As the murder count ticked up in Baltimore, Zy Richardson prepared for all the calls and emails.
The spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, Richardson fields questions from reporters and coordinates interviews. She readied the office’s public message as the city closed in on 300 murders.
Her cellphone buzzed with news of each killing. By Nov. 4, 281 dead; one week later, 289; another week, 295. She expected the 300th victim any day; she didn’t expect to know him so well.
The 300th homicide has become a grim yet familiar milestone in Baltimore. For more than a decade, such a death toll was unheard of. Then the city surpassed 300 killings in 2015, and every year thereafter.
Some city leaders dismiss any significance to the 300th mark, saying it’s a callous and arbitrary measure. No man is merely a number and the city is no safer with 299 murders than 300. Yet the count draws attention, thrusting Baltimore onto internet rankings of violent cities. The number weighs on the minds of City Hall leaders and on the streets. A criminologist who came to town in 2015 said Baltimore seems consumed by its homicide count.
All this meant Richardson knew the 300th murder would bring a flood of attention; she got ready. When the phone call came, everything went to pieces.
‘I felt this heavy burden to explain Shallah’
She met Bernard Richardson in 1999 while a student at Morgan State University. He was five years older than her and training to become an electrician. They had come to a group study for the Five-Percent Nation, a social movement centered on Islam that stresses family, history and Black pride.
“We had very strong feelings about the city and what we can do to help,” Zy Richardson said.
She grew up in Pittsburgh; he came from the Parkside neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. Bernard Richardson attended Patterson High School. In 1993, when the football team made the playoffs, he started at wide receiver.
As members of the Five-Percent Nation, they chose new names. “Zy” meant “beautiful Black woman.” He settled on “Shallah” for God. He was a serious and intentional man. When he spoke, everyone listened. They dated for seven years, married in 2007 and raised two children. The Richardsons taught their son and daughter to take pride in themselves and their Black community. They named them King and Queen.
Shallah was an amateur sketch artist who practiced tai chi. His bookshelves were full of Black history and economic empowerment, health and nutrition, graphic design and color palettes. He would read the 5th-century Chinese military treatise “The Art of War” and Marvel comics.
In 2002, he and a high school pal started a peewee football program. They never figured their little football program would become the biggest, most successful in Baltimore. Or that they would instill a sense of self-worth in so many city boys during trips to Florida to play in — and win! — the peewee national championships. To players, he was simply “Coach Shallah.”
As a 10-year-old quarterback, Jihad Muhammad faced the pressures of leading the winning Parkside Warriors on the field. One day in practice, it became too much. Crying, he walked off.
Shallah went after him. They sat under a big tree. The boy told his coach how it felt that his dad wasn’t in the house. For an hour, they talked about everything except football. Next practice, Jihad was back. He won the MVP trophy that year.
“He felt an extra responsibility to help young men through football develop positive life lessons.”— Zy Richardson
Shallah wasn’t some fiery coach. Rather, he would pull a boy aside to make a point. After practice, he would remind them to eat well, do their homework and their pushups.
Then he would drive to watch a rival team and film the game. He would spend hours studying the film to uncover the tendencies of 10-year-old running backs. Other coaches called him the brains behind the Warriors.
In 2009, the boys traveled to Florida and beat a team from Staten Island in New York City, to win their first national championship. Some of these boys had never left Baltimore. Florida surprised them: Warm weather in December? They returned to their city as national champions.
“All they ever see is Baltimore City, and everything that comes with being in Baltimore City, from the poverty to the abandoned buildings,” said Dennis Harding, who co-founded the program with Richardson. “They’re kind of in a box. They don’t want to step outside. … We had to do a lot of psychological and emotional prepping.”
The Warriors returned to the national championships for four consecutive years. They didn’t have money to fly to the annual game in Florida, so the coaches rented vans. The night before, the team slept over Shallah’s house so no boy could be late.
Zy Richardson laughs at the memory of the 10-year-olds bundled in sleeping bags everywhere, her house full of boys.
“It was very much like the Super Bowl for them,” she said.
She also understood this was about more than football for Shallah.
“He felt an extra responsibility to help young men through football develop positive life lessons,” she said.
The football program became so popular that within a decade the Parkside Warriors were fielding 18 teams — each with its own coaches — for ages 6 to 14. Peewee football consumed Shallah’s life. In 2014, he quit.
“He stopped to dedicate and put more time into his family,” said Harding, the co-founder.
Then Zy and Shallah divorced after eight years of marriage.
“We were better apart as co-parents,” she said.
Still, they both attended the graduations and recitals of the children. They kept close. In August, he remarried and rode off with his new bride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Three months later on a November morning, his new wife was frantically calling Zy. Shallah had been attacked.
He had walked outside his home in Northwest Baltimore when a man ran up and stabbed him in the chest, police wrote in charging documents. Wounded, he made it back inside to tell his wife who had attacked him, the officers wrote.
His wife told police that she had a son with the man and he had spoken badly about Shallah. Police arrested Karl Anderson and charged him with murder. He’s being held without bail awaiting trial. His attorney declined to comment.
Shallah, 44, died at the hospital, becoming the city’s 300th homicide.
Zy’s cellphone buzzed with a barrage of news stories. Now, she was seeing his death discussed across Facebook and Twitter and the Instagram page Murder Ink. She felt angry.
Shallah was a gentle man; he didn’t deserve a brutal death. She wanted to scream. “How can a man like this die in this way?”
“I felt this heavy burden to explain Shallah,” she said.
Coach Harding watched the news in anguish.
“It was all [about] the 300th murder,” he said. “That’s not the way we want to remember him.”
On the night before he died, Shallah called his son and they talked for an hour.
“He had plans to get back into coaching,” said King Richardson, a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “I was just happy for him. The hard stuff was over.”
Since his death, his daughter, Queen, has picked some of his books for herself. Her father would want her to learn about stocks and philosophy.
At least 28 people have been killed in Baltimore in the month since Shallah’s death. The homicide count ticks up day after day. Zy’s cellphone buzzes with news of each murder.
In her loss, she sees the number differently. The count doesn’t minimize the violence, but expands it.
Zy sees the depth of her children’s pain. More than 300 families share such anguish.
She’s stunned to realize the ocean of grief across the city.