Those who knew both pity, forgive slain boy, accused man Right, wrong blur in killing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On East 20th Street, the children are still trying to make sense of it: that night two weeks ago when 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. was shot dead in the street, allegedly by a neighbor who grabbed a .357 Magnum as a pack of boys vandalized his car.

They solemnly assure the adults who ask that they've been sorting out right from wrong.

"He didn't have to shoot him," a small boy said into the bullhorn at a vigil held outside Vernon's foster home last week.

"He could have shot up in the air and given a warning," said 12-year-old Tinera Bowers, one of Vernon's foster sisters.

"It was all their fault that they were throwing rocks at his car," said a grade-school neighbor named Jamal. "And after they threw that rock and it cracked the windshield, he had to shoot them."

The issues of right and wrong in the case aren't so clear for adults. In the days after the shooting, radio talk shows and newspaper columns were filled with voices of Baltimoreans trying to determine who deserved their sympathy and who should be condemned.

The response to the killing became almost a referendum on street justice. Many Baltimoreans rallied behind the accused man, whom they saw as a neighbor pushed over the brink by menacing youths. A few spoke up for the dead victim.

But for some of the residents of this East Baltimore neighborhood, with its boarded-up houses and trash-filled gutters and drug traffic, there was no need to take sides. For the people who knew them both, Vernon Holmes and Nathaniel Hurt each deserved pity and forgiveness.

"There's more than one victim here," said Sylvia Fulwood, executive director of the East Baltimore Midway/Barclay Community Development Corporation.

The two were so different.

Mr. Hurt, neighbors and relatives said, was the kind of anchor every block wants, every city depends on.

Mr. Hurt was solid: Married for 38 years, he and his late wife reared five children. He has worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point since he was 17. He owned a home that he kept immaculate.

In sharp contrast was the short life of Vernon Holmes: He struggled in school. He was put in foster care last spring, reportedly by a mother who said she no longer could handle him. He was a follower, never a leader.

On the night of Oct. 10, their lives collided. Amid the rock-throwing, Mr. Hurt may not have been able to discern mischief from menace. And young Vernon, the slow learner new to the neighborhood, may not have been able to figure out when to stop following the crowd.

The lesson? "Glass you can replace," a 12-year-old girl named C.A. said the other night on the block where Vernon lived. "You can't replace a life."

'He liked to play'

There are 13-year-olds on Baltimore's streets who are, in size and authority, men. They swagger. They deal drugs. They carry guns. Vernon, his friends and relatives say, was not one of them.

He was short and skinny, with crooked front teeth that were still a bit too big for his little-boy face. On East 20th Street, 10-year-old C.A. said Vernon "liked to joke a lot. He liked to play a lot."

Agnes Holmes, an aunt who lives in Edgemere, said Vernon "acted just like everybody else. I knew he was a little slow, but it wasn't to the point he was wasn't educable. He was not an average learner."

At 9, Vernon was transferred to Battle Monument Elementary, a special education school in Dundalk. As he grew older, he developed behavior problems, disrupting his classes. By last winter, school officials were concerned enough, sources say, to refer him for psychiatric care.

Sources said the boy was sent to Gundry/Glass Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Pikesville. About that time, relatives and other sources say, Vernon's mother, Avis Cross, called a state agency and said she could no longer control her son. State foster care officials would not comment on the case, but sources said Ms. Cross alleged that Vernon had threatened her.

In March, Vernon was placed in a foster home that apparently did not work out. In June, he was shifted to the home of Dorothy and Robert Lewis in the 700 block of East 20th St. They would not talk to reporters.

Vernon was put in foster care even though his father had an extended family in eastern Baltimore County, relatives who lived in stable neighborhoods, held steady jobs and said they gladly would have taken Vernon in if they had known.

The boy spent his first few years among them in Edgemere. His parents -- Ms. Cross and Vernon Holmes Sr. never married -- lived close to several relatives.

They remember that Vernon liked to dance and ride bicycles. "He wasn't a bad boy. He liked to play and run," recalled Govan Holmes Sr., Vernon's paternal grandfather.

Vernon's parents broke up while he was a toddler. Mr. Holmes, who had a drinking problem, moved to East Baltimore and didn't see the boy for about three years, he said. Young Vernon lived with his mother and her parents in Dundalk.

