Mystery cloaks death of teen who 'had a life ahead of him'

November 18, 2009|By Peter Hermann and Brent Jones | Baltimore Sun reporters

It didn't happen often, but sometimes a student - usually a boy - would poke fun at Jason Mattison Jr.

About his skin-tight jeans and funky sweaters. About his boisterous voice that seemed to run nonstop. About his exuberance in recounting the most mundane of events. About his flamboyant mannerisms. He was 15, a sophomore in high school, and he was gay.

When someone harassed him in the halls of West Baltimore's Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, he had a sharp, witty comeback at the ready, and he walked away smiling.

"Even if it hurt him, he gave the other person the impression he was stronger," recalled his English teacher, Ryan C. Jones.

But while Jason appeared strong and confident in the safe confines of his school on North Calhoun Street, unafraid to embrace his sexual orientation as part of his personality, the world outside did not offer those same protections.

Last week, at his aunt's house, one of the few occupied homes on a block boarded and sagging, he was found dead - raped, gagged with a pillowcase, stabbed repeatedly in the head and throat, and shoved into an upstairs closet. Jason's killing left his teachers, classmates and relatives in tears and family members asking questions of one another even in the days leading up to today's funeral.

Did Jason leave his mother's house and move in with his aunt, as his grandmother suggested? Or was he just visiting on that fateful day, as a cousin said? And why did people in his aunt's house open their door to the suspect, a convicted killer released early from prison because of flaws in his case?

"From now on, we do have to take more care in who we let in and who we trust," said Jason's cousin, Laquanna Couplin, who lives in the house on Llewellyn Avenue where Jason was killed.

She described Dante Parrish, 35, who is charged with first-degree murder in the case, as a longtime family friend, but she would not say whether he lived there or visited.

Couplin spoke briefly Monday while standing on her front porch, complaining that too many stories, too many accusations, made it difficult to grieve, and that she was tired of trying to set the record straight.

"He was a terrific boy, and we miss him very much," Couplin said. "We're hoping that justice is served and that the person who is responsible for this goes to prison and doesn't get out."

Of Jason, she said, "He was a sweet young man. He wasn't afraid of who he was. He had a life ahead of him. I just wish he could've had a chance to live it."

But his paternal grandmother, Wanda Williams, one of the first Jason confided in about being gay and who handed him a few dollars now and then for food and clothes, questioned how other relatives could have allowed the boy to be in the same house with Parrish, given his violent past.

"I haven't cried so much this entire life," Williams said. "My grandson hollering for help and there is nobody there to help him."

Jason loved texting and talking, and he spent his evenings chatting with friends on MySpace.

Jason was one of the most popular kids at school, his English teacher said, always first to class, always first to the cafeteria, where students fought to sit at his table, always first to turn in his homework and always getting near-perfect grades.

"He was outspoken and excited about everything he talked about," Jones said. "Walking into school, he was the first one to share what he did over the weekend. He was very, very popular, and he was everyone's best friend."

Jason wanted to be a pediatrician, Jones said, and the only thing the two debated was Jason's constant chatter.

"He was not a behavioral problem," Jones said. "He was a talking problem."

But after every dispute, Jason eased the tension by laughing, smiling and saying: "It's not that serious."

The Vivian T. Thomas school has about 425 students, about 80 percent of them female, and Jason quickly gained friends with his eye for fashion. He dressed in bright colors and scarves, and if there was a hole in his jeans, he had put it there to make a statement.

Jason hated conformity. He wanted to change the spelling of his name to "Jaysen," and that's how his classmates remembered him on their cards.

"Normal was ugly to him," Jones said.

Jatia Pledger, his best friend in high school, said girls at the school stuck up for Jason when boys gave him trouble: "We all had his back."

But as much as Jason talked, he remained secretive about his home life.

"When he was in school, he was a whole other person," Jatia said. "We were his family."

Jones, his teacher and confidant, said he never asked. "Looking back, I wish I would have," Jones said. "It was something that never came up. Personally, I wondered what his family thought of his orientation."

Jason's grandmother said the boy's father was out of the picture and that she became the de facto authority figure. His mother did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

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