POLICE recorded 309 homicides in the city of Baltimore in 1997, and one of them was the son of Catherine Pearson. Police have recorded 190 homicides in the city of Baltimore so far this year, and one of them was the son of Catherine Pearson.
"I lost my oldest," she says, "and now I've lost my baby."
Two sons, dead by gunfire in less than three years in a city that appears capable of anything but ending violence on its streets.
The oldest son, Charles "Chuckie" Massenburg, died Nov. 1, 1997. He was 33. The funeral was held at Zion Baptist Church on North Caroline Street. Burial was in Woodlawn Cemetery. Same thing today. Catherine Pearson will go to Zion Baptist again, this time for the funeral of her youngest son, Damon Massenburg, and then she'll drive with other mourners to Woodlawn for the burial. Damon, 32, will be laid to rest next to his brother, who was buried next to their father.
This is how it goes in the city of Baltimore -- so many families burned by violence, some more than others; so many mothers losing sons, some more than others.
After all these years of gun violence, this city has a massive hole in its heart.
Yesterday morning, Catherine Pearson was at home in a modest brick duplex in Windsor Hills in West Baltimore, calling upstairs to three young boys -- her grandchildren -- to get out of bed, take their showers and dress in the clothes she'd laid out for them. They were going to the afternoon wake for Damon Massenburg. Among them was the victim's son, Damon Lamont Massenburg Jr., a bright and cheerful boy who's scheduled to start sixth grade at Gilman School in a couple of weeks.
"It's hit him pretty hard," his grandmother says.
Catherine Pearson seems strong, a sturdy woman who, from a young age, learned to adapt to loss. Her mother died when Pearson was 11. She helped raise her younger brothers and sisters. Then, she had four children of her own and raised them in West Baltimore, where she grew up, along Edmondson Avenue. When her kids were young, she took a job with the District Court for Baltimore. That was 28 years ago, and she serves today as the court's records supervisor. A co-worker calls her "a lovely, hard-working woman who has done her best to raise her kids in urban Baltimore."
She had three boys and a girl -- Chuckie, Tanya, Keith and Damon.
"Chuckie and Damon were a lot alike; they were jokesters, like their father," she says. "They were too naive to think someone was going to bother them. ... Chuckie was one of those music people. He loved his music, and had a collection of albums, and he deejayed. I don't know what they called that music, but it was loud."
So loud he "made the glasses tingle in the house."
Chuckie, a security guard enrolled in a tractor-trailer driving school, went out on Halloween night 1997 to a raucous after-hours club at Monroe and Clifton, and something happened. He danced with a woman, and another guy didn't like it. There was a fight. Chuckie and his rival were ejected -- the rival first. When he stepped outside, Chuckie was gunned down. "Shot four times in the back," his mother says.
Detectives questioned dozens of witnesses, she says, but no one could -- or would -- identify the gunman. Chuckie's death received almost no media attention. Coverage in The Sun was limited to this paragraph: "Homicide Detective William Ritz said officers found the body of Charles Massenburg, 33, of the 1700 block of N. Caroline St. in the 1800 block of Clifton Ave. about 5 a.m."
Pearson kept after detectives to work the case. "But after a while it appeared that I was annoying them," she says. "I've been very angry about that, like [Chuckie] was just another black guy killed in the street. But my people knew him and knew what a good person he was. It's very hard, you know. You think that nobody else cares because he's black, but then you get angry because it's our people killing our people."
Three years had not gone by when Damon was killed.
Her youngest son had had a rough go through life. He dropped out of school and became addicted to drugs. But in the last few years, his life had improved dramatically. He got clean, went into recovery, met a young woman from Philadelphia, fell in love, had another son, got his barber's certificate and plied that trade.
He came back to Baltimore to visit his mother, aunts and uncles, nephews, cousins and his son.
He arrived here Saturday to attend the funeral of a friend from "around the way," which is what Damon and his siblings called the old neighborhood in West Baltimore where their mother raised them. After the funeral, Damon's travels took him to Edmondson Avenue to see some old friends.
Just after 7 p.m., a dark-colored sedan with four young men in it pulled up to the corner. Two got out, at least one with a gun, and approached Damon Massenburg. The one with the gun ordered him into a vacant lot between rowhouses.