For Pitcairn's family, a journey from happiness to grief

Gwen Pitcairn drove slowly through the cemetery in Tequesta, the small Florida village where she raised her three children. She stopped in front of her son Stephen's grave.

More than a year after his death, it still was marked by a makeshift memorial, a collection of emblems stacked atop one another: A model airplane, a ceramic koi fish, a kanji a Japanese character — that means "eternally loved."

She had been unable to complete his headstone.

"I started it and then, oh, I don't know, it just got really hard," she said. "How do I describe Stephen in a few words?"

He was supposed to get married and build a home full of precocious boys, just like him. He was supposed to become a doctor and cure cancer.

He was supposed to die of old age.

But he came to Baltimore, and he became a victim.

The Johns Hopkins researcher was stabbed to death last year by a career criminal as his mother listened on a cellphone 1,000 miles away. He was two days shy of his 24th birthday.

His murder outraged the city, spurring demands for change and shaping the political campaign that ousted the city's top prosecutor.

It's a legacy Gwen Pitcairn never wanted.

"He was so much more in life than in death," she said during the first interview she's given since her son's killer was convicted in Baltimore this August. "I would like people to know what was lost, because he was precious."

'The sweetest baby'

Gwen Pitcairn lives in a house full of memories.

There is the childhood construction set in the closet. The books about Japan, on the shelves of a living room bookcase. A folio of songs he wrote at age 5 on the table. The piano he played as his two younger sisters danced.

The house is up for sale.

Stephen "wanted to keep it for generations," Gwen said. But the reminders make it "hard to stay."

Gwen had to fight to have kids. She suffered three miscarriages before Stephen was born.

Gwendalyn Emery met Ian Pitcairn when they were in their teens.

She was a petite beauty, a classical ballerina who became a flight attendant after she injured her spine in a car crash. Ian was "so handsome" and "probably one of the smartest people I've ever [known]," Gwen recalled. They began dating a few years later.

Ian Pitcairn would graduate summa cum laude from Boston University and eventually patent a new method of water ski construction as a mechanical engineer.

They married in their mid-20s. Gwen gave birth to Stephen Bradley Pitcairn on July 27, 1986, two months before her 30th birthday.

He was "the sweetest baby," said his mother, who is now 54. "Very, very active. Stephen was walking by the time he was 9 months old, and talking. Very, very quick out of the box."

He was diagnosed with ADHD — his mind moved too fast for others to keep up. He was constantly taking things apart, including a telescope Gwen bought Ian, and he grew obsessive over topics that interested him: bats, iguanas, his sisters.

Elementary school teachers at the private Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, Fla., dubbed him Professor Reptile and sent him from class to class to teach schoolmates about the animals.

Gwen flips through a family photo album and smiles. There is Stephen's first toy boat, a welcome home, baby gift from his dad; his first Halloween; his first haircut.

Literally glowing

The Pitcairns bought the big house in Tequesta when Stephen was a baby and renovated it over the next 15 years, one room at a time, creating large, open spaces for the family to grow into.

Ian now lives 10 miles away, in a small apartment in Juno Beach. He and Gwen separated about six years ago.

Gwen walks into Stephen's bedroom and clears a space on his bed to sit.

It wasn't until August that she could bring herself to begin opening the boxes from his Baltimore apartment. She has emptied one and spread its contents on his comforter.

There are pictures of him there, diving for lobsters as a boy and smirking at the camera as a young man. One shows him at the prom with his high school girlfriend.

When the young woman married her college sweetheart last month, she carried a rosary that Stephen had given her during their junior year.

He found the beads in the Dominican Republic, Gwen said, on a religious mission trip that changed his life. He came back from the journey surrounded by light — literally glowing, she says — and told her he had met God on a beach.

He opened up in new ways after that, she says. He was suddenly social and developed a real interest in other people.

Before then, Gwen says, Stephen's family was his world.

He and his sister Emily, 19 months his junior, were inseparable, she says. They filled in the holes in each other's personalities.

"He was like my other half," Emily said from Tufts University, where she's studying for her Ph.D. She was always looking out for her big brother, who could be as disorganized as he was bright.

Stephen and his sister Elise, six years younger, were more like partners in crime.

"We loved to just annoy everyone, especially my mother and sister," recalled Elise, who began college at Ohio Wesleyan University a few weeks ago.

They would short-sheet Emily's bed, or reset her alarm clock. And they tucked their tiny mom under their arms or rested their chins on her head. Elise had grown up tall like Stephen, who was a 6-foot-3. He had long limbs and massive, fidgety hands that plucked at everything, she said.

