Birthday vigil for a victim

Northwestern graduate served as a role model

November 12, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

They lit candles yesterday for Jamelle Carter's 19th birthday.

Standing in front of his alma mater, Northwestern High School, his mother, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends sang "Happy Birthday."

A day earlier, Carter's mother, surrounded by relatives, had walked onto the Parks Heights school's football field. The principal and athletic director wrapped their arms around her. Then they wrapped her in a baseball jersey and told her that No. 9, her son's number, has been retired.

Far from the traditional birthday celebrations so typical of this large, close-knit family, these were solemn remembrances of Carter. The soft-spoken college student was fatally shot this fall because, city police say, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On a Saturday night in September, he had driven to Oswego Avenue, a troubled section of Park Heights, to visit a childhood friend. Later, Jean Carter drove to Sinai Hospital to listen to a doctor tell her that her only son was gone.

"My whole world just fell apart," she said. "I couldn't fathom anything like this ever happening."

Jamelle Carter grew up with his mother in a quiet part of Park Heights; his father died a decade ago. He had no criminal record. His personality was, his family says, far from violent.

He had played baseball since age 8 and won medals for his high school swim team. He walked with his dying grandfather in a race in Washington to raise money for brain cancer. The disease killed his grandmother and, months after the race, his grandfather.

He graduated in 2005 from Northwestern, where "he was a role model for other students," said Principal Tajah Gross.

He went on to study accounting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where both of his parents earned their degrees.

He once wrote: "The responsibility for acquiring my education and career rests ultimately with no one but me. I know I will always have my mother's assistance and support. I will try my best to make things work."

He came home to Baltimore the last weekend of September, something his mother said was rare because the sophomore had made so many friends at college. He decided to visit a childhood friend.

About 10:30 p.m. Sept. 30, Carter was standing outside in the 2500 block of Oswego Ave. talking to friends. Police said he was shot in the head by a gunman who kept shooting as he fled.

Robert F. Cherry Jr., a Baltimore homicide detective, said Carter was shot because he "happened to be standing on a corner indicted by gangs."

"He had a future," Cherry said. "But some thug ripped it away from him. He just happened to be there. ... It could have been anyone, a baby in a carriage, a grandmother, a postman, anyone."

Police have a description of a suspect, but Cherry said the case is "far from being closed."

"We're getting no help from the neighborhood," he said. "I thought this might be the catalyst for the neighborhood to come together, to say enough is enough. But that hasn't been the case."

In those painful hours after the shooting, sitting at Jean Carter's dining room table, the detective promised the mother he would do everything possible to bring her some closure.

Hundreds of UMES students lit candles for him a few days after his death in front of the student services center. They told stories about him, and they filled a memory book to give to his family.

The vigil was "so emotional," said Mauresha Spencer, vice president of the Student Government Association. "We needed to do it to lift a weight off our shoulders."

The next day, students piled into vans to come to Carter's funeral in Baltimore. More than 500 people attended.

His mother wrote a note in the service program. "My love, my heart, my soul, `My Melly,' my only child. Giving birth to you was the best thing that ever happened to me ... I will carry you in my heart forever. I'll meet you in heaven."

Friends have had his name tattooed on their necks and his initials shaved into their haircuts. Dozens wear the white T-shirts his family had printed that bear his senior portrait and the phrase, "Heaven is now chillz."

"Chillz" was Carter's personality. Longtime friend Kelvin Harris said it was also his response to everything from "How was your day?" to "What did you do this afternoon?"

His solid, 6-foot-1 build and his often serious expression hid his wit and charm, friends and relatives say. He loved playing video games and he loved his car, a green Ford Taurus handed down from his mother, said Patricia Patterson, 24, one of dozens of cousins.

When they gathered yesterday, more than 100 of them, in front of the high school, they tried to fill the candlelight vigil with his touches. Many of them wore the T-shirts with his portrait.

High school friend Donte Erwin, 19, pulled his sport utility vehicle close to play the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song "Crossroads." Erwin sat in the passenger seat and wept as the lyrics poured out of his speakers.

Can somebody anybody tell me why he died?

We die - I don't wanna die ...

See you at the crossroads ... so you won't be lonely.

At the end of the vigil, after the Rev. Terry McCain of Elderslie-St. Andrew's United Methodist Church led a prayer, people said to the flames atop their candles, "Happy birthday, Jamelle."

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