A DELIBERATE DESCENT For Dontay Carter, lure of streets was too strong

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He came back from Hagerstown the way they all do -- riding that eastbound Greyhound, with a few pieces of clothing and some discharge papers crammed into a brown bag. In his pocket, nothing save the change from the $25 they issue for bus fare at the prison gate.

It was Wednesday, a month ago, and he walked north and east from the bus station, heading for Barclay Street. Aunt Deelie's place. Second rowhouse from the corner.

Minutes later and a lifetime away, the phone rang in a well-kept kitchen of a brick rancher in the Baltimore County suburbs. He heard a woman's voice. Grandma.

"Dontay! Is that you? Where are you calling from?"

"Grandma, I'm home. I'm down at Aunt Deelie's."

"You're not home," she said, suddenly firm. "This is your home."

But Dontay Carter shrugged her off, telling Clarice Matthews -- the woman who raised him, the woman who truly loved him like a son -- that he would be staying somewhere else. The suburbs weren't home anymore; in Dontay's mind, they never were. He was back in East Baltimore. His mother's world.

"Are you going to go find your mother?" his grandmother asked, knowing too well the bond that couldn't be broken. Dontay lived for his mother, turning his life upside down again and again for the love of a woman who had no time for him.

"No," said Dontay.

"Why not?"

"I'm not going to go find her," he told his grandmother. "Let her be the one to find me this time. She'll know soon enough that I'm home."

And it was true. She would know. Soon enough, all of Baltimore would know that Dontay Mandal Carter was home. Soon enough, an entire city would be looking in horror at the same Baltimore Police Identification photograph on television screens and newspaper pages. Carter, Dontay, BPI Number 360-616.

Sixteen days after his release from the Maryland Correctional Training Center, this 18-year-old's unworn face -- young and black, eyes staring vacantly at a holding cell camera -- would be suddenly transformed into a predatory icon. Three kidnappings, a brutal murder, armed robberies, an orgy of spending with the victims' credit cards -- all of it allegedly undertaken by Dontay Carter and three others from the East Baltimore corners.

It was a crime spree that would play to middle-class fears, that the media would readily devour, that would touch Baltimore's most sensitive racial nerves. Every target was a well-dressed white man, a professional, accosted in a public parking garage. One victim was herded into a vacant rowhouse, then beaten to death with a metal pipe; another nearly strangled and left for dead in a car trunk. Alone in the dark, that man heard two of his captors talking about what to do with the body.

Burn it, he heard a young voice say. Burn it so they can't recognize it.

In the days that followed, all of Maryland seemed to be staring at the same police mug shot, with many thinking the same thoughts: In so brief a life, how could anyone become this cold, this evil? How does any young man grow up to lose so quickly every last shred and shard of his humanity?

Dontay Carter defies preconceptions.

This was always a child in whom people saw promise. He was a fine student, a hard worker who ran up high marks and perfect attendance records and, at one point, was placed in a program for gifted children. He showed a natural aptitude for music, singing in his church choir and learning at an early age to play piano by ear.

To be sure, his 18 years include deprivations -- a missing father, an indifferent mother -- but the larger truth is that Dontay was raised by people who loved him, who gave him those things every child needs, who wanted desperately to see him succeed. Yet he fled from them, returning time and again to the rowhouses of the eastside slums.

"He could have been a very fine young man, a young man who could have made a contribution in this world," says Mrs. Matthews, who spent nine years doing everything conceivable to save her grandchild from himself. "I can't believe that he has come to this."

And though there is ample evidence in his early years of a troubled, angry youth, Dontay Carter's juvenile record offers no prediction of shameless, random murder. Petty thefts, stolen cars and shoplifting -- this is the arrest sheet of a sneak thief and schemer. Only in the last years did he embrace violence.

"He was not raised as one of these children out in the street and just throwed away," says Ardella McGraw, 80, a widow who reared Dontay's mother. It was Mrs. McGraw -- Aunt Deelie, to her friends and family -- whom Dontay Carter first sought when he stepped off the Greyhound.

