Violence hits too close to home

The Baltimore Sun

It was her one free weekend amid a hectic schedule juggling work and graduate school, and Anna Sowers spent it shopping for purses and jewelry with friends in downtown Chicago. But she couldn't reach her husband back in Baltimore, who had been out with friends in Canton the night before.

His cell phone went straight to voice mail. He didn't respond to text messages. She called friends and relatives at home. "Have you talked to Zach today? Because I haven't heard from him all day," Anna told her brother, who lives in Canton and had accompanied him on his night out. "Can you go to the house and see if he's there?"

It was Saturday, June 2, and Zachary Sowers had disappeared.

Anna had no way of knowing her new husband had been beaten into a coma just steps away from their rowhouse near Patterson Park. Police say the young men accused of the beating live nearby and stole his Timex watch and used his credit card to rent two action movies.

In a city seemingly accustomed to violence and death, the attack on Sowers stood out for its apparent randomness and viciousness. At 27, he is one of Baltimore's survivors, if only by a thread. A Web site launched by a friend keeps people informed of his condition and shows him in better days, and has gotten up to 3,000 hits a day.

The crime has galvanized a community. Tomorrow, more than 25 bars in Canton and Federal Hill have agreed to donate up to 20 percent of their proceeds to Sowers' recovery fund, events that are expected to attract candidates running for mayor in a year in which crime is a central issue.

"It was a case that needed attention," said Lt. Johnny Delgado, an 18-year veteran who oversaw the squad of detectives in the Southeastern District that handled the case and made four arrests - two adults and two juveniles who lived nearby. "To beat a guy to the point of death, for a watch and ten dollars? That to me was an indication that it was not going to end there. These guys were going to get bolder."

The immediate aftermath of the brutal attack was confusing and chaotic. In Chicago, Anna had no idea why her husband wasn't returning her calls. She grew increasingly frantic. The man she had met in high school in Frederick, grew close with over the years and finally married in Mexico in October, was predictable to a fault. He stayed connected to his new wife by cell phone. He was cautious about where he walked and where he went. He was responsible.

Anna and her friends called police and city hospitals, and she caught the last flight home to Baltimore. By the time she got home, she had learned her husband might be at Johns Hopkins Hospital, unconscious and unnamed. A "John Doe."

She arrived at Hopkins about midnight, and a nurse escorted her through a ward. She peered into one room after another. "That one's not Zach, that one's not Zach, that's not Zach," Anna remembers saying to herself. The nurse brought her back to a room she had already passed.

"I walked in and said, 'This isn't him,'" Anna said. "And they kind of didn't say anything. And so I looked closer, and I could tell that it was Zach because of his chin and a scar on his shoulder from a past surgery. But other than that, they had basically kicked him until you couldn't recognize him.

"His entire head was massively swollen and his eyeballs were kind of like two golfballs sitting on his head," Anna said.

"I started just hysterically crying. They had to bring out a chair for me to sit down."

The Sowerses, in many ways, are the face of a new Baltimore, willing to gamble on revitalized neighborhoods once struggling with blight, now brimming with promise - the type of residents the city needs to attract if it is to continue an urban renaissance that could be threatened by a resurgence of crime.

Young, newly married and with bright careers ahead of them - he worked in finance for the Johns Hopkins University, she in marketing for Johns Hopkins Hospital - they had rented in Canton and, in late 2003, bought a house just east of Patterson Park. The couple enjoyed hanging out with their many friends at the trendy bars and restaurants in Canton, where houses easily fetch $400,000 or more.

They were cautious, but Anna said they never knew anyone who had been a victim of violence. Sowers would often warn his friends and brother-in-law not to walk home alone. That's why it's so perplexing that Sowers decided to stroll home by himself from the bars in O'Donnell Square on that night.

"He doesn't go out and put himself in a position to get into trouble," said his younger sister Ashley Sowers, 24. "He'd always tell everybody else: 'Don't walk home alone.'"

Sowers was attacked on a Friday night, June 1, when two men walked up to him and asked for a cigarette, some of the suspects told detectives. Then, police said, they beat him. An unidentified witness told police he saw one stomp on Sowers' head. The pair ran to a car, where two others waited, and the car sped away, police said.

Court charging documents say the men stole Sowers' cell phone, watch and wallet, including several credit cards, and left him lying between a parked car and a curb.

News of the attack rippled through the couple's large network of friends and relatives in Baltimore and beyond. Ashley Sowers, who lives in San Diego, had been waiting to catch the last flight to Baltimore after she heard her brother was missing when Anna called her from the hospital with the news.

