Murder on Call

An informal memorial with stuffed animals and cards in front of Carl Lackl's home.
An informal memorial with stuffed animals and cards in front of Carl Lackl's home. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)
Anyone looking for Marcus Antwan Pearson knew to find him on the edge of Normal Avenue, a small, hopeless stretch of one-way street pointing toward Harford Road in North Baltimore.

Here, he dealt crack cocaine alongside other young men in T-shirts and baggy jeans, red bandannas hanging like flags from their back pockets. In a day, he could make $1,700, which he spent on cheap hotels and feel-good highs from Ecstasy, marijuana and women.

Pearson had grown up tall - 6-foot-2 - and narrow in East Baltimore, where he was born. He never held a real job and was kicked out of high school in his senior year. At age 26, he didn't have a driver's license or his own place to live.

But he was a Westside Pasadena Denver Lane Blood with rank, a sort of gang middle-manager known as an OYG or Original Young Gangsta. Blood brothers looked up to him. Teenage Baby Gangstas and Tiny Baby Gangstas he could control.

Pearson fell in with the other dealers hustling and hassling that fateful Monday - July 2, 2007 - until the guy in the black T-Bird with the black rims rolled up. Pearson was asked about following through on the job they had discussed a few days earlier, the one that paid well.

$2,500 to murder a trial witness?

Hell yeah, as long as the money was for real.

Pearson took a phone number the driver offered and dialed Patrick Albert Byers Jr. in the city jail. The job was for Byers - the money was meant to silence a witness in his impending trial - and Pearson wanted him to confirm the payoff. A brief conversation set the murder in motion: witness Carl Lackl was as good as dead.

On Monday, a federal jury in Baltimore will begin the process of deciding whether to sentence Byers to death for ordering the hit that Pearson and his crew carried out, a conspiracy that included eight people. Byers was convicted of the contract killing nine days ago.

It happened like this, according to testimony, interviews, attorney statements, archival reports and court records:

Contraband phone
Pearson's call didn't go far that summer day. It traveled a mile and a half into the Baltimore City Detention Center, where 22-year-old Patrick Byers had been locked up on murder charges for more than a year. His trial was eight days away.

Like so many of the 40,000 inmates moved through that jail each year, Byers had access to a contraband cell phone that had been smuggled in, a Nextel Direct Connect that he used to call his grandma, girlfriends and anyone else he could think of to pass the time.

The detention center is one of the nation's largest pretrial jails, filled mostly by young black men like Byers. There isn't much to him. He's about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a medium build and bad skin. But he has presence: It's clear in his stride, in his face-changing grin, in the way he looks people straight in the eye. Relatives are ready to lie for him, and friends will stake their lives on his.

He was raised by his elderly grandma and has three children already. His mother is hooked on heroin, an addict like her six siblings, five of whom are now dead. His father spent most of Byers' childhood in federal prison, and when he got out, partnered with his 15-year-old son and taught the boy how to sell dope.

The intersection of Jefferson St. and N. Montford Ave., a few blocks north of Patterson Park, was Byers' corner, where he ran his drug operation Saturday through Tuesday most weeks.

That's also where a local drug dealer was gunned down on March 4, 2006, shot five times in the head and several more times in the body. The man crumpled to the ground in front of the Dalite Food Market. Rumor was that he'd had a hand in the recent slayings of Byers' cousins.

Two men later identified Byers as the shooter. But one recanted, signing a document for Byers' defense team that he'd lied. The second witness, Lackl, was sticking to his story and planned to testify.

Without Lackl, the case was weak.

As his trial neared, Byers found out where the witness lived through a defense subpoena, which he hid in a red cracker box in the jail. He gave the Rosedale address to a friend, who drove by the house and spotted a phone number for "Carl" on a For Sale sign in the passenger window of a 1987 Cadillac.

The number was passed on to Pearson. At 3:46 p.m. on July 2, 2007, he used his personal cell phone to call it.

On a drug run
A woman answered the phone at Lackl's home and talked to a young man for four minutes about the car for sale. Carl was handling it, so she said to call back after he got home from work, around 6 p.m.

Lackl, 38, had left near dawn that day, as usual, for his job with Dundalk's Olympic Fence Company. He'd been there almost 20 years, working six or seven days a week, despite struggling with a heroin addiction.

Soon he was scheduled to testify in State of Maryland v. Patrick Albert Byers Jr. - all because he'd gone on a drug run more than a year earlier, looking to buy crack for himself and heroin for a friend who was with him.

They'd stopped in an East Baltimore alley, and Lackl heard shots close by. A man ran in his direction with a gun, tossing it on a garage roof and looking into Lackl's face as he sped past, a street width between them. Up the road, at the corner of Jefferson and North Montford, a man lay bleeding.

Lackl approached the dying man, loosened his hood strings and took off. Later, his conscience forced him to call police, and he identified Byers from a photo lineup as the guy "that threw the gun on the roof of the garage."

His family had been concerned when he stepped forward to volunteer information in the slaying, worried that there would be some kind of payback.

But as time passed and nothing happened, they settled into their daily routines and other matters rose to the forefront - like the old, tan Cadillac his girlfriend wanted to unload. They'd put it up for sale, asking about $2,000, and were waiting for a buyer.

