Everybody knew Freddie.

He made the old-timers and the young kids of Gilmor Homes laugh with his off-key singing and perpetual smile. He seduced the girls with his “swag.”

The cops at the Western District station also knew Freddie, a young man so frequently in cuffs that officers wrote in reports that they could identify him by name from surveillance camera video.

When Freddie Gray died Sunday at age 25, a week after suffering a spinal injury in police custody in this West Baltimore housing project, he also became the latest national symbol of distrust of police.

How Gray was injured remains the subject of local and federal investigations, and the city’s mayor and police commissioner have vowed to provide answers. While they wait, Gray’s family, friends and neighbors, joined by residents from across the city and beyond, have held nearly nightly protest marches ringing with rage. Another is planned for Saturday afternoon.

Police officials said Friday that they were in the midst of a “massive, meticulous” probe of the incident, and they appeared to be focusing on one segment of Gray’s 30-minute trip in a police transport van. They said Gray, who was handcuffed and eventually put in leg irons, was never seat-belted, a violation of policy. Gray had made several pleas for medical attention, police said, and officers should have called for an ambulance immediately after his arrest.

Those closest to Gray, friends from the low-slung Gilmor Homes apartment buildings in the Sandtown-Winchester area, say he is a product of the neighborhood — a place where relations between residents and police have long been strained.

They say that’s why Gray ran when he saw officers the day of his arrest. The police union says that for officers working open-air drug markets, that was reason enough to give chase. Police said they found a switchblade in Gray’s pocket. Officials said the officers involved have denied using force during or after the arrest.

The encounter typifies the uneasy dealings between residents and officers in a run-down and high-poverty neighborhood where many people feel trapped.

“We’re just hurt,” said Angela Gardner, 22, who had dated Gray, though not exclusively, for the past two years. “He was so loyal, so kindhearted, so warm. Every time you saw him, you just smiled, because you knew you were going to have a good day.”

‘He wanted to live better’

One afternoon this week, Gardner stood in an isolated courtyard around the corner from site of the April 12 confrontation, sharing photos and stories of Gray. Her Justice for Freddie shirt was partially hidden under her sweater.

Gardner, who was with Gray the night before he died, said he had one mission: “He wanted to get away from here. He wanted to live better than we’re living here.”

Blind Baltimore resident Harold Perry claims to have heard Freddie Gray yelling on the night he was arrested by Baltimore police. Gray died a week after incurring a spinal injury while in police custody. (WUSA9)

Friends said Gray never held a real job and spent his days hanging out in Sandtown. Money he used to buy designer accessories from Prada, they say, came in monthly settle­ment checks from a lead-paint lawsuit against the owners of the house where he grew up.

One friend, the owner of Toak’s Progressive Bail Bonds, was also Gray’s bail bondsman.

“He wasn’t mean-spirited. He was always respectful,” the bondsman, Quintin Reid, said. “He was one of the little happy-go-lucky guys who visited his mom every day.”

Gray’s nickname was Pepper. And unlike some of the young people who come to Toak’s, he wasn’t one to embellish.

“One time, I asked him in front of my office, ‘Why you got the name Pepper?’ ” Reid recalled. “I thought I was going to get some big old story about how he earned his nickname, and he said, ‘I don’t know. But it’s who I am. I’m just Pepper.’ ”

Reid pointed to the depressed environment around him. Sandtown’s boarded and decaying rowhouses reveal only part of the harsh living conditions of the 72-square-block neighborhood that is nearly 100 percent African American. More than one-third of residents live below the poverty line, and nearly a quarter are unemployed. A report from the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative found that the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area has the most residents in state prisons compared to other Baltimore City communities.

There are no grocery stores and no restaurants, not even one serving fast food. Sandtown was once an experiment for urban renewal; state and federal grant money poured in to overhaul housing. But even with the changes, little has gotten better.

Run-ins with police

Gray’s family has not talked extensively in public about him or his upbringing. Although at one point he played in a youth football league, the lead-paint suit filed in 2008 on behalf of Gray and two of his sisters, one of them his twin, describes a bleak childhood.

Court papers describe a disabled mother addicted to heroin who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. The suit alleged that peeling paint from walls and ­windowsills contained enough lead to poison the children and render them incapable of leading functional lives.

In a report filed in court, one expert said that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading but that tests did not show a disability that would keep him from holding a job. He had enough skills to work as a mason, it concluded.

A court docket notes a settlement order in 2010, but the amount is undisclosed. Attorneys on both sides declined to comment.

Court records show Gray was arrested more than a dozen times, going back to when he was 18, mostly in Gilmor Homes and mostly on charges of selling or possessing heroin or marijuana. He had a handful of convictions, and his longest stint behind bars was about two years.

He had two pending drug cases when he died. In one, he was charged with a felony, accused of selling heroin by police who said they had witnessed hand-to-hand exchanges and found drugs in a small potato chip bag hidden in a drainpipe.

Last year, he faced a charge that could have put him away for several years, but prosecutors agreed not to pursue the case in exchange for Gray serving 100 hours of community service. His attorney said the police account that Gray was acting as a lookout for a heroin dealer did not match images caught on a surveillance video.

“He was sitting on the steps talking with girls,” said the attorney, Creston P. Smith. “It was a typical Baltimore police drug case. Sweep in and arrest everybody and sort it out later.”

Earl Williams, who has lived in Sandtown for 40 years, said he had known Gray since he was a child. “He was just comical, that’s all,” Williams said. “He always called me ‘Fat Daddy.’ ”

The retired cook said it was well known that Gray came into money with the settlement of the lead-paint suit. Around Sandtown, it’s called a “lead check.” Gray’s flashy clothes and attitude drew attention — from friends and the police.

“Police thought he was selling drugs,” Williams said. “He wasn’t. They thought so ’cause he hung out with those who did. . . . He always got locked up because he’d tell the cops, ‘I ain’t afraid of you.’ He wouldn’t back down. He ran because they always beat him up.”

‘Freddie was our family’

Gray alternated living with one of his sisters and with Gardner. “Every morning, he would get up, and all he wanted to do was listen to music and sing,” Gardner said. “I’d say, ‘You can’t sing, Freddie. You can’t sing.’ ”

On the Friday before Gray’s last encounter with police, a group played a drinking game at her house called King’s Cup, turning cards over and downing a mixture of tequila and vodka every time a king appeared. On Saturday, they stayed in, and Gray left about 3 a.m. Sunday. He texted Gardner that he was near Presbury and Mount streets in Gilmor Homes. “I never heard from him again,” she said.

Later that morning, video from a bystander at that corner captured white officers kneeling on Gray as he lay facedown on the street, crying out. Officers then dragged his seemingly limp body to a police van.

Tyrone Davis, 21, was down the street when he heard his friend’s screams. He ran, but “by the time I got there, the police were dragging him to the wagon. He was broke all up when they were dragging him.”

“Freddie was our family,” said a friend, Tamika Bryant, 27. “This man is dead, and they aren’t giving an explanation.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to say that a report from the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative found that the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area has the most residents in state prisons compared to other Baltimore City communities. It initially incorrectly reported that a majority of state inmates are from that area.

Lynh Bui and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.