Only grief is home at rowhouse shrine Tribute: With a makeshift memorial, mourners express their sorrow over three deaths in an East Baltimore fire. A man has been charged with arson, but that hasn't eased the pain.

December 17, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

News of an arrest couldn't stop the tears.

Mourners -- family, friends, neighbors and strangers -- tried to comprehend how three lives could so quickly be lost in a fire that swept through an East Baltimore rowhouse Friday morning.

They turned the front of the scarred home in the 1800 block of Ashland Ave. into a shrine, decorating the outside in a holiday theme, with toys, stuffed animals, Christmas cards, wreaths, letters and notes scrawled on the plywood used to board up the door and windows.

As this public display of grief played out in a sputtering rain yesterday morning, police crashed through the door of a vacant rowhouse 20 blocks away and found the man charged with setting the fire. Kevin Michael Johnson, 38, of the 2600 block of E. Madison St. was arrested as he was taking a bath.

People who stopped by the makeshift memorial yesterday were relieved that he had been arrested and charged with arson and three counts of first-degree murder. But it did little to ease the pain.

"This is a damn shame," muttered Erskine Floyd, who knew one of the victims. "The only thing you can do is cry."

Killed in the early-morning fire were Carolyn Flowers, 34; her boyfriend, Darryl Johnson, 32; and Parrish Williams, 2, a neighbor they were baby-sitting.

Police and family members said Kevin Johnson -- who got out of the Baltimore City Detention Center a week ago after serving five months for beating his son -- had threatened to set fire to Flowers' house if she didn't agree to a reconciliation.

Police had been looking for Kevin Johnson, no relation to Darryl Johnson, since Friday but didn't charge him with the slayings until Sunday. Members of the U.S. Marshal's Fugitive Task Force, acting on a tip, said they arrested the suspect about 10 a.m. at a vacant rowhouse in the 400 block of N. Port St.

Fire officials said they hadn't ruled the blaze arson because they were awaiting laboratory tests on charred remnants from the house. But a police spokesman said Johnson was charged based on information officials had, including interviews with relatives that he said corroborated the alleged threats.

On the street where the fire occurred, the choking smell of smoke permeated the air around the middle-of-the-block rowhouse yesterday. The fire left two of the 10 houses on the street occupied; the rest are boarded up, creating a line of bleak, graffiti-scarred shells stretching from Durham Street to Rutland Avenue.

But no one passing along this block can miss the colorful but sad memorial that began as a simple tribute when someone put stuffed bear on the steps. Next, neighbor Mamie Abraham hung a wreath on the makeshift plywood door. "Then everybody started to put stuff over there," she said.

Now there are Christmas stockings with toys; a red plastic fire engine; stuffed animals; and posters and notices, one of them announcing Parrish's funeral Thursday at the March Funeral Home and another for a candlelight vigil scheduled Christmas Eve.

A gold banner reads: "A hero died here" -- referring to Darryl Johnson, known as Curley, who died trying to save his girlfriend. A poster wrapped in gold-colored garland reads: "To Curley, My Godfather. You are my hero. P.S. Tell dad Dexter hello for me. Love little Dexter."

Several Christmas and sympathy cards are tacked to the plywood, each filled with loving, personal notes and many with meanings known only to the authors. Others simply wrote on the plywood: "I love you all so much."

Workers at the Family Place, a center where troubled neighborhood residents can seek help, also contributed. Flowers had met with counselors two days before she died, seeking a job so that she could get off welfare. "We at the Family Place met you as a stranger, but took you as a friend," the center's poster reads. "One day we will meet in heaven, where friendships never end."

Funeral arrangements were being made last night for Flowers and Johnson. Flowers' sister, Theresa Flowers, who visited the fire scene yesterday, said the public tribute helps "a whole lot."

"It was very nice," said Flowers of West Baltimore. "My sister had no hate in her heart. I appreciate all the things the neighbors have done. It's uplifting."

All morning yesterday, cars slowed and residents kept a close watch on the rowhouse, owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Nathaniel Burrell, a housing employee, came to the house to estimate the damage.

"They told me what the neighbors had done, but I had to see it," Burrell said. "It's good to see a community pay tribute. It warms my heart. I've never seen anything like this."

Burrell had to get inside to do his work, but he promised to find a way in through the back so that wouldn't disrupt the shrine. "I'll do anything to prevent destroying this," he said.

Most people who stopped by the house expressed frustration over the circumstances of the deaths. Written in neat cursive, but signed only with a smiling face inside a Christmas card tacked to the outside of the house, was this remembrance:

"No one can understand the evils that men do. No one may ever understand your pain. But if you believe and have faith and trust in God All Mighty, the gray skies will turn blue. We love you."

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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