Angela Royster met me on her lunch break from her job as a secretary on the Johns Hopkins medical campus to talk about her son. And while doing so, in a busy rooftop restaurant in East Baltimore, Mayor Jack Young happened by. The mayor said hello. I said hello. I introduced Angela and resisted telling the mayor she was the mother of a murder victim. That horrible fact was not mine to give away.
I did not know to what extent she shared grief about her son, Devin Rogers. In fact, when I first encountered her, just a few weeks back, the conversation was cheerful and all about a different son, Dennis.
Readers might recall a column earlier this month about that young man, just 20 years old, who managed to establish his own Caribbean-soul-food carryout, called Hey Daddy’s, in southwest Baltimore. As a teenager, Dennis Royster Jr. had baked and sold hundreds of cookies and cakes in high schools, saving the profits along the way. During and after high school, he learned to cook and manage a kitchen while working in cafes. His parents supported his culinary pursuits; they helped open Hey Daddy’s on McHenry Street in January.
While speaking to Angela about Dennis, I asked if she had other children. She mentioned her three daughters and an older son, Devin.
“My older son passed,” she said, and I immediately assumed, with familiar dread, the cause of death to be homicide. Such is life in Baltimore. A woman of 40-something tells you her son has passed, and you assume the worst.
So here I was, gathering information about the cooking phenom and entrepreneur, Dennis Royster Jr. It was as positive a story as I’ve come across this year. But even this wonderful slice of Baltimore life had tragedy attached.
“Dennis has been working very hard and trying not to think about it,” Angela says. “But he just told me he feels like he’s drowning, and he needs to talk to someone.”
Dennis’ older brother, Devin, was 23. He worked in a large commercial bakery in Halethorpe and lived with their grandmother in north Baltimore. A few minutes before 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, someone shot Devin as he walked in the 2700 block of Cylburn Avenue. He was one of six men shot across the city that night, and one of two who died from their wounds. Because police found no identification on Devin, they were unable to determine who he was right away and did not contact Angela until the next afternoon.
No arrest has been made. Detectives told Devin’s mother they found no connection between his death and other criminal activity, such as gangs or drugs. “It might have been a case of mistaken identity,” she says.
And she has a lot more to say, though the moment passed to address Mayor Young in the restaurant. That was just a couple of days before he announced his intention to seek election to the job he assumed after Catherine Pugh resigned in May. Mayor Young claims Baltimore is “on the cusp of a renaissance,” and if you look from the rooftop of the Residence Inn at Hopkins, it might look that way. From many vantage points, it might look that way.
But the killing is killing us. The shootings occur daily, in darkness and daylight. We had 17 people shot over one weekend this month, and, as I write this, we have 282 homicides on the year. Barring a sudden citywide ceasefire, 2019 will be the fifth consecutive year of 300-plus homicides. Baltimore has many challenges, but none bigger than stemming crime.
I later asked Angela what she might have said to the mayor, or anyone running for that job, and she let loose.
“The only way anyone will get a vote from me is if they have a plan to strategically hit all aspects of what our city has come to,” she said. “What’s going on in our city starts in the homes of these offenders with the lack of love, lack of parenting and levels of dysfunction. There’s a lack of resources for our youth because more is put into the jails than recreation. And [we need] mentoring services for those kids in those dysfunctional homes before they are pushed into the street and shown love from the wrong group.”
She thinks police officers need to go back to sweeping corners: “Drug dealers should not feel as though they can come into a neighborhood and set up shop freely and have the tenants and homeowners afraid to say or do anything.”
The lack of police presence is a problem throughout the city, with the post-Freddie Gray retirements and resignations of experienced officers and a general staffing shortage despite upgraded recruitment efforts.
“What is going to be done about the shortage of officers?” she asks. “The fact that the detective assigned to my son’s case has to wait until he’s on the correct shift to be able to go out on the street to investigate it is insane.”
Insane but depressingly understandable, given the metrics of violence in a city where so many families have been traumatized.
One of Angela’s sons opened a carryout, the other worked in a bakery. Devin looked out for Dennis, saw that he got home safely at night. Their mother believed things were going well. She was proud of her sons, but still feared for their lives and prayed for God to protect them.
And then someone shot Devin, and his mother and everyone in the family grieve every day. We are a city in deep pain from an epoch of violence. From where I sit, next to Angela Royster in the rooftop restaurant, you cannot see the next renaissance.