Donnie Andrews' life is one that David Simon and Ed Burns would have had to invent if he hadn't already lived it.
"I am the real Omar," Andrews tells me by way of introduction, referring to how he was the inspiration for the ruthless yet moral stickup man in the Simon and Burns HBO series "The Wire."
Omar Little didn't make it through "The Wire's" five-season arc. He was shot to death in the final season — as was a member of his crew, Donnie, who was played by Andrews himself in a bit part.
In real life, Andrews managed to survive the kind of street justice so accurately depicted in "The Wire." At 57, he seems grateful to be alive, speaking repeatedly about "blessings" on Thursday evening to a group gathered at the University of Maryland Law School to launch and raise funds for his new nonprofit organization targeting urban youth.
The law school is just a half-mile away but worlds apart from Lexington Terrace, the since-demolished public housing complex where he was a part of a notoriously violent drug trade. To a crowd that included Burns, former congressman Kweisi Mfume, Maryland Law Dean Phoebe Haddon and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, Andrews spoke of his hopes for the group Why Murder?
The name stems from 1986, when Andrews, then a drug dealer and stickup artist, was paid by a drug lord to kill a rival. Just before Andrews fired the fatal shot, the victim looked him in the eye and said, "Why?"
"To this day, I'm still trying to find that answer," he said.
Although Burns, then a police detective investigating the murder, had no evidence on him, Andrews decided to confess to the killing.
He agreed to wear a wiretap for Burns and gathered information that helped implicate major players in the Lexington Terrace crime ring that the detective had been investigating, in exchange for what was supposed to be a 10-year prison term.
But a prosecutor would later renege on the deal, and Andrews would serve almost eight more years —winning parole in 2005 only after intense efforts by Burns, Simon, Maryland Law professor Michael Millemann and even a federal prosecutor who helped convict him, Charles Scheeler, now a partner at Piper.
"I'm quite jaded," Burns told the law school crowd, "but I believe in Donnie."
Andrews credits that faith with his redemption. In prison, he studied, beat his own drug habit, read the Bible and mentored younger inmates. He spoke often with Burns and Simon, then a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
Simon and Burns went on to co-author a nonfiction book, "The Corner," about the ravages of drugs on a West Baltimore community, including a heroin addict named Fran Boyd. They authors introduced her to the still-imprisoned Andrews, who counseled and ultimately courted her by phone. Their urban storybook romance led to a 2007 wedding that was chronicled by The New York Times. They now live inParkville.
Even as someone who had been in the thick of Baltimore drug wars of several decades ago — Burns tells an amazing story of how the wiretap-wearing informant had to get through three layers of bodyguards to get to a kingpin — Andrews is stunned by what he sees in the city today.
He recalled speaking to a group of third-graders, and asking them what they wanted to do when they grew up. He said they answered by offering the only future they envisioned for themselves: "'I want to go to jail.' 'I want to shoot somebody.'"
Andrews fears that today's youth will be another "lost generation," as he considers his own. He hopes Why Murder?, which Maryland Law students helped him set up as a nonprofit and will continue assisting as programs get under way, can save them, through mentoring programs, a summer camp and jobs training — such as in construction trades that could then deal with all the vacant, boarded-up houses.
The answer to his own question, he believes, will only be found at home.
"We have to get together as a community. We have to stop blaming the mayor. We have to stop blaming Obama. It's our community. It's our responsibility. It's our city," Andrews said. "We know who's selling dope in our neighborhood, we know who's shooting who. Don't point your finger at the police, 'You're not doing your job.'"