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Rawlings-Blake's family touched by city's crime

The front door banged open and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake heard her brother scream: "Call the police!"

Rawlings-Blake hurried to the landing of her split-level home that chilly November evening eight years ago. She found her younger brother hunched in the entryway, blood streaming from his neck and back.

"I didn't know what happened," the mayor said Thursday. "I didn't know the circumstances. I picked up the phone and I yanked it so hard I pulled the cord out of the wall."

Reserved and supremely controlled in her emotions, Rawlings-Blake rarely speaks of the night the city's dangers arrived at her front door. But in the days after the stabbing death of a young Johns Hopkins researcher in Charles Village, she has been thinking about the moment that she says helped shape the way she views violent crime.

"There is no acceptable amount of death. There is no acceptable level of violence," said Rawlings-Blake. "This is more than a public safety issue. This is a moral issue. All the communities affected by violence need to be as outraged and as determined to pursue justice."

Rawlings-Blake, vice president of the City Council at the time of the attack on her brother, said it furthered her resolve to push for stricter penalties for violent criminals.

"We have to be vigilant to make sure that people who should not be walking among us are off the street," she said.

John Alexander Wagner, 34, and Lavelva Merritt, 24, are charged with first-degree murder in the death Sunday of 23-year-old Stephen Pitcairn. The pair, who have a long history of drug abuse and violent offenses, are being held without bail.

Rawlings-Blake said Pitcairn's death "hit close to home because there are so many people who are afraid." She said that many assumed fear would prompt her to abandon her Coldspring neighborhood after her brother was attacked.

"But I wasn't going to turn my neighborhood over to a couple of kids who came out to do harm," she said. "Just like in Charles Village, there are too many people who have invested too much in the community to give up."

It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2002 when Wendell P. Rawlings, an engineer living in Reservoir Hill, stopped by his sister's condominium complex off West Cold Spring Lane to drop off a laptop he had borrowed.

"I saw these two guys lingering around," Rawlings, now 38, said Thursday. "I knew in my head, I should have just pulled back around and come back later, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt."

Rawlings was pulling the computer from the trunk of the car when he heard a voice behind him. Two masked figures stood behind him, one flashing a silver weapon and saying something unintelligible. He started to run, but they caught him, slashing his neck, back and stomach.

The Rawlings children, raised in the Ashburton neighborhood by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, one of the state's most notable legislators, and Dr. Nina Rawlings, a pediatrician, had little contact with the drugs and violence that have long been problems in some areas of the city.

When she first heard her brother's cries, Rawlings-Blake, 40, thought he might be joking. The two were born 18 months apart and have a friendly rivalry.

But when she saw blood gushing from deep stab wounds, she knew they had to act quickly.

"He still had his coat on," she recalled. "I grabbed a towel and said, 'You've got to press this against your neck.' " She pressed another towel to his back and told him to lean against the bathroom door to control the bleeding while she called 911.

An ambulance rushed Rawlings to Sinai Hospital, less than a mile away. There the extended Rawlings family huddled in the emergency room, trying to make sense of the attack.

"Nothing like that happens in my neighborhood," said Rawlings-Blake. "We were trying to figure out what happened. Why him?"

Doctors whisked Rawlings into surgery, then came to the family with grim news: The operation had failed to stanch the bleeding. It appeared he might not survive.

But Dr. Rawlings would not give up hope for her son. Delegate Rawlings called Thomas Scalea, physician-in-chief at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, who rode an ambulance to Sinai to pick up Wendell Rawlings.

At the trauma center, Rawlings underwent another round of surgery. When his sister saw him, he was swollen with fluids, hooked up to tubes and beeping machines.

"I was all right until I saw him," said Rawlings-Blake. "He just looked dead."

But within three days Rawlings had improved substantially. He was able to breathe on his own and take a few cautious steps.

Afterward, the family drew on each other and a wide circle of friends for support. Wendell Rawlings celebrated with what he called the "I'm glad I'm not dead" party.

He says the incident changed him, inspiring him to take some time off to work with a nonprofit group that tutored at-risk youth. He wanted to prevent other young men from following the path of his youthful attackers — who were 15 and 16 at the time. Both were sent to jail; one would be killed behind bars.

He taught the kids in the nonprofit group capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, and instructed them in engineering projects. He has remained a mentor to several of the young men.

Working with young people "was helping me out as much as it helped them," he said. It restored his faith in others.

Rawlings-Blake returned from the hospital to a tangible reminder of the attack: a front doorway soaked with her brother's blood. Her husband, Kent Blake, ripped up the stained carpet and for weeks the couple walked across grit and sharp tacks until the floor was replaced.

"Time passes," said Rawlings-Blake.  "But I don't know if I'd say I healed. You can't look at my brother and not think about it. There are huge scars on his neck, his back, his chest. It's a reminder of how close I came to losing him."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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