Those who knew both pity, forgive slain boy, accused man Right, wrong blur in killing

October 23, 1994|By Sandy Banisky and Norris P. West | Sandy Banisky and Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writers Editorial assistant Nathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.

On East 20th Street, the children are still trying to make sense of it: that night two weeks ago when 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. was shot dead in the street, allegedly by a neighbor who grabbed a .357 Magnum as a pack of boys vandalized his car.

They solemnly assure the adults who ask that they've been sorting out right from wrong.

"He didn't have to shoot him," a small boy said into the bullhorn at a vigil held outside Vernon's foster home last week.

"He could have shot up in the air and given a warning," said 12-year-old Tinera Bowers, one of Vernon's foster sisters.

"It was all their fault that they were throwing rocks at his car," said a grade-school neighbor named Jamal. "And after they threw that rock and it cracked the windshield, he had to shoot them."

The issues of right and wrong in the case aren't so clear for adults. In the days after the shooting, radio talk shows and newspaper columns were filled with voices of Baltimoreans trying to determine who deserved their sympathy and who should be condemned.

The response to the killing became almost a referendum on street justice. Many Baltimoreans rallied behind the accused man, whom they saw as a neighbor pushed over the brink by menacing youths. A few spoke up for the dead victim.

But for some of the residents of this East Baltimore neighborhood, with its boarded-up houses and trash-filled gutters and drug traffic, there was no need to take sides. For the people who knew them both, Vernon Holmes and Nathaniel Hurt each deserved pity and forgiveness.

"There's more than one victim here," said Sylvia Fulwood, executive director of the East Baltimore Midway/Barclay Community Development Corporation.

The two were so different.

Mr. Hurt, neighbors and relatives said, was the kind of anchor every block wants, every city depends on.

Mr. Hurt was solid: Married for 38 years, he and his late wife reared five children. He has worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point since he was 17. He owned a home that he kept immaculate.

In sharp contrast was the short life of Vernon Holmes: He struggled in school. He was put in foster care last spring, reportedly by a mother who said she no longer could handle him. He was a follower, never a leader.

On the night of Oct. 10, their lives collided. Amid the rock-throwing, Mr. Hurt may not have been able to discern mischief from menace. And young Vernon, the slow learner new to the neighborhood, may not have been able to figure out when to stop following the crowd.

The lesson? "Glass you can replace," a 12-year-old girl named C.A. said the other night on the block where Vernon lived. "You can't replace a life."

'He liked to play'

There are 13-year-olds on Baltimore's streets who are, in size and authority, men. They swagger. They deal drugs. They carry guns. Vernon, his friends and relatives say, was not one of them.

He was short and skinny, with crooked front teeth that were still a bit too big for his little-boy face. On East 20th Street, 10-year-old C.A. said Vernon "liked to joke a lot. He liked to play a lot."

Agnes Holmes, an aunt who lives in Edgemere, said Vernon "acted just like everybody else. I knew he was a little slow, but it wasn't to the point he was wasn't educable. He was not an average learner."

At 9, Vernon was transferred to Battle Monument Elementary, a special education school in Dundalk. As he grew older, he developed behavior problems, disrupting his classes. By last winter, school officials were concerned enough, sources say, to refer him for psychiatric care.

Sources said the boy was sent to Gundry/Glass Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Pikesville. About that time, relatives and other sources say, Vernon's mother, Avis Cross, called a state agency and said she could no longer control her son. State foster care officials would not comment on the case, but sources said Ms. Cross alleged that Vernon had threatened her.

In March, Vernon was placed in a foster home that apparently did not work out. In June, he was shifted to the home of Dorothy and Robert Lewis in the 700 block of East 20th St. They would not talk to reporters.

Vernon was put in foster care even though his father had an extended family in eastern Baltimore County, relatives who lived in stable neighborhoods, held steady jobs and said they gladly would have taken Vernon in if they had known.

The boy spent his first few years among them in Edgemere. His parents -- Ms. Cross and Vernon Holmes Sr. never married -- lived close to several relatives.

They remember that Vernon liked to dance and ride bicycles. "He wasn't a bad boy. He liked to play and run," recalled Govan Holmes Sr., Vernon's paternal grandfather.

Vernon's parents broke up while he was a toddler. Mr. Holmes, who had a drinking problem, moved to East Baltimore and didn't see the boy for about three years, he said. Young Vernon lived with his mother and her parents in Dundalk.

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