Just keeping an eye out — or a case of harassment?

Aunt says slain man, a target for police vigilance, never had a chance

  • Donatello Fenner, 22, was a ranking member of a violent east-side gang, police say. He was fatally shot in a Charles Village alley last week.
Donatello Fenner, 22, was a ranking member of a violent east-side… (Handout courtesy Baltimore…)
March 17, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

It's safe to say that once Baltimore's police commissioner publicly names you as a "catalyst for violence" and says his officers will "try to keep very good track" of you, you're going to attract some attention from law enforcement. For nearly two years, Donatello Fenner attracted that kind of attention.

But what police saw as keeping close watch on a man they call a ranking member of the Young Gorilla Family - a gang that in 2007 helped pile 10 bodies in East Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood - his family saw as nothing more than preventing the father of three from escaping his troubled past.

So when Fenner, 22, was fatally shot Friday afternoon in an alley behind an elementary school in Charles Village, the aunt who raised him complained that police had prevented his redemption.

"He had hoped to turn his life around, and the police never gave him a chance," said the aunt, Shroyal Moore, speaking by phone from her rowhouse near Guilford Avenue and 22nd Street.

She described frequent police raids, car stops and arrests, all of which, she said, were designed to harass. Police said it was their way of keeping watch on a potentially violent young man.

Moore did say something that would probably get no disagreement: "His past caught up with him."

And it caught up in an unlikely and unnerving place for murder: in a wide alley, between the neatly kept back garages and parking pads of Charles Village rowhouses lining North Calvert Street and the back of Margaret Brent Elementary School, just steps from a playground and a small parking lot for teachers. Noise of children chatting over lunch and from classroom lessons spills into the alley.

School was out when the gunshots echoed through the neighborhood about 5 p.m. Friday. Residents' fears about a rare killing in a community where homeowners pay extra taxes for private security and street cleaning quickly eased when they learned from police that the victim had most likely been targeted and was not the victim of a random attack.

"This incident is likely isolated," said Walter Brown, who heads security for the Charles Village Community Benefits District. "My guess is the victim was led to this area."

If the police are correct, the waning drug war in Barclay made a sharp detour into Charles Village.

Monday night, just five blocks away in adjacent Remington, police raced to another shooting: a man killed in a car at Howard and 25th streets, the site of a planned $65 million residential and commercial development that is to include a Lowe's Home Center and a Walmart.

There's no word on whether the two shootings are related - police have not yet identified the victim from Howard Street. But back-to-back killings in neighborhoods not accustomed to such violence prompted Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to send an e-mail to his commanders Tuesday and remind them "to stay on top of it." His spokesman said the "proximity of the killings" has prompted "our own concerns."

Police make no apologies for keeping an eye on Fenner. It's part of their efforts to identify the next suspect or victim of murder, and make sure that every misstep is noted and acted upon. After the 2007 killings in Barclay, which focused attention on how violent and organized Baltimore gangs had become, only three shooting deaths have occurred there in the past two years.

Bealefeld singled out Fenner during a news conference because Fenner had been among six people arrested in the 2008 shooting of a witness whose testimony helped send a man to prison for 40 years for a killing in 2000 on Barclay Street.

Police called it a gang-sanctioned hit. They wrote in court papers that Fenner had been "observed leading the gang meeting discussing the sanction against the victim" shortly before that man was lured into an alley and shot once in the head and twice more as he tried to run away. Prosecutors later dropped attempted-murder charges against Fenner. A trial is pending against the man police said pulled the trigger, as well as an accomplice.

Fenner's aunt, Moore, said her nephew earned his high school equivalency certificate during the year he spent in jail - time she said he served because of flimsy evidence from an overheard conversation later relayed to police. Fenner had one conviction. It was for gun possession in 2007, for which he served nine months in prison, and then returned to jail for two years for violating the terms of his probation.

Moore said he had two guns to protect himself shortly after his 17-year-old cousin, Victor Fenner, a sophomore at the Baltimore Talent Development high school, was fatally shot three times in the head while walking to a birthday party at his grandmother's house. The teenager's killing at the hands of masked gunmen was noted prominently in a USA Today article chronicling the city school for at-risk students.

The guns were a mistake, the aunt said, "but that doesn't make him a notorious gang leader. He's notorious for what? How? If the police commissioner is going to come out and make statements like that, he's got to back them up. They need to stop lying."

Moore denied that her nephew was connected to a gang. She said that he found God while he was locked up and that he spent time wandering his old neighborhood telling kids to get off the drug corners. He talked about college. "He told them that they'd get nowhere," she said.

But authorities aren't so quick to call Fenner reformed. At the time of his death, he had a pending case of assault against a police officer, and he had just shed his electronic home-monitoring device in February.

It's evidence, they say, that Fenner deserved their scrutiny. It's evidence, his aunt says, that the young man "never got a chance to live up to his full potential."

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