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MURDER ONE: The city's sad march toward another 300 killings began when the year was just 45 minutes old, and a young father made a fateful stop.


New Year's Eve, 1997.

Why don't you stay home tonight? Cassandra Fair asked her husband. Since their marriage in 1994, Cassandra and Aaron Tracey Fair had brought in the new year together.

But Tracey, as everybody called him, wanted to go out with friends. Maybe go play video games at somebody's house. Tracey was a security guard for Johns Hopkins Hospital, was in the U.S. Army Reserves, was a husband and a father of two children -- but he still could be a kid. Still played tackle football with the guys, volunteered as a mentor at the Lafayette Square Community Center, still played video games.

Still, it's New Year's Eve, Cassandra grumbled. And she was, after all, seven months pregnant with their third child. (They didn't know its gender, but it was Tracey's turn to name her or him.) But around 9:30 p.m., Tracey left the house.

"I love you," Cassandra said, meaning it but miffed.

"I love you," Tracey said, knowing this might not cut it. "If I'm not with you now," her husband told her, "I'm with you always in spirit."

Yeah, yeah, Cassandra thought, smiling, sending him off. Just call me, she said.

The phone rang sometime in the second hour of the New Year. But it was Davon Fair, Tracey's younger brother, who woke Cassandra up. Tracey is dead, he told her.

Stop playing around, Cassandra chided Davon. Quit trying to pretend you're crying.

It was no joke. Her husband, 23-year-old Aaron Tracey Fair, had been shot to death outside a West Baltimore nightclub. "Mr. Fair (victim #1) was pronounced dead by medic at 0045," reads the police report. Meaning that 45 minutes into the new year, Fair had become the first murder victim of 1998 in Baltimore, the first of 300 murders and counting.

"Maybe they shot him in the leg," Cassandra had asked Davon that night nearly a year ago. "Are you sure? Are you sure?"

"They put the sheet over him, Cassandra," Davon told her.

Two hours into 1998, the newly widowed mother of Tracey's children fell to her knees.

Not since 1989 has the annual number of homicides in Baltimore been under 300. Last year, 312 people were murdered. The number has become a grisly yardstick by which some in Baltimore measure its habit of homicide. The gross volume of murders continues to breed news coverage here and elsewhere. "Homicides Haunt Baltimore" read the headline of a Dec. 18 Boston Globe story.

The story was prompted by a plan initiated this month by Baltimore police to try to reduce the annual murder count. By putting an additional 60 to 100 officers on the street each night, shutting down drug corners and targeting North Avenue -- considered a main drug thoroughfare -- police hoped to keep Baltimore from a ninth consecutive year of 300-plus murders.

Despite such efforts, the toll has kept climbing. At 2:38 a.m. Monday, the body of 16-year-old Donte Brooks was found in the 1900 block of West Lanvale Street. Brooks, an apparent robbery victim, had been shot twice. It was murder No. 300 for 1998.

Triple-digit murder figures strain not only police resources but the public's memory. With so many people murdered, how can anyone recall the details of any single one? Statistics may look good or bad on paper, but they rarely look human. What's the difference between the city's 300th murder and its 200th? Or the first murder, for that matter?

"It is just a statistic -- for somebody who doesn't have to live with it," says Scott Serio, a Baltimore homicide detective. "We don't forget about homicides. But it's like a friend of mine says, 'You never forget anything -- you just don't remember it.' "

Serio hasn't forgotten working the midnight shift last New Year's Eve. "You never know what to expect," he says. He's even half-thought the Baltimore-based television drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" should film an episode about a New Year's Eve in Charm City. People firing guns in the air. Bullets go up, bullets come down.

L "No one ever thinks about the ones that come down," he says.

Just five minutes into 1998, one such celebratory bullet hit 34-year-old Alvin Whitaker as he walked along Patterson Park Avenue. He survived. Less than a hour later, Serio responded to a call outside New Club 909 on North Calhoun Street. Two men had been fatally shot at close range. A nightclub patron had heard the gunfire, but thought people were just ringing in the New Year.

"On the steps of the 909 Club Mr. Fair was lying on his stomach, head facing west. Mr. Fair had multiple gun shot wounds to his face," the police report says. Fair's friend, 25-year-old Terrance Anderson, had also been shot. He died soon after.

Serio, scheduled to work the midnight shift again this New Year's Eve, won't say much more about the first murder of 1998. Police have made three arrests in the case, and with the trial coming up, he declines further comment. "We do feel confident we have the three people involved," he says.

From the police's standpoint, the double-homicide case involving Baltimore murder victims Aaron Fair (# 001) and Terrance Anderson (# 002) is closed.

Aaron Fair's life, however, is not.

The singer

The dead live on. Cassandra Fair still gets mail addressed to her husband. Telemarketers and the occasional bill collector call and ask for a Mr. Fair. He's deceased, she tells them. Apparently they've heard this line before. "They don't believe me," says Cassandra, 22.

