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Four shots in the night ended one life, changed another A North Avenue Story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nathaniel Hurt is sweeping his sidewalk on a hot spring morning. Across Homewood Avenue, several vacant rowhouses are boarded up with plywood. On the south side of North Avenue, food wrappers and bits of broken glass are strewn along the sidewalk. By midday, the local open-air drug markets will be open for business, bringing more people, and more trash, to the neighborhood.

2 "Oh no," says Hurt. "The dead can't hurt you."

No saints

The fan mail pours in from all over -- Tacoma, Wash., Albany, N.Y., a town in Michigan. "It seems unjust to punish you." "You and your family will be in my prayers." "Justice was not only blind in this case, she was downright stupid." Sometimes the letters are accompanied by money orders, $5 or $10, to apply toward his bail.

Clearly, there are plenty of people ready to make Hurt a hero. So why is he sitting at his kitchen table, telling tales on himself, enumerating every mistake he ever made?

"I don't want nobody to think that I think I'm a saint," he explains.

He grew up in a four-room house on Chapel Street, near Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was the oldest son, and when the outdoor plumbing moved indoors, he shared his room with the bathroom. His father left when he was young, but Helen Hurt found another husband, then another.

"There were no jobs for black men," he recalls, explaining why men came and went. "You couldn't drive a bus, or be a policeman. The only thing you could do was work on an ash truck. You know what a dirty business that is, working on an ash truck?"

Juvenile hall? He was there a couple times. Had a few children out of wedlock, too, and the state breathing down his neck for support payments. Avoided drugs and alcohol, but had a weakness for gambling -- a continuing weakness, as underscored by the Steelworkers Credit Union calendar hanging his back door, three sets of daily numbers recorded for quick reference.

"Never brought home as much of my check as I should," he confides. "My life was a mess. You get older, you get wiser."

Two brothers died as young men. Hurt is vague about the reasons, saying only: "They were somewhere they shouldn't have been." He says the same thing about Vernon.

At 17, he married his childhood sweetheart, two months after the birth of their first son. He got a job at Bethlehem Steel, starting on the night shift, rubbing rust spots from iron. Forty-four years later, he mimes the repetitive task at his kitchen table. "You rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. Then you turned it over and rubbed the other side."

He joined the Air Force, because he wanted to avoid combat in Korea. He nursed his wife through sickle cell anemia, a lifelong affliction that finally took her life four years ago. And, by his own testimony, he became an increasingly solitary man, happy to be alone in his perfect home. In fair weather, he ran a small snowball stand behind his house.

Vernon, like other neighborhood children, sometimes volunteered at the stand for a little spending money. Hurt saw something of himself in the little boy. He even advised Vernon to stop throwing rocks at transit buses. Vernon's reply, according to Hurt, is unprintable.

Still, Hurt believes Vernon might have made the same transition he did, from not-so-good to not-too-bad. Don't get him wrong -- he thinks Vernon was a much rougher kid than he was on his worst day. He also thinks society might have paid a high price while waiting for Vernon's transformation.

But he might have come around, stopped his evil ways. He was just a scrawny kid, a follower, and his crimes were primarily crimes against property. Then again, he was in foster care because his mother told authorities he had threatened her.

Who was Vernon Lee Holmes Jr.? If Hurt could not see him that night, the rest of us have had trouble seeing him since. Victims tend to fade from public memory. Especially when the victim is 13, and his life is notable only for ending.

Vernon was a child, with a child's interests -- sports, video games, dancing, turning flips on an old mattress. His bad behavior -- the vandalism, fights at school -- made school officials seek psychiatric care for the boy. The fact is, as even Hurt acknowledges, Vernon was a work in progress.

His parents, Vernon Lee Holmes Sr. and Avis Cross, had never married. In March 1994, Vernon was placed in foster care by his mother. After one arrangement failed, Vernon came to live in Hurt's neighborhood, one of at least eight foster children in the home of Dorothy and Robert Lewis. (His mother and the Lewises have declined to speak about the boy.)

