After Corey Baker was murdered last December, Angela Baker searched her only child's bedroom for clues to how she might have saved him from the devouring drug corner. She found a cassette, and played it on the stereo she'd bought him in a fruitless attempt to keep him off the streets.
In a wavering, adolescent attempt at a rap song, the 15-year-old chanted his own epitaph, an epitaph for dozens of boys and young men who have died around Park Heights and Woodland avenues in Northwest Baltimore:
L So living on Park Heights there's only one thing you can do,
Go up and sell some blue tops. . . .
Running up to men and women saying, Do you want a dime?
Park Heights, Park Heights, the girls and the money and all the good stuff.
Not so long before he died, Corey Baker was a cheerful kid who liked to play Monopoly and Othello and was getting better at chess, who played guard on the Little League football team that won the championship in 1991, who spoke of becoming a pilot or a surgeon.
Then he started dabbling in the drug trade, and soon his name went onto the long roll of the dead in this nation's undeclared urban war, a war waged with the finest of modern firearms in the name of no cause greater than adolescent pride and a pocketful of $10 bills. Since 1988, within a half-mile of the intersection of Park Heights and Woodland, a territory pock-marked with drug dealing, 83 people have been murdered, 75 of them male and all of them black, with an average age of 26. Approximately another 300 people have been shot and survived.
As the murder rate heads for a new record in the city as a whole, the violence near the Park Heights drug markets is growing worse. The number of gun assaults in the area has climbed from 52 in 1988 to 96 last year. At least five people have been killed in the neighborhood this summer.
It is a rate of violence not exceeded in many places in the world, apart from the shattered cities of the former Yugoslavia, Mideast hot spots, South African townships and a few other places ripped by civil war. But it is mayhem quite typical of America's street drug markets, of which Park Heights and Woodland is not even Baltimore's worst.
Most of those murdered have been sons of the neighborhood. They have given their lives for the sparkle of a little gold, the right brand name on their tennis shoes, perhaps a sports car to draw a girl's gaze. Like Corey Baker, a striking number have left behind strict, working parents who had struggled to pull their children from the vortex of the corner.
Corey, his mother remembers with tears in her eyes, loved money. He loved to dream about the money he would have some day, loved to read books about making money. When he was 13, he took a grocery cart to the Preakness and hauled coolers from the parking lots to the racetrack all day for picnickers' change. "He came home that night with calluses on his feet and said, 'Mom, I made $40,' " his mother recalls.
The next summer, at 14, he got his first job through a Forest Park High School program. "When he got his first paycheck, $100 and something, he had such a smile," says Ms. Baker, 33, an MTA bus driver. But he also complained about how slowly he had earned it: "He said, 'I have to work so long to get that little paycheck.' I said, 'Corey, that's life. Now you know what I go through.' "
That same summer, Corey discovered another way to make money, a shortcut around the tedious discipline of a real job for modest pay. He was recruited as a street salesman for the Woodland drug crew. His mother found out when police caught him sitting on some steps on Park Heights, holding two vials of cocaine.
Angela Baker, who prided herself on her close relationship with her son, pleaded with him to stay away from the drug corner. But the intoxication of the easy money overwhelmed her warnings. He began skipping his ninth-grade classes, drifting back to the corner.
One winter evening, as he and some buddies played with a dog in the drug zone, a young man walked up, pulled a gun, and ordered the boys to the ground.
"Give me the ring," the guy said.
Corey began to tug off the gold ring bearing his initial, "C." He'd bought it the year before for $49, saved from his $5-a-week allowance money. He'd wanted a bigger, thicker ring in a herringbone pattern, but his mother said no, afraid it would just make him a target for robbery.
"It's stuck, man," Corey told the gunman.
The man answered in the language of the drug corner. The single, .357-caliber Magnum bullet passed through Corey's heart and liver. He lay unconscious at Sinai Hospital for two days while his mother stood sleepless watch.
"The doctor said, 'Your son's a fighter.' But I saw the pain in his face," says Ms. Baker, 33. "He lasted about two days. Then his body started blowing up, and I knew it wouldn't be long."
Public opinion is horrified by Baltimore's homicide rate, which corrodes the city's image, scares off business and fuels the exodus to the suburbs. But the drug-corner homicides that account for half of all murders have become dreary routine. "Drug-related" has come to carry more than a hint of "deserved," even though the category lumps neophyte ninth-graders like Corey Baker together with 30-year-old enforcers who have left a trail of bodies.