Telephone information still has a home number for Aaron Fair. His younger brother, Davon, answers when it's called. Sure, he'll talk about his brother.

You should hear his music, Davon says. Tracey, it seems, was quite a rap singer. He won open mike nights at the Civic Center, and performed at the Inner Harbor and Hopkins Plaza. He once had a band called "Shades of Color."

Inside the family's West Baltimore rowhouse, Davon watches a replay of the Thomas Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. In the other corner, a decked-out Christmas tree maintains its perfect balance. Tracey's brother, one year younger, totes out the family photo album: Tracey looking deadly serious (or ready to bust out laughing) in his Army induction portrait; Tracey at the Lafayette Square Community Center, playing with kids; Tracey fresh from singing at the Civic Center.

Davon, one of eight children raised by Regina Fair, plugs in a tape of Tracey's music. The family played one of Tracey's songs at his funeral Jan. 5 at the Simmons Memorial Baptist Church. The recording of "It Seems" is muddy. So, Davon cranks up the sound over the fight on the TV.

"It seems your life was all too short to me, it seems,

"It seems your life was all too short and I miss you ...

"It's hard to go on and be what I can be,

"In my heart I'll always have all your memories."

Tracey's music, Davon says, was the reason they drove to the New Club 909 on New Year's Eve. It was not one of their regular hangouts, Davon says. But the club played new music, and Tracey had stopped by hoping to perform, or at least drop off a tape. It was literally on the steps of the club where Fair and Anderson, along with another friend who survived, Terry Barbour, were gunned down.

They'd been seen talking to other men -- men they knew. Words had been exchanged, as they say. But Davon, standing across the street at the time, says he didn't hear the argument. He just saw his brother hit the pavement. Davon says moments later he asked police to place a sheet over his brother's bleeding head.

"I think like this -- we didn't have to go," Davon says now. "But they wanted to hear him sing."

Davon's mother, Regina Fair, is home from work. She couldn't understand why her sons were at the 909 nightclub in the first place. "You didn't need to hang around in that bar," says Mrs. Fair. "Tracey had never been in trouble all his life ... there wasn't a mean bone in his body."

Nearly a year later, what's left of Tracey -- beyond the photo album -- is his music. His songs, such as "It Seems," seem to have foreshadowed his own death: Seems your life was all too short. His voice remains as close as a cassette tape player.

"I listen to it every day," Davon says.

"I got a tape in my pocketbook," says his mother.

As for their New Year's Eve plans, "I already decided I'm not going to be in town" with family and friends, Mrs. Fair says. "No way I'm going out," Davon says. Probably just go to a friend's house and reminisce. Whatever we do, we will toast my brother, Davon says. "We'll pour a river of brew for Tracey."

The same expression was used at Tracey's funeral. Before you )) drink a beer, Davon explains, you spill the first sips on the ground in honor of someone who has died. It's a common and frequent ritual these days, Davon says.

His brother always said "if something happens to me, pour a river of brew for me," Davon says. And so he does.

The children

Aaron Tracey Fair Jr. was born March 1, 1998 -- three months to the day after his father was murdered. On the phone with Cassandra Fair, the 9-month-old boy is overheard performing songs of his own.

"I decided right after Tracey died to name our new child Aaron Tracey," Cassandra says. Their oldest boy, 4-year-old Shomari, speaks of his father, speaks of his "daddy in the sky," his mother says.

But they try to look ahead. "I have to stay strong for my kids," she says. "Oh yeah, I cried and grieved, but in my own time and way."

She's good with numbers, so will start accounting school in January. In fact, a New Year's resolution last year had been for her to take care of all their money matters. Ever seen a man try to budget a checkbook? she says. It's not a pretty sight.

The police gave her Tracey's wedding ring, which she wears on a necklace. She also listens to his music. It comforts her, reminds her of a few things she already knows by heart.

"He was a great, beautiful man," Cassandra says. "I used to tell him that I felt honored to be his wife."

A few times, Tracey came home missing articles of clothing. Once, she looked across the street and saw a homeless person wearing a jacket Tracey had just given him. He just would give things away, she says.

"I can tell you he was an extremely friendly man," says Harry Koffenberger, director of external security for Johns Hopkins medical institutions.

Tracey had worked as a Protective Services Officer and received several letters of commendation for his service, says his former boss, who also got a phone call early New Year's Day.

"We went to the funeral," Koffenberger says, "and it was obvious to me Tracey had an impact on individuals outside his family circle."

Koffenberger also knew that Tracey aspired to be a police officer.

He had taken a written test, but had failed his first attempt, his wife says. He'd planned to try again in 1998.

He just wanted to be a cop, plain and simple, says his widow, who plans to spend New Year's Eve in church. But at age 23, with two kids and another on the way, the young father had decided he'd look for police work in Howard County -- not Baltimore, Cassandra says.

"Tracey thought Baltimore was too dangerous."

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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