BALTIMORE — Andre Hunt counseled troubled kids through the Boys and Girls Club. He volunteered at the local NAACP chapter. A barber, he befriended the son of an assistant high school principal, swapping tales of football and life while the boy grew into adulthood under the clips of his shears.
“He was like a big brother to my son,” the mother, Karima Carrington, said of her trips to Cut Masters on Liberty Heights Avenue.
The 28-year-old Hunt was lured out of the barbershop, according to his attorney, and shot in the back of the head on the afternoon of April 29. He was among more than 30 people slain in Baltimore in 30 days, an alarming number of killings and part of an undercurrent of violence here.
Although riots and protests after the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured in police custody, brought national attention to the city, the slayings have attracted little notice. They come as Baltimore works to recover from the unrest, with a police force demoralized by the arrests of six of its members — three of whom face murder or manslaughter charges in Gray’s death — and under the scrutiny of the Justice Department.
The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple and a local activist, said city residents have “almost been anesthetized” to the killings. “In any other community, these numbers would be jaw-dropping.”
A month before Gray’s death, Bryant joined Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) at a summit to urge black men to help stop black-on-black killings. African Americans comprised 211 of Baltimore’s 216 homicide victims in 2014. Now Bryant, who eulogized Gray at his funeral, believes in “enlarging the narrative beyond Freddie Gray” to harness the anger and renew the focus on curbing violence.
“The young people are engaged,” the pastor said. “Now there has to be a clear conversation on the contributing factors to murder — lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, hopelessness. All have contributed to the downsizing of life. . . . Young people don’t fear death. They’ve almost embraced it as part of life in Baltimore.”
Hunt’s killing remains unsolved. His attorney describes it as a daylight execution along the dilapidated commercial strip a little more than a mile from where the riots first erupted at Mondawmin Mall. Hunt’s friends believe the barber’s death is linked to his former position as a middleman in this city’s lucrative heroin trade. He was shot a month after he was sentenced to three years in federal prison for distributing drugs in Gray’s neighborhood, and 10 days before his attorney said he planned to report to serve his term.
Hunt’s roles as youth mentor, legitimate wage earner and drug dealer are part of the dysfunction and paradox of surviving in troubled neighborhoods, where narcotics are an integral part of commerce and as common as the vacant rowhouses that dominate the landscape. Hunt bought heroin wholesale and sold to street-level pushers working West Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes and its isolated courtyards between strips of drab public housing. This is the part of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Gray grew up and where he was arrested before he died April 19, after having been shackled and put without a buckled seat belt in the back of a police van.
The protests and riots that roiled this city in the aftermath of Gray’s death quieted after the police officers were charged. But even as shops were looted and burned and 3,200 Maryland National Guard troops came to restore order, another type of violence was consuming Baltimore.
From mid-April to mid-May, 31 people were killed, and 39 others were wounded by gunfire. Twice, 10 people were shot on a single day. As of Friday, the deadly burst has pushed the city’s homicide count to 91, 21 above last year at the same time. In the District, 40 people had been slain as of Friday, not including four people found dead Thursday in cases police said are being investigated as homicides but are awaiting a ruling by the medical examiner.
Baltimore has historically been a violent city, earning a moniker of “Mob Town” during gang riots of the 1850s. Homicides topped 300 for 10 consecutive years in the 1990s. Although the annual figure has fallen to the low 200s, the city remains among the top tier in per capita murders, ranking fifth in 2013, behind Detroit, New Orleans, Newark and St. Louis.
The past few weeks have been rough on rank-and-file cops who, according to their union representatives, feel distrusted by the citizenry, vilified by the media and alienated by prosecutors. “Officers are coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m afraid to do my job,’ ” said Lt. Kenneth Butler, a 29-year veteran and president of a group for black officers. He said officers, black and white, are “equally upset, their morale is low.”
