A family lost to the streets

Violence: After struggling through the deaths of two sons, a Baltimore mother fears the worst for her third son, who is missing.

July 08, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Elenora McCutcheon has lost two of three sons to murder.

The third vanished three months ago. McCutcheon is convinced he is dead.

From her early struggles as a high school dropout and teen-age mother to the anguish of losing two sons and possibly a third, McCutcheon, a quiet 53-year-old custodian, is an extreme example of Baltimore's sad litany of street violence.

She knows the difficulties of raising boys without a man's help in some of the city's worst neighborhoods. She understands the suffering of parents whose children were killed during Baltimore's murderous 1990s. She has borne the disappointment of so many mothers whose sons were sent to prison. She has felt the sting of envy when meeting parents of successful children.

McCutcheon acknowledges that her sons were imperfect. Her first two spent substantial time in prison and were killed just after being released. One of them died in a gunbattle that took another man's life.

But their pasts do not diminish her grief, a sorrow that grew more intense after her youngest, and final, son vanished, she says.

Travis Burley said goodbye April 1, when he sauntered out the back door of the family's South Baltimore rowhouse, across their small yard and stepped into an idling green minivan.

McCutcheon watched the van drive around the corner and Travis vanish from her life. She knows Travis is dead, she says, because he would never have abandoned a newborn son or his mother.

She has many photographs of her sons, particularly Travis. In one, taken recently, Travis' face is round, like his mother's, with soft features that make him seem much younger than his 20 years. Travis is holding his infant son.

McCutcheon says the photo says a lot about Travis - that he's gentle, loving and caring, and not merely a jobless high school dropout with an arrest record.

"I don't see any criminal, no badness in him," she says, looking at the photograph. "I see a handsome young man."

`Like in a war'

Baltimore homicide detectives Dennis Raftery and Bobby Patton are investigating Travis' disappearance. Like McCutcheon, they also strongly suspect that Travis was killed in an East Baltimore rowhouse, where they discovered what they believe is his blood. They say the killers likely stashed Travis in the trunk of a car, in a vacant rowhouse or, perhaps, buried him in a park.

The detectives, who have investigated hundreds of homicides, say they have never met a woman who lost all her sons to murder.

"This is like in a war," Patton says. "Like they were all sent off to war, but they just died in the streets of Baltimore."

Travis was her last chance to redeem herself as a mother, McCutcheon says. She desperately wanted him to return to school, earn his high school diploma, get a job. She dreamed of visiting his house on Sunday evenings and sitting down to a home-cooked dinner.

Instead, she prays at Travis' bed and makes daily phone calls to Raftery and Patton. She has replaced meandering walks through her old neighborhood with scouting missions, seeking answers from Travis' buddies while spying inside vacant houses for clues.

One recent afternoon, she even searched Leakin Park, a notorious dumping ground for bodies.

"I have a feeling he might be back here," she says, staring into the verdant woods. "I pray for visions to draw me to him. God, I want to find my Travis."

Her perseverance has earned the respect of the detectives. "She is a kind and caring woman," Raftery says. "She is determined. She does not stop. She calls us everyday. If I don't get a call from her, I think something is wrong."

McCutcheon's relatives say they do not understand why her sons headed down a path that led to prison and homicides in two cases and likely murder in the third. They say she was a good mother who cared about her sons. She never took drugs or drank; she's never been arrested. Her strongest addiction is Pepsi.

She dutifully spent her welfare checks on food and children's clothes.

She constantly counseled her sons to stay out of trouble. She took them to the zoo, the beach. She played basketball with them for hours. She helped them - as best she could - with their school work. She told them they faced an eventual choice if they did not change their ways: "jail or the grave."

"She cared so much," says McCutcheon's sister, Estoria. "There are a lot of children of parents who don't care. Then, when our children get to hanging out with don't-care children, it rubs off. It doesn't mean you were a bad mother. We're not sure what happened."

A short woman with a round face and oval cheeks whose hair is pulled tightly into braids, McCutcheon acknowledges that she was not the perfect mother.

She never married. She could have been more strict with her sons, perhaps. She wishes she had moved to the suburbs long ago and uprooted her children from the rough environment of West Baltimore.

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