The death of popular local rapper Lor Scoota — riddled with bullets in the front seat of his Gray Honda Accord as he left an anti-violence event at Morgan State University last June — transfixed his friends and fans in Baltimore and beyond.
Little noticed at the time was another shooting across town a few hours earlier. Investigators now say that it was that shooting that set the brazen attack on Scoota into motion.
Authorities say Scoota's alleged killer, Cortez Mitchell, targeted the rapper because a friend of Scoota's had shot a friend of Mitchell's.
In that way, they say, it was another retaliation killing of the sort that has helped drive the historic spike in violence now seizing the city.
It was also an example of how the crude system of street justice can move laterally, striking not just perpetrators, but also family and friends. Supporters say Scoota had largely turned away from street life in order to pursue a promising career in music.
He still wound up in the crosshairs.
"It's like the old saying: If I can't get you, I'll get someone close to you," said Detective Curtis McMillion, who investigated the case. "That's just the way the streets is."
Scoota's friend, Fred Catchings, is scheduled to go on trial this week on charges of attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney declined to comment.
Mitchell, who police say killed Scoota, was himself shot to death in his car four months later — more retaliation, authorities believe.
The sequence is outlined in court filings in Catchings' attempted murder case in the shooting of Mitchell's friend, Davonte Robinson, and in a police document that lays out the department's argument for closing Scoota's killing.
Killings in the city have surged in the last two years, and are reaching new highs in 2017. The city suffered 344 homicides in 2015, its deadliest year per capita, and 318 in 2016. With 152 homicides through Saturday, it's now on pace to blow past both numbers.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said retaliation "is certainly an important component" of the spike — and a vicious cycle that is difficult to interrupt.
"Detectives get caseloads that they just simply cannot stay on top of and have the outcomes that they used to have, and with each new case the ability to close any given case is reduced," Webster said. "When more cases go unsolved, you have that many more people out there seeking their own justice on the streets."
Scoota — real name: Tyriece Watson — grew up in West Baltimore. On one of his last recordings, his "Live from the Trenches 3" mixtape, the 23-year-old rapper name-checked his childhood pal Catchings: "Shoutout to all my soldiers/Free Fred, that's my wodie," or close friend.
Scoota and Catchings, now 24, both grew up around Pennsylvania Avenue. It's where Scoota honed his skills as a rapper and found inspiration for his lyrics.
His mother described the process.
"Most of the time when he was around me, he was with that notebook, with the earphones on," Leta Person recalled last week.
As Scoota was rising to the top of Baltimore's rap scene, Catchings was incarcerated and battling ongoing legal troubles.
As a youth in the state's juvenile justice system, he escaped from custody twice, state police said, scaling a fence at the Charles H. Hickey School in Baltimore and later fleeing from BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport as officials attempted to transfer him to a facility out west.
At one point while being escorted in handcuffs through the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, he kicked a table into the stomach of a pregnant case worker, a prosecutor said in court records. The prosecutor said Catchings then yelled that he hoped she lost her baby.
Catchings' father says his son suffered from the harmful effects of lead paint, a common affliction among young people in West Baltimore.
"It's kids malfunctioned from lead, and they don't care about nothing," Frederick Catchings Sr. said.
Catchings Sr. said his son received a six-figure settlement in a lead paint lawsuit, but the money was quickly spent and did nothing to fix his problems. In late 2014, Catchings was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He was accused of shooting a man in the face after trying to steal a puppy.
A few months earlier, Scoota had released "Bird Flu," an ode to drug dealing that became one of the most popular songs in local rap history. He collaborated with another area star, Shy Glizzy, on a video for the song that fall. Over the next year, he collaborated with The Game and won praise from P. Diddy.
Kenny Jones, 42, is a member of Scoota's entertainment group YBS, or "Young Ballers Shining." He said Scoota had plans of moving to Atlanta, New York or California to focus on his music.
Jones and Alexis Savage, another YBS member, said Catchings was not a performer or affiliated with YBS, but often tagged along with Scoota.
"That was his friend who made him feel good, and it was someone he felt genuinely had his back," Savage said.
On "Still in the Trenches 3," Scoota mentions Catchings:
"Got the 40 on me in most my pictures / I ain't gotta show it, just know I got it with me / Try run up, you get hit with the blicky / Free Lor Fred, he gonna kill a n–– with me."
Supporters say the lines were mere lyrical boasts.
Catchings was acquitted by a jury in January 2016 and released from jail.
Scoota's mother recalled her son's reaction: "Ma, guess who's home?"
Davonte Robinson, 24, was walking in the 1400 block of N. Mount St. near Gilmor Homes at about 1 p.m. last June 25, police say, when cameras captured Catchings jumping from the passenger seat of a black SUV and opening fire.
Robinson was struck in the back, buttocks and thigh, but would survive.
Police say Catchings' actions sent Robinson's friends out into the city to seek revenge. They found their opportunity several hours later, police say, at an anti-violence charity basketball game that Scoota was hosting and Catchings was attending at Morgan State in Northeast Baltimore.
The event broke up shortly before 7 p.m. Security cameras captured Scoota walking to his car. Another vehicle passes him, then makes a sudden U-turn and heads back in his direction.
Police were called to the 2700 block of East Cold Spring Lane at 6:57 p.m. Officers arrived to find Scoota's car crashed into a corner store with the rapper's body inside, dead in a hail of bullets.
