A small-time East Baltimore drug dealer admitted burning the home of a neighbor he believed was "snitching on people" and just before being sentenced to life in prison yesterday tearfully told relatives of the seven victims that he had wished for his own death as punishment.
Relatives of Carnell and Angela Dawson and their five children, who were killed in the blaze at their East Preston Street rowhouse in October, sobbed as Darrell L. Brooks, 22, faced them in a crowded federal courtroom and shakily apologized for the crime, which outraged the city and drew national attention to Baltimore's struggle against deadly violence.
"I thought the only way I could pay for my actions was with my own life," Brooks said as tears rolled down his cheeks. "I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. ... I will never, ever, as long as there's breath in my lungs, I will never forgive myself."
The courtroom scene came as Brooks pleaded guilty yesterday to an arson resulting in the deaths of seven people, a charge that could have carried the federal death penalty. Prosecutors said they accepted the plea deal to guarantee a conviction and life sentence without parole for Brooks, who investigators said set the fire in retaliation for Carnell and Angela Dawson's repeated calls to police about neighborhood drug dealing.
Speaking at a news conference, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said that Brooks' mental capacity was so diminished that there was a chance that he could have been precluded from facing a death sentence. DiBiagio said his office also wanted to help bring closure to the Dawsons' relatives, who now know that Brooks will die in jail.
"He's got another 50 or 60 years to think about what he did every day while he sits in that cell," said DiBiagio, who called the case a sad waste of human life. "What a colossal waste - seven people are murdered by this drug punk."
DiBiagio said no one else would be charged, and the case is closed.
Court records describe Brooks as a "sometime drug trafficker" with a string of arrests, mostly involving relatively small amounts of narcotics: six baggies of heroin in one stop, three vials of crack cocaine in another. The Dawsons, meanwhile, were known in their Oliver Street neighborhood for making frequent complaints to police about drug activity. Records showed the couple made at least 34 calls to police between June 26 and Oct. 9.
Describing in court yesterday the case built by city police and fire investigators and agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason M. Weinstein said Brooks had showed increasing antagonism toward the Dawsons in the days and weeks before the fatal fire.
As part of the plea deal, Brooks admitted an earlier attempt to set fire to the family's home, on Oct. 3. Weinstein said Brooks told some of his drug associates that he had thrown two "cocktail bombs" into the house because "Mrs. Dawson was snitching on people."
One witness told authorities that on Oct. 15, shortly before setting the fire that killed the Dawsons, Brooks told a friend that although the "first time" had not worked, "he was going to make sure he `gets' Mrs. Dawson this time," Weinstein said.
A few hours later, about 2:20 a.m. Oct. 16, Brooks kicked open the door to the Dawson home at 1401 E. Preston St., doused the front hall with gasoline and then set it on fire, authorities said. In court, Weinstein described how the fire spread across the first floor, then climbed to the second and third floors where the Dawsons slept.
Angela Dawson, 36, was killed in the fire along with the five children: Lawanda Ortiz, 14; Juan Ortiz, 12; Carnell Dawson, Jr., 10; and Kevin and Keith Dawson, both 9. Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, escaped the fire by leaping from a window. He was found unconscious on the sidewalk outside and died from his injuries a week later.
Carnell Dawson's sister Alice McNack described in court yesterday hearing the news about the fire as she drove to work that morning and filling with dread as she realized it could be her brother's family, a fear confirmed in a call to her cell phone a few minutes later.
McNack, one of six relatives to speak in court yesterday, told U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis how Carnell and Angela Dawson had created a loving, welcoming home. Often Carnell Dawson would hold cookouts for neighborhood children, even when the food bill pinched a tight budget.
"My brother taught his children what maybe Darrell Brooks didn't get at home - love of family," McNack said.
In one tearful address after another, relatives recounted the horror of the crime and the profound loss felt during the past year. Novella Solomon, another sister of Carnell Dawson's, said that because she could not afford to travel from her home in Oklahoma to Maryland, she hadn't met Angela and the children until she came to Baltimore for their funeral.
"We went to the cemetery yesterday, and it was again just like saying hello and goodbye to them at once," Solomon said.