Protection rejected, and death follows

Teen cousins might have been targets of ultimate intimidation

October 15, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Howard Grant Jr. and Justin Berry were marked men.

The cousins had survived a string of shootings in the past four months. Both were present when a friend was shot and killed in June, and two months later they were targeted while sitting in front of their family home in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood.

Each time, and as recently as last week, Grant and Berry, who police believed were possible witnesses in the killing, had been hauled to police headquarters, where detectives spent hours urging them to go into a protection program. But they resisted. That wasn't for them. Was that how they were going to live their lives? Running?

After each shooting, police placed a squad car outside the family home for a few days, a private security detail not usually afforded to the hundreds of shooting victims across the city each year. But there was only so much police could do to stop someone with a gun, an agenda and a city that embraces - and occasionally enforces - a code of silence.

On Sunday, the odds caught up with them, claiming the life of Grant, 18, the father of a 1-year-old child, and Berry, 19, a basketball standout at Frederick Douglass High School who was just a few months into his freshman year at Morgan State University.

On Sunday, Grant and Berry were walking not far from their home about 10:30 p.m. when they were shot and killed.

"These were good kids," Howard Grant Sr. said. "Angels, neither one of them. But I don't know any kids who are. You supposed to be allowed to grow old, unless God wills you not to be. To have two young men, 18 and 19 years old, executed, butchered, or whatever they were, just taken, it is totally unfair."

Witness intimidation has been among the most vexing problems for Baltimore officials as they combat the city's culture of crime and violence. The issue came into the national spotlight in 2004 when an underground DVD called Stop Snitching warned witnesses against cooperating with authorities. Lawmakers responded by passing tougher penalties for witness intimidation, but the problem persists.

Sitting on a couch in the family home, Grant Sr. defended his son's decision to refuse protection, saying he had advised the teen against it.

"You know, it's almost like you still have to go on with life," Grant Sr. said. "It's one of those things that you can't allow certain forces and other people to dictate things, and I think my son was of the same mind-set."

He acknowledges, however, a conclusion that is painfully obvious: "We lost the battle."

Grant comes from an accomplished family - graduation photos of relatives getting bachelor's and master's degrees adorn the walls of his home - and he did not have a criminal record as an adult, though he had a minor juvenile rap sheet. Berry was once charged with stealing a car, but the case was dropped. When they died, both were unemployed but each was carrying more than $1,000 in cash.

That tells only part of their story.

Berry had gone to live with the Grants after his mother died three years ago of liver failure, and his relatives tried to make sure he succeeded.

Grant Jr. and Berry were inseparable, relatives who were also best friends. They were popular and could take on anybody in a pickup basketball game.

"They were like stars around here," said their grandmother, Hortense Grant, 82.

Grant Jr. did well in math but lost interest in school and began "getting into scrapes," his father said. He eventually dropped out. Berry, meanwhile, remained in school, playing football and basketball, earning recognition as one of The Baltimore Sun's "players to watch" in his senior year.

This fall, Berry moved across town and enrolled at Morgan State University, where he hoped to walk on to the football team and study history. The cousins stayed close.

The first shooting occurred June 19. Police believe Grant Jr. and Berry were with the victim, Brian Goodwyn, 21, in the 500 block of Bloom St., just two blocks from the Grant home. Goodwyn was approached by an unknown person who fired several shots and fled. Berry held Goodwyn's head in his hands as he gasped his last breaths.

About 100 people gathered for a quiet vigil a few days later, and the area was marked by graffiti remembrances and balloons and empty bottles of Grey Goose vodka and champagne. "How U Feel Haters. Your Hating Didn't Work!" read one message. At a community meeting, one resident declared, "This is not a violent block."

Grant Sr. said that police believed his son had seen something that could help solve the killing and offered to place him in a witness protection program if he talked. Police said Grant Jr. and Berry refused to cooperate.

"It was a non-issue. He didn't see anything, and there was no need" to enter a protection program, Grant's father said.

They pair was re-interviewed Aug. 5. Again, they offered nothing and refused protection.

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