After teen's death, many questions and no answers


August 31, 2008|By PETER HERMANN

This is a story about a daughter, but first we must briefly introduce her mother. She is 46 and is struggling to survive. In and out of jail and once nearly lost to heroin on the desolate streets of West Baltimore, she long ago surrendered her four children to their grandmother's care in Woodlawn.

One of them was Tyisha M. Brown. The 15-year-old was a high school sophomore, but her grandmother, Mozzella Burriss, who raised her since she was 5, said she talked more about being initiated into the Bloods gang than she did about doing her homework.

On the afternoon of Feb. 15, Burriss said, a counselor she hired met with Tyisha in her house on Lewellen Avenue, just outside the city line. Tyisha spurned the help as unwanted and unneeded, and stormed out to a party on Woodland Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.

Police found her body the next day, shot and left in a vacant lot. Three days later, Burriss filed a missing persons report with Baltimore County police. Tyisha wasn't identified until March 7, the day after city detectives released a sketch of the young girl in the morgue.

It is, of course, a sad story, and one not unlike countless others that have numbed this city to violence over the years. Asked about reports that Baltimore is safer now than in the past, Burriss' husband Louis said simply, "Not that I've seen. Somebody's getting murdered every day."

That isn't quite true. But it's hard to argue that the 282 slayings in Baltimore last year and the more than 140 so far this year is news to brag about. Tyisha's problems were many, not the least of which being that her grandparents were simply overwhelmed.

"She would hang out with the wrong crowd," Mozzella Burriss said of Tyisha, who had attended Woodlawn High School. "She used to go out all night, and I pleaded with her not to go. She went anyway. She said she was trying to join a gang."

Tyisha's case interested me for a couple reasons. A reader wrote a poem after her body went unclaimed for 19 days. Her death got little attention, and I wanted to know more. Her mother has a list of convictions for assault and for using and selling drugs, though she is now out of prison and relatives say she is trying to make a comeback.

I talked with Louis and Mozella for about a half-hour. They mourned their loss but couldn't find words to describe Tyisha beyond her stubborn desire to make the wrong choices.

Surely she didn't always want to be in a gang, I pressed. What did she want to do when she was little?

"She liked gangsta rap," Mozzella replied.

Most of all, I wanted to find out how Tyisha, with ties to a school and a home, could die and remain unidentified for so long. That answer, too, remains elusive. Mozzella Burriss filed a missing person report with Baltimore County police on Feb. 19, but whether that information was shared with city detectives beyond entering the data into a nationwide database is not yet clear.

Baltimore County police confirmed that the missing persons reported had been filed, and Officer Troy Harris, a spokesman for the city police, said detectives with unidentified victims check both shared databases and with their counterparts in other counties. But not every day.

Mozzella said she told county police that her daughter was headed to the city, and it's conceivable that the county officer could have called city homicide detectives to see whether they had any bodies they couldn't identify. By that time, city police had found the girl and were trying to learn her name.

Harris said that had the missing persons report been filed in the city, Tyisha probably would have been identified much sooner. Paperwork doesn't flow as easily and quickly between jurisdictions as it does within a single department. Mozzella and Louis live just blocks from the city line, and they can be forgiven for not understanding how jurisdictional boundaries work, or in this case slow the identification of a missing 15-year-old girl.

But that doesn't seem to be as important now as understanding why Tyisha died, whether anyone could have done something for her. We can't accept that she was simply too much to handle, and the end of her life at such a young age was inevitable.

There are no easy answers. And no one to point a single finger of blame. It is frustrating, because Tyisha was not the first teen to die this way and won't be the last.

The failings are many.

It is grandmothers raising a second generation of children because their own children can't. It is the lure of the streets and of gangs, whose influence does not stop at the imaginary line separating the city from the suburbs, even if bureaucracy does.

It is about the young people who've given up, and been given up on.

Mozzella and Louis Burriss want police to make an arrest - "so I can rest," the grandmother said. But Louis doesn't think the case will close quickly or easily.

"Tyisha needed help," Mozzella Burriss said. "I pleaded with her to get help. I pleaded with people to help her." Noting the social worker who came the day her granddaughter was killed, she said, "The help she got came too late."

I'm not sure Tyisha got real help from anyone.

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