Louis (Junior) Morton, who narrowly escaped death after a Gaboon viper bit him, was released from Children's Hospital last week in "good condition," according to a hospital spokesman. But I figured that anyone who messes with vipers can't be in good condition, so I went to his house to see for myself.
I wanted to know why a boy would put a bag of snakes over his shoulder, then board a bus headed for an area where thousands of children play amid the bushes and weeds and abandoned cars.
I found part of the answer in the emptiness of the place Morton called home. It was a decaying housing project with little to stimulate a growing boy's curiosity.
But his experiences at school also revealed that he was deeply troubled, having, at 16, made it only to the seventh grade.
Neighbors who knew him said Morton needed special education. They blamed both the schools and his parents for failing to see that he got it.
"He probably didn't know the snakes were poisonous," offered Annette Barnes, a friend of the family who lives in an upstairs apartment. How could that be, I wondered. The snake tank at the zoo is clearly marked poisonous.
"He can't read," Barnes said. "He just didn't know."
I called his school, Johnson Junior High in Southeast Washington. At first, nobody wanted to talk about it; they had been directed not to talk about "the case," a receptionist said. But Janice Cromer, a spokesperson for the D.C. public schools later confirmed that Morton was having serious problems in school. But don't blame the teachers, she hastened to add.
It seems that Morton rarely showed up for class.
Barnes said Morton didn't go to school because he was a slow learner and other students would laugh at him when he was called on to read.
Instead he would take day-long nature hikes, neighbors said, roaming the Oxon Run Stream Valley Park, a thatch of woods and drainage ditches in the front of the 7th District Police Station on Mississippi Avenue SE.
He would return home with boxes of crayfish, snakes, frogs and stray dogs. Few of the children who live in this part of town ever get a chance to make it to the National Zoo, so Morton brought the zoo to them. He had converted several vacant apartment rooms into animal cages where he would bring children around to see his catch.
The children who lived around him watched in awe as Morton handled his creatures. Some of them he would return to the woods, others he would kill. He was admired for his bravery and he was said to lead the children like a Pied Piper off on expeditions and away from school.
"I went to the creek before," said Antoine Wright, 7, one of his followers. "I caught a crayfish."
When I approached Wright playing with his friend Ron Samuels, 6, they were engrossed in the newest neighborhood game, a variation on Louis Morton's notoriety that Ron called, "The Bye-bye Viper." The game consisted of jumping over a water hose onto a discarded sofa on the dusty lawn of the apartment building, then waving at the hose, "bye bye."
Morton's mother, Yvonne Morton, was not available for comment this day. Sources at Children's Hospital said she had difficulty visiting her son while he was hospitalized during the last month. She didn't have money for bus fare from Southeast to Northwest, they said.
Barnes said on one occasion, Morton called her from the hospital wondering if anyone was coming to see him, and tried to explain how he had found the snakes, not stolen them.
"I said to myself, 'Here we go again. . .'" Barnes said. "Everybody knows this boy needs special help, but everybody's just feeling sorry for him . . . everything."
Those who knew him said Morton was becoming increasingly frustrated and aggravated. It was clear he was in need of special education. For years he had been trying desperately to get attention. Now, after being bitten by a poisonous snake, he has received the kind of attention necessary to keep him alive, but not necessarily the kind that will teach him how to live.