Gunfire Shatters What Solace Funeral Home Could Provide

Woman Fatally Shot Outside Viewing For Slain Boyfriend

November 21, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The Joseph H. Brown Jr. Funeral Home offers solace for families of shooting victims. But it was no haven Thursday night, when a woman stepped outside from a viewing for her boyfriend - a 51-year-old man who had been killed by a bullet a week earlier - and was fatally shot.

Standing just beyond the crime scene tape in a light drizzle, an older man passing through the area watched as detectives gathered evidence.

"Some things supposed to be sacrosanct," he said.

But they aren't, said Joseph H. Brown III, a fourth-general mortician who handles services for at least two or three city homicide victims each month.

He stood outside the funeral home in the 2100 block of N. Fulton Ave. on Friday morning, sipping coffee and wondering aloud what to do about the bullet hole marring the glass vestibule of his 16,000-square-foot building. A few steps away, a man wearing gloves and plastic boots tried to clean blood from the sidewalk with bleach. It's not gone, but it's better, he told Brown.

Respect for funerals has "gone out the window," Brown said. "This has become a fact of life as much here in Baltimore as it is in Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere else. There's many wars going on in the world, and this just happens to be one of the wars in our community."

This shooting wasn't the first time someone has opened fire on a Baltimore funeral service. In April 2008, two people were shot outside the Unity Methodist Church in the 1400 block of Edmondson Ave., where about 300 mourners had gathered to view the body of a 26-year-old man who had been killed in a triple shooting. In 2001, a man was shot at while leaving a viewing for his brother, a murder victim, at another city funeral home.

With tensions high, police often send uniformed or plainclothes officers to funerals. A retired city police officer who works security for Brown was at the facility Thursday night when the shots were fired, leaving the owner to wonder what else he could do to better safeguard mourners and staff.

"We've worked very hard in building this business, and to have something happen like this, it does shake my confidence," Brown said. "It shakes my confidence in how well we are protected, or insulated [from the city violence]. Is my staff going to be OK? Will they catch a stray bullet? I feel very vulnerable right now."

The irony, Brown said, is that Baltimore's high death toll helps fuel the funeral industry here. He said members of his staff develop specialized skills, such as making victims who suffered gunshot wounds to the head presentable for an open-casket viewing. His ability to restore a natural appearance that doesn't show any trace of how the person died is a point of pride.

"But when it happens right outside your door, it brings it really, really close to home," Brown said.

About a dozen people had gathered for the viewing for Michael Anthony McFadden, who was fatally shot Nov. 12 near his home in the 2000 block of W. Lanvale St., police said. It was one of two services taking place at the facility.

Police said McFadden's girlfriend, Virginia McGhee, 34, received a phone call about 7:30 p.m. and stepped outside, where she was shot in the chest by an unknown assailant. Police are investigating whether she was lured outside or whether her attacker was waiting and seized the opportunity. She died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Detectives believe the two shootings are connected, but a motive is unclear. A man who had been standing in the vestibule of the funeral home was also treated for a gunshot wound to his arm, according to police.

Like much of the city's violence, officials believe drugs could be at the root of the shootings. McFadden pleaded guilty to a drug distribution charge in October 2007, receiving a four-year suspended prison sentence, and he had several prior drug-related arrests. McGhee, who court records show shared an address with McFadden, also had a criminal history, pleading guilty to a second-degree assault charge in October 2008.

Police said the investigation has revealed that McFadden's home had been burglarized several times in recent months, though he reported only one incident, in September, and told police nothing had been taken.

Brown said his family's business is the oldest black-owned funeral home in the city, upgraded recently with the purchase of a 33,000-pound crematory. During a tour of the building Friday, he walked by a casket in a back hallway. Inside was the body of a man whose funeral was two weeks ago. His family attended the service but never returned, Brown said.

Despite the turmoil caused by Thursday's shooting, McFadden's relatives held his funeral Friday. McFadden's sister was inside paying the bill as the staff worked to clean up the blood outside; she declined to speak with a reporter.

Brown said he expected hundreds of people to attend the service, each passing by the bullet hole in the vestibule.

"That will be a reminder to everybody that comes into this funeral home today of what happened," he said. "This is something none of us will ever, ever forget."

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