Sun Investigates

Some Baltimore neighborhoods condemned to endure a shocking degree of violence

From the porch of his neat rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore, the Rev. D. Doreion Colter saw two young men several times that summer three years ago. They would talk and laugh, acting like brothers.

Then one weekday afternoon, one shot the other in the head at close range.


Colter had watched the pair walk by his house and soon afterward heard a boom, then a second. He looked up to see one of the young men fall and the other run off. Within minutes, Colter pushed back neighbors who crowded around, trying to see the body of Andre Miller, 31, who lay on his back in the street. No one tried to help Miller, though, or see if he was alive.

That's because in this neighborhood, Coldstream Homestead Montebello, like other areas in the city, people know criminals are shooting to kill.


"Most of the time, they assume you already dead," Colter said of residents.

Rev. D. Doreion Colter, chaplain for Coldstream Homestead Montebello pictured in his neighborhood.

One out of every two people who are shot here die, making it the most lethal of Baltimore's deadliest neighborhoods. The homicides have become so frequent that the community association recruited Colter, a resident, to be its chaplain. His job: to shepherd relatives at crime scenes, organize street vigils and help bury the dead.

"I sort of guide them through the waters," said the trim, dignified 71-year-old. From his corner, he can point out the spots in the nearby blocks where a dozen people have been killed over the past several years. "When I hear gunshots, I go."

Poverty went into their gun, homelessness, bad parents, bad schools, bad communities, bad church, everything went into those guns

—  Daphne Alston, co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United

A yearlong Baltimore Sun investigation found that gunshot victims are now more likely to die. Gun violence in Baltimore — and in cities across the nation — is concentrated in poor, predominantly black areas. In the past five years, according to a Sun analysis, 80 percent of homicides by shooting were committed in about one-quarter of Baltimore's neighborhoods.

Residents of a few select neighborhoods are condemned to endure a shocking degree of violence. As in Coldstream Homestead Montebello, some neighborhoods saw shooting victims die at a higher rate than the citywide average of one death for every three shootings.

And that's in a city that ranks as one of the most lethal in America.

The years have brought a devastating and under-recognized shift in Baltimore. Criminals are increasingly aiming for the head and shooting victims repeatedly, often at close range, using higher-caliber guns with extended magazines that enable them to fire more bullets. It's a new degree of ruthlessness that's shocking veteran police detectives and making it tough for trauma surgeons to keep up.

The odds for gunshot victims got worse in at least 10 of the nation's largest cities last year — an overlooked trend behind a surge in shootings and homicides in urban areas around the country, The Sun found. The violence is often confined to certain impoverished areas, such as southeast Washington D.C., Chicago's south side and the north side in Milwaukee.


Colter, police and criminologists see a potent mix of forces at play — here and across the country.

Retaliatory shootings play out over years — not only among rival gang members but among families and friends. The no-snitching ethos is well-established and systematically enforced. The relationship between some communities and the police has fractured, leaving police with fewer clues to solve crimes and parents desperate to try to solve homicide cases. Children grow up exposed to violence, becoming more likely to commit violence.

"It's just a culture that they're in," said Daphne Alston, co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United. She said killers aren't born, but shaped by their circumstances.

"Poverty went into their gun, homelessness, bad parents, bad schools, bad communities, bad church, everything went into those guns — everything that they're not getting goes into those guns, and that's what they shoot," Alston said.

But many residents believe gun violence defines the city more than it should, pointing to multibillion-dollar waterfront developments, national attractions and major league sports teams. Over the past five years, in one-third of the city's 280 neighborhoods, including many of the wealthiest areas, not a single person died in a shooting.

Still, the power brokers, from police to politicians, know the high homicide rate threatens economic vitality and efforts to draw new residents. And they are scrambling to stop it.


In the violence-torn neighborhoods, many residents are simply afraid. Sometimes they are too frightened, or too accustomed to the sound of gunshots to call 911. In a few cases, shooting victims lay in the street all night until someone stumbled upon the body the next day.

