Finding work, then falling to bullets in Baltimore: 'He was part of the generation of the streets, but he was trying'

After getting the call he’d long feared, then driving to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and determining with homicide detectives that their John Doe was his namesake, Darryl Owens Sr. was given his dead son’s cellphone and began looking through it for answers.

The emails “were all job-related, or jobs responding, or him searching for jobs,” Owens said. In text after text, Darryl Owens Jr., 24, was asking all his friends, “‘Yo, talk to your supervisor. Try to get me on.’”

Joe Jones, founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, said it was that same eagerness to turn a corner and find work that had recently gotten Owens through the center’s pre-employment STRIVE program. And it landed him a spot in the selective Port Covington Manufacturing Bootcamp run by Sagamore Development Co.

Jones described Owens as “one of the guys who was working to do all he could to right the ship in his life.” He said Owens called the center every day for weeks inquiring about the Sagamore job training program, and had been told July 4 he’d been selected for it.

But instead of enrolling, Owens was shot dead the next night, in what police and his family have described as a domestic dispute.

Owens’ parents say they are overcome with grief, and angry at the irony of their son’s being killed just as he was getting his life together.

But they also think his story needs to be heard as homicides mount and the city searches for answers.

They credit Jones’ programs with helping their son, but say there need to be more opportunities for young black men with criminal records. They say there is a generation of young men in Baltimore who are striving — against the odds — to regain the potential they lost to prior mistakes, and who are being failed by a system that has made them pariahs.

“I won’t say it’s the typical story, but it’s a Baltimore story,” said Owens Sr., who works for Baltimore County Recreation and Parks. “He was part of the generation of the streets, but he was trying.”

“All these mothers out here losing their kids to senseless crimes,” said Towanda Frazier, Owens’ mother, who is a Rent-a-Center manager. “I feel like it’s a war. We have a war going on.”

Owens’ parents split when he was young, but both remained in his life. They describe their son as a bright kid who attended Rosemont Elementary and was offered a chance to skip the sixth grade, though he didn’t. He then attended Southwest Academy. At some point, he got in trouble for robbing a pizza delivery man with a cousin, court records show, and went to the Charles Hickey Jr. School, a residential facility for juveniles in the criminal justice system. He later went to Randallstown High School, and then to Milford Mill Academy.

At 16, Owens was found guilty of first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit attempted robbery at a downtown 7-Eleven. He was sent to Silver Oak Academy, another juvenile residential facility, for about six months. At 18, Owens was convicted of selling heroin in West Baltimore and then of armed robbery and a gun offense in Baltimore County, where he received a five-year prison sentence.

After being in prison from age 18 to age 23, Owens returned home in January 2016 and seemed eager for work, his mother said. His father knew he would struggle as a felon, so he started searching for opportunities. One was the STRIVE program. Owens enrolled in May and graduated in September, when he was working two jobs, one part-time in demolition, his father said.

Later that month, Owens — born and raised on Baltimore’s west side — was shot while on lunch break at a job on the east side. Police said it was after an exchange of words with another man at a McDonald’s. Owens’ father said his son mistook a man as a friend, and the man had taken offense.

The shooting left Owens injured, and with a physical recovery to focus on, but it also made him more motivated than ever to get out of the game, Jones and his parents said.

Something else shook him as well, his father said.

In late 2016, a family member whom Owens considered a brother was stabbed, and Owens was at his bedside as he lay dying. At one point, Owens sat with his father in the nearby waiting area.

“You know, I’m sitting here imagining that’s you in there,” Owens Sr. said, to which he recalled his son responding, “I was sitting here thinking the same thing.”

Owens walked back to the man’s hospital room and watched him flat-line. He later told his father it was “the scariest thing he had ever experienced,” and he didn’t want it to happen to him.

Months later, on the night of July 5, Owens was found in the front yard of a home in the 2600 block of Roselawn Ave., shot from behind. Owens’ parents and other family friends said he had gone with his girlfriend to speak with her cousin when a dispute broke out that had nothing to do with Owens.

Police have charged 26-year-old Jivon Brown in the shooting, which also wounded a woman at the scene, saying Brown admitted to the shooting.

Brown did not have an attorney listed and could not be reached.

Owens’ parents said their son’s life was stolen for nothing. They want people to know that he was succeeding in escaping the streets, right up until he wasn’t, and that there is hope for other young men as well.

“He wasn’t no big drug dealer. He wasn’t out here doing all that kind of stuff,” his father said. “He tried to get away from it, and the streets wouldn’t let him. That’s how I look at it. He tried to get away and the streets wouldn’t let him. It’s a repeated story.”

Jones agreed, and said if people ever want that narrative in Baltimore to change, they must work harder to give more young men who come up amid violence the opportunities to escape it.

“Sometimes they look at young minority men and they want to put them some place and throw away the key,” Jones said. “We’ve got to think about all the human capital that exists in our communities and make sure that for young guys like Darryl, even if they’ve made a mistake, it shouldn’t be a life sentence.”

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