He was like an "octopus," said Gwen. "He would have his arms and feelers out."

Finding a purpose

At Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, Stephen thrived. He organized parties, played Ultimate Frisbee, joined a student-run dance company and volunteered as a mentor to Spanish-speaking middle-schoolers and adults working toward their high school diplomas.

He also matured and found purpose, family and friends say.

In high school, Stephen had developed an interest in surgery and the ways bones fit together. And he loved Japan. Gwen decorated their home with souvenirs from her travels there as a flight attendant; Stephen began studying the culture and, eventually, the language.

During college, he spent a year abroad in Tokyo, studying at one university and helping with stem cell research at another.

"I think he found himself [there]," Emily said. "He had in some aspects the maturity of a person who lived a full life, yet with the excitement and lack of forethought of someone in their young 20s. It was such a beautiful balance."

Stephen graduated from Kalamazoo in 2009 and came to Baltimore to work in the Institute for Cell Engineering within the School of Medicine.

He also taught prep classes for the Medical College Admission Test twice a week. He dreamed of getting into medical school but was concerned that his grades weren't good enough.

"He had an acute interest in learning, but not an acute interest in school," said his father, Ian, who is 54. Four thriving green plants sit on the floor of Ian's apartment. He brought them home from Stephen's funeral last year. A 2010 calendar his children made him for Father's Day last year hangs on a wall, still open to his son's graduation photo.

The two spent many afternoons on the phone, discussing Stephen's future.

"I'd tell him, 'You have a story. You went out and taught yourself how to do stuff, you were over in Japan hanging out with doctors, going to doctors' seminars,'" Ian says. "He had something to offer."

He loved his work at the Hopkins lab, Emily said, but he didn't much care for Baltimore. And he was interested in a young woman who lived in New York, so he spent half his weekends there — including his last.

It was a few days before his 24th birthday last July. He wanted to celebrate with just his sisters — a rare treat, they said.

Gwen reluctantly allowed Elise, who was then going into her senior year of high school, to fly up with a cousin. Gwen was a little jealous: She wanted to go too.

Elise looks back on that time wistfully.

"It seemed like everyone was just kind of in a good place," she said.

"With him dying, that kind of derailed everything."

'I love you, Stu'

It was a perfect weekend in New York.

They grabbed grapes from a fruit stand and Thai food at a hole in the wall. Emily coaxed the staff and customers into singing a round of Happy Birthday for her mortified brother.

They went to a comedy club Saturday night and "laughed [their] heads off," Emily said. Then Stephen walked the town with the woman on whom he had the crush. He loved to walk — he boasted that he had covered every square inch of Tokyo.

His sisters accompanied him to the Bolt bus stop on Sunday, July 25, and sent him back to Baltimore with a hug and a wave.

Emily said goodbye with the nickname she gave him.

"I love you, Stu," she said.

Stephen had promised to call his mother when he got to Baltimore. The bus dropped him off near Penn Station about 11 p.m.

Gwen had spent the day painting her bedroom a warm yellow shade and was hanging up the brushes when her cell phone rang. She picked it up and settled into a chair for a long conversation.

Stephen apologized for calling so late, and she said, "It's OK, we'll do what we do, I'll just talk to you until you get home."

He was walking up St. Paul Street, toward his Charles Village home. He joked that it made him feel safer when she was on the phone, Gwen recalls, her voice growing small.

"You kind of beat yourself up going, I should have insisted he take a cab or I should have told him, 'No, I can't protect you. Don't have a false sense of security because I'm on the phone with you; what good can I do?'" she said. "You've got all that hindsight going, oh my God, how could we have prevented this?"

They talked about the weekend in New York. He said he had some good news he wanted to share when he got home to Florida. He planned to fly down later that week.

"Mom," he told her, "I'm feeling so good about my life."

"Those were the last words I heard Stephen say to me," Gwen says.

A cloud, and disbelief

Suddenly, it sounded as if Stephen had walked into a cloud.

"I just heard like a lot of commotion, then I hear Stephen take in his breath. I'm like, 'Holy geez, Stephen! Stephen!' And then I hear him say, 'Here, here's my wallet,' and an instant response was 'Shut up.'

"The hate in that man's voice, and it was a man's voice, made my blood turn cold. I knew Stephen was in big trouble, and he was in the presence of some really bad people."

Then she heard a thud, and a sound — "almost like, 'unh,'" — from her son. Gwen started screaming.

"I was shaking and I wanted to throw up. … my whole nervous system just kicked in," she says. "I knew it was bad."

She called Ian, who told her to call 911. A dispatcher in Baltimore said someone already had reported the incident, but he had no more information.