"He was taken care of very good. He was raised in church by church-going people," Mrs. McGraw says. "There was just something that turned his head. I don't know what it was. Maybe he felt he was not wanted by his mother, I don't know. . . . We just have to leave it in the hands of the Lord now and let the Lord do His will."

When Clarice Matthews gave the telephone to her husband on that Wednesday afternoon, she, too, believed Dontay was in God's hands. She loved the boy, loves him still. But long ago, she fought to give her grandson a worthy life, and long ago she had lost the battle.

She could hear Stephen Matthews, a working man and Sunday school superintendent, talking to his grandson, preaching a bit, chiding him about the behavior that had brought him those two years in Hagerstown.

"I know, Grandpa," Dontay told him. "I'm never going back to prison."

'The only thing I had'

He couldn't have been more than 6 when he asked the question, speaking the words with so much hurt that Clarice Matthews was shocked.

"Grandmama, why did you take me away from my mama?"

Clarice Matthews heard those words and imagined the things that her daughter-in-law was telling this child. Years later, she wouldn't have to imagine; relatives would describe it for her in detail. They're not your real family, Sharon Matthews would tell Dontay time and again. They're not your blood kin. I'm your mother.

She was born Sharon Lomax, a child of East Baltimore with a tragic history of her own. At the age of 7, she watched her father stab her mother to death with a butcher knife in the kitchen. After the murder, she and her siblings were raised in Aunt Deelie's house.

Children keep to the rules there and Sharon did, too, until she began staying out all night as a teen-ager. She was 15 when she gave birth to Dontay Carter, giving him the name of a man no one believed was the father. At 17, she married Stanley Earl Matthews, and the newlyweds soon had a son, Stanley Jr.

But the marriage faltered as Stanley Matthews went off to the Army. His wife at first rebuffed her in-laws' offers of help with the children. But she soon gave baby Stanley to his grandparents when a pediatrician threatened to report him as a victim of neglect. A year later, she delivered Dontay, then 3, to Stephen and Clarice Matthews as well.

"I had started running the streets, and I had gotten to drinking and taking drugs, and I did not want my son around it," Sharon Matthews said last week. "I didn't want him running in the streets like I was. I wanted him to have a stable home."

She would allow the grandparents to raise little Stanley, who would grow up straight in the Matthews' home.

Yet could never bring herself to relinquish Dontay fully. Sharon had been a girl herself when she carried this child, when he seemed like the only bright spot in her world. "Everybody was trying to take him from me before I even had him, and I refused to let that happen because he was mine," she says. "He was the only thing I had."

She dropped in and out of her son's life as he grew up with his grandparents. His grandmother was a nurse who left that career to take part-time work as a crossing guard so that she would have time to raise the grandchildren. Her husband soon would retire after four decades at Bethlehem Steel, then take a second job as a security guard.

Dontay attended city elementary schools and in the third grade was put in a program for gifted students. Later, after the Matthewses moved to Woodmoor, in western Baltimore County, Dontay was enrolled in county schools. His grades were consistently high.

"He was a sweet, loving child -- always smiling," recalls Ileene Campbell, a Sunday School teacher at New St. Mark Baptist Church in Forest Park. "Anybody who was around Dontay for any length of time realized how bright he was. Children like that stick in your mind; children like that you remember."

He went every week to New St. Mark's, where he learned to play on a piano in the church basement. Even without formal training, he could find a melody and sing along. His pride showed when he played at one church gathering.

"He wanted praise so badly," Clarice Matthews remembers. "He would do these little things to have people speak well of him. I remember that at the end of the school year at Woodmoor, he stayed behind to help put the school books away. And when you would tell him, 'Dontay, I'm so proud of you,' his eyes would just light up."

But the greatest disappointments came from Sharon Matthews. Time and again, by all accounts including case records, she would disappear from his life, missing visits or, on occasion, taking the child home to East Baltimore briefly -- only to leave him with relatives.

