"Pray to Jehovah."
Those may have been the last words Neil "Pills" Rather heard as he lay dying on a Walbrook Junction parking lot. They came from the mouth of a 10-year-old boy.
Pills had been shot three times. The boy was walking with two schoolmates in late May of 2007 when they heard the gunfire. They turned and saw one man running. Pills ran after him and tried to return fire with his own gun. He tripped over a tire and then just lay on the parking lot.
The boys and some other bystanders ran up to him. The boys asked Pills if he could hear them. He nodded. Then, offering the only words of solace he could, one of the boys told him repeatedly, "Pray to Jehovah." One of the bystanders called police. One of the boys handed his cell phone to a storeowner so he could call 911.
Witnesses told police the suspect ran into a nearby apartment building. Police arrested Christopher Ford, then only 17, and charged him with Rather's murder. (Murder charges against Ford were subsequently dropped and gun charges against him kicked back down to juvenile court. Ballistics tests showed Rather was shot with a .380 semiautomatic; Ford's gun, which he dropped while running, was a .38 revolver. Another alleged gunman, Andre Haskins, goes to trial for Rather's murder April 11.)
All three boys gave statements to homicide detectives at the Southwestern District in the early morning hours of May 30, 2007. What you read above comes from those statements and charging documents. Marty Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, told me about what the boy said to Neil Rather because she thought I'd be interested.
You're hearing the story nearly a year later because now seems like the most appropriate time to tell it. This is the one story we need to hear because it comes between two stories that should have Baltimoreans feeling badly about themselves, and rightly so.
Last week Zach Sowers died after being in a coma for nine months. A teenager named Trayvon Ramos savagely and viciously beat Sowers - to death, as it turned out - and robbed him of his watch and credit cards. Ramos received a life sentence with all but 40 years suspended. Three others who were accessories received 30-year sentences with all but eight years suspended. All four accepted plea bargains and escaped felony murder charges.
Anna Sowers, Zach Sowers' widow, complained bitterly that justice had not been done and wondered if a Baltimore jury would have convicted Ramos and the others.
Tomorrow, Judge David W. Young will tell five Robert Poole Middle School students what their punishment will be for the Dec. 4 beating of Sarah Kreager that left her with a black eye and a broken eye socket. Young found on March 18 that the five were "responsible" for attacking Kreager. (Nasty but piercingly accurate words like "guilty" are not used in juvenile court.)
One of the boys in the Kreager case, in his statement to police, was convinced that his schoolmates wouldn't give him up, wouldn't "put him out there like that," that they wouldn't snitch on him. Anna Sowers, in her campaign to stamp out this kind of thinking in Baltimore, challenged local black leaders to come forth and publicly condemn the "stop snitching" culture.
In late May of 2007, there was one incident in West Baltimore that showed there are indeed people in Baltimore who don't buy into the "stop snitching" credo. There are people who will call police when a crime occurs, who know inappropriate conduct when they see it, who will condemn it and who are willing to be witnesses.
And some of them are children.
I'm not revealing the names of the three boys who saw Rather get shot because they are witnesses to a homicide who might have to testify at Haskins' trial. So I'll just refer to these juveniles as Boy A, Boy B and Boy C.
The trio had been dismissed from school about 2:40 p.m. on May 29. They had just come from the store when they witnessed the incident. They stayed until police arrived. About 10 hours later, they were at the Southwestern District giving statements to police. The boys and their parents cooperated fully.
It was Boy A, only 10 at the time, who talked to homicide Detective Joon Kim.
"Do you remember anything else about the shooting that you want to let me know?" Kim asked Boy A after the youth gave all the major details.
"Yeah," Boy A answered, "I kept telling him to pray to Jehovah."
This is a story about the other Baltimore journalists don't often report about: a witness who tells a dying homicide victim to pray to God for deliverance. Witnesses who cooperate immediately with police, which allows a suspect to be nabbed quickly. Witnesses who don't scurry for cover when a crime occurs, but who report it.
I think I'll offer some thanks to Jehovah that kids like Boy A and his schoolmates live in this city.