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Rodney Chase: Baltimore man turned his life around, then tragedy

Rodney Chase has participated in the University of Maryland Medical Center's Violence Intervention Program. The program takes patients who come wounded into the hospital from violence and begins working on intervention to help them not be a victim or perpetrator of violence again. The program works with them on counseling, job skills, all sorts of things.
Rodney Chase has participated in the University of Maryland Medical Center's Violence Intervention Program. The program takes patients who come wounded into the hospital from violence and begins working on intervention to help them not be a victim or perpetrator of violence again. The program works with them on counseling, job skills, all sorts of things.(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The man a small group of family members mourned Saturday lay in a brown casket at the front of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in West Baltimore. He was in a gray suit, red tie and rose pinned to his lapel. His short black hair shone and freckles dotted his jovial face.

He had been lost to his family, then found. In death, he was taken from them again — but not before he had left them with a story of redemption and reconciliation that they all clung to for solace.

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Rodney Christopher Chase, 59, was a homeless drug addict who became sober last year with the help of the Salvation Army and the Violence Intervention Program at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. He was featured this past fall in The Baltimore Sun's three-part series on gun homicides, "Shoot to Kill," in which he talked about the viciousness of Baltimore's streets and bullets from high-caliber guns that he had somehow dodged for more than four decades.

Because he had survived so long, living in cars or vacant houses, using heroin and cocaine, and surviving two gunshot wounds and a stabbing, the way he died came as a shock.

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Chase was killed Jan. 9 — not as a result of street violence, but when a car struck him on Fort Smallwood Road near Pasadena. He died — not walking the street homeless, but while working for a State Highway Administration contractor, holding a sign to slow and stop traffic for construction workers.

"Of all the things we've lost clients to at Shock Trauma, this is such a needless death," said Erin C. Walton, a clinical supervisor for the hospital's violence prevention program. The program counsels wounded patients, urging them to put down their weapons and work toward a better life.

That's what Chase had done after he arrived at Shock Trauma in late 2015, wounded by a rusty knife that had slashed through his left shoulder during a dispute.

In an interview with The Sun in early September, he told his life story, grateful for a fresh start.

He said he grew up in Edmondson Village, the son of a former Marine who used a heavy hand to curtail his rebellious streak. He started drinking at a young age, got a tattoo of "ROD" and a neighborhood gang symbol at 13, and fought with his father during his teen years.

At 17, he said, he robbed a man of no more than the $10 in his wallet and ended up with a five-year prison sentence. His father was waiting for him when he got out of prison, enrolled him at Howard Community College and even took classes with Chase for encouragement.

"I was still trying to run in the streets," Chase said, so he dropped out. He sold drugs and accumulated arrests for battery, disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest. His parents and sister died as the years passed, and he and his family lost touch.

After the stabbing in 2015, and with the recent overdose death of a friend on his mind, he put himself in the Violence Intervention Program.

"I reached a point, man," he told The Sun. "I'm sleeping in abandoned houses. I got tired and prayed on it."

In group counseling sessions, he learned to show vulnerability again and accept help he once felt he didn't deserve. He began regaining empathy after years of fending for himself, often at the cost of others.

State highway officials are asking motorists to remember to use extreme caution around road construction workers following the death of a flagman killed Monday while directing traffic at a project in Pasadena.

On his last day in the program, he was tentative about his future, wary that he would slip into old habits. Staff members surprised him with a cake and a present, "The Measure of a Man," a book about an Auschwitz survivor who became a tailor to U.S. presidents.

"No, seriously, y'all didn't need to do that," he told them. "Stop it."

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"Celebrating your success," responded Tara Carlson, a Shock Trauma business development manager.

"Sometimes when you're celebrating stuff," Chase said, "things have a way of messing up."

He graduated after about 10 months in the program and worked in the Salvation Army kitchen and as a truck driver, Walton said. He bought a car that soon broke down, lived in it when he was between homes, and had recently moved into a place with roommates. He never suffered a drug relapse, Walton said.

He was on his way to church on Mother's Day last year when he stopped to visit a cousin he hadn't seen in years.

"It was a miracle to me because we didn't know where he was," cousin Julia Chance said at Chase's wake.

Family members at Saturday's services spoke of the Chase they knew as a toddler, who carried a box of Hot Wheels and asked for "bakey and eggs" — bacon and eggs. They also spoke of the Chase they had only recently reacquainted themselves with, a man figuring out cellphones and Facebook.

When Julia Chance found a job as managing and staff editor of publications for United Methodist Women, he texted his cousin congratulations:

"Our Lord Jesus Christ has a way of making things happen when you least expect it," she said, reading the text.

He believed divine intervention saved him, but many also pointed on Saturday to how Chase recommitted himself to fighting against addiction, discouragement and difficulty each and every day.

"He was working on doing the next right thing," Salvation Army Maj. John Branscum said.

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