The loud knock came about 2 a.m., and Dante Wooding roused himself. He saw police lights flashing through his window. Downstairs, a friend was at the front door.
"Najee's gone," the friend said.
Dante looked at his mother, who was crying. Najee Thomas was just 14. He lived across the street in a small brick Cherry Hill rowhouse with his mother. But he practically roomed with 15-year-old Dante. He was over all the time playing Grand Theft Auto or crashing supper.
He had just been laughing on Dante's steps Monday evening with a small group of friends, who had been making fun of Najee's dance moves. Now, the street was filled with detectives investigating Najee's shooting death inside his home.
The killing of Najee — the third Baltimore teenager killed in just over a week — reverberated Tuesday from City Hall to the narrow street where Najee lived in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Officials promised to address the recent violence against the city's youths.
"To have these three incidents right in a row is particularly concerning to me," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, where she was promoting a school attendance challenge. "While our homicide rate has shown improvement — it's been going down — as a mom it's particularly disturbing to me that we have these incidents where young people are victims of violent crime as well as perpetrators."
She said police would remain "vigilant" in combating youth violence, and she highlighted plans to create two youth curfew centers and a nighttime basketball league. The mayor told students to remain in school, not just for a good education but because high school buildings serve as safe houses from street violence.
Police officers found Najee in his home in the 600 block of Roundview Road with a gunshot wound to his head. Homicide detectives had no suspects on Tuesday, but police spokeswoman Detective Chantell English said investigators want to speak with the boyfriend of Najee's mother. As officers processed the crime scene, neighbors said police towed a white Acura he was often seen driving from in front of Najee's house.
Two area schools were left reeling last week after the fatal stabbing of Raysharde Sinclair, 18, who attended Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, and the shooting death of Michael Mayfield, 17, a member of Edmondson-Westside High's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Teachers and administrators for both students were raising money to pay for their memorial services, and the news of yet another teen's death became a flashpoint on social media throughout the day.
"Only a true coward would take the life of a child," tweeted City Councilman Brandon M. Scott.
The halls of his school, Coppin Academy High, will be quieter without Najee's laugh and antics, his friend Dante said. He was a student who worked hard on his grades, often asking his friends for help with homework he didn't understand.
He was a member of the Choice Program of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which assigns caseworkers to mentor and advocate for at-risk youths. LaMar Davis, program director, called him a "great kid, who was smart, thoughtful and that everyone seemed to love."
"Words cannot express our deep sadness of his loss of life," Davis said.
Friends say Najee worked a few days during the week at a smoothie stand at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and dreamed of becoming a lawyer. On his Facebook page, he signaled to those aspirations, writing that he was already working as a "lawyer" who had attended "Harvard University."
But the truth could be seen just above those words in a photo that featured him sitting on a bench with two of his buddies and a football. He was just a kid.
"He played football out here. Basketball. Nerf guns," next-door neighbor Bo Sutherlin said. "Damn."
His friends said he could have had a future in law since he was so good at arguing, often calling pass interference while playing football or, in basketball games, claiming his opponent had illegally carried the ball. Had a video camera been around, he used to tell Dante and others convincingly, he could prove it.
"He was funny, competitive," said William Winder, 18, a friend.
He often engaged in a game with his teenage crew called "smack cam," where they'd try to catch one another sleeping so they could smack each other awake with the hysteria filmed on a phone or tablet.
"It's not going to be the same, making jokes at lunch or in language arts," Dante said, standing outside his house while uniformed police officers and tie-wearing detectives went in and out of Najee's home.
"I just saw him five hours ago before he got shot," Dante said. "Right here out on the porch. … We were talking about how Najee dances when he goes to parties."
Dante hung his head low as his mother, Bonnie Farrow, looked on. Farrow, a retired Baltimore police officer who served 24 years in the Central District and juvenile booking, had always worried whether the violence she saw on the job would ever touch her son and his friends.
"That was his best friend," she said. "They were together every day. They are typical kids. They weren't in any trouble. These are kids that eat dinner together, have sleepovers, play basketball and video games. Najee was just here eating dinner. Senseless."
When Dante came home to make himself a sandwich, Najee often came with him to rustle one up, too, Farrow said. When she made spaghetti last week, she found Najee sitting at her dinner table. When Najee's mother took him to get a haircut, Dante often went along to get a fade.
Late Easter night, Najee came over to Dante's house and grabbed a leftover plate of turkey, string beans, rice and gravy. No ham, though. "He said pig was the dirtiest animal to eat," Dante said.
Najee would say he was going to become a Muslim like his grandfather and jokingly gave himself the nickname "Big Pork." Dante and other friends also adopted nicknames like "Pedro" or "Knockers" and called their group "RICO."
Recently, Audris Pearson, 22, a sister of one of the boys, recalled that Najee had bet her $500 that Dante could beat her in a basketball game after she doubted the boy's skills.
That's how loyal the group was to each other.
"I'm hurt," Dante said. "It's changed the whole aspect of coming outside. We used to play on the basketball court until we got tired. So long, that our feet hurt and we limped home."
"Out of all my friends," Dante continued, "he was the first one I'd always go to tell something. He was across the street. He was close."
As Dante and his friends stood on the sidewalk, a group of Safe Streets anti-violence workers in orange shirts told the boys they would take them to Golden Corral for lunch and to talk.
The city-sponsored program, which uses reformed convicts-turned-street mediators to defuse neighborhood violence, said Najee's death put a stop to more than 200 days without a shooting on the Cherry Hill blocks that the group monitors.
One of the last victims shot and wounded in that area was a 9-year-old boy on Sept. 18, while 1-year-old Carter Scott was killed in the same streets on May 24 after a car he was riding in was shot up.
As Najee's friends split off late Tuesday morning to go back into their respective homes, Alvin Palmer, 62, walked by Najee's home. Palmer has lived in the neighborhood off and on for 58 years.
A police officer was guarding the house, and as Palmer strolled by, he shook his head and muttered a few words. Police sirens from an unrelated incident howled in the distance.
"Boy didn't deserve that," Palmer said. "14 years old."
Baltimore Sun reporters Carrie Wells, Erica L. Green, Justin Fenton and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
Recent violence against youths
•Najee Thomas, 14, a Coppin Academy High School student, was found fatally shot in the head Tuesday morning in his home in the 600 block of Roundview Road in Cherry Hill.
•Michael Mayfield, 17, a member of Edmondson-Westside High's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, was fatally shot in the head April 16 in a minivan in the 2300 block of Lyndhurst Ave.
•Raysharde Sinclair, 18, who attended Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, was fatally stabbed April 14 in the 5100 block of York Road. One arrest has been made in that case.