HUDDLED on the vacant lot across the street from Modern Discount Liquors, some in this group of black and white teens held candles. Others visibly fought back tears as television cameras rolled and motorists along Dundalk's Holabird Avenue slowed their cars to a crawl, the better to take in the view.
The young people were students at Dundalk High School, which is about six blocks east on Holabird and three blocks down on Delvale Avenue. Some of the guys wore their "We bleed green" T-shirts, a statement of loyalty to the high school whose colors are green and yellow. The day before, Derrick Lemell Breedlove - one of their schoolmates, the one who had the football scholarship to Hampton University in Virginia, the one everyone thought had one of the best tickets out of Dundalk - made the most tragic play of his life and ended up dead on the liquor store floor.
Police accounts - and there's no reason to doubt them in this case - say Breedlove entered the store during school hours armed with what turned out to be a pellet gun and stuck up the joint. He had a bag full of money in one hand and the gun in the other when Richard Kosinski, a clerk at the store, confronted him and fired the shots that killed the 17-year-old.
"The next Shannon Sharpe," a kid standing near the edge of the crowd said of Breedlove, who played tight end and defensive end on Dundalk's football team. The question on a lot of minds is how Breedlove, who had the grades and smarts to get into Hampton, does something so stupid as rob liquor stores.
"He's always been a good kid," said Tischa Collins, an adult who had come to mourn with the youngsters. She didn't know Breedlove personally, she said, but was expressing what was pretty common knowledge about him.
"He got thrown out on his own," Collins continued, alluding to a dispute Breedlove had with his stepfather. "A kid like that thrown out into the world. He just got desperate. He didn't have the rent money, and he got desperate."
Breedlove had moved into an apartment with a friend after spending time with his mother and an aunt. Perhaps the threat of eviction and living on the streets drove him to desperation. But there are other things Breedlove did that raise even more questions.
He quit his job at McDonald's. What type of guy quits the only job he has to stick up liquor stores? (Police and two witnesses say Breedlove had robbed Modern Discount Liquors twice in February.)
The prior robberies netted Breedlove close to $2,700, yet he found it necessary to rob the store a third time for more money. Just where was his apartment? Lower Manhattan?
"Everybody's a victim in this," Collins said. "Derrick, the store. It's hard for us to believe he did what he did. You have these bad kids you expect to go to jail forever, and nothing ever happens to them."
Breedlove may indeed be a victim, but it's of his own stupidity - not of Kosinki (he's the one hero in all this) or the owner of Modern Discount Liquors. A Sun article by Stephanie Desmon and Joe Nawrozki revealed that Breedlove clashed with his stepfather over an imposed curfew. The stepdad, Derrick Shelton, must have harbored the misconception that, as the parent, he was somehow in charge. Breedlove was one of those youths afflicted with teen-itis, a malady with symptoms that include the notion that you know everything once you hit 13 and don't have to be burdened with your stupid parents.
Freedom to set his own curfew would have come soon enough for Breedlove, but he didn't have the patience to wait. He's not the first star athlete in the area to make a stupid decision that affected the rest of his life. Before him was Darien Kess, the best wrestler Archbishop Curley High School ever had, who would be at Iowa State University right now if that's what he wanted.
But Kess didn't want it. He got kicked out of Curley, then Overlea. As you read this, Kess is locked up and awaiting an early May trial with three co-defendants. They're charged with attempted first-degree murder, first- and second-degree assault, first- and fourth-degree burglary and armed robbery. If found guilty, young Kess is going to have a long time to think about where his life went wrong.
For Breedlove, the thinking is over. He'll never be able to ponder the error of his ways, to look back and reflect that his best course of action was to swallow his pride, move back in with his stepdad and say, "Pop, you're the man." He leaves only all those friends and schoolmates out on Holabird Avenue Thursday night asking "Why?" and "What happened?"
"I'm glad they let these kids have this," Collins said of the vigil. "What [Derrick] did was wrong, but they still loved him."
There's something else those young people might carry from that vigil other than reminders of their love for Derrick Breedlove. They should glean from Breedlove's wasted life a warning and a lesson: Listen to your parents. We aren't as dumb as you think.