It is not unusual for girls to settle their differences with their fists in the place once known as Killer Hill, where the poor people live in this farming and chicken-raising town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. That, most everyone figured, was how it would end between high school students Shelia Johnson and Cheryl Brown -- with just another fistfight.
There had been trouble between the two for more than a year, and it had become a matter, said Cheryl Brown's best friend, of proving who was more of a woman. The showdown began as the two girls got off the school bus and met on the corner a few blocks from their homes, just outside the Salisbury city limits.
It was about 3:15 p.m., an hour or so before the labor bus would come rolling along the dusty streets, bringing workers home from the chicken farm. A crowd gathered as Shelia and Cheryl began arguing. Neither of them was what you would call a bad girl, and no one had expected knives, but suddenly Shelia, and then Cheryl, police said, had knives.
It was over in moments. Cheryl Lynn Brown, 16, a ninth grader, the youngest daughter of a mother on welfare and a father who works at the Perdue chicken plant, lay dead on the sidewalk in a pool of blood, cut across her face, arms and hands, stabbed once in the chest. Someone ran to get her mother, Bunny. Shelia Johnson ran home.
The violent death of Cheryl Brown was front page news in Salisbury, a city of 16,000 that seems a world away from Washington, much farther than a 119-mile trip along Rte. 50, over the Bay Bridge and deep into Maryland's pastoral Eastern Shore. The city had had five homicides since last January, three of them stabbings.. The community was still grieving over No. 5, a 28-year-old man known as Blue, who was stabbed during an argument outside a downtown bar, when Cheryl Brown was killed 12 days ago. But this one hurts even more. This time, the victim and the accused killer were children.
The grudge between Shelia Johnson and Cheryl Brown, so young to be so angry, mystifies. "It just goes to show you never know what goes on between children," said Laura Loton, 41, who lives in the neighborhood. The killing is discussed relentlessly there, in church, on the front stoops, on the porch of the Lake Street Market, at the Perdue and Campbell Soup factories where many of Salisbury's 3,000 blacks work. Some say it could have happened anywhere, some blame the neighborhood that is separated from Salisbury's white community by more than the two highways that run between them.
The ministers have been around, urging forgiveness, and there is little malice toward the accused, only a feeling, especially among the older people, of helplessness and sadness. They became even more overwhelmed when police arrested two other girls from the neighborhood, one 17 years old, the other just 14, and charged them as accessories in the murder. These girls, police said, had given Shelia Johnson and Cheryl Brown the knives.
A tired looking woman named Margaret, who works as a government inspector at Perdue and lives in the house next to the one in front of which Cheryl and Shelia fought, spoke for most when she said: "It's a terrible thing, children slipping each other knives."
Forty people watched it happen and only one girl, bystanders said, made a move to stop it. Cheryl Brown died right outside Evon Farmer's house, and 17-year-old Evon, who had been watching her favorite soap opera, "The Guiding Light," called the police. Evon's 4-year-old niece, who had been outside playing, saw it all, and afterward, Evon said, "She looked kind of sad. It was her first time seeing something like that."
The police found Shelia Johnson in the emergency room of the hospital, being treated for lacerations. Cheryl Brown was dead, they told her, and she was being charged as an adult with first-degree murder. Shelia Annetoinette Johnson, the daughter of a mother on welfare and a father who works as a mechanic, is 15, a 10th grader who last year marched in the high school color guard.
The young man who loves Shelia Johnson, a 19-year-old building maintenance worker named James Holbrook, said, "I'm not mad at her. I've got to help her. I still love her. I still want to marry her."
Later police arrested Shelia's sister, Vanessa Rene, 17, and charged her as an accessory in the murder. She had given Shelia the knife, police said. Jennell Shirrie Savage, 14, was supposed to have been one of six flower girls at the funeral, but last Monday police charged her with giving Cheryl a knife, and Cheryl's aunt said that even if Jennell got out on bond the family didn't want her as a flower girl after that.
