Finding the soul of her slain child Journey: Yong Cha Jones came to Baltimore to walk the same path her son took before he was killed three years ago.

November 20, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

By a Formstone rowhouse on a run-down street in East Baltimore, Yong Cha Jones collapsed to the ground yesterday on the very spot her son fell three years ago.

It was here in the 1400 block of Bank St. that muggers shot Laurence Jones in the face and killed him, an unsuspecting college student from Maine surprised by the ruthlessness of Baltimore's killing streets. Of 353 homicide victims that year, he was the 313th.

"It's here. Right here. I can feel it," sobbed Yong Jones, 57, who traveled by train from her hometown of Bangor, Maine, to relive her son's final steps on the eve of the third anniversary of his death. As she lay crying on the ground, she pressed her face on the cold concrete as city homicide Detective Vincent Stevenson knelt beside her.

"It's OK," Stevenson said over and over, putting his hand on her face. "Try and relax."

But if one thing is certain, Yong Jones will never relax as long as she can remember her 24-year-old son's slaying. The killing on Nov. 20, 1993, sent her on a "journey to oblivion," she says -- a journey that yesterday took her to Baltimore to find the soul of her murdered son.

A native of Korea, Yong Jones said she subscribes to the cultural belief that Laurence's soul "is wandering without rest" until the killers are caught. Baltimore police, stymied by lack of evidence for three years, made a breakthrough earlier this week and arrested one suspect and said they were looking for a second.

While news of the arrest came as mild comfort to Yong Jones, she said justice was only a part of the closure she is seeking. Another important element, she says, is experiencing the city where the murder happened, to see the neighborhood where Laurence died, look at the streets, and meet the people of Baltimore.

"I need to relive his last footsteps," she said. "I need to see it and to feel it."

Arriving on the 12: 52 p.m. train with a close friend, Brenda Lawson of Winterport, Maine, Yong Jones became overwhelmed upon walking into Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.

"I promised myself that Baltimore city was not going to intimidate me, but it is," she said tearfully as she sat on a bench in the station lobby.

Husband died last year

Bangor, a humble city in central Maine with a population of roughly 33,000, is a far cry from Baltimore, with a population of just under 700,000. Jones and her husband, who died last year, had worked in a local paper mill. They were used to a quiet life with their only son, who just before his death had graduated from the University of Maine at Orono and moved to the 1400 block of Bank St. hoping to enroll in the Johns Hopkins graduate psychology program.

On her arrival in town yesterday, Yong Jones was met at the station by two unlikely escorts: Stevenson and his partner, Lisa Johnson. The two are assigned to the Baltimore homicide unit's cold case squad that helped identify a suspect in her son's murder.

Police don't usually escort grieving family members around town. But Yong Jones' relentless perseverance -- she presented a petition to police of 1,651 Maine residents and once even wrote to President Clinton in hope of keeping the unsolved case file open -- made an impression on the police.

"We're here to take you wherever you want to go," Johnson told her.

"Bohager's," Yong Jones said without hesitation. "My son spent his last few hours there."

The detectives drove her across town in an unmarked car to the popular bar in the 500 block of S. Eden St. Her son had lived two blocks away.

Although it wasn't open for business, Damian Bohager, the bar's owner, came out to meet Yong Jones.

"This is the last place my son stopped," she told him, choking back tears in the empty bar hall.

"I know. I wish somehow we could ease your pain," said the 44-year-old businessman, who 19 years ago had been a shooting victim. Robbers shot him in the back during a hold-up at his family's waste paper factory, once housed in the building that is now Bohager's.

'I hope she finds peace'

"I almost died. I still have the bullet in me, they never took it out," Bohager said. "I know what crime can do. I hope she finds peace."

With Stevenson holding her hand, Yong Jones walked slowly up Eden Street from Bohager's. After two blocks she turned the corner on Bank Street, across from the Perkins Homes public housing project. It was there that she fell to the ground, on the spot where her son died.

At 3 a.m. today, she had planned to go back to the same place, wanting to be alone with a police escort at the very moment where her son died three years earlier.

The rowhouse where Laurence Jones lived is boarded up now. A fire shortly after the killing took the life of a 5-year-old boy.

"I knew your son," said a man standing in a doorway on Bank Street yesterday.

Yong Jones looked over. Norman Hock, a 60-year-old truck driver for H&S Bakery, has lived in the block for 21 years. He would sit out on his front steps and talk to Laurence Jones, who had moved to the neighborhood temporarily because rent was cheap.

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