Through the years, Ms. Cross and Mr. Holmes had other children with other partners. Still, they repeatedly reunited and broke up.

"When his mother and all of us were together, we would go visit his family, spend time together," said Mr. Holmes. "That made him feel good, seeing his father and mother together, enjoying each other's company."

Mr. Holmes said he didn't find out his oldest son was in foster care until March, a month after the boy was removed from his mother's home.

"When I first heard, I was shocked," Mr. Holmes said.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources would give no details of Vernon's foster care arrangements, citing state laws requiring confidentiality.

A girl who said she was a foster sister of Vernon said her foster parents treated her well. Nine other foster children lived in the house, she said, amending that number the next day to eight.

An adult neighbor, Rhoda Watts, said she thought that up to 10 children lived in the home. Helen Szablya, the Department of Human Resources spokeswoman, would not comment on how many foster children shared the house with Vernon.

"We felt very confident that the placement of this child was appropriate and working very well," Ms. Szablya said, "and we were happy about how things were going with the family."

While not discussing Vernon specifically, Ms. Szablya said the number of foster families willing to handle "a teen-ager, early teens, who is diagnosed as a slow learner and who also has exhibited violent tendencies is limited. There are only a certain number of homes willing to take a child with that kind of description."

In his new neighborhood, residents said, Vernon enjoyed playing his hand-held video game, doing flips on mattresses placed outside and playing football.

Brian Watts, 26, described Vernon as a "follower who always wanted to be with the in crowd." That led him into some mischief -- mostly throwing bottles at dogs, neighbors said.

"That's what a typical boy does, throwing rocks and breaking windows, running around and beating each other up," said Mona Wilson, 17. "They know it's wrong, but they do it for fun."

The fighting also occurred in school. A few days before the shooting, Vernon was involved in a scuffle at Lombard Middle School, a school official said.

Vernon rarely saw family members after he went into foster care. The last time he saw relatives in Edgemere was in July, at his grandmother's funeral.

His cousin, Gil McDougald, 27, said he was surprised to learn that Vernon, who he said was a likable child, had gotten into trouble.

"He just needed a little attention," Mr. McDougald said. "He needed somebody to reach out to him. He was confused and upset."

'A marked man'

Vernon's life seemed to lack a center; Nathaniel Hurt's was well grounded.

His house at 800 E. North Ave. is meticulously kept. The stucco side and back appear not to have a crack. Grillwork decorates a side door. The fire escapes at the back of the building are painted a shiny black.

Ms. Fulwood, who heads the community organization housed next door to Mr. Hurt's home, said Mr. Hurt was so determined to keep the area clean that he sometimes picked up trash swirling in the gutters across the street, bordering Green Mount Cemetery.

If nearby residents didn't have trash cans, Mr. Hurt would provide them -- along with chains and locks to secure them, Ms. Fulwood said.

Most mornings, she would find him hosing down the sidewalk outside his house. He even scraped gum off the pavement.

In the summer, Mr. Hurt and his son set up a snowball stand on Homewood Avenue, behind the house, and hired children to work there. Vernon was among those who earned a little cash, although he soon lost interest in the work and quit, neighbors said.

Stephen L. Miles, Mr. Hurt's lawyer, described his client as a stable, upstanding father of five, a widower whose wife of 38 years died in 1991.

Mr. Hurt still works at Bethlehem Steel. Sometimes he and

Govan Holmes Sr., Vernon's grandfather, would cross paths. Mr. Holmes, until he retired, worked for years at C. J. Langenfelder & Son Inc., a construction company. Occasionally, he would see Nathaniel Hurt cashing a check and grabbing a sandwich nearby at Mickey's Citgo. Mr. Holmes thought of him as a pleasant, "clean-cut" fellow.

But in the neighborhood, Mr. Hurt's insistence on tidiness was earning him a reputation among some of the children as a grouch.

Mr. Miles said the situation had been tense almost from the time Mr. Holmes moved into the neighborhood three years ago. Mr. Hurt had watched young boys throwing rocks and oranges at passing buses and had scolded them for their behavior.

"Ever since then, he's been a marked man," Mr. Miles said.