Lackl's mind was also focused on the coming July Fourth holiday and plans to take the girls to see the fireworks. He and his longtime girlfriend had three children between them, her two girls and their shared 18-month-old daughter, who was named after Lackl's grandmother. She has her dad's bright blue eyes and his blond hair.

He got home from work that July evening and spent some time with the family. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and pleasantly warm, but not too hot. A rarity.

There'd been a few calls about the car that day, but nothing definite. Around 8 p.m., another call came in. Some young men wanted to take a look, and Lackl said sure. A half-hour passed, and they called again. They couldn't find the house, they said.

Could he come out to meet them?

Lackl grabbed his iced tea and sat on the steps outside his door, his girlfriend's 10-year-old daughter playing nearby with the baby.

A Baby Gangsta
A few miles west of Lackl's Philadephia Road rental, Pearson was headed toward the county in a Honda Accord driven by his girlfriend. A green Camaro followed close behind, with 15-year-old Johnathan Ryan Cornish - known as "Brazy" in the Bloods - in the passenger seat, a .44-caliber Smith & Wesson Anaconda revolver within his reach.

Cornish was a 10th-grader at Walbrook High School. He lived with his sister and parents on North Monroe Street in West Baltimore, and Pearson described him like this: "He not no smart killer, he a young, dumbass killer."

But at that moment in the Camaro, he was just a kid who had never handled a gun, except for the BB kind, much less fired one.

Cornish started selling crack on Fayette Street in 2006 and took up with the Bloods a few months later, initiated in a beating by five people for five minutes. He got a couple of bruises on his forehead from the whole thing, and was proud of his performance. But he couldn't really say why he joined, or why it was important to impress gang members, though. It was just what people around him did, so he did it, too.

When he got a call asking him to go on a Blood mission, he didn't hesitate, even after he found out the mission was murder. He wanted to prove he wasn't scared, and he wanted to move up from his position as a Baby Gangsta. He tied a red bandanna around his head and set off with a friend who asked to tag along.

Pearson and his girlfriend picked up the boys and drove them to Normal Avenue to retrieve a gun hidden in some rowhouse steps. Then the boys got into a car with a driver and followed Pearson and his girlfriend, who knew the Baltimore County area.

They're all over the road back there, acting like fools, Pearson thought, glancing behind him as they headed toward Rosedale. He called the Camaro and told them to cut out all that swerving. They might get pulled over and caught carrying the Anaconda.

His girlfriend drove on, rowhouses and concrete giving way to detached homes and patches of grass.

They approached a white, two-story house on Philadelphia Road. A skinny man was outside, wearing what looked like a plaid black and red shirt. He raised his hand in a sort of wave, as if to say, "It's me."

The two cars drove past, then the Camaro doubled back.

Lackl saw the green car slowing and walked toward it, hopeful that these kids would come through and buy the car.

Cornish silently clutched the gun.

Lackl leaned toward the boy's window.

The teen shot twice, then threw his arm outside the car to shoot Lackl one last time on the ground. The Camaro took off.

Lackl lay on his left side in the street, in front of his house, a river of blood forming. His sister, who lived in the apartment upstairs, rushed to him. She held her brother while he died.

At 9:30 p.m., county homicide detectives arrived. Their investigation homed in on Lackl's caller I.D. and eventually focused on an afternoon call about the car.

It would only take a few days to find the owner of the phone used to make that call: Pearson, who had mistakenly used his personal cell.

Victim's car on TV
But on the morning after Lackl's murder, Pearson was still free and two grand richer. He had slipped Cornish and the other boys $100 each the night before and partied, drinking and smoking pot.

His girlfriend awoke early on July 3, in a $400 room at a downtown Marriott, to find Pearson watching television intently. She wasn't quite sure what had happened the day before and thought maybe the boys had robbed the Rosedale man or taken his car.

She hadn't asked.

It was still dark in the hotel room, the only light coming from the TV, which was tuned to the news - and a shot of the Rosedale man's car on the screen. Pearson's girlfriend sat up.

"What you do?"

Figures in murder plot

Marcus Pearson gradually unveiled the scheme to murder witness Carl Lackl and the roles that conspirators played. Eight people have been convicted in the crime:

Patrick "Pat" Albert Byers Jr., 24. He ordered Lackl's death to keep the Rosedale man from testifying against him. Found guilty this month and could be sentenced to death.

Frank Keith Goodman, 23. He acted as Byers' agent, pulling Pearson in. He was found guilty of conspiring to murder a witness and will be sentenced in July. Faces life in prison.

Marcus "Pound" Antwan Pearson, 28. He organized the contract killing and pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Expected to receive a 35-year sentence in exchange for cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Steven "Trigga" Thompson, 28. He recommended Johnathan Cornish as the shooter. He pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme, though the details are sealed. Awaiting sentencing.

Johnathan "Brazy" Ryan Cornish, 17. He murdered Lackl. Pleaded guilty and is expected to receive a 40-year sentence in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.

Michael "Killa" Jerome Randle, 20. He tagged along with Cornish to see the murder. Pleaded guilty, though the details are sealed; awaiting sentencing.

Tammy Sherie Graham, 25. Pearson's girlfriend, pleaded guilty to lying to police after the slaying and is now free.

Ronald Wendell Williams, 23. Driver of the Camaro, pleaded guilty in the scheme, though the details are sealed. Awaiting sentencing.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun