Day after day, family and friends of Patrick John Walker have streamed to a makeshift memorial at the base of a tree in downtown Bel Air, lighting candles, leaving fresh flowers and notes and erecting seasonal decorations. Recently, Easter eggs replaced the shamrock-green St. Patrick's Day trinkets, placed amid a collection of photos.
It was here that the 23-year-old Walker, a recent college graduate who was running errands on his way to work one Friday afternoon last May, was fatally stabbed in the neck in an incident that prosecutors say was apparently sparked by road rage.
Yesterday, 20-year-old Michael Razzio Simmons pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Walker's death and agreed to serve the maximum of 30 years in prison.
The plea agreement means the families of the victim and his attacker will not have to endure a trial, which the defense had sought to move to another jurisdiction because of publicity and the proximity of the murder scene to the county courthouse, a couple of blocks away.
Witnesses observed Simmons reach into Walker's vehicle, and he was arrested with blood spattered on his clothing. The May 26 killing shook Bel Air, where there hadn't been a homicide in more than 20 years.
At yesterday's hearing, Simmons apologized to Walker's family, though he referred to the incident as an accident.
"That hit a nerve with the family," said Assistant State's Attorney Vernon M. Gentile.
According to police, Simmons was driving south on Bond Street when he said Walker cut him off. Simmons followed Walker a few blocks before the cars came to a stop sign on a little-used alley that empties onto Churchville Road.
Simmons, of Fallston, told police that he reached for a knife in his vehicle's center console and got out of the car when he saw Walker get out of his black Nissan Altima. He said Walker ran into the knife.
But witnesses -- including passengers in Simmons' car and an employee from the Harford County Health Department -- saw Simmons lean into the driver's side window of Walker's car as Walker waited at the stop sign.
When Walker got out of the vehicle, he was bleeding from a neck wound and staggering toward Simmons' car, the witness said.
Walker was pronounced dead at the scene. Recovered a few feet from his body was a car payment check written by his girlfriend, which he was going to drop off at a local bank.
Blood that spilled on the pavement has since washed away, but prosecutors say time has done nothing to ease the Walker family's grief.
"The family is just devastated, truly devastated," said Gentile, who was visibly shaken after yesterday's hearing. "This was a kid that had everything going for him."
The incident apparently was sparked by road rage. Researchers say such incidents can be avoided when drivers exhibit better road manners, but largely have to do with the psyche of those committing the violence.
Simmons, a former student at Harford Community College and a former assistant football coach in an area recreation league, was out on bail at the time of the incident, awaiting trial on charges stemming from an August 2005 incident in which he was accused of beating another man.
At Walker's funeral, family and friends recalled him as a quiet man who cared about others and led a simple life. He had recently graduated from Towson University and was working as an assistant manager at a local GNC store. More importantly, he was helping to raise his girlfriend's child from a previous relationship.
"That says something about him -- to be so young and take on a responsibility like that," said Assistant State's Attorney Michael Matthias.
The death came during what should have been a happy time for the Walker family. Walker's father, John, was appointed to become the Baltimore City school system's chief financial officer just days before the killing.
The memorial was set up shortly after Walker's funeral. The flickering lights from the candles are visible each night. Framed photos show Walker as a child and with his sister and parents. They show him cradling a puppy, and blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Other decorations reflect the holidays. A large white cross bears dates for Walker's birth and the day he was killed.
Words inscribed on the cross read: "We miss your smile, your laugh, your beautiful green eyes, and your gentle nature. We will always love you."