Children would empty his trash can in his backyard, sometimes two or three times a day, Mr. Miles said. They would ring his bell and run, curse at him and threaten him, the lawyer said. Six or seven children were his nemeses, and Vernon sometimes was among them, Mr. Miles said.

Police said they received no complaint about harassment from Mr. Hurt the day of the shooting and that records for the previous 90 days showed no other complaints of harassment by neighborhood children.

Mr. Miles though said the problem was chronic. "He was harassed and harassed until something happened. I think under all circumstances, it's self-defense.

"He's distraught about himself, the neighborhood," Mr. Miles said. "Now he finds himself charged with first-degree murder, facing the rest of his life in jail."

'He's got a gun'

Baltimore homicide Detectives Darryl Massey and Marvin Sydnor are puzzled by the sympathy Mr. Hurt has received. They say the shooting should be condemned by a neighborhood that has been fighting drugs and violence -- and had taken pride in the progress it made since police rounded up some drug dealers in a March raid.

"Mr. Hurt is not the victim. That's what I've been trying to get across," Detective Massey said. "This 13-year-old kid is the victim."

The police detectives offer this account of the events that led to the shooting:

After 4 p.m. Oct. 10, Vernon and three other boys decided to annoy Mr. Hurt because, they told police, he had not paid one of them for work at the snowball stand.

The boys threw two buckets onto Mr. Hurt's fire escape. Mr. Hurt chased them, catching no one.

But he didn't give up. About an hour later, he sneaked up on the boys as they played on a nearby block and managed to grab one, a chubby 11-year-old named Kenyon "Kenny" Cypress, whom he punched.

"He beats Kenny like he's fighting a man," Detective Massey said.

Vernon's 16-year-old foster brother, Robert England, and two men intervened. Mr. Hurt said the boys had broken a window in his home and told the three to walk a block to his house to see the damage.

Once there, they found no broken windows. Mr. Hurt told them to wait while he went inside.

But the three didn't hang around. Mr. Hurt's tone, they told police, made them fear he was getting a gun. A moment later, some witnesses told police, they saw Mr. Hurt on his fire escape with a shotgun.

Meanwhile, Kenny's friends decided to avenge his beating.

The group of about six boys, ages 11 to 13, went to Mr. Hurt's home with rocks and bottles and shattered the windshield of a 1983 Chevrolet that Mr. Hurt drove.

And Mr. Hurt appeared on the fire escape with a .357 Magnum handgun.

"He's got a gun," one boy shouted, and the group scattered.

Mr. Hurt fired four shots. One of them struck Vernon, who had started running, in the back.

"This is not a situation where a man is shooting into the air," Detective Massey said. "You can't be up on the second floor, shooting into the air and striking a boy below you."

After a standoff with police, Mr. Hurt surrendered. Investigators found the revolver in a closet. Police also recovered a shotgun and a rifle.

Robert England, Vernon's foster brother, had tried to save Vernon.

The older boy returned to Mr. Hurt's house just before the man walked onto the fire escape with his gun. He shouted the warning to the boys and looked for Vernon.

"I pushed him," he said in an interview, "shoved him up the alley. The shot was fired and [Vernon] had dropped."

The England youth said he saw blood coming from Vernon's right shoulder. He picked him up but couldn't carry him far. He stopped and yelled for help. A neighbor with a cordless phone called 911.

Robert England said the last words he heard Vernon say were, "I'm not scared of that man."

'We'll pray'

In the 700 block of East 20th St., the Rev. Willie Ray organized a twilight vigil for Vernon last week. A handful of adults, including .. Vernon's parents, showed up. Ms. Cross looked grim. Mr. Holmes kept his hands tucked into his parka pockets.

Mr. Ray gathered the spectators, including about 10 neighborhood children, into a circle.

"We thank you for Brother Vernon," Mr. Ray said, his head bowed, "for the life that he lived. It was a short one, but it was a good one."

The children spoke. They remembered tossing a football with Vernon. They remembered he liked to play.

"Look who showed up," Phillip A. Brown Jr., who helped raise bail money for Mr. Hurt, said with a shake of his head. "A couple of kids.

"We'll pray," Mr. Brown said. "And once we leave here tonight, the same problems will be here."

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