Circle of Grief

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a bright blue afternoon, DeAngela Winston walks out of her Presstman Street rowhouse in West Baltimore and makes a quick left. She turns right onto Belmont Avenue, strolling past abandoned rowhouses and a half-dozen young men standing on the street corner. A block later, she slows and stares at a pair of brown boots dangling from a stop sign.

The boots had belonged to her youngest son, Richard Nicholson. The 18-year-old was wearing them when he was fatally shot on this spot last Nov. 20. Below the boots, a makeshift memorial of melted candles and soggy stuffed animals rests in the patchy grass.

Winston, 39, was at work when her daughter called that night to tell her Richard had been shot. She rushed to the hospital, Maryland Shock Trauma Center, and waited just outside the operating room door with friends and family members. When a doctor appeared carrying a box of tissues, Winston began to weep. She knew her son was dead.

Winston scans the scene for a moment, then removes a beer bottle from the memorial and tosses it aside. A few minutes later, two young men approach. Winston recognizes one as a friend of Richard's, and says hello. Then she notices what the other man is wearing - a T-shirt emblazoned with a large photograph, a memorial of sorts to another dead young man.

The man, 25-year-old Abdullah Barber-EL, died the same evening Richard did, just a block away, shot next to a corner liquor store. He had, in fact, been killed in the same raging gun battle that claimed Richard Nicholson's life. His mother, Jacqueline Barber-EL, had received the same jarring news, and arrived to find her youngest son dead on the street just a few blocks from her home.

After the killings, each mother would attend an emotional funeral, and each thought her grief could grow no worse. Both were wrong.

What neither knew that night was that each would soon lose another son, this time to arrest and jail: Winston's eldest son, 23-year-old Jeremiah Harper, would be accused of murdering Abdullah. Barber-EL's 27-year-old son Eli would be arrested in Richard's murder.

Jacqueline Barber-EL and DeAngela Winston have never met, but they are bound by much more than the few moments of violence that consumed the lives of four of their sons on a West Baltimore street, more than the sense of grief and despair that haunts them. They share a legacy of many women in Baltimore's drug-riddled neighborhoods, with children they love caught up in a life they seemingly can't avoid.

Both were teen-age mothers. Both raised their children, just blocks apart, in an area filled with drug dealing and crime. Both dreamed of their sons graduating from high school and having families and important jobs. Both gave lectures laced with tough love when their sons got into trouble. Both say they did everything they could.

But their sons still became part of Baltimore's harshest statistic, joining 251 others who were killed in homicides last year.

Barber-EL and Winston blame outside forces for the eruption of gunfire that took their young men: The government has failed to prevent drugs from flowing into their neighborhood, they say; police have not cracked down hard enough on crime.

"Our sons died during a war in my back yard," Barber-EL says.

For Jacqueline Barber-EL, a 49-year-old with a weathered face and pensive, dark-brown eyes, the sad coincidences of that violent November night are inescapable.

Smoking a cigarette in the dining room of her Northwest Baltimore home, where she moved after the killings, Barber-EL listens to a recording made by her eldest son, Allen Aur. The 34-year-old truck driver and aspiring rapper wrote the song after Abdullah died; now it plays on a portable stereo.

"What's with the yellow tape surrounding the bar?" Allen's morose voice booms from the stereo. "Who that lying on the ground in between two cars? ... Couldn't hold back the tears rolling down my eyes. ... They done murdered the most fearful respected king of the block."

When the music stops, she and Allen talk about Abdullah's death and the old neighborhood. The Barber-EL and Winston boys all knew each other and often hung out in the same recreation center. The night before the shooting, Allen had played pool with Richard.

Barber-EL nods, almost sadly.

"They were all friends," she says.

The phone rings, and Barber-EL answers. It's her 24-year-old daughter, Angel. The mother speaks softly into the receiver, hangs up the phone and then stares at the floor of her tidy living room, filled with family photographs, plants and a gurgling fish tank.

She is not quite sure how to feel about Angel's most recent boyfriend, Jeremiah Harper, the man accused of killing Abdullah. The couple had started dating about a month before the killing and continued while Jeremiah was behind bars. They recently broke up.

"You would hope she would do better," Barber-EL muses. "You'd like to pick somebody with their head on straight."

Barber-EL was raised in East Baltimore, the daughter of a cook who worked in Italian and Greek restaurants. She was the fourth of five children.

