Arson suspect clerked for city

Accused in deadly fire, Brooks had been fixture in City Council chambers

October 23, 2002|By Tom Pelton, M. Dion Thompson and Laura Vozzella | Tom Pelton, M. Dion Thompson and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Darrell Brooks was once a fixture in City Hall. An affable young City Council clerk in a tie and jacket, he passed out agendas before the meetings, played practical jokes on the council members and boasted that he, too, would someday become a big-shot politician.

Now, his former employers on the City Council -- some who even served as his mentors -- are horrified to find that the young man who until January 2001 fixed their microphones and filled their water glasses is accused of one of the most heinous crimes in city history, the arson deaths of Angela Dawson and her five children in East Baltimore last week.

It is a crime made even more terrible by the alleged motive -- that the East Preston Street home was torched because Angela and Carnell Dawson Jr. had been a thorn in the side of local drug dealers, often complaining to police.

The City Council members who befriended Brooks, now 21, were unaware of his full story. The son of a former cocaine addict who whipped him with a belt, Brooks had a history of personal problems -- including depression after his brother was murdered in 1993 -- and humiliating struggles in his special education classes, according to court records and friends. He also had a long record of criminal charges, including robbery, assault and theft.

Friends of Brooks' worry that he might have drifted into a world of violent drug criminals after he lost contact with his friends on the City Council.

"It's very hard for me because I keep on wondering if I had stayed in contact with him, maybe we wouldn't be talking about this tragedy today," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who helped mentor Brooks. "When I found out he was charged with these murders, I just broke down and cried. I was just floored. How could this happen?"

The council on Monday offered a moment of silence for the Dawsons. But there was no mention of the man who had sat among them in the council chambers and now is accused as a murderer six times over.

"I saw him heading for trouble, but we tried to show him some love and support," said City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "The problem was, when he was back out on the street, he'd say, `To hell with that.' The boys on the street had too much influence on him."

Growing up in a struggling section of East Baltimore, Brooks suffered from physical abuse by a cocaine-addicted mother, abandonment by his father and the murder of his only brother, court records state.

When Brooks was 5 years old, his mother beat him with a belt because he refused to stop playing and finish his homework, records show.

His mother, a private-duty nurse named Tondalear Alston, was charged with child abuse and placed on probation for two years. Brooks was removed from the home and sent to live with his father, Alvin Nicholas, for three years. But his father did not take care of him, and he returned to his mother 11 months later, records indicate.

The youngest of four children, Brooks "felt pressure to be the `man' of the house and went out and got a job" when his only brother was murdered in 1993, according to court records. He was 12 years old.

Brooks suffered from "depressive episodes" after his brother's death and took an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic drug for four months, records state.

He bounced from school to school every few years, attending several programs for children with psychological or emotional problems. He spent the fourth through seventh grades at Villa Maria in Timonium and was suspended a few times for fighting and acting the "class clown," court records state.

Next came the Forbush School of the Sheppard Pratt Health System, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and the Hannah More School in Reisterstown.

He worked as a fast-food cook at a Fuddruckers restaurant years before he had reached legal working age, because he was trying to help support his family, according to court records.

Former City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III hired Brooks because he was a friend of a political ally of Bell's, Robert Stokes.

Stokes said he met Brooks when Brooks was about 15 years old and Stokes was directing a city social services program at 1400 E. Federal St.

Brooks would hang around the social services center, asking if he could help. Stokes said he would let Brooks pass out fliers about community events, and in exchange give him a little money and pool passes.

Brooks seemed like a good-hearted but psychologically troubled kid who struggled in school, Stokes said.

"I used to sit with him as he did homework, and he'd get very frustrated, as special education kids sometimes become with their work," said Stokes, 44. "And then street life became a drug in itself for him."

Worked for Dixon

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