"He just needed a little attention," his cousin, Gil McDougald, 27, told reporters shortly after Vernon's death. "He needed somebody to reach out to him. He was confused and upset."

"A good young boy," his father said after the trial. "He liked to play. Maybe he did these things, but boys will be boys, you know?"

History repeats itself

Fifteen years ago, we had another night like this in Baltimore. Jan. 4, 1980. The night an unassuming Dundalk man became, for posterity, the "snowball killer."

Roman G. Welzant, 68, ran out of his house on a snowy night and shot at three teen-agers who had been pelting his home with snowballs. Albert Kahl was killed; James K. Willey was critically wounded.

The parallels are striking. Welzant was known as the Cameraman by the local teens, because he would take photographs of them drinking beer. Some children in Hurt's neighborhood considered him a grouchy neatnik. In both cases, the men's idiosyncrasies only seemed to encourage harassment.

There was no racial issue to polarize either case. Welzant was white, as were his victims. Hurt is black, as was Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. Even the charges against the two men were essentially the same.

One key difference: Roman Welzant was acquitted. Hurt was found guilty. And Welzant's victim was a drunken 18-year-old, five years older than Vernon.

And though he was acquitted, Welzant never escaped his singular identity. When he died in 1990, a brief article in the newspaper identified him as the snowball killer.

Asked about the case today, lawyer Russell J. White recalls how he and Joseph F. Murphy Jr., now on the Court of Special Appeals, drilled their client, putting him through countless practice sessions.

"It does help to show remorse, to show that they have some emotional feeling about it, that they're not happy about it," Mr. White says. "A lot of times, you have to work with them to create the right impression."

Roman Welzant, who looked frail and older than his 68 years, cried on the witness stand. Nathaniel Hurt, a robust 62-year-old, was low-key and calm, never shedding a tear. Instead, he showed flashes of anger when the prosecutor pressed certain issues. Did you really shoot with your left hand?

"Why didn't I cry?" Hurt muses. "You know, there were some other kids there, twins, new to the neighborhood. If I had killed one of them, maybe I would have been up there boohooing.

PD "But I can't cry for Vernon, I'm sorry. I can't cry for Vernon."

Understanding, not approval

"Call him Peanut," lawyer Stephen L. Miles advises. "Everyone does. It's because he's so little."

Nathaniel Hurt is not little, and the introduction of this innocent nickname seems like a public relations ploy at first. But it turns out that Hurt's friends do call him Peanut.

"I used to be little," Hurt explains, patting his solid middle. "I had a growth spurt when I was 50." A green plastic Mr. Peanut, the Planters mascot, sits atop his refrigerator.

A lot has been written about the professional relationship between Mr. Miles and his client, much of it informed by the complicated feelings Mr. Miles engenders. Ubiquitous on television, perhaps the best-known lawyer in the state, he also is quite successful. When he failed so visibly, his enemies were gleeful.

In Hurt's trial, he faced a lady-or-the-tiger dilemma in the 11th hour -- go with the jury or a plea bargain that stipulated no prison time. Mr. Miles let Hurt, the gambler, make the decision. He went with the jury and lost. Because he had used a handgun in a felony, a five-year minimum sentence is mandatory.

Mr. Miles was second-guessed throughout Baltimore after the trial, and he willingly took the blame. "He got too close to me," Hurt says. But Hurt has no criticism for his lawyer. He made the decision, he's going to live with it. He likes Mr. Miles and Mr. Miles likes him.

"In 25 years of being a lawyer, I've never had a client to my home," Mr. Miles says. "I've had him over several times. I'm not a naive guy. I really believe Nathaniel Hurt is one of the few things right with Baltimore City."

He also recognizes that Hurt's blunt candor makes him less than ideal as a witness. "That's why I took the case. I admire him. There's no b.s. about him."