Mark Washington is the executive director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corporation. The longtime neighborhood leader has worked with residents, police, and city officials to make improvements to the area.

Some seek comfort in a growing number of ministers who focus on helping residents heal. Over and over, Colter finds distraught people looking to him.

Just this summer, he awoke about 3:45 a.m. to the sound of blasts. A few minutes later, he heard two more, bursts loud enough that they seemed to come from a cannon. He jumped out of his bed and peered out the bathroom window.

A young man was lying on his back just feet away on the cracked and buckled sidewalk, bleeding under a tree. The street light spotlighted his splayed body. Colter recognized him as Davon Harper, nicknamed "Turtle," from the neighborhood.

Colter said the 23-year-old victim had been shot and then chased down the alley toward his house. It was there that someone jumped out of a car and blasted him point-blank with a shotgun. Police arrived within minutes.

Illuminated by an officer's flashlight, Harper's eyes were closed, his top lip quivered. The minister watched as he gasped.


"Oh my God," Colter whispered to himself when the young man's face went slack. "He's gone."

In quick succession, paramedics loaded Harper's body onto a gurney, pulled a sheet over his head and drove off. No sirens. Colter remembers Harper's distraught older sister asking over and over: "Why, why? No matter what he did, he didn't deserve this."

Colter felt he was able to provide a little peace to Harper's mother, who had cancer and would follow her son to the grave within a few weeks. At the memorial service, Colter told Harper's mother that he sensed her son, who had a criminal record, wanted redemption just before he passed away.

No one has been arrested in the deaths of Miller or Harper, and police don't know the motives. Colter knows many people are without closure. The Unitarian minister often recites an old prayer with those who have lost someone to violence: "Thou who are known by many names ... thou who are known and expressed in many ways, it's to thee we come. ... Our request is to make yourself known to us in this hour."

He always prays for one revelation: an understanding why so many are gunned down.

The same question that haunts Baltimore.


Neighborhood violence

Overlooking Lake Montebello and a golf course, Colter's neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore once ranked as one of the city's wealthiest. In the 1800s, William Patterson — whose name is on the Southeast Baltimore park — entertained friends with champagne and strawberries on his lush lawn.

In the next century, the city became the first in the nation to pass a law establishing segregation block-by-block. After legal segregation was abolished, unscrupulous real estate agents convinced white residents to sell low by stoking racist fears. African-Americans, limited in where they could live, bought Coldstream Homestead Montebello homes at a markup. Since then, the enclave for working-class black residents has seen a slow decline and a shift to more subsidized housing.

Today, the area known as CHuM looks like any of Baltimore's progress-stalled communities where boarded-up vacant homes sit next to rowhouses with neatly kept postage-stamp yards and blooming flower beds.

Mark Washington, executive director of the community association, said partnerships with residents, police and city officials have helped make improvements, such as exercise equipment along Lake Montebello and a new picnic pavilion to replace one that burned down. He pointed to one corner where drug dealers were evicted and a store that attracted loiterers was shut down.

But Washington and others are not blind to the gun violence in the neighborhood.


On one block since May of last year, a man and a woman were fatally shot multiple times. An 18-year-old was shot in the head. Another man was shot in the arm and buttocks but survived.

On Colter's own block, police charged a 23-year-old resident with murder in 2014. A bullet grazed a 16-year-old girl last year, and in August detectives arrested a 26-year-old resident in a homicide.

"They are up-close shootings," Colter said. "If they're driving by, they're going to jump out and come up and storm your porch or your house, and if you run, they're going to chase you down."

Remembering the cries of a man stabbed to death several homes away at midnight a decade ago, Colter sighed. "Oh mercy," he said, "I call them death screams."

Other Baltimore neighborhoods also witness a disproportionate level of gun violence. The streets proved lethal over the past five years in Belair-Edison in the northeast, where 92 people were shot and 33 of them died. In Oliver in East Baltimore, 55 people have been shot since 2011 and 21 died. In Central Park Heights in the northwest, about one-third of 90 shootings were fatal.

