Monae Gorham's life was forever changed by one stray bullet fired Nov. 28, 1999.
She was celebrating her best friend's Sweet 16 birthday at anAmerican Legion Hall in West Baltimore. Some boys started fighting, and a close friend of hers pulled out a gun and shot into a crowd.
Gorham tried to pull one of the boys out of the line of fire, but a bullet tore through her neck, leaving her without the use of her arms and legs.
After eight years of enduring numerous health complications, living in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic and using a breathing tube, Gorham died early Thursday at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
"I was grateful to have my daughter these past eight years," said Teresa Lucas, Gorham's mother.
In her daughter's condition, "a lot of people don't live as long as she did," Lucas said. "They don't have family like I did to help me take care of my daughter. All she wanted was her life back. She felt trapped in her body."
Lucas said her daughter died of multiple organ failure, and possibly of complications from a serious accidental burn she suffered in August at the hands of a nurse who cared for her at home. Autopsy results are pending.
If the state medical examiner's office determines she died of injuries that resulted from the shooting and rule her death a homicide, prosecutors and police said they might take another look at the case to see if additional charges can be filed against the shooter.
Eric Fleming pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder and is serving a 50-year prison sentence at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. He is eligible to apply for parole in 2025.
The shooting days after Thanksgiving eight years ago was barely noticed at the time. There was little attention by the news media, no public outcry and no visits from politicians.
All Lucas and her daughter had were their friends and family. Gorham spent several months in the hospital before she was able to come home. A week after her 17th birthday, doctors had to give her a pacemaker, because her heart couldn't handle the strain, Lucas said.
A month later, an ambulance took her to Baltimore Circuit Court. There, strapped to a gurney, she reluctantly spoke at Fleming's sentencing hearing, asking the judge to show the suspect mercy because he was a friend, because she knew he never meant to harm her.
The prosecutor at the time was Jim Green, who now works as special projects director for the Baltimore Police Department.
"I can't underscore the senseless tragedy that ripped apart this community of people because Eric Fleming used a firearm recklessly," Green said yesterday after being told of her death. "I remember this case like it was yesterday. This gun violence wreaks havoc. What is an 18-year-old doing with a firearm? It's outrageous."
Over the years, Lucas said, Fleming would call her house from prison and ask to speak with Gorham, just to check in on her.
"He loved her," Lucas said. "I don't think he lives with it very well. But she forgave him. She forgave him a long time ago."
At the time of the shooting, Lucas lived in Northwest Baltimore and her daughter attended Forest Park High School. After she was paralyzed, Gorham was home-schooled. Despite living her life in a wheelchair and breathing with a ventilator, Gorham attended her 2002 senior prom and wore a glittering silver dress.
She also attended her high school graduation and was wheeled across the stage to receive her diploma. Yesterday, her mother clutched photos from both milestones in her daughter's life. In both photos, Gorham appears content.
The family had moved this past summer to a rowhouse in the 2000 block of N. Bentalou St., after living for years in Northwest Baltimore's Howard Park neighborhood. Before Gorham was paralyzed and needed nearly round-the-clock care, Lucas had a career in retail. She said she was expecting a promotion to manager at a department store in Columbia when her daughter was hurt.
After the shooting, she cut back her hours until she lost her job. Lucas, who was divorced, said she was raising another daughter three years younger than Gorham. She also cared for Gorham's son, Deniero, who was 4 months old when his mother was shot.
Lucas said she received state aid to help pay for her daughter's medical expenses and equipment. An electric wheelchair, complete with a battery-powered ventilator, cost $60,000. They had to outfit their homes with access ramps, so that she could be wheeled in and out of the house.
They turned the dining room into a bedroom because it was close to the kitchen, wide enough for her bed and medical equipment, and was near the front door.
Gorham's step-grandfather, Ron Willis, has been a detective with the Baltimore Police Department for 27 years, and also serves as a police chaplain. In a brief interview yesterday, Willis's voice hitched with emotion as he talked about the suffering he's seen in the city.
"When this tragedy struck her, our family just rallied around her," Willis said. "As a detective, this kind of tragedy wasn't new to me. However, it's different when it hits home."
Lucas said she frequently had problems with nurses and caregivers, who sometimes didn't treat Gorham well. But, she said, the last three nurses who came to her home "really loved her." However, she said one nurse accidentally burned Gorham in August.
Gorham had been having problems with dry skin and bedsores on her body, and a doctor ordered a skin-care regimen that involved blow-drying her skin, Lucas said. A nurse held the blow dryer on her thigh too long, causing a serious burn that needed treatment, even though Gorham - because of her paralysis - never felt pain.
"It was hard as heck watching her go through this," Lucas said.
She was admitted to the burn center at Bayview on Aug. 26, where her health deteriorated. She had had problems with her liver, suffered from ulcers and gall stones, and dealt with other health woes. Close friend John Bell, 28, said he remembers Gorham as having an unconquerable spirit, but in the last few months of her life, she seemed to be tired more often, and in chronic pain.
"She gave us eight years of staying in there strong," Bell said outside the family's house yesterday. "She never stopped fighting, but she was worn down."