A murder victim's vigil turns tense

Families search for solace when even mourning isn't sacred

October 26, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

The vigil began on an ominous note. The organizers had asked police to be there so they could mourn without looking over their shoulders, but the squad car pulled away, lights and sirens, to respond to another call.

Relatives and friends of Marquis Jones pushed down the dark East Baltimore alley anyway, holding Mylar balloons and candles, and shaking off a steady rain that plopped through the canopy of trees above. They gathered one night last week at the spot where the 19-year-old was recently gunned down.

"Do not let this tragedy mark his life," said Brandon Jones, Marquis' uncle. "What happened is only a lesson."

But their vigil would be interrupted when mourners saw a menacing figure who pointed his hand like a gun and pretended to fire. The singing and prayers were quickly replaced by screaming, running and children crying as attendees feared more violence. A swarm of police officers soon returned to the scene.

The families of Baltimore's many homicide victims would like to think they can mourn in peace. But these street vigils — rituals that have become part of the city's cultural fabric — can be emotional tinderboxes and magnets for more conflict. Police often coordinate with organizers to make sure officers are on hand.

With more than 200 homicides a year in Baltimore, violence sometimes mars the gatherings of mourners. Hours before Marquis Jones' vigil, a midday funeral service for a 17-year-old victim turned violent, with police called to a Greenmount Avenue church to break up a fight.

While no one was seriously injured as the crowd panicked at Marquis' vigil, Brandon Jones had hoped his nephew's memorial would be different.

"You wonder why, when one of our loved ones gets slain, they get chalked up as another statistic," he said after the disturbance. "It's because people don't have decency. You should be able to assemble and pay respects."

Marquis Jones grew up in East Baltimore, the third of four children. His mother, Tonya, said he was a happy child who enjoyed playing football and always took up for others. But the family was upended in 2006, when Tonya witnessed the killing of her cousin and developed post-traumatic stress disorder.

She was sent to a facility in Philadelphia for treatment, and others helped care for her children. But Marquis began living with friends and started to get into trouble, she said. After an arrest on robbery charges last year, he spent almost a year in jail.

"It destroyed him," Tonya Jones said. "There's so much negativity and anger, and death, and all kinds of things going on in jail that he really could not handle."

He emerged determined not to go back, she says. He became "extra loving, extra caring." He wanted to get his GED, embraced his mother's organic lifestyle and wanted to get into the Job Corps program after his court cases were settled.

He had pending robbery and drug charges at the time of his death, the most recent arrest in late July, when police say he sold two vials of cocaine while under surveillance.

"He had his run-ins with the law," said another uncle, George Jones, "but he wasn't a bad person."

The circumstances of Jones' death Oct. 16 death remain unclear, and the killer remains at large — as is the case in nearly six out of 10 city homicides. The family is hearing rumors — that he was with friends earlier in the day, and there was an altercation. Things got heated, they heard, and the shooting may have been a fatal resolution to that dispute.

Marquis' mother didn't attend the vigil — she said she wasn't emotionally ready. Brandon Jones is glad she didn't.

On that night, a week before Marquis' funeral Wednesday, mourners slowly gathered on Harford Road then made their way down to the 2200 block of Aiken St., where more were waiting, about 50 in all.

They lit candles and turned down the back alley. A dog's persistent barking could be heard from a nearby yard. Moving closer to the spot where Marquis' life ended summoned intense emotions for some, who began to keen.

Where the alley intersected with another cut-through, they stopped and placed a framed picture on the ground, and Marquis' grandmother, Patricia, led them in prayer.

The rain picked up. An orange-hued streetlight above the trees — the kind that doesn't illuminate much — faded in and out.

"Don't be afraid to walk out in this area," his grandmother continued. "Don't be afraid to go outside your house. Because you are covered by the blood of Jesus."

"Tell Marquis you loved him," someone cried out. The group raised their candles in unison. "We love you, 'Quis."

Brandon Jones was next to call for the group's attention. "Marquis was a lot more than what happened to him. Everybody that's here right now, he touched your life somehow," he told them.

Steps away, a man had walked up to the group. "Is this for …'Quis?" he said, according to several mourners. Then, the man made the gunlike hand gesture, they said.

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