A life of promise cut down in youth

Walker Coleman, eager student, affectionate child, spiraled into the grasp of a deadly neighborhood.

Losing Walker

November 30, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

On the barren playground where he played touch football and once hung a milk crate on a pole so younger children could shoot hoops, 14-year-old Walker Louis Coleman IV was sprawled on his back, bleeding from two bullet wounds.

The playground had once been sort of a sanctuary for Walker, who would sit alone on a concrete bench at the edge of the asphalt, listening to rap music through earphones, thinking, dreaming, oblivious to the busy pace of life around him.

Now East Baltimore's dangerous streets had claimed another victim.

This time it was a boy who caught three buses to attend a better middle school and surprised teachers with his academic prowess, scoring near a 12th-grade level last year on his eighth-grade math and English state exams. As a fifth-grader, he tutored first-graders in reading. And he was a former standout in Sunday school and a tenor in the church youth choir.

He often went to the grocery for his ailing grandmother and sometimes took younger friends along for the walk, treating them to a bag of chips or a soda. He was the blue chip who stood out among peers not only for his size - he had a 44-inch waist - but also because of the huge expectations he carried. Walker was a safe bet for a bright future even though he was growing up in a bleak housing project.

Perkins Homes is three blocks from choice neighborhoods, nice restaurants and rollicking nightlife, but it might as well be miles away. There is nothing desirable or inviting about Perkins, an enclave of warehouse-like apartment buildings.

Innocence often has a short life here. Too many impressionable boys admire the fellows on the corner with a wad of cash in the pockets of their jeans. The honest working types stay to themselves and try to keep their children from harm.

This was Walker's environment, his backdrop when he dreamed of becoming an auto mechanic. He wanted to buy a house, to marry and have two children - at least one a boy to be the fifth generation to carry on his name.

Whatever brought him to this moment at the playground, this much is clear: Even the most promising minds are sometimes no match for the peer pressure of a neighborhood ruled by its streets.

"I worried about him all the time in that neighborhood. If he could have made it through these next four years, the whole world would have opened up to him," said Muriel Berkeley, who taught Walker in elementary school.

And so, there he lay, a bullet from close range piercing the back of his head and another in his stomach, leaving the boy semi-conscious. A young life suddenly had only minutes left.

It was after dusk July 8, a warm, dry night, and dozens of people were running onto the dark playground at Perkins, drawn by the popping sound of gunfire.

The first 911 call came at 9:13 p.m. "In Ballou Court, somebody just got shot. ... It's in the playground," a man who sounded calm told the emergency dispatcher.

"The person that shot him, did you get a description of him?" the dispatcher asked.

"No," the caller said, "he had on a mask."

Two more 911 calls came in, and within minutes police were there, joining a swelling crowd of onlookers.

Quicker than a brisk wind blowing through an open window, word spread through Perkins that "Big Walk" - Walker's street moniker - had been shot.

Darlene Higgins, a neighbor, saw that Walker's eyes were open, but realized "it didn't look good." Travis Dickerson, 16, wanted to help his friend but knew he couldn't. "I just starting crying right there."

Police officers parted the crowd for medics to reach Walker. And although he was alive, homicide detectives were summoned.

Walker's grandmother, Maria Brooks, 53, the woman who had raised him since he was 6, also heard shots and went to her front door overlooking the playground. She tried to peer beyond the yellow sliding boards to the blue benches, the center of all of the commotion. It was too dark for her to make out much.

"When people hear gunshots," she said later, "everybody runs to the door because you might know who got shot."

Brooks had reason to worry.

Just a few days earlier a rumor had reached her that someone was threatening to kill Walker over an armed robbery he was said to have committed in Perkins Homes. As always, Walker tried to protect his grandmother and told her it wasn't true.

Brooks was standing at her screen door when out of the darkness someone came running toward her and shouted from the other side of a chain-link fence separating her yard from the playground, "Walker has been shot."

By the time Brooks made it across the playground, medics were preparing to take Walker to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Police kept the distraught woman from the boy she raised as her son.

She called her daughter from a cell phone.

"She was screaming and hollering, `They shot my baby, they shot my baby,' " said Sherron Jones, 34, Walker's mother.

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