The old story, with fresh pain

The fatal shooting of Geronimo J. Hunt this year was a bitter tragedy that followed an all-too-familiar pattern.

July 24, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

He was 27, a drug addict with a lengthy criminal record who stumbled into a Baltimore public housing project, high on heroin and cocaine and hungry for more.

The drug deal went badly, and Geronimo J. Hunt was shot twice, once in the head and once in the back. He fell onto a grassy spit of land in O'Donnell Heights, curled into a fetal position, bleeding to death.

"He was a victim of a disease, drugs and these people out here, standing here, selling drugs to him," said Hunt's 30-year-old fiancee, Melissa Beckette, who has turned the murder scene into a miniature shrine with photos, handwritten cards, a clutch of plastic flowers and a teddy bear in a white wedding gown.

There was nothing remarkable about the killing.

Hunt fits the profile of a typical murder victim in Baltimore - involved one way or another in the illicit drug trade. He was at the lowest levels of a deadly game played out nightly in vacant lots, dark alleys and street corners, and he is one of hundreds of victims easily overlooked in a city burdened by crime.

He was part of a well-worn pattern that has frustrated police, judges and prosecutors for years - criminals killing fellow criminals. In fact, homicide victims on average are just as likely to have an arrest record as the people who kill them.

Of 111 murders committed from Jan. 1 through June 6, the latest figures available, police say that 83 percent of the victims and 82 percent of the suspects had criminal records. Even more telling, 68 percent of the victims and 66 percent of the suspects had prior drug arrests.

"What happens in Baltimore is quite often the victims put themselves in a position to become victims," said Detective Gordon Carew, a 16-year veteran who investigated Hunt's death and made several arrests.

"This victim was in an isolated, high-drug area at 4 o'clock in the morning," the detective said. "Only a certain element is in the area to begin with at that time. So when things didn't go the way the suspects wanted and a weapon is available, they tend to use it on the victim. So somebody dies.

"This is a senseless thing. But we have so many cases like this in Baltimore."

Police have arrested three men in Hunt's killing, all of them high school dropouts, all of them with criminal records and one whose mother is a recovering drug addict and whose father is serving 50 years in a federal prison for selling heroin.

Month of violence

Hunt's killing was in the midst of a spate of shootings that ushered in the New Year - 26 dead in the first 20 days of 2005. Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm rushed to assure the public that it was safe, that the murders were isolated to a particular group of people and to certain neighborhoods, nothing most residents should worry about.

"This is tragic violence to specific individuals," Hamm said at a hastily called news conference on a Saturday afternoon. "There is a measure of safety for the general public."

But some advocates worry that the killings of Hunt and the many others who share his lifestyle are too often dismissed by city leaders seeking to promote drops in crime even as they fail to reduce homicides.

"How can you say the city is safe when a little less than 300 people are killed every year?" asked Hathaway Ferebee of the Baltimore Safe and Sound Campaign, a nonprofit group formed as part of the Urban Health Initiative. "Unless we're essentially saying those people don't count. And I think that's just wrong."

Troubled history

As with every victim, Hunt had his own personal story - there were people who loved him and used him, stole from him and tried to get him back into normal society, those who killed him and now those who mourn him.

Hunt grew up on the rough-and-tumble streets of East Baltimore, where at the age of 5 he saw his father shot in the leg. He was raised by his mother, Linda Kraemer, 54, who said she could barely make ends meet.

They moved to Essex when Hunt was 14, already a high school dropout working at a grocery store.

About that time he met Beckette. "He was a very good kid," Kraemer said, "but it seemed like trouble was always following him."

The forklift operator appeared to live a vagabond existence, listing several addresses as home on his arrest records. Beckette said that for the past few years he usually lived with her and their son, Geronimo Jr., in her Harford County home. But when they quarreled, usually over his drug addiction, he would stay with his mother or with friends.

He didn't dream big. The man with the mischievous grin and tattoos of Beckette and his mother's name emblazoned on his body just wanted to live a normal life, his family said.

There are glimpses of that in the scrapbook Beckette compiled after his death. Pictures at Chuck E. Cheese's and of painting Easter eggs. Fishing on camping trips. Coaching his son's baseball team.

Many pictures include his other son, 9-year-old Brandon, and Beckette's 14-year-old daughter, who lives with her.

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