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Followup: Kurtis Williams was on the right path when he crashed in Gettysburg | COMMENTARY

Kurtis Williams, in yellow hard hat, at work on plumbing systems for Bauer Mechanical in 2020. Williams, a former Maryland inmate, had been a plumber's apprentice at the time of his death in a fiery crash in Gettysburg, Pa.
Kurtis Williams, in yellow hard hat, at work on plumbing systems for Bauer Mechanical in 2020. Williams, a former Maryland inmate, had been a plumber's apprentice at the time of his death in a fiery crash in Gettysburg, Pa. (Kevin Reddy, Bauer Mechanical)

After a March 1 car crash in downtown Gettysburg killed the driver and sparked a three-alarm fire that destroyed a gift shop and damaged other buildings, I received emails informing me that the victim was possibly a man I had written about three years ago, Kurtis Darius Williams.

Indeed, a 35-year-old man by that name had come to The Baltimore Sun for help in 2018. Williams had been having a tough time finding a job after serving 17 years in prison for second-degree murder, a crime related to his former life as a drug dealer. In 2001, when he was 17, Williams had pleaded guilty to fatally shooting another teen in a street argument. Released from prison, he had come back to his mother’s home in Baltimore determined to beat the odds by finding work and staying out of trouble.

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I interviewed him twice about his life and his need for employment. The Sun published my column about him on June 15, 2018.

After putting Williams in touch with a prospective employer, Klein’s ShopRite of Maryland, I had no further contact with him.

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Then, two weeks ago, the coroner for Adams County, Pennsylvania identified Kurtis Williams of Baltimore as the driver in that fiery crash in Gettysburg; she ruled his death an accident.

Several people discovered my 2018 column online and contacted me. Some seemed to suggest that, because Williams had committed a violent crime at 17, his horrific death and the damage it caused were predictable.

A woman whose family owned the gift shop said she was angry at the destruction caused by the accident “especially after seeing the type of person he was!”

Another woman speculated that, after prison, Williams “didn’t really change that much.”

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I devoted last Sunday’s column to Williams and the mysterious accident in which he died. (No one knows why he was driving through Gettysburg — and speeding, according to news reports — at 4:15 a.m.) Comments about him on Facebook ranged from sympathetic to sarcastic. Some readers claimed it was “karma” at work — that Williams, having killed at 17, deserved what he got at 37.

I have heard harsh comments about ex-offenders before. But in the 16 years since I started writing about them, I have found most people sympathetic to the need of former inmates to work so they can support themselves without reverting to crime. From the liberal champions of “restorative justice” to the conservative business class to the religious right, most people understand the importance of second chances.

One such person gave Kurtis Williams a job. His name is Jeff Bauer. He contacted me after Sunday’s column, and now I can tell you more about Williams’ life these last two years.

Bauer is a gregarious fellow who runs Bauer Mechanical, a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning company on the southwest side of Baltimore. The company takes on big jobs, building and repairing HVAC systems in schools, retirement communities, office buildings and hospitals.

Over three decades, Bauer thinks he has hired about two dozen men and women out of prison as plumbers’ helpers. He’s paid for some to attend classes toward a plumber’s license. Many did not last, but a few stayed with Bauer for several years and became licensed. One was a fellow named Russell Tucker, now on his own as a master plumber and trading as Leon Russell & Co.

“That man is a blessing,” Tucker says of Bauer. “He’s like a father to me. He made me into a man, bought me clothes, taught me a skill. He gave me a shot.”

Bauer didn’t ask about Tucker’s criminal record when he answered an ad for a job in 2006. “He didn’t care,” Tucker says.

Twelve years later, it was Tucker who introduced Bauer to Kurtis Williams.

Tucker and Williams knew each other from serving time together in prison in Western Maryland. In late 2018, they happened into a Baltimore auto parts store at the same time and struck up a conversation. Williams had already left his job at ShopRite; he told Tucker he was looking for work.

Tucker sent a text message to Bauer: “Hey old man, I need a real big favor. I just ran into a real good friend of mine who just came off 17 years [in prison]. He has a driver’s license, high school diploma, car to get to work. Can you please give him the same opportunity you gave me?”

Bauer could and he did.

Starting in January 2019, Williams became an apprentice and took classes through Associated Builders and Contractors toward being a journeyman. He trained under master plumbers and the supervision of John Graham and Al Bauer, Jeff’s brother. Williams worked on HVAC systems in schools, a nursing home and a fitness center. Last year, he helped Bauer outfit COVID isolation rooms at Mercy Hospital.

The managers at Bauer Mechanical describe him as a hard worker who never complained about the chores he was assigned and frequently expressed gratitude for the job. He was happy with a pipe wrench or hacksaw in hand. He was smart, an observer of the stock market who painstakingly selected the investment funds for his 401(k).

“We want people to know,” Al Bauer said, “that he went out of this world a good person ….”

Kurtis Williams, against all odds, appeared to have found the right path in life when he died suddenly in Gettysburg. That’s not karma. That’s tragic.

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