A mother and her five children died yesterday in a raging, early morning fire that destroyed their East Baltimore rowhouse - two weeks after their home was firebombed.
Although fire and police officials have not determined a cause for yesterday's blaze, neighbors firmly believe it was set in retaliation for the family's stand against the drug dealing and loitering that went on in their neighborhood.
FOR THE RECORD - The original published version of this story incorrectly identified the ages of Keith and Kevin Dawson and of Juan Ortiz. This archived version has been corrected.
Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her children, Keith and Kevin Dawson, 9; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 12; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14, perished in the blaze.
Her husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, leaped from a second-story window. He is in an area hospital in critical condition, suffering from second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.
The Dawson family's difficulties were well known in the area around East Preston and Eden streets. On Oct. 3, at 3:51 a.m., someone threw two Molotov cocktails through the kitchen window of their house, according to a police report. That fire caused little damage and no injuries.
Though witness protection had been offered, the family declined, law enforcement officials said. Police refused to discuss the firebombing that occurred two weeks ago and referred all questions to fire officials.
When asked about yesterday's blaze, fire officials would say only that they are investigating and did not know whether it was arson.
Neighbors, however, had no problem stating their belief.
"It was a message to them and a message to us in the neighborhood," said Marcus Kelly.
State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden joined neighbors on Preston Street and expressed his outrage over the loss of life.
"We've been fighting this thing, it's an ongoing battle," McFadden said, referring to the city's struggle against drugs. "We're talking about terrorism around the world. We've got terrorism right here with some of these drug dealers."
By midmorning yesterday, all that remained of the three-story, four-bedroom house at 1401 E. Preston St. was a blackened shell and piles of debris.
Firefighters and investigators, including members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, sifted through the ruins. A Labrador retriever trained to sniff out accelerants also was brought to the scene.
Meanwhile, neighbors huddled under umbrellas and spoke of a family they would never see again.
"She was a wonderful mother and she stood for what she believed in, that nobody was going to do drugs in her neighborhood or around her children," said Gary Jenkins, whom the family's sons called "coach." "She said those hoodlums are not going to run me out of my house."
Kate Stansbury, who struck up a friendship with Angela Dawson this summer, said the young mother told her she didn't like living in the corner house.
She felt the home with its large windows facing north and west was too exposed. A stray bullet could come through and hit one of her children. Dawson, whom everyone knew as "Angel," wanted to move out, perhaps by Christmas, said Stansbury.
The Dawsons were known as a decent, friendly family. The father worked in construction. He was up early and home late.
The boys rode their bicycles up and down the 1200 block of Eden St., but always on the sidewalk. Their mother didn't want them riding in the street. On afternoons you could hear the thump-thump-thump of a basketball as they shot hoops in their small, cement-covered back yard. In the summer, there were cookouts and laughter, children splashing in an inflatable pool.
However, the family had problems with some neighbors. Two weeks ago, the Dawsons went to court against a neighbor who was accused of assaulting the mother and spray-painting a curse on the side of the family's home.
That case was placed on the inactive docket, but the state's attorney's office reopened it two days ago because of the Oct. 3 firebombing.
This is a close neighborhood, though the drug dealing and the vacant houses might lead a stranger to think otherwise. Not only do people see each other in passing every day, but they stop and talk, share their hopes and dreams.
The schoolchildren looked out for Keith, whom they had affectionately nicknamed "Crip-walk" because of a disability.
"I loved Keith," said Shanae Barnes, 11. "He was nice. That was my friend."
The children's deaths also hit the neighborhood adults hard.
"When I saw this on the news, the first thing I thought about was the children," said Russell Keene, sheltering himself with his umbrella. "I knew all those little kids in that house. They were nice kids, came out, played on the sidewalk. They were great kids."
Henry Rogers, who did maintenance work on the Dawson home, said he had known Angela Dawson since their days in junior high school.
"She was close to her family. They had a lot of togetherness. Matter of fact, I was in there last night playing Nintendo in the room where the firemen are at right now," he said, nodding toward the soot-blackened house where firefighters picked their way through the ruined first floor.