The media reflect this attitude and shape it: this newspaper gave Corey Baker's shooting a few lines in a police blotter and never reported his subsequent death. It is violence viewed through the wrong end of the telescope, a distant abstraction.
Turn the telescope around by talking to the grieving families and their neighbors, and the wrenching meaning of the statistics comes back into focus. In these green neighborhoods south of Pimlico Race Course, where patches of poverty alternate with solidly middle-class streets, gunplay has long cast a pall over what might otherwise be quiet suburbia. Names like Woodland have lost the pastoral connotation that developers a few decades ago used as a selling point.
Today, this is a place where families can point out bullet holes in their cars and windows; where law-abiding homeowners adjust their lives and restrain their words for fear of offending teen-agers not half their age; where the contagion of the drug trade reaches into neat, well-furnished homes. It is a place where tragedy is played out, again and again, in private.
Gunfire at night
No one knew what a "drug corner" was 25 years ago, when Charles and DelorisLangley came to Baltimore from North Carolina to visit relatives and stayed to build a better life. For a long time, it seemed they had found what they were looking for.
Mr. Langley, a cement finisher, worked steadily in the construction trade, traveling as far as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware to find work in slow times. Mrs. Langley went to trade school and worked for 20 years as a data entry clerk.
In the cozy, tree-shaded house they bought on Woodland Avenue, they raised four sons, Cornelius, Charles Jr., Michael and the baby of the family, Nicholas. The boys were "average, overactive, very athletic," says Mrs. Langley, 43, her hair in a ponytail, sitting on her living room sofa with family photos and plaques bearing inspirational poetry on the wall.
The Langley boys walked to neighborhood schools, haunted their local pool until they were made unofficial lifeguards, played with the family dog, Kramer, took overnight camping trips with their Boy Scout troop, accompanied by their father. There were weekend picnics on the Chesapeake at Sandy Point and family treks to Kings Dominion and Hershey Park. The boys spent part of most summers with Mrs. Langley's parents in Mount Olive, N.C.
Had the family lived, say, a few blocks farther east, that might have been the end of the story. But just two blocks west of their home on Woodland, a drug market was taking shape just as her sons reached their teen-age years. The parents worried about it and, from 1985 on, as occasional gunfire could be heard at night, spoke periodically of moving. Each time they decided they couldn't swing it financially.
One day in 1986, a neighbor called Mrs. Langley to tell her that Cornelius, who should have been in school, was at home with a large group of teen-agers. She sped home on her lunch hour and surprised her sheepish son, who mumbled "lame excuses."
Soon, Cornelius and Michael were coming home in expensive tennis shoes and sweat suits. "They would say somebody bought it for them," she recalls. She knew they were lying.
"I talked to them till I was blue in the face," she says. "We would have our conversations, and I'd say I knew what they were doing. When I came down real hard on them, they'd say, 'We're going to stop.' But they never did."
There are limits to a parent's control, she says. By the time Cornelius was 18 or 19, he would simply stay with friends when his parents pressured him to stop selling drugs.
"I've had people say it's the way they're brought up. But I'm a perfect example of how you can bring up your kids right, and it still can happen," she says.
What, she asks, should a loving parent do? "You don't want your kids selling drugs on the street," she says, "but you don't want them locked up, either. It involves kids you love, kids you brought into the world."
While she and her husband agonized, and went to their jobs, the inexorable logic of the drug world took its own course. One afternoon in August, 1988, dealers from the area around North Avenue and Pulaski Street drove up to Park Heights and Woodland to put out "testers," drug samples. Cornelius and Michael confronted the interlopers, Michael using threatening words, and they left.
A few hours later two cars screeched up. Their occupants leapt out and gunned down Cornelius. Mrs. Langley, on her way home from work, drove up while her eldest son's body was still lying in the road.
The Langleys buried Cornelius, 21, in the family plot in North Carolina. When they returned, Michael was devastated by feelings of guilt, since he felt that his threats had prompted the attack.