Underscoring those statistics, Baltimore health officials say as little as half of 1 percent of Baltimore's population is responsible for most of the violence.


Many of the homicides are followed a few days later by vigils. Colter helps to organize them in CHuM, explaining to the family the unwritten rules that aim to keep people safe and prevent retaliatory shootings. Stay out of the street, don't hold the gatherings in the heat of the day, and never past dark.

Relatives bring candles to spell out the name of the victim. They share memories. A family member usually reminds the group of the grim reality: "This could have been your brother, this could have been your sister, this could have been your child."

Washington believes the high rate of lethal shootings is linked to the neighborhood's deep roots. So while drugs and gangs play a part, families have lived on the same block for generations, creating long-standing friendships and deeply felt disputes. The bonds allow suspects to get close to victims, resulting in sure shots.

That's not unique to CHuM, according to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. Some of the killings in the city this year are over quarrels dating back eight or nine years, he said.

"The streets don't forget," he said.

As violence becomes an acceptable alternative, the next generation's beefs are playing out on social media, which is used to mock rivals, issue warnings and make daring taunts. Street outreach workers and police detectives say that social media postings have made disputes more contentious and longer-lasting. Threats and insults live forever on the internet.


Even jail inmates post threats online. In one video, an alleged shooter being monitored by authorities made veiled threats against people he believed had been labeling him a snitch. On the private Facebook video shown to The Sun, he said: "If you're involved in my motherf — — line, you just need to know that a lot of motherf — — changes is coming today. I'm putting my foot down."

Hit men, who take murder-for-hire contracts issued on the streets, advertise on social media, according to Davis. Police are tracking a number of hit men suspected in multiple homicides as well as an organized gang known as the 10 Grand Club that will take out targets for that price.

Gang life has become ingrained in many neighborhoods. Some young people find a sense of security and structure in gangs that they don't have at home, even in the face of infighting that has led to a number of homicides in recent years, police detectives say. Gang codes dictate fierce loyalty. Kill orders can't be questioned.

The reach of gangs extends to the women in members' lives — mothers, sisters and girlfriends known as "Bonitas." In the Black Guerrilla Family, Baltimore's most powerful gang, they are not allowed to be members, but they know the code and follow it.

Baltimore homicide detective Dawnyell Taylor remembers a case in which police suspected that a 19-year-old killed a fellow gang member. Taylor brought in the victim's mother, who had taken the suspect in as a child because he had no one to care for him. The youth and her son had grown up as brothers and best friends.

When the mother pleaded with the youth to come clean to her, the suspect reminded the Bonita that he didn't have a choice: "Ma, you know the rules."


'No snitching' takes hold

Baltimore homicide detective Martin Young understands the fear of cooperating with a homicide investigation. Young grew up in Edmondson Village, a community that has struggled with violence. In that collection of about 10 streets, half of the 14 people shot in the neighborhood since 2011 died.

His father still lives there. Even the veteran could imagine being reluctant to get involved. He thinks about that when he's off-duty, visiting his childhood neighborhood, and hears gunshots ring out.

"It would be hard for me to come forth," Young said in an interview. "I would be hesitant. ... It's not that I don't want to help, but you don't know what the repercussions are."

He also knows the alternative all too well — if no one comes forward, the shooter remains free. "Do you leave the individual out there and allow him to kill at will," Young asked, "or do you do something about that?"

Still, the trail remains cold on many cases. Young recalled two brothers hanging out near the intersection of Cold Spring Lane and York Road one Friday last month. It was about 1:30 p.m. when a man walked up and shot one of them in the stomach at close range. Shoppers crowded the busy commercial strip, and surveillance cameras captured the killing. The shooter didn't even bother to wear a mask.


But the key witness, the victim's brother, has refused to meet with Young, and police haven't been able to identify the shooter.

