"M-a-a-n-n-n," drawled my friend, "if I had some money I'd get some T-shirts printed that said, 'I am NOT Dontay Carter.' I bet I'd make a fortune." Everyone chuckled.
"Or, you know those stickers people put in the rear windows of their cars? We could get some that said, 'Dontay Carter is NOT on board." We chuckled again.
"I've got one," said somebody else. "What's the difference between a thriving metropolis and a ghost town? The ghost town has a sign up that says, 'Dontay Carter slept here.' " More laughter.
For some 30 hours early this week, many people in this metropolitan area seemed gripped by the most terrible fear they have ever known: A convicted killer and alleged kidnapper named Dontay Carter had escaped from his captors and was on the loose.
But just as many people were more bemused than terrified by the demonization of this 19-year-old black youth from East Baltimore.
The Dontay Carter jokes represent a backlash against the hyperbole and hysteria: The "most-feared, most-notorious criminal in Maryland," a "monster" and an "animal." Please! Police claim that Carter was the ringleader and mastermind of a group of black teen-agers who stalked well-dressed white men in city parking garages last February, kidnapped them, and used their credit cards and identification to fuel a wild spending spree.
In November, Carter was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Vitalis Pilius, 37, a support engineer with Hewlett-Packard Co. Last month, Carter pleaded guilty to the kidnapping of Douglas R. Legenhausen, 47, a jeweler. Carter escaped from a restroom at the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse Monday, during a trial for the kidnapping and attempted murder of Dr. Daniel E. Ford, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The crime spree set off one of the most furious bursts of public outrage and anger in years. Politicians demanded the death penalty for the killers. Four state troopers were either disciplined or fired because they had fumbled opportunities to catch the killers. A clerk at the Motor Vehicles Administration was fired because she issued Carter a new driver's license in the name of one of the victims. The head of the MVA announced he would no longer try to operate a "user friendly" agency and asked for $20 million for a computer that would prevent future Dontay Carters from obtaining phony licenses. Downtown businessmen announced they would relocate to the suburbs unless city officials could guarantee their safety.
Carter's escape Monday afternoon set it all off again, leading to one of the most intense manhunts in this city in almost three decades. Two guards were fired, and courthouse officials announced a strict new policy regarding defendants' use of restrooms. Young black men throughout the area were stopped and questioned by police. A SWAT team finally found this fear-inspiring killer Tuesday evening, hiding under a bed and whimpering for mercy.
"Let me tell you something, that Dontay Carter ain't nothing compared to some of the cats they've got out here," said one city police officer yesterday. "I asked one man why he shot a guy and he grinned at me and said, 'I didn't like the way he looked'.
"We had a guy who was so bad he beat up his mother and his father and every girlfriend he ever had," the officer continued. "When he was beating up his mother, his uncle tried to break it up and he put him in the hospital, too. We've had guys who were so strong it took 10 to 12 officers just to get the handcuffs on them. There are some dudes out here who are so violent and so deadly they make Dontay Carter look like a mother's boy."
Yes, but their crimes are confined to the inner city and their victims are poor and black. No outrage. No statewide manhunts. They barely rate mention in the news. What made Carter so notorious was his choice of victims -- white, middle-class professional people who were snatched from supposed sanctums of security.
There is a moral to the Dontay Carter case, but I am afraid we have yet to learn it: Not all life is equally precious in our society. Crimes against some people are considered more horrible than crimes against others.