"He loved his mother, but she wouldn't spend too much time with him," recalls Tina McGraw, Aunt Deelie's daughter. "When they'd meet, she would love him like a mother loves a child. But she always had other things to do, other places to go, and she would leave him wherever he was."

By 1982, as Dontay began to have behavioral problems in school, acting out or tussling with other boys, social workers made the connection. Dontay has "a deep need to see Sharon," one wrote. "He is hurt when his mother breaks promises to him and does not come as planned."

On her own, Clarice Matthews sought out therapists and psychologists for the child, and for a time it seemed to help. But as the boy grew, there were problems beyond school.

Visiting his son and stepson one day, Stanley Matthews gave each a $10 bill and told them that they could go to the Rite-Aid to buy candy or toys, or whatever they wanted. Stanley Junior came back with some candy and $8 in change. Dontay came back with $10 and pockets brimming with sweets. Clarice Matthews remembers marching the boy back to the store, forcing him to turn over the candy and apologize to the manager. A rite of passage for most boys.

"He put his head down and said he was sorry, and you could see that he was ashamed," Mrs. Matthews says. But thinking about it later, she and her husband believed that the shame had little to do with the theft.

"I think he felt bad because we found out about it," Mr. Matthews says. "He didn't feel bad because he'd done what he did."

'You've got to grow up'

He kept setting fires in the basement.

Dontay's grandparents had been working with the psychologists long enough to recognize the behavior as the cry of a confused adolescent, and they could handle it. The social workers could not. What if he burned the house down? Besides, there were signs that his mother was finally turning her life around.

"She said she was getting married and they were going to be a family," Mrs. Matthews recalls. "But I could not understand why they would allow her to take that boy back."

The experiment ended three months later, when foster care officials found Dontay, then 11, to be neglected. They sent him back to his grandparents. Maybe, Clarice Matthews thought, he would see that his vision of a life with Sharon Matthews came from a storybook.

"I would tell him, 'Dontay, you've got to grow up now and live a life of your own,' " Mrs. Matthews says. "'You've got to grow up and forget about what your mother is doing or anyone else is doing.' But he just lived for his mother. He lived for the day that his mother would have a place for him -- because she always told him that she would."

Dontay Carter left his grandparents for good in August 1985, at the age of 12, running away to his mother's latest home in East Baltimore. That same month, he got his first juvenile arrest, a theft charge.

The disintegration was not immediate. After a six-month stint in group homes, where he ran up a few more charges for fighting and running away, juvenile authorities again deposited the boy with his mother.

For a time, it worked. A juvenile master was told early in Dontay's eighth-grade year that the youth was doing well at home and in school. "He hopes to attend City College and the Baltimore School for the Arts," one official reported.

But two months later, Dontay was arrested with a BB gun while hovering outside a bar. A dozen arrests would follow over the next two years as he shuttled between the streets of East Baltimore and various juvenile corrections facilities, from which he often ran away.

He was caught wearing 15 gold-and-diamond wedding bands minutes after they were reported stolen from a Monument Street jewelry store. He was caught lifting jeans from the Old Town Mall and acne medication from the Rite-Aid. And he was caught -- repeatedly -- in stolen cars. Sometimes, his accomplice was Damien (Day Day) Daniels, a year younger than Dontay and one of his Collington Square running buddies.

Dontay found trouble "because he was hanging with those kind of people," Sharon Matthews says. "I tried my best to keep him from those boys. The little boys he was hanging with didn't listen to their mothers, and he decided he didn't have to listen to me."

Neighbors saw no supervision.

"When he was around here, he was always out on the street. That boy was on his own," says Janice Simmons, a Collington Avenue resident whom Dontay describes as his godmother.

"I had got to the point where I had really stopped taking time with him like I used to," Dontay's mother concedes. "That I shouldn't have done."