She became pregnant with Allen while attending Fairmount Hill High School. Her mother was a strict woman who pushed her children to excel in academics and would not accept the possibility that her daughters might not graduate from high school. With her mother helping to raise Allen, Barber-EL earned her high school diploma.

She eventually married and had four children, including Eli and Abdullah. But the relationship became strained, and the couple divorced. In the mid-1980s, Barber-EL moved across town into a public housing complex on Westmont Avenue. The family was doing fairly well, Barber-EL says.

While she worked full-time as director of a youth services program, Barber-EL managed to keep her children focused on school, sports and other activities.

Her two middle boys - Eli was 19 months older than Abdullah - were taking violin lessons and staying out of trouble. Abdullah even set a school record twice for selling the most 25-cent charity raffle tickets.

But Barber-EL still worried. She feared the treacherous walk her boys made each day from home to Belmont Elementary and Calverton Middle schools. They had to pass Poplar Grove Avenue, a notorious drug corridor.

Soon, her two sons were falling behind in class. In 1986, a Belmont math teacher wrote to her saying that Eli "has difficulty following classroom rules and following directions. He does not complete assignments and is a distraction to the other students." A year later, a fifth-grade teacher wrote: "Conduct interferes with learning process."

Barber-EL often wrote back immediately. "I would appreciate you notifying me of Eli's conduct when he decides to act out in class," she scribbled on back of one note, adding her phone number. "I can only help if I'm made aware of the situation." She sent similar responses when Abdullah received notes from his teachers.

As her boys grew older, Barber-EL says, she found it increasingly difficult to control them. The lure of young neighborhood drug dealers with expensive athletic shoes "waiving $100 bills in front of them" was becoming too strong.

She tried ordering Abdullah to stay on the complex grounds after school, but her son only made a game of it. One day, Barber-EL spotted Abdullah with one leg in the complex's parking lot, the other in the street.

"I tried so hard," she says. "He had a smile that could melt butter."

As youths, Abdullah and Eli were arrested for a variety of crimes, Barber-EL says. At 15, Abdullah was arrested for stealing a car. The juvenile court put him on home monitoring, but Barber-EL soon discovered he wasn't going to school. She says she urged the courts to put him in the Victor Cullen Academy, a juvenile justice institution for troubled kids. "I hoped it would straighten up his life," she says.

She succeeded; Abdullah didn't come home again until he was 18.

Eli was easier to oversee, Barber-EL says. He was a homebody who loved video games and could watch television uninterrupted for hours. Still, he began getting into trouble, too. At 16, court records show, he was arrested after police discovered a .32-caliber revolver in his backpack at Walbrook High School.

Both boys eventually dropped out of school. "They just got tired of going," she says.

After the boys turned 18, Barber-EL says, she would no longer allow them in her house. They were getting reputations for drug dealing and violence, and she did not want them around her two daughters, who were excelling in school and later would become youth counselors, following in her footsteps.

"I knew what was happening," Barber-EL says. "I did not want them bringing it home."

As adults, Eli and Abdullah generated lengthy arrest records and were convicted of crimes ranging from drug possession to robbery with a deadly weapon. In 2001, each was charged with attempted murder in separate shootings; the charges were later dropped. Eli was released from jail a month before the killings last November.

She says she pushed the boys to leave the drug business, but they refused. She remembers an argument with Abdullah in which he explained why he was dealing.

"They're going to buy it anyway," he told her. "If it ain't me, it's somebody else."

Even as she grappled with her sons' choices and banished them from her home, Barber-EL continued to admire some of her boys' attributes. Abdullah, for instance, often used his drug profits to buy clothes and food for poor neighborhood children, she says.

"Nobody can know my sons like I did," she says. "They were not all bad."

Leaving the area

DeAngela Winston walks up the front steps of her rowhouse, past a "For Sale" sign staked in her front yard. She no longer wants to live on Presstman Street. After almost 20 years in this neighborhood, her fear has finally consumed her. She recently installed bars on her back windows.

"I watch my back when I go outside," she says.

Winston, a payroll manager for a federal contractor, who has short cropped hair, a smooth face and brown eyes, moved here at age 19, when she was already the mother of three young children. Jeremiah was her first, then a daughter and then Richard.

The daughter of a truck driver and a stern mother, Winston's most vivid childhood memories are of sitting in the basement of her family's church during Bible study sessions.

