Jonathan “Johnny” Tobash, a 19-year-old Baltimore native and thriving sophomore engineering student at Morgan State University, was always a “go-getter” with big dreams — so much so that, around this time of year, he’d tell his parents he didn’t want presents.
The 2016 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute always pursued work on top of his studies — a Whiting-Turner internship, then a job with Amazon — and preferred to work for what he wanted, he’d tell them.
His mother, Mary Harry, had picked up some Nike sweatpants and Jordan sneakers for him anyway. She’d planned to pester him some more before Christmas, to maybe get a few more gifts for under the tree.
Instead, Harry is now in mourning. Her youngest son — always so responsible, never in trouble, such a positive example to his friends — was fatally shot this week in what police have described as a robbery gone wrong.
“It’s not fair,” Harry said in her city home Thursday, surrounded by her big family and her son’s extended circle of friends. “All this senseless killing on the streets. Something needs to be done. It’s just getting worse and worse every year and nothing’s being done. They have to do something.”
Tobash’s sister Savannah, 21, who serves in the U.S. Army and just returned to Baltimore Wednesday from her post in Texas, said the family is struggling to comprehend how her brother, who strangers used to think was her twin, had somehow landed on the city’s list of the slain — which ran to 336 as of Thursday, a near-record pace of killing.
“To sum Johnny up, he was simple but extraordinary. He was quiet, but was always the center of attention in the room,” his sister said. “He had this ugly laugh, but it was so contagious. He could say something that wasn’t even funny, but as soon as he laughed it was hilarious.”
“He was an amazing kid. I lost a best friend,” said Michael Tobash, his father, who choked up as he recalled how his son, who was in the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps and played rugby at Poly, had hit his stride at Morgan, where his parents allowed him to live on campus his first year despite the family living nearby.
“He’d say, ‘Dad, you know how I feel about being here?’ He loved being on campus. He said there were ‘so many beautiful minds on campus,’ ” his father said. “His whole purpose in life was to stay out of trouble and avoid it, and he walked right into it.”
Police say officers were called to the 3500 block of Pelham Ave. in Northeast Baltimore’s Belair-Edison for a shooting about 10:55 p.m. Monday and found Tobash with multiple gunshot wounds to his torso. He died shortly after arriving at a local hospital.
Local community members walked the halls of Excel Academy in West Baltimore on Tuesday to lend a little guidance and hope to the students — and hopefully prevent anyone else from falling victim to gun violence before graduation next month — after a string of students at the school were killed.
Tobash attended elementary school at Brehms Lane, directly across the street from where he was shot. His childhood home, where he still stayed from time to time with his older brother Anton, is just down the street.
Detectives spoke with witnesses, and learned that two suspects, at least one with a gun, had approached two other customers waiting for food outside the T&A Mart corner store at Brehms Lane and Pelham Avenue and announced a robbery.
As the suspects were rifling through the pockets of those victims, Tobash walked up, likely unaware of what was going on, said Det. Nicole Monroe, a police spokeswoman.
“He was just walking up, and the suspects attempted to rob him. It’s not certain if he even understood what was going on, and they shot him,” Monroe said. “It’s heartbreaking. Here we have a kid, a Morgan student, doing all the right things, and his life is gone. It’s senseless. It’s tragic.”
In a statement, the university wrote that its campus community was in mourning.
“The unfortunate death of this promising student is a true loss,” the university said in a statement. “We extend our condolences to Jonathan's family and friends along with our hope that those responsible for his death are brought swiftly to justice.”
Police say no arrests have been made.
Afya Public Charter School, where Tobash attended middle school before going to Poly, posted a message on Facebook mourning his death as well.
“Afya teachers and students have beautiful memories of Jonathan. He was a great student, always on the Honor Roll. He smiled early and often. He loved reading, especially the series The Warriors,” the school wrote. “His innocence and passion for life will be greatly missed.”
Tobash’s brother Anton, 29, said his son Antjuan, 9, and daughter Saniyah, 7, adored their uncle, as did everyone else who met him.
“Everyone loved him. He had personality on a million, for real,” his brother said. “He was very responsible, too. If you gave him a dollar, he might save it for two months. You’d be like, ‘You still got that same dollar?’ ”
Little Antjuan recalled his uncle helping him prepare for a recent spelling bee.
“He told me the words, and I had to spell them. He put red dots next to the words that I got wrong and had to practice more,” the boy said. “He was a good uncle.”
“With grades, he always wanted to check up on me. He was setting an example,” said Terchelle Lee, 18, a Morgan State freshman who dated Tobash and remained extremely close to him and his family. “He was one of a kind.”
Eugene “Geno” Boyd, 19, was one of Tobash’s best friends. The pair, who were together so much that friends called them Salt and Pepper, were both named leaders in the JROTC program at Poly and graduated together.
Boyd credited those accomplishments to Tobash, who he said always made sure to reach back and give Boyd a boost if he was struggling.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
“He always gave the next person motivation,” Boyd said. “He would say, ‘Let’s go play basketball — but first we’re gonna finish this project.’ He was that kind of guy.”
Retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Randal Letschin, who was Tobash’s JROTC instructor for all four years at Poly, said Tobash had “a good heart and a kind soul.”
“He was always listening to what you told him. He was always respectful. If you had to put a face to the word ‘goodness,’ it would be Johnny Tobash,” Letschin said. “The world is a lesser place today. That’s about as simply as I could put it.”
Tobash was to turn 20 on Jan. 3, three days before the birthday of his grandmother Dorothy Jones, who lived with the family until her own death at 78 in April.
Tobash’s mother said her mother and her youngest son always had a special bond. Jones called her grandson John-John, and he went out of his way to pay her extra attention. The two were so close, they even used to have joint birthday parties, a thought that brought smiles to the many faces gathered at the family home Thursday.