Jennell Savage and Vanessa and Shelia Johnson are locked up in Cellblock 6 of the Wicomico County Detention Center, a four-story brick building on Main Street across from J.C. Penney's. Though all three girls were charged as adults, the Rev. J. Chappelle Mills, the charismatic Baptist minister who is looked upon as a leader in Salisbury's black community, reminded his parishioners: "Those are children in that jail. They're not adults. Pray for them. Pray for our community."
In church the Sunday after the stabbing, the minister took up a collection for the Browns, so Cheryl could have a proper funeral. The father of Shelia and Vanessa Johnson, Gilbert Johnson, was there, and he gave all he had, $13. He sent flowers to the family. "This whole thing is tearing me up," he said. "I'm hurt for the girl that's dead. I raised my daughters better than that."
The father of the dead girl, Isaac Fitchett, is also in the jail on Main Street, doing 90 days on a drunken-driving charge. "I ain't set eyes on him in 13 years," said Cheryl Brown's mother, who sometimes works in the fields picking cucumbers. The 52-year-old mother of five didn't much feel like talking to outsiders about the stabbing. "She was a sweet, loving girl," she said in the living room of her $161-a-month apartment, where one wall is decorated with her 9-year-old grand--daughter's awards, a certificate for playing the cymbals in the school band and a red ribbon for the standing broad jump.
The printed program at the memorial service included a description of Mrs. Brown's daughter's brief life: "At the time of her untimely demise, Tweety, as she was known by friends and family, was a ninth grade student at the James M. Bennett Senior High School. Two of her favorite subjects in school were Industrial Arts and Home Economics."
The principal at Bennett, Lloyd Wescoe, said he was shocked by the death of Cheryl Brown. All of the girls alleged to be involved attended his school. None of them, he said, was known as a troublemaker. Though it didn't occur at Bennett, the stabbing naturally started parents worrying about violence in the schools. Wescoe, in his sixth year as principal there, was reassuring. "If we have eight fights a year, that's a lot."
Some who saw this fight say they can't sleep at night. Blood still stains the pavement in front of Evon Farmer's house, and Lena Kirkland, 15, who watched her best friend die there, walks past it every day on her way home from the bus stop. "The first few nights I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her lying in that puddle of blood . . . I guess you just have to accept it."
The neighborhood where Cheryl Brown lived and died earned the nickname Killer Hill 20 years ago, when stabbings seemed almost routine. Back then many of the four-room frame houses, which were built on farm land in the 1930s, didn't have plumbing and running water. It took a protest at the courthouse, led by Mills, to bring progress. Some of the houses still lack toilets and hot water, but the neighborhood is calmer now and is known simply as The Hill. George Savage, 37, whose 14-year-old niece was charged as an accessory in the murder of Cheryl Brown, said, "This is about the first real bad fight here in a long time."
Still, life within the Hill's few square blocks is not easy. The sidewalks and street lamps stop there, and the yards are more weeds and dirt than grass. Many of the children live with mothers who are alone, their men gone. The older ones talk of going into the service as a way of escaping a life at Perdue. Cheryl Brown, her family said, was among those with dreams of joining the military. Her death is something Mills blames on The Hill. "There is a feeling of hopelessness," he said. "People are very depressed. There is no way to escape."
Gilbert Johnson, 45, the father of the accused girls, said, "That neighborhood is the worst." He is divorced from Shelia and Vanessa's mother, and his daughters lived with their 78-year-old grandmother in a bright blue trailer next to the Salisbury Revival Center. But Johnson, who says he left East Baltimore for Salisbury 20 years ago because he wanted to live in a more peaceful place, supported his daughters, visited often and planned to move them into the house he recently bought and renovated on West Road, away from The Hill.
"I was trying," he said. "I was trying real hard."
He says the trouble between his daughter Shelia and Cheryl Brown began with a letter written by one of Shelia's friends to a boy Shelia's friend liked. Shelia, he said, found the letter, read it and brought it to class. The other students urged her to read it aloud, but she wouldn't. "Cheryl snatched the letter and read it aloud," he said. "The girl who wrote the letter found out and got a little upset. Cheryl told her Shelia had been the one to read the letter aloud. That's what it all started with."