She was a high school basketball player, whom the coach sent home one day after practice to see a doctor. He thought she might be pregnant; her belly was getting a little too round.

Winston was, indeed, pregnant, and soon weathering a blistering lecture at the dinner table from her mother on moral virtue. She would not be getting an abortion, her mother said. She was going to have a child.

Winston didn't mind. The pregnancy was an escape, an act of rebellion.

"There was no other way to get out of my life," Winston says. "It wasn't peer pressure. It was something my mother didn't want me to do."

While holding down several jobs, Winston ferried her children to constant extracurricular activities to keep them busy, particularly basketball practices and games. The sons and daughter were good athletes; their trophies fill an entire bookcase.

To keep Jeremiah out of trouble, she moved him from school to school - using the addresses of friends and relatives to enroll him when necessary. She also drove her kids to class every day, an added precaution.

But her efforts were not foolproof, and Jeremiah began getting into trouble. In 1998, he was found guilty of drug possession after being arrested with 16 vials of cocaine. In late 1999, he was arrested again when police found him hiding five vials of crack cocaine in his mouth. He was later found guilty of drug possession in the case. After graduating from Harbor City High School in 2000, he was arrested on assault charges. Those were dropped.

Winston says she attended many court hearings, but never gave up on Jeremiah. She sternly lectured him after court one afternoon, though. "Shape up your life," she told him. "It's yours to mess up."

She shipped him off to Delaware, where she rented him an apartment to get him away from the Baltimore streets, and he took a job as a forklift operator. But troubles there - he was again charged with assault - brought him back to Baltimore, where he had two young daughters of his own.

Winston's other son, Richard, was close to graduating from Walbrook High School when he was killed last November. A mirror image of Jeremiah, Richard often dressed and acted like his older brother. But he had largely avoided trouble. When he turned 18, his mother bought him a used Lexus - the same type of car Winston had purchased for Jeremiah.

They were both quiet boys, Winston says, but Richard liked relaxing at home and rarely ventured out at night. He loved watching movies, so his mother bought him two DVDs each week.

But Richard also strayed. Once, two years ago, Winston says, he was caught buying marijuana on school grounds. The juvenile justice system sentenced him to probation and community service and ordered him to write a letter about his actions. Winston keeps the letter next to Richard's funeral program in a scrapbook:

"Young people today shouldn't be around any type of drugs," Richard wrote. "I know it's hard for my mother, but me being in the neighborhood I'm in, it's hard for me not to be around negative things. I try to stay in the house but that gets boring. ... Right now, I'm trying to do my best. I'm going to keep on being myself and make my mom proud of me by staying out of jail and graduating and becoming the best child she had ever had."

Recalling that night

DeAngela Winston vividly recalls the night of the shooting. She also remembers the next day, when police, bearing a warrant, searched her home.

According to the warrant, Jeremiah had been "beefing" - arguing - with one of Barber-EL's sons over drugs. Witnesses told police that Eli was beating up Jeremiah when Richard arrived that November evening, court records show. That's when Richard was shot. A few minutes later, Abdullah was dead, too. Detectives believed "that the shooting death of Mr. Barber-EL was in direct retaliation for the shooting death of Mr. Nicholson."

Police asked Winston about Jeremiah's whereabouts. She said she didn't know. Jeremiah skipped his brother's funeral - Winston says he was afraid of being shot by Barber-EL's surviving son. In January, police arrested Jeremiah in Richmond, where Winston was born and has family.

Winston says she did not help Jeremiah leave town or play any role in his misdeeds, and police have not charged her with any wrongdoing. She wants someone to pay for killing Richard, and believes that Barber-EL's son pulled the trigger.

Despite her anger, though, she must also concentrate on supporting Jeremiah. His trial, like that of Eli Barber-EL, is months away. Since his arrest, Winston has eagerly awaited his letters and collect phone calls from jail. She keeps all of her son's notes bundled together in her purse. In one letter, he wrote "I love you" 18 times.

"I know he didn't do this," she says. "A mother knows."

Barber-EL says she hopes police arrested the right man in the death of her son. She wants someone to go to prison for his murder. But she is reserving judgment on who pulled the trigger.

"I guess we'll see how this comes out in court," she says.

She is experiencing a similar emotion with her own jailed son.

"I'm not ready to hear from him," she says softly. "I'm afraid of what he might say."

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