Sowers' mother, who lives in Frederick, and his father and stepmother, who live in Ohio, got in their cars and started driving to Baltimore that night. More than 20 friends jammed the waiting room at Hopkins.

The next day, Anna asked one of Zachary's best friends, Justin Bright, to help keep people informed of her husband's condition.

Bright, 27, a Web designer, launched, where he began chronicling Zachary's health. For Anna and Zachary's family, the site has helped ease the burden of talking to scores of people each day who wonder how he is doing.

"It was just a really good way to let everybody know what was going on," said Bright, who went to high school with Sowers in Frederick and then became close with him when they attended Towson University. Since his first update on June 3, at 9:30 p.m., Bright said, 2,000 to 3,000 people have visited the site each day, some buying T-shirts to help raise money.

It is a simple Web site, with many pictures of Zachary: at his seaside wedding in Mexico, laughing with friends in Canton, holding his dog, a pug named Mia. Bright has used the site to promote the "Neighbors' Night Out" fundraiser.

The site documents Zachary's rough patches on his slow path of healing. In early July, doctors moved him to the Kernan Hospital, a part of the University of Maryland Medical Center that specializes in treatment of coma patients. But Zachary's condition took a turn for the worse, and he had to return to Hopkins. On July 25, he was stable enough to go back to Kernan.

But it's the near-daily updates on Zachary's condition that keep people checking the site. Bright's post from Thursday reads: "Zach is doing well at Kernan. He gets 3 hours of therapy a day: 1 for Occupational Therapy, 1 for Physical Therapy and 1 for Speech Therapy."

When Zachary was still at Hopkins, Anna - who works in the hospital complex - was able to visit him during her workday, and then again at night before she went home. Since he's been moved to Kernan, she cannot visit him during the day, but she spends several hours with him at night.

She and others have had to slowly adjust their expectations for Zachary's recovery. In the early days, Sowers was barely recognizable because of the swelling and bruising on his face and head. But weeks later, his face has healed, and, Anna said recently, "His face is now Zach's face."

After being hooked up to tubes and machines in the early weeks to help stabilize him, Zachary has fought off infections and now breathes on his own, but he's still in a coma. He opens his eyes, seems to react a little to sounds, and moves a little, but it's not clear how much of his movements are merely reflexive, Anna said.

She is fiercely protective of him. During an interview with a Sun reporter and photographer at Hopkins, she did not allow the reporter to see him. For about three minutes, she let the photographer into his room, under the condition that pictures of his face not be taken.

"She's incredible," said Alison Gers, 27, a college roommate of Anna's at the University of Michigan who now lives in Chicago. Gers watched Anna slowly crumble from worry that day but pull herself together enough to get on a flight back to Baltimore to find her husband.

"I've always known she was a strong person," Gers said. "But I never knew how strong she was until this happened."

Anna has nothing but praise for the city police detectives who worked on her husband's case.

Within a week of the attack, police had arrested four suspects: Arthur Jeter, 18; Wilburt Martin, 19; Eric L. Price, 17; and Trayvon Ramos, 16. All have been charged with attempted first-degree murder, robbery and related offenses. All four live within a few blocks of the Sowerses.

The case came together over several days. Delgado's detectives obtained video surveillance from a store that showed the car that the suspects were driving, tracked down leads from the stolen credit card and disseminated a description of the car.

Six days after the attack, a county police officer spotted the vehicle, contacted city detectives and staked out the car in a Dundalk neighborhood. When one of the suspects saw the police cruiser, he parked the car and ran into a nearby house.

Police obtained a search warrant. Detectives said they found Sowers' silver Timex watch and the two movies the suspects rented with his credit card - Deja Vu and Smokin' Aces.

Now, Anna and Zachary's family and friends are keeping a second vigil - at the courthouse.

In mid-July, Anna, her father and a group of more than a dozen friends attended the arraignment of the four suspects in a Baltimore Circuit Court room. From the last row, Anna watched the four enter not guilty pleas before a judge. Friends and family have vowed to be at future court dates.

About the four, Anna had little to say, no words of anger or vengeance."I really wish," said Anna, "I could just never even see them again."

A photo caption that accompanied an article in yesterday's Sun incorrectly stated the length of time that Zachary Sowers, the victim of a beating near Patterson Park, has been in a coma. He has been in that state for more than two months.The Sun regrets the error.
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