Gwen called Emily and then Elise, who was still in New York, to find out if they knew his bus number. She was hunting for any details that might save her son.

"I'm just hoping that he's OK, I'm not thinking he's dead yet, I'm thinking he got hurt," she says. "Then, as the evening went by and they wouldn't tell me anything, I got more scared."

Gwen, Emily and Elise talked on a video telephone program while they waited for news.

Baltimore homicide Detective Gregory Boris called about 2:45 a.m.

"When he said 'Mrs. Pitcairn, I hate to give you this kind of news over the phone,' the room started spinning. It's just like 'Oh my God, please don't tell me.'"

The girls, watching over the video connection, started to wail.

Ian came over. He didn't believe Gwen. He called Boris himself.

Gwen lay down on the couch about 3:45 a.m. She was, she says, in shock.

"In my mind, Stephen was standing up and he had a pair of beige shorts on and his Lacoste shirt, and he said to me, 'Mom, I'm OK with it.' "

The clothes in which she imagined him turned out to be what he was actually wearing when he died. She takes some comfort from the idea that his soul somehow visited her.

The family would learn that Stephen had died in the arms of Reggie Higgins, a man who saw the scuffle and ran to help. His last word was "Mom."

The next few days remain a blur. Gwen couldn't eat or shake her nausea. She spent Stephen's 24th birthday choosing his casket.

"Honestly, if I could have laid down and just died right then, I would have happily done so," she said.

Stephen's attackers were a crack-using couple, John Wagner, now 38, and Lavelva Merritt, now 25, with lengthy criminal records. Wagner stabbed him, and Merritt punched him as he dropped. Then they stole his phone and wallet and ran.

"The hardest thing for me as his mother now, is that I trusted God, and I thought he was looking out for Stephen," Gwen says. "I thought God had great work for him to do here. I thought that he was going to be one of those pioneers who really did make a difference."

Attention, unwanted

While the family was trying to come to terms with his death, they also had to cope with the publicity.

Gregg Bernstein, then a candidate for Baltimore state's attorney, highlighted Stephen's murder in his campaign. He called it a senseless crime that could have been avoided if incumbent Patricia Jessamy had prosecuted violent repeat offenders such as Wagner more vigorously.

"That theme was crucial to the reason why I ran for state's attorney," Bernstein said.

Adding Pitcairn to his platform helped him win. But it infuriated Gwen.

"I felt it was opportunist," she said. Bernstein never called her to offer condolences — or warn her of his intentions, she said.

But the homicide detectives — particularly Boris and Shawn Reichenberg— were godsends, she said, as was trial prosecutor Josh Felsen. They spent hours answering the family's questions.

Gwen, Ian, the girls and their extended family — grandparents and aunts and uncles — flew to Baltimore for Wagner's trial in August. Merritt had already pleaded guilty to robbery.

The family endured days of painful testimony. And Gwen heard the voice of her son's killer for the first time since the night of the murder.

"It brought back that whole draining of my body," she said. "I still can go back there to that moment as if it were happening now. … It's something I carry every day."

The jury convicted Wagner of felony murder. His sentencing is set for Oct. 21. Gwen plans to return to Baltimore to argue for a life term.

She and her family, she says, are already living with one.

'I think Stephen will like it'

These days, Ian struggles against bitterness. Elise misses her best friend.

"This life as I know it, it's forever changed, it's different," she said. "There's a big old light that's gone out."

Emily breaks at unexpected times, over a song or while driving in her car.

And Gwen still fights her emotions, cycling through anger, frustration, guilt and sadness amid a "silence [that] just keeps getting louder."

She wants to be strong for her two daughters — and she knows that's what Stephen would want, too. But it's a struggle. She can't get used to talking about him in the past tense, or figure out how to introduce herself as a mother — does she have two children or three? One in heaven and two here?

What do you say?

On Stephen's birthday this year, she and Ian lit aerial lanterns at the cemetery, and sent them flying off into the sky.

By his next birthday, his headstone will be in place. After agonizing over it for more than a year, she and Ian, consulting two of Stephen's friends, completed the design last week.

The stone is to be made of Chinese absolute black granite. It blends Stephen's love of Japan with his family's love of him.

On its front are a cherry blossom branch and a cross, with the words "Beloved son, brother, grandson, nephew and friend. You filled our hearts with love."

On the back is another branch with a single, lone bloom on the ground below it to represent the fallen samurai. The Japanese word "kihaku" is printed in the center; it's made up of two characters that represent spirit and drive, and overcoming challenges to reach the horizon.

"I think Stephen will like it," Gwen says. "It's different … just like him."