I met Donte Crawford five years ago as a reporter, working on a series of stories about children growing up in violent neighborhoods. News this week that the now 21-year-old was arrested as part of a major Baltimore drug dealing ring lays heavy on my heart.
Like many teenagers in Baltimore’s most impoverished communities, Mr. Crawford faced many challenges — a mother he said would show up to his school drunk, struggles with learning and a generally troubled home life.
Yet, those handicaps he was dealt in life were just a small part of the complex teen I grew to know. He was a skinny guy who liked to joke around, he was close to a cousin at his school and was enamored with a new girlfriend. Mr. Crawford was also introspective and a great thinker — very well aware of the unfortunate circumstances he faced, along with numerous other young black men like him. He once questioned how he made it to high school, yet could barely read, angry that so many people had passed him along, rather than help him. In a Baltimore Sun video, Mr. Crawford worked to sound out basic letters.
You have to take every part of a flower to make it bloom, and if you do that, “when it blooms, it’s going to be beautiful,” he said on the video.
“If you’ve never been loved before,” he said. “how do you take love if you don’t understand it?"
I wasn’t the only one that saw the potential in this young man. Others tried to direct him toward a better life. Both a principal and a mentor at Renaissance Academy in Baltimore exposed him to experiences outside of his West Baltimore enclave to get a taste of what else was out there.
But somewhere along the way, the grips of criminal life in Baltimore proved too much to loosen. His arrest this week on drug charges — one of 12 people police claim are members of a notorious criminal operation called Primetime that distributed drugs in three districts — was not his first tangle with the criminal justice system.
In 2015, Mr. Crawford stabbed a classmate to death at Renaissance; he said that he was acting out of self-defense after weeks of bullying, something the victim’s family and prosecutors vehemently denied. I covered his trial, where he stirred a jury with emotional testimony, saying he feared for his life. He was acquitted of the crime, but another child lost their life and another family grieved and felt the killing unjustified. After that, those around Mr. Crawford tried to get him out of town and on a better path and make him realize the second chance he had been given. Instead, with a little brother to protect in Baltimore and the enticement of home, Mr. Crawford ended up back in Baltimore and in trouble once again.
Over the past few years, I have often wondered what had become of him. I’d written to him two times while he was imprisoned on homicide charges, but never heard back. Perhaps he never got the letters or could not even read them. Or maybe he just didn’t want a nosy reporter prying in his life.
I was surprised to read about him again in the pages of The Sun in 2017. This time he had been admitted to Shock Trauma after he was found shot in the chest in a stolen car. Police believed he was injured while fleeing from someone during a gun battle. He was charged with seven criminal counts in the incident.
Apparently, even a brush with death wasn’t enough to scare him straight.
He now faces multiple drug dealing charges after the Primetime drug operation arrest. If he’s guilty, I can only guess what happened to Mr. Crawford in recent years to cause him to make the choices that he did. Maybe with limited skills, he thought he could never get a true 9 to 5 job. Perhaps, in the drug operation he found the love he had longed for. He might have needed money to help take care of his little brother.
Or maybe he had decided his fate as young black man with all the odds against him was destined and there was not much that he could do to stop it.
In The Sun video he summed up living life in West Baltimore: “Try not to get killed before you’re, like, 21,” he said. “Or get locked up until you’re, like, 30. That’s about it.”
I still hold out hope that he will somehow find his way, give up a life of crime and, most importantly, realize that locked up or dead does not have to be the outcome.