Update (March 3, 2019): Baltimore Police on Sunday announced they had arrested Jacquelyn Smith’s husband and stepdaughter in her death. Read the latest here.
With tapered candles and little paper cups to catch the dripping wax, it might have been a holiday celebration. But instead, the people gathered in the cold Thursday night were there to pay respects to a woman stabbed over the weekend — and to speak out against the level of crime in Baltimore.
Police said Harford County resident Jacquelyn Smith, 54, was fatally stabbed about 12:30 a.m. Saturday after giving money to a woman in the rain at Valley and East Chase streets in Johnston Square.
In a municipality with the highest homicide rate of any big city in the United States, Smith’s death has been seen as particularly egregious.
“We have reached rock bottom,” Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, a former NAACP leader, told a handful of people gathered near the steps of the Sweet Prospect Baptist Church, about a block from where Smith was stabbed. “We cannot do any worse than we’re doing right now.”
In an impassioned speech, Chief Melvin Russell of the Baltimore Police Department demanded answers on the killing. “Cry out. My phone is open,” he said. To the perpetrator, he said: “Turn your cowardly self in.”
Others struck a softer tone. Tushina Yameny, pastor of Sweet Prospect Baptist, said her congregation organized the vigil, outside the old pink church in East Baltimore, to remind residents of the need for forgiveness. “We cannot allow the act of one person to hinder us from doing the work of the kingdom,” Yameny said. She praised Smith’s efforts to help someone in need. “This woman was trying to be a Good Samaritan.”
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Attendee Adonna Black said she worries that people will start to view homeless people as the problem, and look past the larger concerns of crime and poverty in the city. “This tragedy does not represent all of the homeless in Baltimore, said Black, a project manager for the Real Care Providers Network.
The fatal stabbing of a woman who had tried to help a panhandler begging for money to feed her baby is a setback for Johnston Square, an impoverished neighborhood that residents, nonprofits and small businesses have been trying to improve and redevelop.
Violence has touched countless families in the Baltimore area, and their pain is especially acute over the holidays, said Sonya Chapple, 59. Her daughter, India Chapple, was stabbed to death in 2014. The mother has had to learn to deal with what she calls unconscious triggers, a Christmas song she might have sung to India as a baby.
Others in attendance spoke of loved ones lost.
“I’m going to leave one candlelit vigil and go to the next,” said Toya Jones, 33. She wiped away tears as she held a poster of her godson, Des'mon Anderson, an 18-year-old who was also killed in East Baltimore on Saturday night, just over a mile from where Smith was attacked.
“He did the best he could,” Jones said of her godson. He leaves behind a daughter and a baby on the way.