Descent from victim to suspect

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He was the little boy in everyone's prayers, the 8-year-old who lost his right arm to a 13,000-volt shock in his Annapolis neighborhood.

Terrence Tolbert endured weeks of hospitalization and a painful recovery from injuries he suffered after crawling into an electrical transformer likely pried open by drug dealers hiding their stash. He had to learn again to dress himself and tie his shoes, to ride his bicycle and write.

His struggle after the accident in 1991 inspired Annapolis residents, who raised money for medical bills and brought gifts. Thousands more in Baltimore and Washington learned the story of his traumatic accident from news reports.

But last week, Tolbert spent his 20th birthday in jail - accused in the killing of businessman Straughan Lee Griffin a block and a half from the State House.

Dressed in prison blues at an Anne Arundel County jail, Tolbert speaks quietly of the accident and later years, when his troubles continued. He had hoped to move out of the Robinwood public housing development - where he was injured as a child and began racking up a criminal record as a teen-ager - "to get a new life and get rid of my old one."

But now, he and a 17-year-old neighbor await trial for last fall's killing, a crime that shook Annapolis and saddened those who remembered Tolbert as a little boy. His arrest marked the end of the descent from courageous child to troubled teen-ager with a record of car theft, drugs and violence.

Shock, severe burns

Behind a cluster of Robinwood townhouses, the large green metal box sat ominously at the edge of a yard that spring evening, its doors swinging open.

About dinnertime on April 23, 1991, Tolbert recalls, he was tossing a small foam football with friends when it bounced into the box - an electrical transformer supplying power to the 149 townhouses on Annapolis' southwestern edge.

Tolbert crawled in after the ball. His arm brushed the wires, and electricity surged through his tiny body, pulling him deeper into the electrical cage, trapping him and threatening to shock anyone who helped him.

Soon, nearly 200 people had gathered around the frightened boy. Children cried as their parents screamed for help.

When Annapolis Police Officer Peter Medley arrived, he couldn't tell what was happening until he saw two small feet sticking out of the box.

"There's a boy in there!" people shouted at him, Medley recalls. "Help him! Help him!"

At first, Medley thought the boy was dead. Then Tolbert started moaning and stirring in his smoldering jacket. Using a wooden rake handle, a neighbor pushed aside the wires as Medley pulled the boy out.

Paramedics began treating Tolbert as a rescue helicopter landed in the field of nearby Annapolis Middle School. He regained consciousness once in the helicopter headed to Children's Hospital in Washington, and then passed out again.

He was severely burned over much of his body - especially his right arm - and spent six weeks in the hospital. His arm and part of his right foot were amputated, and he endured a grueling regimen of skin grafts over both legs and his foot.

He spent another two weeks in physical therapy at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia, being fitted for a prosthesis, regaining his balance and relearning daily activities, such as tying his shoes and dressing himself.

Then, he returned to Robinwood.

Unwanted attention

Little Terry Tolbert did not like the attention that came next: the looks, the questions.

"When I came home, I didn't go outside the whole summer - I didn't come out until school started," he recalls. He was "nervous ... about how people would look at me."

But when he returned to his townhouse at 1386 Tyler Ave., he was the center of attention. Area residents, led by the county's Black Political Forum, raised about $1,500 toward his medical bills, which court records show totaled more than $150,000. Invoking his name, they fought for safety precautions to help keep electrical transformers throughout the city locked.

A steady stream of visitors filed into his house with gifts and good wishes. Friends came to play Nintendo - one of his favorite activities.

When he started third grade at Annapolis Elementary a few months later, Tolbert shied away from any special attention, recalls his teacher, Lita Brown.

"He didn't want your sympathy," Brown says of the bright student who was especially good in math. "He made quite an impression on me with his independence."

Tolbert adapted quickly to his handicap. Originally right-handed, he soon learned to write with his left hand. He continued to take physical education class, dribbling a basketball and playing kickball on the playground. He learned to ride his bicycle again.

"This child, he did wonders," says Brown, 53. "Whatever I did or whatever I taught, he picked up very quickly."

But he also suffered the torment of older kids, who, he says, made jokes about the way he looked and called him names.

He was uncomfortable with his prosthetic right arm - which hurt his shoulder - and would wear it to class one day, then not bring it the next. Soon he quit wearing it for good.

Brown, who also taught Tolbert's mother, watched and worried as the boy adopted the withdrawn attitude that would follow him into his teens. He would shut down sometimes, while saying he was OK.