"Michael didn't ever come back to himself," his mother says. "He didn't care. He said, 'My brother's dead, and I'd just as soon be dead.' "
One January midnight, five months after Cornelius was killed, Mrs. Langley lay awake in her bed and heard Michael and his cousin, Terrence, slam the door behind them. A few minutes later, she heard gunfire, by then a nightly routine. But when she heard Terrence burst through the door, she feared the worst.
"Michael's been shot," Terrence cried.
"My feet had already hit the floor," Mrs. Langley says. "I said to my husband, 'You better go out there, he's probably already dead."
She says she never learned the motive for the slaying. Michael, 19, was carrying two bags of heroin when he fell on nearby Palmer Avenue. Another veteran dealer says Michael's death was part of a feud between rival drug gangs; police believe it may have been a dispute over money.
Police arrested the man Michael had identified as Cornelius' killer. But Michael was the chief witness against him, and prosecutors were forced to drop the charges after Michael was killed. The case of Michael's murder languished for more than a year. Finally, a witness came forward and Kevin Brooks, another young dealer, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years.
Mrs. Langley was in North Carolina the day of the guilty plea; tragedy had struck a third time, and she was burying her third son, 12-year-old Nicholas, killed when his bike was hit by a car 100 yards from his home.
For Michael's funeral program, composed on her sister's computer, Mrs. Langley had written: "As it has pleased the Almighty God to take from our midst our beloved son, though we cannot explain His reasons, yet we still trust in His almighty wisdom. He never makes a mistake."
After Nicholas' death, Mrs. Langley says, her faith was shaken. "I'd put a question mark after that," she says.
No matter what route she takes from her home, she says, "I see one of my sons lying in the street." In July, she returned to North Carolina to look for work, with the idea of leaving Baltimore and its memories behind for good. The Langleys' only living son, Charles, has settled in Mount Olive and is working as a moving man.
Asked for the names of contemporaries of Cornelius and Michael who would remember them, Mrs. Langley thinks for a minute. Then she shakes her head.
"Just about everybody the kids associated with," she says quietly, "is dead."
'You want to fit in"
The drug corner exacted from the Langley family such a price that you might expect to find nothing comparable in all of Baltimore. In fact, you have to walk just a few blocks, across the intersection of Park Heights and Woodland, to the Toles' house on Homer Avenue.
Dallas Toles Jr., 55, lost both of his sons. Then, in a decision that baffled a judge, he saved his second son's killer from prison.
For years, friends say, Mr. Toles has commuted to Virginia to a job as a tunneler, tough, dirty work that pays a decent wage. He knew the neighborhood drug dealing might become a temptation to his sons, and he worked to make sure they would never have to turn to the streets for money.
But money is only part of the attraction. The drug corner entices because it conveys status. When some of the Woodland dealers and their musical friends taped a rap cassette last year, calling themselves "YBM," for "Young Black Mafia," they posed on the cover with their guns -- and sold several thousand copies. The corner dealers are the big shots of a teen-agers' world.
"You want to fit in," says Jerome Briscoe, an assistant state's attorney who often prosecutes drug cases. "Fitting in on the drug corner means carrying a Tec-9 [assault pistol]. Fitting in there means at least hanging out with the guys who are twirling [dealing] drugs."
And so Mr. Toles' older son, also Dallas, 17, started hanging out. One evening in 1989, 11 months after Michael Langley's death, he was shot in the head at C&C; Grocery, on the southwest corner of Park Heights and Woodland. Police found 14 bags of cocaine and $270 on his body.
As often is the case, the motive was never quite clear: Friends said it was a dispute over a girl; another dealer says it was a botched robbery; police concluded it was a fight for drug territory. A young man named Michael Calloway was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 50 years.
Then, one afternoon last January, Mr. Toles' second son, whom everyone called Scooter, was tussling in front of the house on Homer Avenue with another kid, named Tony. Mr. Toles came running out to see what the trouble was. Scooter's best friend, Clifton Mosley, aimed his revolver at Tony and fired once. The aim of a 15-year-old being what it is, the bullet hit Scooter, 16, in the upper left chest.
"Cliff, why'd you do that?" Scooter asked. Those were his last words. Clifton had killed his best friend.
The police caught Clifton a month later in an apartment a half-mile from the murder scene. They arrested him along with Bryant Warren, 22, a longtime dealer on the west side of Park Heights and Woodland, for whom both Scooter and Clifton had been selling, and confiscated a kilogram of cocaine and two handguns. From jail Clifton wrote to Scooter's parents to say he was sorry.
