Liberian war survivor fell to city's violence

The Baltimore Sun

Jeff Payne said he'd been shot before, and showed his brothers the scar on his leg that he said was left by a bullet fired by a rebel soldier in Liberia's civil war.

But early Friday, Payne, 22, was shot again, this time at an off-campus party near Morgan State University. He was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital.

"That is the most painful part," said his mother, Wilma Kromah. "My kid survived the war and came to America for a better life, and then he ended up being taken by a gun."

Kromah said that Thursday night her son and a couple of his friends attended a Valentine's Day party at an off-campus apartment building that is associated with Morgan State University, though he was not a student there. They got into an argument with another group, she said. Somebody got a gun and shot Payne.

"Was it meant for him?" Kromah asked. "Was it a direct shot for him? I do not know. These are the questions that I want to know."

Police are still investigating and have not charged anyone in the case.

Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for Morgan State University, declined to comment on the case. But he said that there are security cameras at the Morgan View Apartments where the killing took place. He also said the door and elevators can only be opened with a keycard, so all guests must be escorted by residents.

He said that the building is exclusively used for students and noted that weapons are prohibited there. "Morgan owns the land there," he said. "That would still be Morgan property. Guns are not permitted on Morgan property."

Kromah said that she left Liberia in 1986, three years before fighting broke out in the West African nation. She left two sons behind, including Jeff, who was 1 1/2 years old at the time.

"I wanted a better life," she said.

Young Jeff Payne initially stayed with his father, who Kromah said worked for the Ministry of Planning.

In 1989, when the fighting began, she worried. Her husband, she said, was targeted by rebels because he worked for the government. He had to flee to the Ivory Coast in the middle of the night.

But Jeff, she said, was not with him. Her little boy was now living with his grandmother in the suburbs of Monrovia, the capital.

"He was young at the time," Kromah said. "He talked about the dead bodies he had to walk though. He had to go hunting in the forest for food."

She said that Payne and his grandmother were always on the run. "They were going from one village to another," she said. "When the rebels got there, they'd have to leave again."

Kromah tried to find Jeff and another son, but she couldn't. "They were running from to place to place. His father was trying so hard to find him. I thought he was not alive. I thought he had been taken by rebels."

At some point, during a raid, Jeff was apparently shot. His half brothers, Michael Gillies, 19, and Wilmot Daye, 25, both remembered him saying that he had been shot and showing them the scar.

More than 200,000 Liberians died in the civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1996, according to the U.S. State Department. Millions more became refuges.

But in 1995, Jeff was found. "They found him up in a forest," she said. When the war ended, he and his half-brother Wilmot Daye came to America. Payne was 11 at the time.

The two boys were dazed at first. "We both got here with no educational background," Daye said. "We didn't go to school there. I think the hardest thing for him was leaving home and coming to a new place."

Payne attended public schools in Howard County and was living and working in Laurel. He got in some trouble with police, pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in 2005. Daye said that his younger brother liked flashy clothes and name brands.

"He liked living the celebrity-like life," Daye said. "He felt like, 'I come from a poor background, I'm not going to live like I am poor.'"

Kromah said she didn't have a high opinion of her son's recent friends and wanted him to live with her in Virginia Beach, Va. "I wanted him to get away from friends that he was with. Every mother wants a good life for her kids. I think he needed to get away, just be away."

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