He continued to face the occasional blush of publicity - a photo feature in the Sun Magazine, news accounts of his mother's $25 million lawsuit against the Annapolis Housing Authority and Baltimore Gas and Electric. (The BGE suit was thrown out; the Housing Authority settled for $200,000, most of which went into a trust fund for Tolbert.)

Then, to most beyond Robinwood, Tolbert faded into anonymity.

Killing in Annapolis

At dusk on Sept. 19 last year, Straughan Lee Griffin was unloading groceries in front of 1 Cumberland Court. A park-like cul-de-sac with a half-dozen homes just off Maryland Avenue, the court is little known and poorly lighted.

Griffin, a 51-year-old Virginia native known by his middle name, had moved into the gray stucco house five years earlier. A founder and partner in Performance AV, a specialty video projection company in Columbia, he entertained often, friends say, telling stories about working with rock stars and treating guests to bottles of fine wine.

Around 7:30 that night, two men confronted Griffin and tried to rob him at gunpoint, charging documents state. When Griffin resisted, they shot him in the head with a revolver, fished keys from his pants pocket and took his 2-year-old Jeep Cherokee. They turned the wrong way up the dead-end street and ran over Griffin on the way back out, leaving him dying in a pool of blood on the tan bricks of Cumberland Court.

The next day, the Jeep was found abandoned in a Glen Burnie apartment complex - just blocks from the home of Tolbert's girlfriend. Investigators searching for the killers initially described only as young black men, one wearing a green jersey, the other a white T-shirt.

Griffin's killing was the first in the historic district in more than 20 years. It was Annapolis' third homicide in 2002 - but it violated the comfort zone of the upscale, tourist-friendly downtown.

More than a month later, an intensive police search would bring investigators to Tolbert's neighborhood.

Dead-end neighborhood

Robinwood is an isolated, impoverished community a world away from the tourists and legislators, the waterfront and wealth for which Annapolis is known.

"It's an enclave with one way in and one way out," says Carl O. Snowden, an Anne Arundel County official and a former city council member whose district included Robinwood. His teen-age son lives there.

Snowden is talking about Tyler Avenue - a dead-end road that is the neighborhood's only street - but he could be talking about the grim realities of the troubled neighborhood.

Seven months after Tolbert's accident, a schizophrenic neighbor was brutally beaten there and later died from his injuries. In 1995, a 16-year-old was fatally shot after an argument on a sunny Saturday, with children all around. In December, a masked assailant shot and wounded one of Tolbert's friends, an 18-year-old Robinwood resident.

"They walk outside and they see violence - it is not just limited to the television set for them," says Officer Christopher Kintop, who patrols Robinwood.

And crime is no stranger to Tolbert's family.

When Tolbert was a toddler, his father, Terance O. Tolbert, spent nearly four months in the same county jail where his son now sits, court records show. A former Marine from the Chicago area, he received a three-year suspended sentence for breaking and entering. He could not be reached for comment.

A year after the boy's accident, his mother, Juanita Johns, was arrested with a sawed-off shotgun after a neighbor said she had threatened to kill another woman, police said at the time. Charges later were dropped. Johns declined to comment for this article.

After his accident, Tolbert - who many hoped would make the most of his second chance at life - was soon getting into trouble himself.

Middle school tardiness and fights led to detention and poor grades, he says. Expelled from Annapolis High School as a freshman for having a pocket knife on his key chain, he finished the year at an alternative school in Crownsville.

According to police reports obtained by The Sun, Tolbert had his first run-in with police at 14, after stealing a bicycle from a neighbor. Court records show he drew $255 from his trust fund to pay for the bike; the victim agreed not to press charges.

Over the next several years, Tolbert would be arrested more than 10 times, police and court records show - often the only person arrested when a group of people fled a stolen vehicle, because he was easily identifiable. He was put on probation repeatedly, according to court documents and an official familiar with his record - even as the charges grew more serious.

Auto theft. Burglary. Firing a handgun into the air. Drug distribution and cocaine possession. (Charges were dismissed).

"After his accident, he had the attention of everybody," says neighbor Bobbie Jean Wilkins. Soon, though, "it got to the point where he was just like the other guys on the street."

Tolbert's longtime girlfriend says he suffered from bad influences within the neighborhood.

"When you grow up there, you have to prove you are bad or people are going to walk all over you - especially because he had one arm," says Monique Nichols, 18. She describes Tolbert as funny and "real sweet," but says he is sometimes misunderstood because "he's not really open to people."

Tolbert's first arrest as an adult for car theft, in February 2001, seemed to sober him for a time - even though the charges were put on hold. He started planning a move to the Chicago area to live with his father, with whom he had had little contact over the years.