Young also pointed to a case from January when a young man was kidnapped during the day from his front steps in front of his friends. No one got a license plate number or description. Not a single person called 911. The perpetrators drove the young man to another street, threw him in an alley and shot him to death.

In both killings — and about 65 percent of homicides this year — no one has been arrested. Nationally, about 40 percent of homicide cases remained open last year.

Police say many city residents do call in tips, but they often aren't witnesses or don't have direct knowledge. Others may know something, but are either involved in criminal activity or are too indifferent or scared to speak up. Echoes of a deadly 2002 firebombing of a family's East Baltimore home, in retaliation for reporting drug dealing, still reverberate.

"People who don't live in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty can't understand, well why wouldn't someone tell the police?" said Davis, the commissioner. But, he said, they've got reasons.

It quickly dawned on me based on her demeanor ... that she wanted me to get the hell out of her corner store

—  Kevin Davis, Baltimore’s police commissioner

"It's fear. It's fear for your own safety, your family's safety. It's very real."


While "no snitching" is a common street rule of nearly every city in the United States, its connection to Baltimore became solidified in 2004, when Ronnie Thomas, nicknamed "Skinny Suge," distributed a DVD featuring drug dealers warning people to "Stop Snitching" with threats of violence.

The DVD became an underground and national sensation boosted by the cameo of NBA star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, who has since said he does not endorse the message.

More than a decade after the firebombing and the DVD, criminals have not only convinced many residents to stay out of their way, they've devised a way to reiterate and enforce their so-called code.

In the past, Baltimore police Sgt. Robert F. Cherry said, snitches found currency in helping police. As they were often involved in criminal activity, it was to their benefit to trade information for possible reduced sentences or charges.

But because of the power the Black Guerrilla Family has amassed in Maryland prisons, he said, the gang has been able to widely disseminate the message: Don't snitch, join us and we'll take care of you in and out of jail.

The gang's hold became so strong that, for a time, it ruled over the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gang members had sexual relationships with corrections officers and smuggled cellphones and drugs into the center. Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan closed the jail down.


The BGF gang continues to hold sway, according to members of Safe Streets, an organization of violence "interrupters" and mediators, including former inmates, who are based in high-crime neighborhoods. Arrestees must prove to gang members that they're not witnesses in any criminal cases.

When they arrive in jail, they must show what's called their "paperwork," or court documents such as pre-sentence reports and testimony. Once the inmate is cleared, the gang offers protection.

Police say the court system has inadvertently helped the streets keep its secrets, solidifying the BGF's tight grip, because in recent years they've had trouble quickly obtaining writs, or orders that allow detectives to interview inmates on cases they are working. Sometimes, detectives would take the inmates out of jail and treat them to lunch to try to ply information from them.

The process is now delayed, the detectives said, to involve defense attorneys and prosecutors. Homicide detective Vernon Parker said his understanding was that judges didn't want to be construed as an arm of law enforcement, and not impartial jurists. State Courts spokeswoman Terri Charles said judges were not aware of any problems interviewing inmates.

Even ex-inmates, felons who have long been out of the drug and gang world, abide by the code. Carmichael "Stokey" Cannady served 12 years in federal prison for drug dealing and reformed. He works as the community outreach coordinator for Shoe City, the Baltimore regional shoe seller that puts on anti-violence events.

But, he says, he has been able to maintain his credibility in the community, in part because he remained silent.


"I didn't tell on nobody. I came home with a good name, a good reputation," Cannady said. "I dealt with the consequence of my actions. I never thought, never, to turn nobody into authorities."

Broken community relations

Baltimore's police commissioner, Kevin Davis, remembers the day vividly. It was cold, and Davis, then a newly hired deputy commissioner, was on the scene of a West Baltimore homicide. When he walked into a nearby corner store to use the bathroom, he spotted the owner hurriedly walking up to shoo him away.

"It quickly dawned on me based on her demeanor ... that she wanted me to get the hell out of her corner store," recalled Davis, who was in uniform. He realized the owner was terrified that someone might spot him in her business and conclude that she had given him information.

