De'ontae Smith, 15, was fatally stabbed in downtown Baltimore… (Photo courtesy of De'ontae…)
The flowers left in condolence are a kind but painful reminder that De'ontae Smith is gone, as is the funeral program his mother carries around to remember the boy stabbed to death downtown just hours after the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl victory parade.
Chevita Bumbrey and her husband, Donae Wright, have struggled with De'ontae's conspicuous absence. He could usually be found slouching on the couch playing video games or dancing the "mump" to rap music — shuffling wide-legged on the wood floor.
But among the hardest things to accept, Bumbrey said, is that their 15-year-old son's death seems to have become invisible — nobody claims to have seen it — even though he was the victim of the most public of killings just weeks ago.
Police, who have not made an arrest, have not divulged much information about the investigation. De'ontae's friends, including those who watched him die, haven't shared what they know with the family, either. The silence is another indignity, after the family says city officials played down his death once before. Frustration builds as closure eludes them.
"No one seems to know or have seen anything with so many people there," Bumbrey said. "They all say they were there, but they don't know anything."
She wonders whether police are getting shut out like she is and bemoans a street culture in Baltimore that discourages witnesses from cooperating with criminal investigations.
On the morning of Feb. 5, De'ontae put on his Patterson High School uniform, said goodbye to his mother and left his Southeast Baltimore rowhome. He then changed into another set of clothes and joined several of his friends among nearly 200,000 people downtown for the Super Bowl celebration.
After the parade wound from City Hall to M&T Bank Stadium, police said, De'ontae and his friends were in a large fight outside a McDonald's at North Howard and West Fayette streets, where the teen was fatally stabbed and two others were injured.
The area was unusually crowded with parade-goers, according to witnesses, and grainy surveillance images police released a few days later captured the killer in a purple shirt and white hat — apparently raising his knife, about to plunge it.
"People fighting. … They got guns. Somebody got stabbed. We need everything. There's so many people here!" a woman who identified herself as the manager of the McDonald's said on a 911 call police have released.
Even with eyes and cameras all around, police have not made an arrest, though officials said they are following good leads.
Bumbrey believes if De'ontae's friends aren't telling her anything, they probably aren't sharing much with investigators. She blames the silence on the "Stop Snitchin' " street culture that discourages cooperation with police through fear or peer pressure.
Bumbrey understands the risk of talking to police. She was sitting on steps in the late 1990s when a car pulled up and shots were fired at a friend next to her, hitting him in the leg. At the hospital, she said, she told police everything she saw.
"Back in '98-'99, we weren't hooked up on the 'stop snitching,' " she said.
But that changed just a few years later when the phrase became as much a threat as a street mantra.
An underground DVD released on the streets in 2004 titled "Stop Snitchin' " drew national attention to witness intimidation, pushing Baltimore police to launch a "Keep Talkin' " counter-campaign and the Maryland legislature to pass tougher laws against witness interference.
"The culture made them fear," said Wright, 36, who helped raise De'ontae since the boy was 6.
Wright said he was trying to teach De'ontae to resist that culture. What he misses most, he said, is giving his stepson life lessons — looking him in the eye and "teaching him how to stay alive" on Baltimore's streets.
"They make it real easy for you to lose your children," he said.
Until police make an arrest, Bumbrey said, she will continue passing out Metro CrimeStoppers fliers and posting them in stores and gas stations in hopes that a $2,000 reward for information will prove more tempting than a code of silence.
Capt. Stanley Brandford, commander of the homicide detective division, said some people have spoken with investigators, but he wouldn't comment on who they were or the nature of the conversations.
He said detectives are still looking to the public for help.
"We still have some work to do," he said. "In all these cases, you always have people for whatever reason who don't want to come forward. It's a Baltimore thing, I would imagine."
Police in cities across the country struggle with witness intimidation, but Baltimore has been home to several notorious incidents that illustrate the stubbornness of the problem.