Four shots in the night ended one life, changed another A North Avenue Story

June 11, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Nathaniel Hurt is sweeping his sidewalk on a hot spring morning. Across Homewood Avenue, several vacant rowhouses are boarded up with plywood. On the south side of North Avenue, food wrappers and bits of broken glass are strewn along the sidewalk. By midday, the local open-air drug markets will be open for business, bringing more people, and more trash, to the neighborhood.

2 "Oh no," says Hurt. "The dead can't hurt you."

No saints

The fan mail pours in from all over -- Tacoma, Wash., Albany, N.Y., a town in Michigan. "It seems unjust to punish you." "You and your family will be in my prayers." "Justice was not only blind in this case, she was downright stupid." Sometimes the letters are accompanied by money orders, $5 or $10, to apply toward his bail.

Clearly, there are plenty of people ready to make Hurt a hero. So why is he sitting at his kitchen table, telling tales on himself, enumerating every mistake he ever made?

"I don't want nobody to think that I think I'm a saint," he explains.

He grew up in a four-room house on Chapel Street, near Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was the oldest son, and when the outdoor plumbing moved indoors, he shared his room with the bathroom. His father left when he was young, but Helen Hurt found another husband, then another.

"There were no jobs for black men," he recalls, explaining why men came and went. "You couldn't drive a bus, or be a policeman. The only thing you could do was work on an ash truck. You know what a dirty business that is, working on an ash truck?"

Juvenile hall? He was there a couple times. Had a few children out of wedlock, too, and the state breathing down his neck for support payments. Avoided drugs and alcohol, but had a weakness for gambling -- a continuing weakness, as underscored by the Steelworkers Credit Union calendar hanging his back door, three sets of daily numbers recorded for quick reference.

"Never brought home as much of my check as I should," he confides. "My life was a mess. You get older, you get wiser."

Two brothers died as young men. Hurt is vague about the reasons, saying only: "They were somewhere they shouldn't have been." He says the same thing about Vernon.

At 17, he married his childhood sweetheart, two months after the birth of their first son. He got a job at Bethlehem Steel, starting on the night shift, rubbing rust spots from iron. Forty-four years later, he mimes the repetitive task at his kitchen table. "You rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. Then you turned it over and rubbed the other side."

He joined the Air Force, because he wanted to avoid combat in Korea. He nursed his wife through sickle cell anemia, a lifelong affliction that finally took her life four years ago. And, by his own testimony, he became an increasingly solitary man, happy to be alone in his perfect home. In fair weather, he ran a small snowball stand behind his house.

Vernon, like other neighborhood children, sometimes volunteered at the stand for a little spending money. Hurt saw something of himself in the little boy. He even advised Vernon to stop throwing rocks at transit buses. Vernon's reply, according to Hurt, is unprintable.

Still, Hurt believes Vernon might have made the same transition he did, from not-so-good to not-too-bad. Don't get him wrong -- he thinks Vernon was a much rougher kid than he was on his worst day. He also thinks society might have paid a high price while waiting for Vernon's transformation.

But he might have come around, stopped his evil ways. He was just a scrawny kid, a follower, and his crimes were primarily crimes against property. Then again, he was in foster care because his mother told authorities he had threatened her.

Who was Vernon Lee Holmes Jr.? If Hurt could not see him that night, the rest of us have had trouble seeing him since. Victims tend to fade from public memory. Especially when the victim is 13, and his life is notable only for ending.

Vernon was a child, with a child's interests -- sports, video games, dancing, turning flips on an old mattress. His bad behavior -- the vandalism, fights at school -- made school officials seek psychiatric care for the boy. The fact is, as even Hurt acknowledges, Vernon was a work in progress.

His parents, Vernon Lee Holmes Sr. and Avis Cross, had never married. In March 1994, Vernon was placed in foster care by his mother. After one arrangement failed, Vernon came to live in Hurt's neighborhood, one of at least eight foster children in the home of Dorothy and Robert Lewis. (His mother and the Lewises have declined to speak about the boy.)

"He just needed a little attention," his cousin, Gil McDougald, 27, told reporters shortly after Vernon's death. "He needed somebody to reach out to him. He was confused and upset."

"A good young boy," his father said after the trial. "He liked to play. Maybe he did these things, but boys will be boys, you know?"

History repeats itself

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