Officers investigate a fatal shooting at the corner of York Road and Coldspring Lane in early September. The mid-day shooting is like many others in Baltimore, where bold criminals are killing, without masks, in front of witnesses. The shooter in this case has not been identified.

In 25 years of police work, Davis had never experienced anything like it.

Since then, he has taken over the department and has had to weather scathing criticism about its practices in poor, black neighborhoods.


The U.S. Department of Justice, which conducted a civil rights investigation here, recently outlined at length how the department routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force. It was the culmination of years of practices, including "zero tolerance" policing that led to mass arrests, which alienated young black men — and the community.

You’re on your own. Nobody cares about you. No one is helping you. No one is coming for you.

—  Thomas Abt, Harvard University researcher

The effects were also felt in the judicial system, said Cherry. City juries are more suspicious of police, and witnesses are less likely to cooperate.

"Old Miss Betty who sits out on the stoop" isn't giving police tips anymore, said Safe Streets community liaison J.T. Timpson.

"She sees them doing all this unlawful stuff she feels shouldn't be going on, so guess what? She is not going to say nothing because you're just as bad as they are," Timpson said. "Not every police officer is like that, and we know that. But you have too many boys working that have no business policing the city."

Even the Rev. Andre H. Humphrey, commander of the Baltimore Trauma Response Team, is frustrated. He leads a group of chaplains that work with Baltimore police, responding to violent crime scenes to help victims and family members.

He said he has watched officers slam heads on car hoods and treat family members rudely. "Why should you have to get indignant?" he asked, referring to police.


Some say widely publicized incidents across the country in which black citizens died after altercations with police stoked last year's surge in shootings and homicides in a number of the nation's largest cities. That deadly trend continues this year in many highly segregated and impoverished urban areas, including Baltimore.

In Baltimore, police, union officials and the mayor have acknowledged one version of the "Ferguson effect," or "Freddie Gray effect" — that officers shied away from doing their jobs for months after coming under increased scrutiny. Gray died in April 2015 from injuries sustained in the back of a Baltimore police transport van. In turn, some criminologists say the city saw a related effect — that criminals were emboldened by the perception that officers weren't policing.

A broader definition of the effect — that violence escalates when communities lose confidence in police — is harder to prove. A study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice recounted the theories: The breakdown can lead to people taking matters into their own hands, to honor codes that encourage people to respond with violence to threats and disrespect, to more "predatory" violence because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact police.

The study also noted previous research that found when trust in government erodes, homicide rates increase — before the American Revolution, in the Civil War, and during the political turmoil in the 1960s and '70s.

But more research is needed to determine whether that's what's happening today, the study concluded.

Davis says he's been working to repair community relations and has become a fixture at public forums where residents air grievances. Without the public's help, he knows police can't do their jobs.


Dante Barksdale, an outreach coordinator for Safe Streets, said more needs to be done to protect witnesses. He said prosecutors and police are not careful enough in keeping the identities of cooperating witnesses confidential. When police play witnesses off each other, for instance, saying one had cooperated, the stigma for that witness is impossible to shake, and potentially dangerous.

Retired Baltimore homicide detective John F. Riddick said he has seen detectives, frustrated by a lack of cooperation and under pressure to solve cases, coerce tipsters and force confidential informants to testify in court. In the past, this network of informants was never expected to go to court and had been the lifeblood of investigations.

He also called the department's witness protection program "a joke." He said many Baltimore witnesses have a homing instinct, returning to the city after being placed out of state — "If you grow up in a neighborhood all your life, that's all you know.

"I can understand why people wouldn't get involved" by cooperating with police, Riddick said.

Davis acknowledged that the department needs to improve. "We have to find better ways to incentivize people to come forward with information, and then when people do come forward with information," he said, "we probably have to find better ways to protect them."

