A former Baraka Boy pleads guilty to drug conspiracy

A 13-year-old Romesh Vance sat on a Baltimore carousel eight years ago, spinning slowly as he predicted his future.

"I think all our lives [are] going to be bad now," he said.


The statement was captured on camera by the documentary filmmakers following his journey — and its premature end — at the Baraka boarding school in Kenya, which gave a handful of disadvantaged city boys the chance to study in Africa. The school was unexpectedly closed in 2003.

On Wednesday, a 21-year-old Vance pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to participating in a drug conspiracy involving nearly two dozen people who allegedly sold cocaine and crack out of the Gilmor Homes public housing complex.

He faces a minimum of five years in prison at his sentencing, set for Feb. 22.

His lawyer declined to discuss the plea after the hearing, or Vance's history.

Throughout his life, Vance has been given several chances to start again through educational opportunities, dropped criminal charges and sporadic work as an extra on the Baltimore-based HBO series "The Wire."

At 12, he arrived at Baraka "already suspicious and downbeat," according to a website run by the Public Broadcasting Service, which aired "The Boys of Baraka" documentary in 2006.

The film chronicled the lives of Vance and three others at the facility, which was founded by the Abell Foundation in 1996 and used discipline, fresh air and intense instruction to educate the middle-schoolers — far away from the distractions of city life.

It also recorded the end of the project, which was shut down because of political unrest in Kenya. When the boys were sent back home, some of their parents worried that the return amounted to a death sentence.

The children were told at Baraka, which means "blessing" in the Kiswahili language, that Baltimore largely offered African-American males two things: a jail cell or a coffin.

Vance pushed back during his time at the school, threatening to walk to the airport at one point, but he ultimately appeared to end his first year hopeful. The school's closure was crushing.

Vance's father has been imprisoned for most of the young man's life, a family friend previously told The Baltimore Sun, and he didn't get along with his mother. He was given a scholarship to a Mississippi boarding school after Baraka closed down, but he dropped out and came back to the city.

By 2006, he was cutting school, staying at friends' homes and spending his time on the streets, according to the filmmakers.

"Romesh, like the majority of African-American teenagers in Baltimore, faces the Herculean task of rejecting the offerings of the street and making a productive life for himself," they wrote on the PBS site.

City court records show that at 18, Vance was arrested for attempted murder and assault, but the charges were dropped. He was arrested that same year in a separate incident, convicted of drug possession and sentenced to one month plus 10 days incarceration.


At 19, he was arrested on charges of robbery, assault and theft, but the charges were again dropped by prosecutors. And at 20, he was arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping, along with several others.

He was being held in jail awaiting trial on those charges when he was indicted by a federal grand jury in June of last year. The murder and kidnapping charges were dropped a month later.

Vance and 21 others are accused of crimes related to the drug scheme at Gilmor. Most of the defendants have since pleaded guilty — or have arranged to — leaving three people who will go to trial later this month.

According to Vance's plea agreement, he sold at least two kilograms of powder cocaine and 112 grams of crack from January 2009 through June 2010.

He faces a maximum possible sentence of 80 years in prison and an $8 million fine, though prosecutors have agreed to recommend a much lesser term of between 70 and 87 months — roughly six to seven years.

If the judge accepts the lighter recommendation during sentencing next year, he would be in his mid-20s when released.