When Dontay was caught cruising in a stolen Pontiac in February 1989, prosecutors had reached their limit. They asked that the 15-year-old be charged as an adult -- but he got one more chance. Judge David B. Mitchell sent him to the Glen Mills School, a private academy in Pennsylvania known for its success with juvenile offenders.

Four months later, Dontay arrived in Baltimore for a routine court hearing. Academy officials planned to report he was doing well. But the van didn't even reach the courthouse before Dontay was out a back door and racing.

Eastbound.

'I know my rights'

Trouble began at the toll window.

Trouble is what you call it when you're driving a stolen van, with no license, and you've got a sawed-off shotgun, a .357 Magnum, a double-edged hunting knife, some marijuana and a stolen credit card in your possession.

Worse than that, you don't have a dollar for the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

It was June 30, 1989 -- little more than three weeks since Dontay Carter had run from the downtown courthouse. Now he was at the wheel of a vehicle stolen the night before. With him were five others, Damien Daniels among them.

Dontay asked the clerk if he could sign a pledge card for the money, and a state toll-facilities officer was summoned. The officer asked for a license.

"I left it at home," Dontay said.

Inside the plaza office, Dontay gave the officer the name of his half-brother, guessing at Stanley Junior's date of birth. When the officer couldn't find a license in that name, Dontay abruptly declared that another boy was really the driver.

Offering to get the other boy, Dontay went back to van. Suddenly, the group got out and started walking away. All were arrested; the weapons, drugs and credit card were discovered.

"I'm a juvenile, and I know my rights," Dontay told the officer coldly. "Before you even get your paperwork done, I'll be out on the street again."

Baltimore police worked back on the stolen credit card, showing photos of the young men caught in the van to a Johns Hopkins Hospital employee who had been robbed a week earlier on North Wolfe Street. The woman was ordered from her car by a teen-age gunman, who drove away with her purse.

Shown photos from the tunnel arrests, the victim identified Damien Daniels as the gunman who had taken her car. Day Day promptly denied it: "I'm going to tell you the truth," the 15-year-old said in a statement to police. "Dontay Carter did this."

Damien contended that a day after the robbery, Dontay showed him a gold Ford Escort parked on the street. "He told me he stuck someone up and took the car," Damien said.

The officers didn't know whether to believe Damien's account, but it made little difference: When confronted with both suspects, the victim was unable to choose, according to prosecutors.

The robbery probe was dropped, but not the weapons charges from the van. After the tunnel arrest, Dontay stayed with the lie about his identity. Six months later, in a downtown courtroom, he was still holding to the deception. At the sentencing, he listened impassively as his lawyer worked himself into righteous indignation.

Stanley Matthews Jr. has no criminal history, Lawrence W. Shavers told Judge Mitchell. He doesn't know the people in the van. He has nothing to do with this. In fact, he's an excellent student, eligible to play football and, at the same time, studying piano at the Peabody Conservatory. The fiction that Dontay had given to his lawyer seemed a description of the life that could have been.

The prosecutor turned to the defense attorney, suggesting that he talk to the officer who had the fingerprints. Minutes later, the lawyer was back before the bench, apologizing. His client was not Stanley Matthews, but one Dontay Carter. Judge Mitchell, who for years had handled the juvenile caseload, heard the name and looked up suddenly.

"Stand up," the judge said.

Dontay Carter came to his feet.

"I know you," the judge said, staring angrily. Dontay Carter said nothing. There wasn't a hint of embarrassment.

Judge Mitchell recounted the opportunity Dontay had been offered in being sent to one of the best programs for troubled youths.

"As soon as he got back on the street, he's gone," the judge said. "Then, 24 days later he was picked up in possession of a double-blade and a Magnum. He was going to stick up someone. Why he wanted to do it, I don't know."

The judge gave him three years from the date of the June arrest, with another eight suspended -- all in all, a stiff sentence for a first adult charge. Even then, the system gave Dontay a chance, sending him to a youthful offender program at the training center in Hagerstown.

But he had little use for the opportunities at the prison, however limited. He was trained as a sanitation steward, but he quickly lost working privileges in a string of infractions ranging from assault to theft to possession of contraband. Six times, Dontay Carter was sent to segregation -- so often that he spent half his time at Hagerstown in isolation.

But if Dontay's pattern of behavior remained constant in prison, other things changed. Stephen and Clarice Matthews found that out in August 1990, when they visited their grandson.

For an hour, they heard Dontay rush through a monologue on the Black Muslim faith. Night after night, he told them, he listened to cassettes in his cell, tapes that offered not only a message of black unity, but also the suggestion that white people had for too long held down black people.

His grandparents sat in pained silence as Dontay raced through his theology, leaving no time for anything else. He told them proudly he was an assistant minister in his new religion.

"The way he talked was that the people had been deprived of being able to get a good education and deprived of doing a lot of things that they should have been able to do, and that we've been kept down," Mrs. Matthews recalls.

There was no anger in the monologue, no suggestion of violence. But still, the Matthewses were disappointed. Dontay knew that they were devoted Baptists and that they frowned on making racial distinctions between people.

"It didn't seem like the boy I knew talking," Mr. Matthews says. "It seemed like he believed society owed him something."

'You seen my mother?'

J. R. McPherson was home on North Collington Avenue when his old friend showed up at the rowhouse, a day after climbing off the Greyhound. The two teen-agers, who had briefly attended middle school together, shook hands and clapped each other on the back.

Then Dontay and J. R. went out on the steps to talk. J. R. loved to talk with Dontay: "Make no mistake, that boy had a brain," he says. "We was rap buddies, meaning we could talk about things."

The conversation drifted back and forth, from girls and kids from the neighborhood, to new things like prison and the Nation of Islam.

"He was talking about having learned about being a Muslim and all," remembered J. R., now a junior in high school. "But I can't say that I think it led to what they say happened later. He was saying some of the things the Muslims believe about white people, but he wasn't talking about doing violence. That wasn't Dontay. Steal a car, sure."

Then came the question that J. R. had been expecting.

"You seen my mother?"

The other teen-ager shook his head. He had seen Sharon Matthews around from time to time. As far as he knew, she was still on the street.

Three days later, Dontay was back and once again, the two teen-agers shared some words. "I know where my mother is," Dontay said abruptly. "I know she's all right."

Then he was gone, walking down Collington toward the square.

It was there, on the corners across from the Super Pride, that Dontay met up with Day Day and others from the neighborhood. It was there, at Patterson Park and Chase, that detectives believe a plan took shape.

Days later, when the youths from Collington Square were locked in separate interrogation rooms, telling detectives their tales, they would say that the scheme came from Dontay. The business with the credit cards and the fake driver's licenses -- that was something he brought back from Hagerstown, they said.

Dontay Carter, through his public defender, declined to be interviewed for this article. The charging documents say that when the crimes in which he and his three co-defendants are accused began on Feb. 7, they began with Dontay alone.

There was only one gunman who attacked the first victim in the Johns Hopkins garage that day, ordering Dr. Daniel Ford into the trunk of his car and driving away. Days later, when detectives went to the doctor and another witness with photos of their young suspects, both identified Dontay Carter.

It was Dontay alone who is charged with participating in all three abductions, just as it was his photo that was used to adulterate the driver's licenses of Dr. Ford and the second victim, Vitalis Pilius. The father of four young children, Mr. Pilius was abducted from the Harbor Park garage. He was found dead three days later in a vacant rowhouse basement.

And it was Dontay, detectives said, who walked into the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel on West Fayette Street and used the dead man's credit card, renting rooms to party with a co-defendant and two girls, running the pay-for-play movies, then fleeing as police were closing in. One suspect was caught at the hotel, two others at their homes the next morning.

On the charging documents, the motive for all of it would be robbery, clear and simple. But for anyone who got a look at the young suspects as they flashed the credit cards, there is something unsettling and incomplete in that. To those who watched these teen-agers rejoice in the spoils, it didn't seem to be about the money. It didn't even seem to be about the things the money bought.

On Feb. 7, within hours of the kidnapping of Dr. Ford, a young man police say was Dontay Carter walked into the Cycle World Honda showroom on Pulaski Highway. He dropped a Citibank Mastercard on salesman Dennis Kelley.

"Gimme two of these," the teen-ager told Mr. Kelley, gesturing at a Honda dirt bike.

"Only one in stock," the salesman informed him.

"Then how about that one?" asked the teen-ager, choosing a Yamaha without even looking it over. At a cost of $3,400, the bikes were selected, paid for, and loaded into a car trunk with the same level of deliberation that most people reserve for carrots and cabbage.

The only real hitch came when a Citibank operator, alerted by the suspicions of Mr. Kelley, asked to have the teen-ager put on the phone to answer a few questions for verification. With the salesman watching, the young man -- calm and collected throughout the visit -- convinced the operator that he was a co-signer on the card.

"People don't think a black man can get a credit card," the teen-ager told the salesman, repocketing the Mastercard of a man left for dead in a car trunk hours earlier. "A white man wouldn't have to go through all this."

'To take a life . . .'

When he ran from the Omni, Dontay Carter had to know that a reckoning was coming. The others were in police custody, signing statements. Detectives found that they had no real allegiance.

Police were told that after the first kidnapping, Dontay had given one of the new dirt bikes to Damien. But after the murder of Vitalis Pilius, in which Clarence Woodward would soon be charged, Dontay had allegedly taken the bike back, grabbing it out of Damien's hands and giving it to Clarence.

"He's my main man now," Dontay said in Damien's account to the detectives.

It was ending, and Dontay turned toward the inevitable.

Sharon Matthews met her son at her Reservoir Hill apartment. The minute she looked into his face, she knew something had gone bad.

"Dontay, there's something wrong with you," she remembers telling him. "There's something else you're not telling me."

"Day Day is scared to go to jail," he told his mother.

Damien again. Sharon Matthews always believed that it was Damien who was dragging her son into harm's way: "Why you going to take another charge for Day Day?" she asked.

Dontay fell silent.

When he was leaving, she told him he could come back. Dontay shrugged it off, saying he would catch up with her later, and left. Yet he made no effort to flee, to get himself out of the city, to think beyond the moment.

After lunch on that last Friday, Dontay Carter allegedly drove downtown to the same garage from which Vitalis Pilius had been abducted three days before. Police say he went to the third floor of the garage -- the same as before -- and forced Douglas Legenhausen, 46, into the trunk of his car.

Minutes later, with the car heading into East Baltimore, the victim popped the trunk and jumped to safety. A passing patrol car gave chase and stopped the car on Ensor Street. At police headquarters that night, sources say, Dontay Carter answered questions and recounted the crimes for which he is charged in a polite monotone.

That same night in the small brick rancher in Woodmoor, they stared in horror at the television. A widow. Orphans. Abductions. Robberies. Murder.

"To take a life, to take something that you can never, never give back," Clarice Matthews would later tell reporters. "Those four children will never see their father again, and their mother. . . . I pray to God that, one day, Dontay will find it in himself to ask forgiveness."

She still loved him; she couldn't help that. A part of her wanted to go down to the jail and face him. Stephen Matthews would not go: "I don't want to see him now and I believe he would not want to see me. He knows how deeply he has disappointed me."

On Saturday, the phone rang again in the Matthewses' home. The same woman's voice answered, but this time, it was cracking and worn. The same young man surprised her.

"Grandma."

"Dontay."

He was at the detention center. He needed shoes. She winced, thinking of a trip to the jail, of seeing her grandson. No, she told him, I can't see you now.

"Dontay, the things they're saying," she stammered, "Didn't we give you the things you needed, didn't we?"

"You and Grandpa did everything," he told her. "You and Grandpa did too much for me."

"But Dontay, the way we raised you . . . these things they say you did. How could they be true?" she asked him. "Dontay, did you do these things?"

He said nothing.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
90°