Robinwood "was all right," he says. "But there is a lot of trouble. Stuff would happen, and people would pick me out, so I was getting in a lot of trouble."

For the next year, he managed to stay out of trouble with police. Forced to repeat 12th grade, he says he won awards as "most improved student" and was an A-student in his science class.

In May last year, he graduated from Annapolis High and made plans to attend a technical school where he could learn to fix computers.

He had the money to make that happen. In January last year, he turned 19 and court records show he received the balance of his trust fund, about $150,000. He soon began spending it.

He says he bought clothes, shoes, video games. He bought two used cars - a 1989 Mercury Grand Marquee, then a 1994 Chrysler LHS for his graduation - though he only had a learner's permit.

He bought clothes for his younger half-brother Taron, clothes for his closest friend, jewelry and gifts for Nichols. He helped his mother, a toll booth operator, buy a 1998 Toyota Camry and helped with the rent. He loaned thousands to others in Robinwood, Nichols says.

"I would just buy anything. I didn't care about the money," Tolbert says, adding that he doesn't know how much is left.

Tolbert never made it to technical school. A month after high school graduation, he began a five-month slide that ended with the murder charge.

In June, he was arrested for gambling - he fled from an officer who saw him shooting dice in an apartment building's laundry room, court records show. He stumbled and fell and was arrested with more than $1,800 in his pockets. He was ordered to pay a $55 fine and serve a year of unsupervised probation.

In August - in a combative encounter with police - he was pulled over for erratic driving, court records show. Found with a vial of suspected PCP, a drug linked to violent, irrational behavior, he had to be restrained when he balked at taking a blood test. Charged with possession with intent to distribute, he was released on $45,000 bail.

He would be arrested one last time before investigators searching for Griffin's killers tracked Tolbert down. On Oct. 5, after a fight with a neighbor, he punched an officer in the chest and had to be subdued with pepper spray, police say. The officer wrestled him to the ground, handcuffing his left arm to the beltloop of his jeans.

Then, a police report says, Tobert tried to wriggle out of his pants, shouting, "Take this ... off of me so I can fight."

Rumors of involvement

Talk soon began circulating in Robinwood that Tolbert was involved in the downtown killing. When police came to search Tolbert's house, his mother let them in.

They left with a pair of boots, some jerseys and other items, say officials close to the investigation. When they asked to interview Tolbert as a possible witness, Johns brought him in.

It was then that Tolbert - who says he had been taking the anti-depression drug Zoloft since late September, after two months of sleepless nights - confessed his involvement, according to charging documents. But he pointed to his neighbor, Leeander Jerome Blake, as the shooter.

Blake, an outgoing student at Annapolis High known as "Sweater," had been arrested twice before, in July 2001 and January last year, on charges of distributing crack cocaine, police records show. He was put on probation, according to an official familiar with his record.

Since his Oct. 26 arrest, county prosecutors say, Blake has confessed his involvement in the killing. But officials close to the investigation say he pointed to Tolbert as the one who fired the revolver at Griffin's head.

Hoping for 2nd chance

At the Jennifer Road Detention Center in Annapolis, Tolbert wears a black crucifix on a string of beads around his neck. Scraggly facial hair grows around the scars where the electrical current exited his nostrils in the childhood accident.

The 6-foot-2, 150-pound Tolbert doesn't talk about his criminal record or Griffin's killing - his attorney won't allow it. Though polite, he makes only perfunctory comments about himself, the boy he was and the man he is today.

In jail, he says, he has learned he is bipolar - a disorder that causes large mood swings - but he tells a reporter, "I don't really know what that means."

He also is preparing to be a father; two days after Griffin's killing, Nichols discovered she was pregnant with Tolbert's child. Their daughter is due one month after his trial, which is scheduled to begin April 21.

As Tolbert awaits trial, Griffin's mother grieves at her home in Portsmouth, Va.

Virginia Griffin says the family is "not looking for the death penalty" for the two accused in her son's death, and prosecutors say they are unlikely to pursue it.

"We have a great deal of feelings for their families - their mothers are grieving, too," she says. Still, she adds, "we want them to pay for what they did."

In the county jail, Tolbert says "everything's fine," though he hopes he will be free when his child is born.

In letters to Nichols, he writes of his fears that the baby will call someone else "Daddy." And, she says, he has become more reflective behind bars.

In the past, she says, "People would tell him he's headed the wrong way, and he never understood it. He says he knows what they meant now. ... He writes that he wishes he had this chance over."

Sun staff writers Andrea F. Siegel and Julie Bykowicz and news researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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