BALTIMORE, July 30 — Kajuan Guinn was just 8, and recently reunited with his family after years in foster care, when his chronically ill mother died of complications from lupus.
He was devastated.
“He was always taking care of his mother,” his sister, Ashley Terry said of Guinn, “He would empty her pan for her.”
Two years after his mother died, Guinn ran away, following his father’s path into a world of gangs, drugs and violence on the streets of Baltimore. When Guinn was 13, someone showed Terry a crudely produced film, “Stop Snitchin Part 2,” in which a young boy posed with gang members, holding a gun and smoking a marijuana-filled cigar. The boy was her brother.
It wasn’t until he was a teenager, and a series of arrests landed him in juvenile facilities in Maryland and Pennsylvania, that he reconnected with his siblings. Once out, he visited his sister on holidays and sent report cards and letters urging his younger brother to “keep his head up and stay out of trouble.”
Terry, seven years older, knew that her brother considered her a mother figure. But, she said, “I didn’t know how to make boys into men.”
A year ago, at 12.35am on July 30, Guinn was shot and killed on the street outside a Chinese restaurant that has been the scene of a number of recent murders in Baltimore. He was 21.
Guinn was the first of five Baltimore residents under 30 who died from gunshots over three days of concentrated carnage last summer. All of them were black.
In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death while in custody on April 19, allegations of police brutality in Baltimore have received extensive and deserved attention, but the city’s entrenched problems extend far beyond policing issues. Young people die unnecessarily every week in Baltimore — from complications of chronic illness, from accidents, from drugs and, overwhelmingly, from gunshots. In 2014, all but a handful of the 116 under 30 who died violently were black and male. Few families are spared.
“Over the last 30 years there were somewhere between 190 and 350 people murdered each year,” in Baltimore said Philip Leaf, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “So it’s your uncle if it’s not you.”
Still, five young people killed in three days is a lot even for Baltimore. Reuters examined the deaths and their aftermath, using data collected by the Baltimore Police Department, the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Baltimore Sun, as well as interviews and other public records.
A year later, gaping holes remain in the lives of the families of those who died. But the deaths are otherwise remarkable only for their small contribution to Baltimore’s reputation as one of America’s deadliest cities for young people.
Homicides have increased so far this year by a third, and as another summer’s worth of deaths unfolds, the families of last year’s victims still hope for closure. But they have been repeatedly disappointed. The Baltimore City Police Department reports a clearance rate of about 45 per cent in last year’s homicides. A suspect has been charged in only one of the five killings examined by Reuters.
Here are the stories of the four other young people who died in those few days.
Dominic Tales, 7/31/2014, 1.01am
For 19 years, Miriam Tales, 44, successfully kept her son Dominic safe in a city where death was never far away. “Every summer one of his friends was killed,” Tales said of Dominic’s high school years. But her son held steady jobs, stayed away from gangs and spent lots of time with his family. She didn’t expect him to be next. Then, early on the morning of July 31 last year, Tales walked around a corner and interrupted a robbery. Prosecutors allege that Marquel Gaffney, 22, shot both Dominic and a man he was attempting to rob. The other victim survived. Gaffney, in jail awaiting trial on murder charges, has pleaded not guilty. “If you knew, you would know he was not someone who deserved this,” said Tales.
Devin Cook, 7/31/2014, 11.44pm
Devin Cook was just a month away from leaving for college in Missouri on a lacrosse scholarship, when he agreed to drive a friend home from practice after dark. Someone with a gun approached the car and asked to borrow a cell phone, and when Cook handed it over the shooting began.
Cook was shot three times in the chest. His friend was shot twice, but still managed to drive the car to a hospital, where Cook died. The crime remains unsolved.
“He always helped people out — that’s what got him killed,” said his grandfather Ronald Cook, 61, who raised him. During the weeks leading up to his death, Devin, 20, had been taking classes at Catonsville Community College, playing lacrosse and working at the Baltimore Zoo. “The last thing he said to me, he fussed at me for mowing the lawn because he wanted to mow it,” Cook said.
Kevin Butler, Jr., 8/1/2014, 1.50am
As a young man, Kevin Butler, Jr., used heavy drugs and spent time in jail. But fatherhood, his relatives say, had inspired him to try to be a better person. By July of last year, they say, he had gotten clean and moved to Baltimore to live with a cousin and look for work.
Early on the morning of August 1, Butler, 29, told his cousin he was going out for cigarettes. On the street, he met a friend, and soon after someone began shooting at them. The friend, the family said, told them he ran and hid. Butler was mortally wounded. His killing remains unsolved, and Butler’s mother, Tershelle Brown, feels as if the police — and the city — have lost interest.
“These young kids are killing young kids every day but now when a policeman kills somebody everybody wants to protest,” she said, referring to the protests that erupted following Gray’s death. “What about how somebody killed my son? Did anybody go and riot about that?” Brown said her son had begun singing in a men’s church choir prior to his death. His favourite Gospel song, according to his sister LaToya, was ‘No Weapon Formed Against Me.’
McKenzie Elliott, 8/1/2014, 3.51pm
Three-year-old McKenzie Elliott was playing on her front porch in the afternoon when someone rode past on a bicycle and started shooting. A neighbour threw herself on top of Elliott to protect her, but she had already been hit. Her murder, too, remains unsolved, though the police commissioner at the time, Anthony Batts, announced publicly in the days after Elliott’s death that he expected to make an arrest within a week. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Batts earlier this month.
“I blame the neighbourhood because somebody knows who did it,” said Elliott’s godmother Tanya Watt. “There’s a street code where you don’t tell, but there’s no rule when it comes to a three-year-old.” She said her family is still struggling after Elliott’s death. The girl’s eight-year-old cousin, Khadin, sees a therapist. He likes to watch videos he made of his cousin, which he keeps stored on a portable player. He insisted on helping carry Elliott’s tiny coffin at her funeral.
In May, the city renamed the street where she died McKenzie Elliott Way. Her relatives are unimpressed. They just want her killer found.
A legacy of segregation
A year after their loved ones died, all five families are still struggling. Brown and Tales both think Baltimore’s social fabric is too severely frayed to repair.
Academics who have studied the area and its entrenched problems agree that change won’t come easily. Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, sees many of Baltimore’s ills today as rooted in the city’s legacy of strict segregation that began in the early 1900s.
“When you combine the psychological impact of racism, anti-blackness, economic conditions, red-lining, disinvestment,” he said, it’s no wonder “we have a disproportionate rate of violence.”
Ashley Terry, Kajuan Guinn’s older sister, remains hopeful, however, that the current generation of young parents and their kids might be able to overcome their broken pasts. “I think we could be the ones to change things,” Terry said. “I didn’t really have any parents, but I did a better job.” Still, she wishes she could move somewhere else.
While her husband drives a truck for a distribution company, Terry focuses on caring for her extended family and saving money. She used to work a night shift as a home health aide but she stopped recently, after her elderly client died. “I would rather be in another state,” she said. “But just getting out of this neighbourhood would be fine.” — Reuters