That was more than a year ago. Gilbert Johnson smiles sadly as he tells this story; he knows how incredible it seems, that such a small thing could end in death. "I wouldn't say they hated each other," he said. "You know how kids carry a grudge . . . "
Cheryl Brown's friends say it can't be explained. "Something just came between them," Penny Dozier, 14, said.
Cheryl and Shelia fought with their fists last year, and the word around the neighborhood is that Cheryl won that one. The feud between the two became more bitter two days before the stabbing, when they traded obscenities in the school cafeteria. Cheryl's best friend, Lena Kirkland, says it started when Shelia, who had cafeteria cleanup duty that week, wiped the table while she and Cheryl were still eating. "Cheryl said, 'Don't be wiping around my food.' Shelia just ignored her. Cheryl said, 'You bitch.' Shelia put the sponge up to her face. She called Cheryl a whore. It just went on from there."
That was on a Wednesday. By Friday, Lena said, "Everybody said there was going to be a fight between Cheryl and Shelia. Everybody thought it would be a fistfight." She said she never knew either girl to carry a knife.
When Cheryl and Shelia got off different school buses and met on the corner of East Road and Booth Street that afternoon, Lena said, Cheryl spoke first. "She said, 'You called me a whore, huh?' Then they just started fighting. Cheryl swung first. Shelia pulled out a knife. Cheryl looked down and saw she was bleeding. She said, 'She cut me.' She was shocked. Then she said, 'Where's the knife?' She turned around to the crowd, and when she turned back she had a knife."
Shelia, she said, began running. Cheryl chased her. "I took off behind Cheryl," Lena said. "I know I can outrun her, but this time I couldn't. They started battling with the knives again. Shelia got away. She took off running toward home. I thought Cheryl had stumbled, but then I noticed she was going down. If I knew she was going to fall, I could've stopped her. I just stood there and looked. There was a big gash in the middle of her chest. I knew she was dead." Maryland State Police, who are investigating the stabbing, said that witnesses gave a similar account.
Lena says she'll never find another friend like Cheryl Brown, who was known as Tweety because she was so small and fragile looking, like a bird. "I could tell her something, and she wouldn't tell anyone," Lena said.
The two girls liked to watch "The Guiding Light" and "The Young and the Restless" on TV. They went shopping together at Woolco; this fall they bought the same maroon winter coat there. Lena, who moved to The Hill two years ago with her mother, a domestic worker, says she was grateful when Cheryl befriended her. Lena was going through rough times then; she was 13 years old and pregnant.
Lena's dresser is a clutter of Diaperene, Vaseline, an album labeled "Baby's Photo Album" and a Crazy Curl curling iron. Her son, DeMont, will be two in February. Lena says she wants to marry the father, a 19-year-old construction worker.
She was a flower girl at Cheryl Brown's memorial service, held last Thursday night. The red brick Baptist Church of the Holy Trinity holds 600 people, and they had to put chairs in the aisles for all the people who came to mourn the death of the 16-year-old girl from the neighborhood.
The Rev. J. Chappelle Mills, a powerfully built man in white robes, who said before the service, "I end up burying most of the people who get murdered in this town," was at his most eloquent: "Yes, we are black. Yes, we are poor. Yes, we are oppressed. But at the same time we can have, we must have, pride in ourselves. Our environment, the section of town in which we live, the kind of home in which we live, must never negate the pride that we ought to have in ourselves . . . Believe and accept the fact that you are somebody."
He implored the children to stay in school, to make something of their lives. "There is nothing but heartache on the street." Cheryl lay before him in her best pink flowered dress, her open casket lit by the glow of two pink lamps.
The knives that she and Shelia Johnson fought with that afternoon have not been found. Shelia had a folding knife, police said, Cheryl a kitchen knife. Around The Hill, some people say the knives were flung amid the tall grass and weeds in the field that faces the street where Cheryl Brown died.