Violence haunts Cherry Hill block

The Baltimore Sun

Throughout her 23 years in Cherry Hill, Taneal Munson has become familiar with the sound of gunshots. So have her sons, ages 6 and 8. But Monday night, just as the boys had finished their evening bath, never had the family heard them so close, so loud.

"My sister yelled from downstairs, 'Get the kids and get down on the floor!'" Munson said. "It was like a big pop. I knew it was a gunshot. Fireworks don't sound like that."

Yesterday, family members broke the news to the boys - the gunshot had struck and killed Edward Smith, 14, known affectionately in the neighborhood by his nickname, "Milkman." Munson's 6-year-old, Julius, choked back tears, already conditioned to project a hardened exterior.

Of the six homicides in Baltimore since the start of the year, two have been on Munson's street - the 800 block of Bethune Road, home to identical rows of squat brick buildings making up Cherry Hill Homes. Yesterday, yellow police tape separated a desolate courtyard from a well-worn playground, a few buildings over from Munson's, as a gust of snow flurries fell all around.

Two months ago, police and community residents expressed optimism that Cherry Hill, a neighborhood troubled by drug turf wars and rival youth gangs, had turned a corner. Homicides were down 50 percent from the previous year, from eight to four, and nonfatal shootings were down from 28 to seven by November.

But this year's shootings have revived fears among residents who say they worry the neighborhood's on-again, off-again violence might never cease.

"I just want out of here," said Serena Rowe, 29, a single mother of four who has lived in the 800 block of Bethune Road for a year. "I can't take it. It's too dangerous. I don't let the girls go out and play; I'm constantly watching my back."

The first of the Bethune Road homicides occurred just moments into the year. Linwood Colvin, 28, of South Baltimore was killed after refusing to obey the orders of a gunman robbing New Year's Eve partygoers at a Cherry Hill apartment.

The circumstances surrounding Edward's killing are less clear. About 6:30 p.m. Monday, police arrived to find him shot in the upper body. Witnesses told authorities he had been shot in a parking lot beside a basketball goal, but someone carried the bleeding boy to a nearby home, said Officer Nicole Monroe, a city police spokeswoman. Shortly thereafter, the teenager was pronounced dead at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

The killing stunned Edward's 120 middle school classmates at ConneXions Community Leadership Academy in Northwest Baltimore, where the youth was a bright, popular eighth-grader, said Rodney Powell, co-director of the school.

Students learned of his death at a morning assembly, where tearful classmates shared their memories of Edward, a natural leader among his peers as well as a gifted basketball player who loved martial arts and boxing. Throughout the day, students made sympathy cards and decorated his locker with photographs and phrases of admiration.

"He definitely had a big personality," said Powell, who taught Edward sixth-grade history at the tight-knit school. "He was very personable, funny, likable and athletic. All the kids thought he was cool. He was well-liked by the staff as well."

Child welfare court orders reviewed by The Sun show that a boy with Edward's name and date of birth was in and out of juvenile court custody hearings for much of his life.

The court orders state that child protective services removed Edward from his mother's care when he was 10. About a year later, the orders show, Edward was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. He was then placed with a family friend who was a licensed foster parent.

A child welfare court order dated Jan. 25, 2005, when Edward was 11, says that he had perfect attendance in the fifth grade, despite a diagnosis as "emotionally disturbed." The order also says he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. His mother, the orders say, was sporadically involved in Edward's life and needed drug treatment, and his father was in a Hagerstown prison.

But by April 4, 2005, at age 12, Edward appears to have been living with his mother again at an Ocala Avenue apartment. Child protective services again took custody of him when his mother was accused of assaulting a woman.

Based on evidence collected so far, police do not think the Bethune Road killings are linked. But they have few leads in either case, and neighborhood residents have been reluctant to offer details.

"People aren't being very forthcoming," said Monroe. "We want to remind people they can remain anonymous. Any information would be great."

Munson said she's not surprised neighbors are tight-lipped, since many have grown distrustful of authorities or are scared of retribution if they speak out. The lifelong Cherry Hill resident has grown so frustrated with the neighborhood gangs that she wants to move out.

Last month, Munson said, her 6-year-old declared that he wanted to be a Blood. She tested her son's knowledge and asked him to spell the word and give its meaning. He was silent.

"All he knows is there are kids around here wearing red shirts and red scarfs, and he wants to be like them," she said. "I tried to explain to him the violence out here. I said, 'Mommy can't let anything happen to you.' I knew then, it was time to move."

But those fighting to save Cherry Hill say while the recent violence is tragic and discouraging, they believe that the neighborhood will improve.

"Any neighborhood that gets involved with preventing crime becomes a place where crime will occur from other neighborhoods," said Cathy McClain, executive director of the Cherry Hill Trust, a nonprofit that works in the community. "I don't think there is any magic formula, but we need to stay the course. We need to be diligent about continuing to work with the police and to protect the children, because they are our most precious resource."

Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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