"Where's your mother?" the girl was asked.
"She's trying to find a funeral home for my brother," she said.
The girl stood on the front steps of a small townhouse on a court with one of those suburban-rustic names: Walden Oak. The house was in Woodlawn. The front yard, framed by chain-link fence, was bright green and dotted with dandelions. Small boys were walking home from school. In the distance, you could hear a lawn mower.
"Do you know what the police are saying about your brother?" I asked the girl, whose name is Josette Alston, 16 years old.
"That he's a drug dealer?" she said.
"Yeah, that he was a drug dealer."
"Yeah," she said so casually she might have been talking about the weather, "he was a drug dealer. Him and Derrick and Chunky."
Josette Alston was speaking of her younger brother, Joseph Christopher Alston, 15, whom most everyone called Chris; her boyfriend, Derrick Lamont Newman, 19; and Charles "Chunky" Jefferson Jr., 18. They are all dead.
Police say they were murdered in the basement of a rowhouse on Yale Avenue, which is in the Yale Heights section of southwest Baltimore, late Friday or early Saturday. Their bodies were dumped in Odenton. Police found them Monday. Detectives have said the triple slaying resulted from a drug deal that went bad. They charged a 31-year-old man named Ricardo Burks with the murders. They say Burks believed Alston, Newman and Jefferson had sold him some bad crack cocaine.
Josette Alston, sister of Chris and girlfriend of Derrick, doesn't believe that.
Chris and Derrick wouldn't sell bad dope to a steady customer. Plus, she said, money and jewelry were taken off the bodies of the three teen-agers after the killings in the basement on Yale Avenue. She thinks, therefore, robbery was a motive.
"I knew something was wrong last Friday or Saturday," she said. "I kept calling Derrick on his beeper and he didn't return my calls. I figured they were either dead or on the run. . . . I figured
they were dead."
"Your brother was 15, he was the youngest of the bunch," I said. "Was he a runner for Derrick and Chunky?"
"No, Chris had his own product," Josette Alston said. "They were all helping each other out."
She said the trio of teens sold Ready Rock. That's cocaine that has been prepared and cooked down for smoking. After the cooking, the cocaine hardens into a pebble, or rock, thus its name. Junkies burn the Ready Rock and inhale the smoke.
"They just started doing the Ready Rock," Josette Alston said.
"No, they didn't use it, they just sold it. They started out selling reefer, then they switched to powder cocaine, then Ready Rock. They had someone else cook it for them and they sold it."
Yale Heights was a regular part of the sales territory, she said. Some of the junkies there had a crude way of smoking Ready Rock. "They take a two-liter soda bottle and put aluminum foil on top and burn the Ready Rock on top," she said. "Then they cut a hole in the bottle and stick a straw in it and inhale the smoke."
Josette Alston said her boyfriend, Derrick Newman, had grown up with Chunky Jefferson.
"Derrick's mother died April 19, 1977," she said.
"How do you know that date?" I asked.
"She got shot."
Josette Alston's mother, who works in the housekeeping department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been head of her household for about 12 years. Her husband was killed in an accident, leaving her to provide for three girls and a boy. The Alston family moved from the city into the townhouse in Woodlawn last year. Chris Alston was enrolled in Johnnycake Middle School. You can walk from the townhouse to the middle school, a trek the boy rarely made.
"He wasn't with us very long," Ralph Wood, the Johnnycake principal, said yesterday afternoon. "He was 15 and repeating the 7th grade. He was a city transfer with a horrendous absentee record. The previous year in the city, he had missed 144 of 180 days of school. . . . He came to school the first day wearing a huge amount of gold, and when I sat him down and explained that that wouldn't go here, he said he needed to make himself outstanding in a new place. He had a term for that. I can't remember what it was. . . . "
"Styling" was the term Chris Alston used.
Ed Massey, the assistant principal at Johnnycake, remembered the word.
"He said he was styling his territory," Massey said.
He pulled out two manila folders full of information about Christopher Joseph Alston and set them on his desk.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw him," Massey said. "It was in the morning, the buses were arriving, and I was standing outside the school. A guy drove up in a black car and let [Alston] out. And our other kids, the ones who thought they were kind of cool, froze, they just froze. They backed away. It was like the seas parting. He had that kind of presence about him. In 19 years in education, I never saw one individual who could do so much with his mere presence. He was short and built solid. His walk, his chiseled looks. It said, 'I'm bad and don't mess with me.' "