Mother's faith stood firm while street took her sons

July 21, 1999|By Gregory Kane

THE FOLKS at Geneva "Cleo" Washington's church gave her a grand homecoming Thursday night. Choir members lifted their voices and sang exquisite, beautiful, soul-stirring hymns. Friends recounted how they cherished her glowing smile and her poetic glide as she marched down the aisle on Sundays.

Seated in the front row at her funeral were Mrs. Washington's grieving husband, Johnnie Washington Sr., and her three daughters -- Sheila Brady, Michelle Johnson and Tangela Alexander. Missing was her youngest son, Gary B. Washington, serving time at the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup for a murder conviction.

Washington says he committed no murder and that two witnesses at his trial 12 years ago testified as much. The jury chose to believe the state's one witness -- a boy of 8 who Washington swears was pressured by police to testify against him. Washington hopes his post-conviction hearing tomorrow will end with his being a free man.

Mrs. Washington, who was 64, died unexpectedly July 10, a week and a day after she calmly sat in her living room and talked about all four of her sons. Three are dead, and the remaining one is in prison. But her faith in her God remained unshaken.

"It's hard," Mrs. Washington said of the toll that losing sons to death and prison has taken on her. "But with God's help, he gives you the strength. Without it, I'd be checking myself into a mental institution."

She was a member for more than 30 years of East Baltimore's First Apostolic Faith Church of Jesus Christ on South Caroline Street. For all those years, Mrs. Washington went to church and gave glory to her God while she and Johnnie Sr. tried their best to raise their seven children. But the streets would claim all four of their sons.

Darryl, the eldest son, died in 1973 of heart failure after overdosing on drugs. He was only 15 at the time, Mrs. Washington remembered sadly. The next eldest son, Johnnie Jr., was shot to death on the streets of East Baltimore 10 years later.

"Johnnie was arguing with someone," said Brady, sitting near her mother in the living room. "The guy he was arguing with probably paid somebody to kill my brother."

Ricky Washington, younger than Darryl and Johnnie and 11 months older than Gary, met a similar fate in 1993.

"Ricky was talking to a couple of stickup boys, who went to 20th and Boone [streets] and robbed a couple of guys," Brady said. "They must have assumed Ricky sent the stickup boys to rob them." Retaliation was swift. Ricky was shot to death by the stickup boys' victims.

Baltimore's street life of drug dealers, addicts and stickup boys beckoned to Ricky, and he heeded the chant. The Washington family acknowledged that Ricky was on East Baltimore's streets dealing drugs and that Gary was often with him. But Steve Reynolds, who grew up with both of them, said that Gary was out of his element and acknowledged as much in a conversation.

"One time he said, 'Steve, I don't want to do this. This isn't me,'" Reynolds recalled, adding that Gary wouldn't retaliate against drug users who didn't pay back money, a requirement in the code of the streets. Gary wanted to be on the streets backing up his brother, Reynolds said, so Ricky wouldn't be out there alone.

On Christmas night 1986, Mrs. Washington sat in the kitchen of her home in the 2300 block of Barclay St. reading the Bible. Her children Ricky and Sheila sat with her. They heard shots. A drug dealer had shot a man in front of their house. Police investigated and fingered Gary as the trigger man.

Brady said her husband, Ronald, told police the name of the man who committed the crime, "but the cops didn't believe him because [Ronald] was a drug addict."

Mrs. Washington never believed the police, and remained firm in her faith that her youngest son would be home with her soon.

Now she has gone home. Her son's struggle to get home begins anew tomorrow. A jury found him guilty 12 years ago, but its verdict carries little weight with a young man who stood in the church as the crowd filed out Thursday. "He got railroaded on that one," the man said of Gary Washington's conviction. "Everybody in East Baltimore knows he got railroaded."

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