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A Baltimore man, an ex-offender who wanted to go straight, dies in a mysterious crash in Gettysburg | COMMENTARY

Fiirefighters on the scene of a three-alarm blaze as multiple buildings caught fire after a car crashed into a structure in Gettysburg. Kurtis Williams of Baltimore died after his car crashed into a building in downtown Gettysburg, PA., early in the morning Monday, March 1, 2021.
Fiirefighters on the scene of a three-alarm blaze as multiple buildings caught fire after a car crashed into a structure in Gettysburg. Kurtis Williams of Baltimore died after his car crashed into a building in downtown Gettysburg, PA., early in the morning Monday, March 1, 2021. (Harrison Jones)

When I first met Kurtis Williams and listened to his story, in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun in 2018, I found him hard to read, but I sensed both earnestness and worry in his voice.

Just four months out of prison, Williams was having a hard time finding a job and came to The Sun for help. I thought his post-incarceration struggles, typical of ex-offenders, merited a column and perhaps an episode of the podcast I produced at the time. Williams was agreeable to that. “You never know,” I told him, “someone might read about you and give you a chance.”

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Williams was 35 years old, but looked and seemed 10 years younger. He was a small man, wore glasses and a necktie, and he carried a briefcase. His hunt for a job — he was interested in graphic design or maybe studying to get into financial services — had been frustrating. When you have a murder conviction attached to your name, that’s how it goes.

Williams, raised by a single mother in West Baltimore, was selling drugs by the time he was 14. His heroes, he told me, were the neighborhood dealers. Expelled from school at 16, he was charged at 17 with fatally shooting another teen during a street argument. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and served 17 years of a 28-year sentence before being paroled.

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“It’s a Baltimore thing,” he said, alluding to the fact that a lot of boys from poor city families ended up in prison, as juveniles or adults. Those convicted of murder were often sentenced to life in prison. Others, like Williams, received sentences of 25 to 50 years and eventually earned release. “As callous as this sounds,” Williams said, “this is Baltimore City, and I’m not the first, and I’m not going to be the last person that might have a murder charge sitting in front of you. That’s unfortunate. But that’s just the reality of the city that we’re living in.”

Williams argued that even convicted killers needed a second chance in life.

While there are more support services for them these days, ex-offenders are still largely on their own, and so much of reentry success turns on their level of maturity, their psychological readiness to withstand rejection and the shock of suddenly living in a free society. Williams seemed to understand that.

“I got to survive out here, I got to take care of myself,” he said. “I don’t want to be out here on the corners, I don’t want to be trying to rob people and create more victims. I’m just trying to right my wrong and move on with my life.”

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The Sun published my column and posted my podcast on Williams in June 2018. Marshall Klein of Klein’s ShopRite of Maryland read the column and offered to consider Williams for a job. He passed muster at the interview and went to work, in food service then in seafood, at the ShopRite in Howard Park. However, after several months, Williams was unemployed again. “It just didn’t work out,” Klein said at the time.

“We understand,” he added, “that reentry is a hard process, and if we gauged the success on whether every person, or even the majority of people, chose a different path, we would be disappointed and may decide to stop offering opportunities. Instead, we believe our company should offer these opportunities knowing it will likely not work out for most of those who receive them. Sometimes it does work out, and in those cases we see an associate truly change the direction of their life.”

I tried to contact Williams after he left ShopRite, but he didn’t respond. I never heard from him again.

Then, just a few days ago, Pat Felix, the coroner for Adams County in southern Pennsylvania, confirmed that a Kurtis D. Williams of Baltimore had been the driver of a car that smashed into a souvenir shop in Gettysburg, setting that building and one next to it on fire. Williams died from blunt trauma, Felix said, and his body had been identified through DNA analysis. She ruled his death an accident.

I can’t be sure it’s the same person I spoke with three years ago, but it certainly appears to be. The coroner could not provide contacts for his next of kin, but she did confirm that the driver’s 1983 birthdate was the same as that of the Kurtis Williams I met.

Gettysburg Police Chief Robert Glenny said his staff has been unable to solve a mystery: Why Williams was driving — at high speed, according to news reports — through Gettysburg early on the morning of Monday, March 1. His car hit the buildings at a slight bend in Baltimore Street around 4:15 a.m., sparking a three-alarm fire. Tenants of one building lost their domicile. The souvenir shop, owned by the Strickland family, was destroyed.

“We lost over 40 years of family business records and personal items of my grandparents, even my grandfather’s [World War II] medals,” Julie Strickland wrote me after finding my 2018 column while searching for information on the driver. “The loss has been unimaginable for my family. Naturally, I’m angry! Especially after seeing the type of person he was!”

Strickland’s anger is understandable; I can personally attest to the emotional trauma of seeing a family business destroyed by fire.

But, of course, we don’t really know the type of person Kurtis Williams was. We can speculate and think the worst. Or we can wait to learn more. I spent two hours with him three years ago, and found him earnest and worried, but also hard to read. I don’t really know all that happened to Kurtis Williams — when he was a boy, when he was in prison or after he left the supermarket job and went out into the world.

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