Neighborhood as a trap


Thomas Abt, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government researcher who has studied places like Baltimore and Watts in South Central Los Angeles, has seen that when homicides aren't solved, neighborhood residents may look to street justice, perpetuating violence. He said the feelings in those urban areas can be bleak: "You're on your own. Nobody cares about you. No one is helping you. No one is coming for you."

Many families feel trapped in neighborhoods where homicide is a part of life. It can feel as if they are left to fend for themselves. Parents from a number of cities that have seen an uptick in violence, from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, recount some universal rules they impart to their children to keep them safe.

Don't linger around large crowds in neighborhoods prone to violence because the chances for disputes or gang shootings increase. Don't ride in a car with people you don't know well — they may be involved in criminal activity — or in a car with a large number of young black men, which could make you a target for a police stop.

Ursula Newell-Lewis, a longtime social worker in New Orleans, instructed her son, Charles Newell, 24, not to ride in cars with other people. Some of her friend's sons had been killed.

When he was laid off from his job, Newell thought it was his chance to get out of New Orleans. His mother bought him a plane ticket to live with her sister in Waldorf, Md. Upon his arrival last November, a family friend invited Newell to go on a short trip to D.C. to show him how to get around safely.

The car was shot up, and Newell was killed.


Raichele Jackson's niece, Ranisha Raven, was killed when at least one gunman fired into a crowd last year at the San Francisco public housing project where she had grown up. She was there to visit friends. "Don't discount having a conversation with the wrong person because now you're with them. It's really that simple," Jackson said.

Raven died about 15 feet from where her father, Burnett Raven Jr., was fatally shot in 2006.

Andrew Papachristos, a Yale researcher, said violence shows many of the markings of a communicable disease. The closer you are to people who are involved in violence, the more likely you are to get drawn in. Getting a ride or standing with the wrong people can get you killed, as can living next to the wrong person.

He tracked gun homicides in Chicago between 2006 and 2012 and found that, just like HIV, gun violence can be transmitted from person to person through "risky behaviors," he said. In Chicago, more than 40 percent of all gun homicides he researched occurred within a network of about 3,100 people or about 4 percent of the community's population.
Being a part of that network increased your chances of being killed by 900 percent.

Even a recompense for living in a blighted Baltimore neighborhood can put people in danger. Generations of Baltimore children have been poisoned by toxic lead paint that can cause health and developmental problems. In a sad twist, police said families who received legal settlements stemming from the exposure have become targets of robberies. Police Col. Stanley Brandford said a triple shooting in 2014 was over a lead paint settlement.

Cynthia Bruce, whose son Marcus Downer was killed in 2015, gets support at the monthly community meeting for Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United held at St. John's Alpha and Omega Church.

Ultimately, a stack of studies has shown that growing up and witnessing so much violence affects children's mental and physical health. The stress that the kids suffer can lead to depression and anxiety, and even affect the development of crucial areas of the children's brains — those involved in attention, memory and behavior control. Nearly one-third of the children will develop post traumatic stress disorder.


Tara Carlson, director of the Center for Injury Prevention and Policy at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said many people in Baltimore see crisis on an almost daily basis. A study by the center found that adults exposed to violence scored an average of 3.8 on an Adverse Childhood Experiences Study test — comparable to people in war-torn Afghanistan — and half of the clients exhibited PTSD symptoms at a higher rate than some living through the war in Iraq.

Though many factors are involved, researchers say the exposure also can put children at risk of becoming violent.

Felton J. Earls, a Harvard emeritus professor of human behavior and development, studied the effect of gun violence in Chicago from 1990 to 2005 and its effect on children. He found that exposure to firearm violence doubles the chance that an adolescent will perpetrate serious violence over the next two years.

Parents as detectives

That night in 2015, Cynthia Bruce got the call from her sister. She could only hear her son's name being shouted: "Marcus! Marcus!"

Bruce drove frantically to the 5500 block of Rubin Ave. in Northwest Baltimore, where she saw crime tape and patrol cars and a paramedic pumping her son's chest. Marcus Tafari Samuel Downer, named after the abolitionist Marcus Garvey, would be pronounced dead not long after. The 23-year-old graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts had been shot 19 times while sitting on a porch.


"What gun has so many bullets?" she asked.

Bruce doesn't know who killed her son or why. She has heard different theories. He was killed because he messed with a child's stroller, and the father came and shot him. Maybe it was because he was talking to a neighborhood girl who was someone else's girlfriend.

The shooting occurred during daylight hours and was seen by multiple neighbors. Bruce knows of only one detail that police gleaned from witnesses, that the suspect left in a gray car.

She said the Baltimore police detective won't disclose much in the case — only that someone must have witnessed it but is afraid to come forward. At the Baltimore state's attorney's office, she said, homicide chief Don Giblin asked her if she believed in "karma" because maybe karma would catch up with the killer. She was furious.

Giblin said "the remark was not intended to give this grieving mother the impression that we would not aggressively pursue justice on behalf of her son."

A trained advocate helped Bruce's family through the process, and the state's attorney's office now requires that one is assigned in every homicide case.


Bruce decided she had to take matters into her own hands. Whenever she returned to her sister's house from her Carroll County home and saw the woman who owned the stroller, she would ask her: "When are you going to tell the detective who murdered my son?"

The woman told her she had told police everything she knew. Unsatisfied, Downer visited her mother's workplace to confront her about a perceived lack of cooperation.

The woman filed harassment charges against her. Court records show they were ultimately dropped.

Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department is trying to be more responsive to family members seeking answers and updates. He said the department is hiring two victim advocates for the Homicide Unit.

Other parents around the country who carry the same heartbreak have been driven to take action on their own.

Marna Winbush, the founder of Mothers against Gun Violence in Milwaukee, blames deteriorated relations between police and the community. Police Capt. Aaron Raap points to a telling statistic: The number of motorists who failed to stop for police more than tripled to more than 2,500 last year. And Ivy League researchers found in a study released this month that 911 calls dropped 20 percent in black Milwaukee neighborhoods after the beating of a black man by off-duty white officers.


Winbush's son, DeShaun Winbush, 19, was shot and killed in 2003, along with two of his friends. She believes it stemmed from an incident months earlier when a girl stabbed another girl she suspected of fooling around with her boyfriend, one of Winbush's friends. Had someone called the police then, Winbush's mother believes, the events that led to her son's killing might have been prevented.

Winbush said too many cases of officers harassing or physically mistreating African-American teens or young men have made family members of homicide victims silent. She tells them to give her the information, and she will provide it to police and keep their anonymity.

Shakim Shabazz shows a photo of his son, Shakim Gilliam, 20, who was killed in Northeast Baltimore in October 2014.

Another mother, Salahaquekyah Chandler, a San Francisco activist, felt that police and the city weren't doing enough to solve the killings of African-Americans. Her 19-year-old son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, was killed last year when he accepted a ride from his job and the car was shot up. She chafed at social media references to her son and other victims as "thugs."

Chandler scratched her son's name, the date he was killed and other case facts into the side of her bronze Nissan Pathfinder — turning it into a rolling billboard seeking tips.

In March, Chandler and other mothers of homicide victims succeeded in lobbying the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to increase the amount of reward money to as much as $250,000 per unsolved case.

In Baltimore, one father is trying to raise money so he can hire a lawyer to investigate the shooting death of his 20-year-old son, Shakim Gilliam.


The young man drove to Belair-Edison with friends in October 2014 to buy some marijuana. From talking to police and his own sleuthing, the father believes he entered an alley near a vacant house to make the purchase when he walked into a setup. He was made to kneel on the ground before someone shot him through the head.

The friends who brought his son there did not call 911. No neighbors called about the gunshots. His son's body wasn't found in the alley until the next day.

Gilliam's father has felt stymied in his attempts to get information from police. Determined to get justice, Shakim Shabazz drove down many times from his home in New Jersey, knocked on doors, and talked with folks. His theory is that two men with ties to the BGF gang held his son responsible for a friend's drug money that went missing.