Others have been drawn to Hurt as well. Phillip A. Brown Jr., a candidate for City Council in District 3, raised money for his bail, even as he was raising money for Vernon's funeral. You can be on both sides, he insists.

pTC "I like Mr. Hurt. I chose to stick by him, and I'm going to stick by him to the last day. He's a man people just have to understand. He didn't intend to go out and kill anyone that day. He intended to scare people. If everyone had some Mr. Hurt in them, we'd have a better society."

He has spoken to senior citizens who are scared to come out of their homes because of teen-agers. Police tell him there's nothing they can do. There is only one conclusion he can draw: "It's going to happen again."

Live from North Avenue

A muggy June morning. Hurt sits at his kitchen table, preternaturally calm and contained, as if waiting for news on his motion for a new murder trial is just another errand in a busy day. 9:30 a.m. Sweep walk. 10 a.m. Barber shop. Noon. Wait for Judge Heller's decision.

He sorts through his mail. A catalog for men's shoes. "You know they want money from you when they put your name on something in big capital letters," he observes. A Social Security check, which could be one of his last. No Social Security while serving time. His presentence investigation report.

"Dear Peanut," Stephen L. Miles has written, "please read this for any errors."

He reads it intently, but dispassionately. There is one small error of fact, by his account, and quite a lot of detail. His 1980 arrest for assault, which resulted from a dispute over an insurance policy. His driving record back to 1964. The story of his life rendered in the flat, seemingly objective language of a bureaucrat.

Then Hurt comes to the part where Vernon's father, Vernon Holmes Sr., describes his nightmares. He throws the report down in disgust.

"If that man had done his job," Hurt says, "his son wouldn't have been in my neighborhood at all. Could he sleep then, knowing his son was in foster care?"

"It's sad all around," says his son Leroy.

Hurt turns on the television with his remote control, in case some enterprising reporter gets the scoop on his motion before his lawyer calls him. Channel 2 leads with Bosnia. "They're trying to get us in that war," Hurt comments. Then a school bus accident, not too serious. Click.

On Channel 13, Marty Bass is playing with a puppy. "If they've already gone to Marty Bass, there's no news to tell." Click.

On Channel 11, Jayne Miller is reporting live from the courthouse. The line of type beneath her chin reads: "New trial for Hurt?" So she doesn't know, either.

"I'd lay 2-1 odds I don't get a new trial," says Hurt. The phone rings, and it's Stephen L. Miles. If Hurt had taken his own bet, he'd at least have made a little money. No new trial. All Hurt can do now is show up for sentencing and hope he gets to stay out while his appeal to a higher court is pending.

He walks to his fire escape and looks at the neighborhood below. From here, he can see the sidewalk he swept this 'D morning, the alley he cleaned this week, the place where Vernon died last October. Neighbors look up from their back yards and back steps, expectant. Hopeful.

"I didn't get a new trial," Hurt announces, throwing his arms open wide as if playing the title character in "Evita." Don't cry for me, Baltimore. Everyone sags a little. One neighbor cries out in her disappointment.

Then he walks down the metal steps and opens his snowball stand. A customer is already waiting, a man with a yen for a large egg cream flavor snowball on this hot, muggy day.

"How's it going, Peanut?" another man calls as he walks down the alley.

"I didn't get a new trial," he says, tending to his syrup and ice. "I knew I wouldn't. But that's not my main option, anyway."

The future

Tomorrow, Nathaniel Hurt goes before Judge Heller for his sentencing. She must give him at least five years, because he used a handgun in committing a felony. She may sentence him to more time in prison. There are three possible scenarios.

He could remain free on bail, waiting in his house, his own little biosphere, while his appeal is considered by a higher court. Bail could be denied, and he could be taken away in handcuffs. Or he might end up in jail for a night, while his lawyer posts money for his bail.

The certainties of Nathaniel Hurt's life lie outside the courtroom. There are at least two.

One day, he will die.

And if his passing is noted outside his circle of family and friends, it will always be in the context of That Night. Nathaniel Hurt? He's the old man who killed that boy, the one who was throwing rocks at his car.

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