Mother's efforts aren't enough to save her son

September 29, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

With her son fast becoming a criminal, Kimberly Armstrong made every effort to save his life, she said.

She quit her $50,000-a-year job to spend more time with him. She posted nine rules on the front door. No. 1: "No profanity will be allowed."

Once she thought she had righted her son, she sought to help other children. She became the co-chairperson of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. Just last week, she appeared on a local radio show urging the state to improve its treatment programs.

Yesterday she was back to examining her own family.

Her 16-year-old son was shot and killed Monday night as he walked out the back door of his Northeast Baltimore home.

Those who know the family described the killing of Eric Rondell Villines as even more tragic because of the efforts of his mother. They pointed to it as evidence of how an environment can claim a child no matter what protection his family offers.

"What more could Kim have been doing?" asked Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a family friend and director of the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources, a statewide advocacy organization. "She responded with every fiber of her being to save her son, and she did."

In an interview yesterday at her home, Armstrong at times blamed herself for her son's death, despite the protestations of others.

She also reflected on her neighborhood and society.

"You have so many idle kids around here. They don't fight anymore. You get into a fight and they come back and shoot you," said Armstrong, who added that she had no explanation for the killing.

No arrest made

Police had not made an arrest yesterday in the shooting and did not disclose a motive.

A police spokesman said the youth was shot several times at about 10:30 p.m. and collapsed on the rear porch steps of a house in the 3700 block of Elmora Ave.

He died shortly later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Eric's home - a 50-year-old, 1,200-square-foot rowhouse in the 3700 block of Ravenwood Ave. - backs against the homes on Elmora. Eric lived there with his 20-year-old brother, 5-year-old sister, mother and grandfather.

His mother owns the home.

He is the city's 29th juvenile homicide victim this year, police said. Last year at this time, there had been 24.

"There's not enough outrage," said Cameron E. Miles, the community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, a Baltimore-based advocacy group. "We have to come together as a community to wrap our arms around these young people."

Victim's profile

Based solely on his criminal record, the youth fits the profile of the standard juvenile victim. Through the beginning of last month, there had been 13 juvenile homicide victims between the ages of 11 and 18. All 13 had juvenile records.

Eric started getting in trouble at age 12, his mother said. At one point, he sold drugs in hopes of buying $100 tennis shoes, she said.

"He didn't do it because he was living in poverty," Armstrong said. "He did it because he wanted the fashion."

It frustrated his mother even more because she knew he was intelligent, she said. When they got into arguments, he would outmaneuver her with his questions.

A single mother, Armstrong said she faced an aggravating dilemma. For 10 years she had worked as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver, she said.

She was working at night, she said, and her children were wandering the neighborhood.

"I had a decision to make," she said yesterday. "My family or my job."

So she quit her job. Eric was 14 at the time, she said.

Posting the rules

Armstrong then earned her real estate license and started her own company, a consulting service to address personal and professional stress and anger management.

On the front door, she posted a set of rules for both her boys and their visitors.

The rules banned drugs and alcohol. They also banned knocking on the door after 9 p.m. on weeknights and after 10 p.m. on weekends.

"There used to be a time when Eric would disappear for hours at a time and I wouldn't know where he was," she said.

His arrests accumulated. In July 2003, he was sent to Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a secure state juvenile justice facility in Baltimore County. Shortly after his release in December, Eric was arrested again and charged with robbery, his mother said. He told her he did it because he was bored.

When he appeared in court, he seemed to hit a turning point, his mother said. Eric's accusers pleaded with the judge to give the boy help, not punishment. They exchanged phone numbers with Eric and remained in touch.

"That was the last time he got into trouble," Armstrong said. "He just realized everybody is not bad. It could have been worse."

The boy began attending Living Classroom's Fresh Start Program, which provides employment training and academic remediation for children who are typically assigned there by the state juvenile justice system. Eric was working toward his General Educational Development degree, his mother said. She also enrolled him in counseling.

"I actually knew where he was," she said. "It felt good."

`Still a child'

At the mentoring program he attended, he seemed calm instead of angry, said Miles, who runs the sessions.

When Eric came home each night, he passed her smell test - the one in which she sniffed his clothes for the odor of marijuana.

Mother and son were talking regularly.

Three weeks ago, while working in the kitchen, she told Eric she was proud of him.

He looked at her and said, "Thanks."

"He was still a child," she said. "He still had an opportunity to become somebody."

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