He came back from Hagerstown the way they all do -- riding that eastbound Greyhound, with a few pieces of clothing and some discharge papers crammed into a brown bag. In his pocket, nothing save the change from the $25 they issue for bus fare at the prison gate.
It was Wednesday, a month ago, and he walked north and east from the bus station, heading for Barclay Street. Aunt Deelie's place. Second rowhouse from the corner.
Minutes later and a lifetime away, the phone rang in a well-kept kitchen of a brick rancher in the Baltimore County suburbs. He heard a woman's voice. Grandma.
"Dontay! Is that you? Where are you calling from?"
"Grandma, I'm home. I'm down at Aunt Deelie's."
"You're not home," she said, suddenly firm. "This is your home."
But Dontay Carter shrugged her off, telling Clarice Matthews -- the woman who raised him, the woman who truly loved him like a son -- that he would be staying somewhere else. The suburbs weren't home anymore; in Dontay's mind, they never were. He was back in East Baltimore. His mother's world.
"Are you going to go find your mother?" his grandmother asked, knowing too well the bond that couldn't be broken. Dontay lived for his mother, turning his life upside down again and again for the love of a woman who had no time for him.
"No," said Dontay.
"I'm not going to go find her," he told his grandmother. "Let her be the one to find me this time. She'll know soon enough that I'm home."
And it was true. She would know. Soon enough, all of Baltimore would know that Dontay Mandal Carter was home. Soon enough, an entire city would be looking in horror at the same Baltimore Police Identification photograph on television screens and newspaper pages. Carter, Dontay, BPI Number 360-616.
Sixteen days after his release from the Maryland Correctional Training Center, this 18-year-old's unworn face -- young and black, eyes staring vacantly at a holding cell camera -- would be suddenly transformed into a predatory icon. Three kidnappings, a brutal murder, armed robberies, an orgy of spending with the victims' credit cards -- all of it allegedly undertaken by Dontay Carter and three others from the East Baltimore corners.
It was a crime spree that would play to middle-class fears, that the media would readily devour, that would touch Baltimore's most sensitive racial nerves. Every target was a well-dressed white man, a professional, accosted in a public parking garage. One victim was herded into a vacant rowhouse, then beaten to death with a metal pipe; another nearly strangled and left for dead in a car trunk. Alone in the dark, that man heard two of his captors talking about what to do with the body.
Burn it, he heard a young voice say. Burn it so they can't recognize it.
In the days that followed, all of Maryland seemed to be staring at the same police mug shot, with many thinking the same thoughts: In so brief a life, how could anyone become this cold, this evil? How does any young man grow up to lose so quickly every last shred and shard of his humanity?
Dontay Carter defies preconceptions.
This was always a child in whom people saw promise. He was a fine student, a hard worker who ran up high marks and perfect attendance records and, at one point, was placed in a program for gifted children. He showed a natural aptitude for music, singing in his church choir and learning at an early age to play piano by ear.
To be sure, his 18 years include deprivations -- a missing father, an indifferent mother -- but the larger truth is that Dontay was raised by people who loved him, who gave him those things every child needs, who wanted desperately to see him succeed. Yet he fled from them, returning time and again to the rowhouses of the eastside slums.
"He could have been a very fine young man, a young man who could have made a contribution in this world," says Mrs. Matthews, who spent nine years doing everything conceivable to save her grandchild from himself. "I can't believe that he has come to this."
And though there is ample evidence in his early years of a troubled, angry youth, Dontay Carter's juvenile record offers no prediction of shameless, random murder. Petty thefts, stolen cars and shoplifting -- this is the arrest sheet of a sneak thief and schemer. Only in the last years did he embrace violence.
"He was not raised as one of these children out in the street and just throwed away," says Ardella McGraw, 80, a widow who reared Dontay's mother. It was Mrs. McGraw -- Aunt Deelie, to her friends and family -- whom Dontay Carter first sought when he stepped off the Greyhound.
"He was taken care of very good. He was raised in church by church-going people," Mrs. McGraw says. "There was just something that turned his head. I don't know what it was. Maybe he felt he was not wanted by his mother, I don't know. . . . We just have to leave it in the hands of the Lord now and let the Lord do His will."