A man who has lost two sons to the drug wars might be expected to look to the courts for vengeance. But the drug corner consumes some young lives by means of bullets and others by means of long prison terms. For the people who live nearby, the two can come to seem like flip sides of the same fate.
Mr. Toles told prosecutors that he didn't want Clifton to go to prison, and he stuck to his position. Without his eyewitness testimony, they had no choice but to accept a guilty plea to manslaughter, a 10-year suspended sentence and five years on probation.
Judge Elsbeth Bothe accepted the plea but was frustrated by the result.
"Where'd this gun come from?" she demanded in court last June.
"From a junkie," said Clifton.
"Why'd you buy it, so you could kill your best friend?" the judge pressed.
Clifton didn't answer.
"Well, the problem is, that's what happens when people have guns. Guns don't know who they're killing," she said.
Then the judge turned to Scooter's father and stepmother, Jeanette Harcum. "How can you agree to this kind of thing?" she asked.
Mr. Toles remained silent. Ms. Harcum spoke up.
"This was an accident. They were best friends," she said. "It's hard to explain. He's 15. He's got a chance. It's not going to bring our son back."
'Killing your community'
At the funeral in December for Corey Baker, the big March Funeral Home chapel on Wabash Avenue was filled to capacity. Gregory Harris, Corey's best friend from school, read a poem he'd written to comfort the family. An a cappella quartet, the Undercovers, sang.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid 3rd gave a spellbinding sermon on "the dark side of Christmas," urging the young African-Americans present to learn from Corey's death.
"God, we've got to admit we're tired of burying our children. No, God, it's not the Ku Klux Klan that's killing our children. It's us. . . . More and more of our young men and young women are having their lives stolen not by their oppressor, but by young people who look just like them."
Mr. Reid suggested that the ultimate responsibility for the guns and drugs rested with the larger society of whites, which manufactures the guns and imports the drugs. But he told his audience that if they take part in the drug trade, they are accomplices in the wars that are costing so many young, black lives.
"Every time you sell a little bit of crack, a little bit of rock, you're killing your community," he said. "If you don't change your life, we'll be back here next year, crying over you."
Several people had witnessed Corey's killing, and at least one witness, eventually identified the alleged killer to police. Keith Minor, 22, a convicted cocaine dealer who lived about three blocks away, was arrested six weeks after the murder and jailed.
But, as frequently occurs after drug-corner shootings, no witnesses were willing to risk the gunslingers' retribution by going to court to testify. The charges were dropped and Keith Minor was freed less than two months after his arrest.
He was released from jail March 22. Police say that on April 16 Keith Minor abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl who was walking home from school. He awaits trial on the rape charge, and police say he is still considered a suspect in Corey's murder.
There was little comfort for Angela Baker from the legal system. But, devastated by her son's death, searching for a useful way to express her grief, Ms. Baker turned to the community for help.
Mr. Reid's sermon had expressed the hope that Corey's death would mark a turning point, a sacrifice that would begin the slow process of "turning Baltimore City around." He called for "a spiritual army of young men and women" who would "take this community back."
When she heard about Scooter Toles' death a few weeks after Corey's, Angela Baker, her relatives and friends decided to try to rally the neighborhood against the killing. They began by distributing 300 flyers calling for a candlelight vigil one February evening at Park Heights and Woodland, in the heart of the drug market.
The night of the vigil, a score of Corey's family and friends from around the city arrived, holding handmade signs that said "Black on Black Crime Must Stop" and "Let's Save Our Children." Angela Baker held one bearing a photograph of her son: "I Miss You, Corey," it said.
However, from the immediate neighborhood, only three people joined the vigil. One boy, riding past on his bike, stopped to tell Ms. Baker he was the one who put a foam pillow under Corey's head as he lay on the pavement. A clutch of teen-agers marred the ceremony by walking past with cassette player turned up to a deafening pitch.
Angela Baker was deeply upset, puzzled that so few neighbors would come out to protest the continuing catastrophe of the drug corner. "The response I got, it just hurt me," she said, choking up at the memory, months later. "It's like people lock themselves in their homes and just don't care.
"Part of it's fear, I guess, and part just don't care," Ms. Baker said. "Until we all get together, nothing's going to change."
E9 The dealers come and go, but the drug corner remains.