings-Blake said the program would be expanded this year to East Baltimore.

While police say they are concerned about the increase in juvenile homicides, city officials say programs are in place to help curb violence against youth.

Officials tightened a city curfew in August in the hope of getting kids off the street and away from situations in which they could commit crimes or become victims.

The change requires children under 14 to be home by 9 p.m. and teens 14 to 16 to be home by 10 p.m. during the school week and 11 p.m. on weekends.

The city opened two "Youth Connections Centers" to hold curfew violators. As of late December, Baltimore police had issued 179 curfew violations since the new restrictions began, city officials said.

Rawlings-Blake said the curfew has met her goals of reminding parents and guardians of their responsibility to watch over their children — and giving caregivers who are struggling with their children some support.

"When you see kids that are out on the street after curfew, some people will look at that as them being a disobedient child or a troublemaker, and that may be true," she said. "But it may be that that child doesn't have anyone to care for them."

She said the High-Risk Youth Prevention and Enforcement Coalition, a city program that monitors high-risk juveniles, reported that none of its teens were shot, killed or arrested for a violent crime in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.

Najee Thomas' grandfather said he doesn't know how to prevent the deaths of other youths. Najee was shot in the head inside his house in the 600 block of Roundview Road on the night of April 22.

Family members said his mother had gone out to visit a friend. A woman who lived in the basement told police she did not hear the gunshot.

The 14-year-old boy was involved in a mentoring program, held a part-time job at Oriole Park and aspired to be a lawyer.

"He could've been an example," Gilliam said. "He always wanted to do things the right way."

Gilliam said Thomas was not interested in the drug "game" that persists in Cherry Hill.

"Najee do none of that, man," he said. "He did none of that."

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Gilliam spoke in the living room of the house. A Christmas tree leaned against a wall.

He reflected on the moments he missed most: when the boy would hide his keys or hat for a laugh, or when Najee posted funny Facebook photos of his grandfather.

Gilliam collapsed on a couch, grasped his chest and held back tears.

"It's hurtful," he said. "I don't know how people can sit back and relax when little kids dying."

twitter.com/justingeorge

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