Northeast Baltimore shooting takes life of schools advocate

Crowd holds vigil as tribute to `good kid'

January 17, 2008|By Gus G. Sentementes and Sara Neufeld | Gus G. Sentementes and Sara Neufeld,sun reporters

Though he had dropped out of high school and was completing his GED, Zachariah Hallback had found a cause to believe in: improving inner-city schools.

The 18-year-old was an advocate with the Baltimore Algebra Project, a student-run tutoring group known for its passionate stance on improving education. He regularly wore on his hat a button displaying the group's slogan, "No Education, No Life."

Hallback was shot in a robbery last Wednesday at a bus stop in front of two friends at East 33rd Street and The Alameda in Northeast Baltimore. He had visited a friend who was attending Morgan State University. He died in a hospital Saturday.

"He was funny," Faye Brown, 21, said of her friend during a vigil at the scene of the killing yesterday. "He had a great attitude. He was all about life. All he wanted to do was better himself."

At the vigil, Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pleaded with city residents to help police catch Hallback's killer.

"This was a good kid," Cheatham said, "a good kid who was doing good things with the Algebra Project. ... He was killed senselessly. ... If a young good child like this can be killed - not a bad child, not a kid doing something wrong - then it could happen to any one of us."

He also asked the public to help Hallback's family, which needs money for his funeral, being organized by Israel Baptist Church at 1220 N. Chester St.

Police said Hallback was the second 18-year-old killed in Baltimore since the beginning of the year and the third teenager. On Monday, 14-year-old Edward Smith was gunned down in Cherry Hill. Smith attended ConneXions Community Leadership Academy, a school where Algebra Project volunteers tutor students.

"It's sick," said Jay Gillen, an adviser to the students involved with the Algebra Project. "We've got to change this."

Gillen wrote in an e-mail that Hallback "was completely committed to improve the schools."

"But I know quite a few drug dealers, too, and the fact that the public thinks the death of good kids is more horrific than the death of drug dealers is a large part of the problem, in my view," Gillen wrote. "The public thinks: `Usually it's just dealers killing dealers or addicts killing addicts, so why care very much?'"

Several of Hallback's friends attended the brief street memorial, some shedding tears.

Xzavier Cheatom, 18, who had known Hallback since middle school, helped recruit him to participate in the Baltimore Algebra Project.

Cheatom said he was with Hallback at the bus stop when he was shot. He said it was too painful to discuss details of the shooting. Police have said that Hallback did not have any money on him when he was shot shortly after 8 p.m.

Cheatom said he was frustrated that police hadn't arrested a suspect, given the many security cameras in the area. "The killer is still on the loose," he said. "It seems like nobody's doing anything."

Hallback was the second of four children, Cheatom said, and lived with an older brother, a younger brother, a baby sister and his mother.

Cheatom said he and Hallback became friends while they attended Lombard Middle School. Hallback attended the National Academy Foundation high school in South Baltimore for his freshman year, then transferred to Patterson High, closer to his home on the east side, Cheatom said. He dropped out in 2006 because, Cheatom said, "he was lonely. He didn't really know anybody. A lot of his friends went to different schools."

Hallback was taking General Educational Development classes at one of Baltimore's Youth Opportunity Centers. Cheatom said he had taken his GED test within the past month but that he didn' t know whether his friend had received the results before he died.

On the Saturday before his death, Hallback attended an organizational meeting at the Algebra Project's office on North Charles Street to help plan a "die-in" in Annapolis Feb. 6 to protest cuts in education funding. The group has staged similar demonstrations, in which students lie in the streets pretending to be dead because of what they consider the state's inadequate funding of schools.

In his spare time, Hallback loved singing and rapping, Cheatom said. He wrote songs in his spare time and sang at church. When he hung out with his friends, he enjoyed playing video games, watching television and listening to music.

"We were trying to do a lot of stuff to be successful at life," Cheatom said. "He charmed everyone. He really got along with everyone. Every person he met was his friend."

The shooting occurred across the street from City College and drew the attention of student leaders and school officials.

At a PTA meeting Tuesday night at City College, student government president Celia Neustadt spoke about what happened to Hallback in calling for an increased police presence around the school.

Andres Alonso, chief executive officer of the city schools, who attended the meeting, said there has been an increased police presence around the school until 8 p.m. The shooting occurred shortly after 8 p.m., police said.

"Zach's only crime was that he had no money or cell phone in his pocket," Neustadt said.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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