He uses words like "uncontrollable" to describe what's happening in Baltimore and other cities. "It's kind of like outrageous and like unbelievable how people's lives right now have no value," he said.

He is angry that no one has been arrested, and he is devastated. It feels to him like it happened yesterday.

"It's been two years," said an exasperated Shabazz. He tries not to think about timing, and what might have been.


Shabazz was working on getting a larger apartment, so his son would move up to Jersey with him, away from Baltimore. Just before his death, Shabazz assured his son the move would happen, telling him to hang on for a few more weeks.

Healing wounds

Last Sunday night, the Rev. Jay Baylor grabbed the microphone and walked to the front of the fellowship hall at the Church of the Apostles in the City, an Anglican church in Mayfield. The neighborhood borders CHuM in the northeast part of the city.

"We experience loss and trauma," the lead pastor told about 40 attendees. "But that was not God's plan."

It was the first of several healing services in response to recent violence. Over a period of six months last year, at least three people close to members of his congregation had been killed. Among those hurting was the church's assistant pastor, Carletta Wright.

In January, Wright's nephew, Lamont Raheem Malloy, 24, was shot to death in the 1200 block of Patterson Park Ave. in East Baltimore.


Wright grew up in East Baltimore and has overseen candlelight vigils, presided over a dozen funerals for shooting victims and done her part to stop violence. Six years ago, when she saw a man armed with a gun chasing another man, she launched herself off her front steps.

"Don't shoot him, in the name of Jesus!" she yelled at them. She was shoved to the ground, and the men scattered. She heard the would-be shooter tell the targeted victim, "You're lucky this time."

Baylor, who was in the area that day, happened to see the encounter. The two ministers paired up to found the Church of the Apostles in the City two years ago.

"These are important issues to the Lord. Issues of justice, issues of healing. … We believe the church has a vital role ... and we've been silent," Baylor said at last Sunday's service.

A band soon launched into gospel music, and after a few songs, Baylor introduced Betsy Stalcup, who directs the Healing Center International, a faith-based counseling and mentoring ministry in Virginia.

Over the soft notes of a guitar and keyboard, she spoke soothingly, taking attendees into a group therapy session. She told parishioners she would "walk you through grief" and urged them to breathe deeply and slowly.


"In the name of Jesus," she said. "Release the grief. Release the grief."

Even as they breathed, police detectives were investigating the latest homicide in Southwest Baltimore.

In his neighborhood of CHuM, Colter also has come up with a plan to help the families. He's mulling over a way to promote it, maybe with fliers.

The minister rues that Davon Harper, whom Colter watched die from his bathroom window, had to have his memorial service at the local neighborhood center, and had to be cremated, because his family couldn't afford anything else. The minister knows most parents want a coffin and a grave for their children.

His proposal is to get parents whose children are involved in drugs and gangs to purchase life insurance for them. "For $18 a month," Colter says, "they could have put them away decent."

Colter realizes that for these families, even that small amount is a sacrifice. But after years of seeing things play out on the streets, he understands that just as some families save for cars or college, the parents here should save to bury their children.


Interactive designer Jin Kim contributed to this story.

Read Part 1 of Shoot to Kill

Read Part 3 of Shoot to Kill


Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George spent nine months during the 2015-2016 school year at Marquette University in Milwaukee as part of the O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, working on “Shoot to Kill” while mentoring college students and speaking to journalism classes. He traveled to five cities to research gun violence; analyzed crime data from cities across the U.S.; reviewed dozens of studies on violent crime, trauma and guns; and interviewed more than 80 people, including homicide detectives, police chiefs, hit men, ex-offenders, researchers, emergency room doctors, nurses, trauma surgeons, family members of victims, neighborhood residents, prosecutors and survivors of shootings. Four college students served as research assistants as part of the O'Brien Fellowship program. They were Wyatt Massey, Hannah H. Kirby, Natalie Wickman and Matthew Kulling.

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