His girlfriend, Taylor Johnson-Henderson, known by her rap name Sneaky T, had been in the passenger seat but was not shot.
She declined an interview last week, saying in a statement that she was "still healing from this traumatic experience" and praying for Scoota's family.
Two weeks after Scoota's shooting, Catchings was pulled over in a vehicle with what police say was a Beretta 9 mm handgun. Police say the weapon matched ballistics evidence from the nonfatal shooting of Robinson and a separate triple shooting in which the victims were shot in the legs.
Prosecutors say in court filings that Catchings confessed to the first shooting, telling detectives that he knew Robinson from an "ongoing conflict with some of his associates."
"Catchings further stated that he believed Robinson was contracted to shoot him, and as a result he went out, found Robinson, and shot him first," prosecutors wrote.
Police also recovered the weapon used to kill Scoota, they say, and a witness told investigators the names of three people, including Cortez Mitchell, 22, who allegedly had been given the gun the day of the murder. A federal informant also gave police Mitchell's name as the gunman who killed Scoota, police say. The informant said Mitchell and Robinson had been close friends.
Mitchell was never charged. Detectives were still investigating Scoota's death in October when gunmen fired on a vehicle carrying Mitchell and Robinson. Robinson was wounded a second time, and Mitchell died.
That case remains open, and though Scoota's case has been closed, police say they continue to investigate other possible connections.
Robinson did not return messages seeking comment. Mitchell's family disputes the police narrative implicating him in Scoota's death, but said they did not want to discuss the case. Mitchell's father said he was concerned only with his son's unsolved homicide.
"Who killed my son?" George Mitchell asked.
Catchings' trial is tentatively scheduled to open Friday. His attorney, Sharon A.H. May, declined an interview.
Catchings' father said he doesn't believe his son was the reason Scoota was killed.
"I'm telling you it ain't the way it went," he said. "His people know what happened. It's got nothing to do with" Catchings shooting someone.
Georgia State University criminologist Richard Wright, co-author of "Street Justice: Retaliation in the Criminal Underworld," said retaliation is a major driver of violence across the country. He said its tit-for-tat nature and multiplying effect help perpetuate spikes in killing.
Retaliation flourishes in cities like Baltimore, where trust in law enforcement has eroded. People take matters into their own hands, Wright said, even if it means striking out at associates of the target.
"It's a world awash in violence or the perceived threat of violence," he said. "In that kind of a world, if you feel you're not protected by anything else, it's easy to think to yourself, 'I can't take this lying down.'
"If you're not on the street, it's hard to see how pervasive it is. It's almost like a fog that lays over the city — the violence, the threat of violence."
While police see connections between the shootings of Robinson, Scoota and Mitchell, the circumstances and motives surrounding them remain unclear.
Detectives wrote in police documents that one informant told them the string dates to a shooting allegedly committed by Scoota before he became successful with his music. No other details of the allegation are provided in court filings.
Scoota's camp strongly denies that he committed any shootings, and say they have no knowledge of any ongoing disputes, either involving him or Catchings, that would have sparked the shooting.
"It caught everyone off guard, tremendously," said Alexis Savage, an assistant to Scoota. "Everybody was looking at us like, why wasn't he protected? We're still trying to figure out what's going on. We don't even know at this point."
Scoota's manager, Trayvon Lee, was killed 12 days after Scoota, in a case that also remains unsolved.
Prosecutors in Catchings' case say in court filings that Scoota's entertainment group YBS is a "criminal organization" that has engaged in a series of shootings involving rival groups, including a "competing criminal organization called the Young Go Getters," or YGG. They say Catchings was "engaged in pre-emptive strikes" against YGG on behalf of YBS.
But members of both groups say those claims are false, and a smear.
"It's nothing but two groups of guys who believe in music, believe in being better, believe in getting out of Baltimore," said James Edwards, 26, who is affiliated with YBS. "Because it's young black guys, it's considered a gang."
Tay Harrison, 21, raps under the name YGG Tay. Over a plate of seafood pasta in Randallstown, where he lives, he read the court filing in which the prosecutors allege an ongoing conflict with YBS.
"Who the hell made this up?" he said.
A fight between Harrison and Scoota, which was recorded and racked up thousands of views on YouTube in January 2016, was "dumb" and quashed almost immediately, Harrison said.
The next month, he recorded a song with YBS member Dajuan "YBS Skola" Cannady titled "Go Getters and Shiners," which was intended to be an anthem to bring the groups together.
Harrison said he doesn't know Mitchell or Robinson.
Person, Scoota's mother, said she is still struggling to cope with the loss of her son. In a windowless room on the first floor of her West Baltimore rowhouse, she has assembled keepsakes from Scoota's funeral and some of his personal belongings, including hats, candles and a 5-foot-tall cardboard stand-up of the rapper.
"It's a comfort zone for me," she said.
Person said she heard rumors that the man responsible for her son's death was killed. Police told her that they had identified a suspect and closed the case.
"It's not closure at all," she said. "Some people may think it is, but at the end of the day, it's really not. Justice wasn't served. He didn't get to do any time.
"To me, it may not be fair to say, but he still got off free."
She confirmed that her son was close friends with Catchings, but said she knew little about the allegations of his involvement.
She recalled Catchings as "very respectable, friendly," and said she didn't have concerns about her son hanging out with him.
Informed of the authorities' allegations that a shooting by Catchings led to her son's death, she said she would have complex feelings if it were true.
"I'm hoping that's not the case," she said.
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