Family mourns life taken early by gunfire

Teen is ninth under 18 killed this year

April 03, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Abandoned as an infant, moved from home to home and state to state, Estefany Gonzalez came to Maryland last fall for a fresh start.

The 16-year-old had plenty of friends at Patterson High School, but never felt comfortable living on Eastern Avenue with the man who had helped raise her, the man she called her father. Struggling with schoolwork and skipping classes, she was kicked out of school in October, relatives said.

She was out late Friday night, walking through a nearly deserted public housing project in O'Donnell Heights on the far eastern edge of the city, visiting friends and clutching a bag of McDonald's fast food.

Gonzalez was shot and left for dead in a parking lot on Toone Street, discovered by a passer-by. She died less than an hour later at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, a hospital on Eastern Avenue across the street from the rowhouse in which she had lived.

The teenager was the ninth person under 18 to be killed in Baltimore this year and the first young female. Last year, three females younger than 18 were slain. She is among the 72 homicide victims in the city this year, up from 64 during the same period in 2006.

Police detectives were still in the early stages of their investigation yesterday and had not developed a motive or suspect in the slaying. Her relatives said Gonzalez - who had been born in Cleveland and lived in Newark, Del. - had never been arrested in Baltimore.

Gennette Washington, who had legal custody of Gonzalez and considered her a sister, and some of the girl's friends said the teen may have been struck by a stray bullet. Police said they are searching for witnesses.

"We're kind of shocked," said Anita Berkley, 43, who lives in O'Donnell Heights and whose three children were friends with Gonzalez. When the girl was shot, someone ran to Berkley's house and pounded on her door. Berkley said she ran and found paramedics trying to save Gonzalez's life.

"She's a sweet innocent girl," Berkley said, while standing near an impromptu memorial of balloons and teddy bears tied to a street sign in the 6300 block of Toone St. "She was like a second child."

Though Gonzalez lived on Eastern Avenue, she spent a lot of time with friends in O'Donnell Heights, friends and family said. In early March, she had gotten a job at a McDonald's restaurant, just over the hill at the Baltimore Travel Plaza, east of Interstate 95. There, she worked afternoon shifts, according to a supervisor.

Berkley said Gonzalez liked to do "girly things" with her friends: dressing up, doing their hair, socializing with friends on the Web site MySpace.

Where Gonzalez died has had a long, slow history of decline. The federal government built O'Donnell Heights in 1943 to house workers from nearby industrial plants during World War II. It later became subsidized housing and has been rife with drug dealing and violence for years. The city is now in the process of shuttering it.

One elderly resident described the last few years of living there as "pure hell." Betty Blair, 76, said drug deals, shooting and murders happened outside her house over 45 years. Now, she's moving in with her daughter, "because my health is bad, and it's bad out here."

Yesterday, Washington, who had taken Gonzalez into her home in Delaware, visited the spot where the teen had been shot and spoke with people who knew her. Then she returned to the apartment where Gonzalez lived with William Zeno, the man she considered her father, and waited to speak with police detectives.

One thing that weighed heavy on Gonzalez, Washington said, was the death in 2001 of the woman who raised her, Elba Ortega. The woman suffered from diabetes, and Gonzalez regularly cared for her, giving her insulin shots when she needed them. One day, Gonzalez was pushing her in a wheelchair and hit a bump. Ortega tumbled out of her chair and broke her hip, Washington said. Her health deteriorated quickly, and she died, Washington said.

At 10 years old, Gonzalez had lost the woman who had taken her in after having been abandoned by her own mother when she was 9 months old. "She felt really guilty," Washington said. "I always tried to tell her it wasn't her fault."

Washington invited Gonzalez to live with her in Delaware. She obtained custody of the girl and had her enrolled in school in Newark. Gonzalez joined the cheerleading squad in the New Castle County League. In one photo, she is seen wearing her bright blue-and-yellow uniform.

She began to discover Baltimore because Zeno, the man who helped raise her with Ortega, had moved to the city. While living in Delaware, she used to come down to visit him and made friends in the area, Washington said. She wanted to live with her father again, so Washington let her move in with him in a rowhouse on Eastern Avenue.

With tears in his eyes yesterday, Zeno, who speaks Spanish, talked about Gonzalez through an interpreter. "She was happy. ... She was a beautiful girl," he said. "When she was 4 months [old], I took care of her."

Last month, Washington said that she and Gonzalez traveled back to Cleveland so Zeno could begin the process of getting legal custody. But more recently, Washington said, Gonzalez had begun talking about returning to Delaware.

"It was different here for her," Washington said.

Washington said that a funeral was planned at the New Life Ministry Church in New Castle, Del., on Saturday and that Gonzalez's body would be sent to Cleveland for burial next to Ortega, the woman who took her in as an infant. "We had talked about it in the past," Washington said. "That's what she wanted."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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