Lt. Victor Gearhart, with 33 years of experience, said officers are second-guessing themselves, tamping down aggressive policing. “Now they have to think, ‘What happens if this turns bad? What is going to happen to me?’ ”
During the rioting and protests, Baltimore police disclosed the killings on the department’s Twitter feed amid tallies of looting, fires and rock throwing. But shootings did not become a topic except when police assured they were not linked to the unrest. The day after the rioting began, and as the National Guard deployed, the police commissioner declared on TV: “The citizens are safe. The city is stable.”
Andre Hunt was killed the next afternoon.
Hunt was trying to escape the drug life.
He graduated in 2004 from a high school in Milford Mill, a suburb of Baltimore. He got his barber’s license and started cutting hair. He had two cousins in the drug trade, and his attorney, Richard C.B. Woods, blames them for luring him into illicit dealing.
One cousin, Sean Wilson, 46, was sentenced in February to 11 years in federal prison for working with a heroin dealer in New Orleans. When police raided his house in suburban Baltimore, they found 10 kilograms of heroin and $464,000 in cash. An additional $89,000 was found stuffed into the pipes of a Ford D-250 pickup.
This was the atmosphere in which Hunt found himself, Woods said, and, starting in 2012, he joined with another cousin to sell heroin. Hunt’s nickname was “Cousin,” due to the family connections that put him in easy reach of large amounts of drugs. He worked out of a stash house in Reservoir Hill, a neighborhood just above the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues that was the epicenter of the riots.
In his plea agreement in federal court, Hunt admitted they poured drugs into Gilmor Homes. Business was brisk. In one car stop of Hunt, police reported finding 50,000 empty yellow zip-top bags typically used to package drugs for streets sales. Inside the Reservoir Hill house, police found 1.6 kilograms of heroin and a .357 Magnum revolver.
Hunt and others were arrested in October 2013. He pleaded guilty in May 2014 but wasn’t sentenced until in March 17, 2015. A federal judge allowed him until May to surrender for prison.
But just two weeks after Hunt entered his guilty plea, Wilson, who had not yet been arrested, heard that his cousin was going away for just three years, while others got much more time, according to court filings. Wilson talked to his New Orleans supplier on a call bugged by the FBI.
“I don’t know how the [expletive] that happened,” Wilson said, according to a court affidavit. “I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it.”
The Maryland U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. Woods said his client was spared a long prison term because he had no prior convictions and appeared to be trying to turn his life around.
“He was hard-working,” the lawyer said. “He mentored young people. That’s unusual. Most people in drug-distribution rings don’t care anything about anything but their money. He was a good young man who got roped into this.”
Karima Carrington, the assistant principal of the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a city high school, said she met Hunt a decade ago while he was cutting hair at Cut Masters.
She took her sons to his shop. The youngest was then 12. Hunt and the youth talked sports and jobs, and Hunt attended the boy’s football games. Carrington said of Hunt’s death: “Absolutely it had something to do with what he was doing on the street. No one would want to hurt him other than someone in that life.”
Carrington said that after Hunt was arrested, he confessed to her about selling drugs. “He was remorseful,” she said. “He was ashamed. He really was trying to get out of the life he had led.”
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said Hunt volunteered at her office. “He was trying to change his life around,” she said, “and was looking forward to serving his sentence and starting over. I’m so sorry he didn’t have a chance to do that.”
Hill-Aston was talking on the phone with a reporter on a recent Monday afternoon. A friend had just called her from a doctor’s office in West Baltimore and told her she dived to the floor when three gunshots went off outside.
It was 1:30 in the afternoon, at a place called Walbrook Junction. Another man shot in the head. Another death.
Hours later would be a funeral for another man killed May 2, the last day of the curfew imposed during the rioting. He was the grandson of a founder of Bible Way Church, oldest son of the church’s former bishop, nephew of the bishop-designee.
The shootings and the burials continued their frenzied pace.
“It’s almost like there’s a war going on,” Hill-Aston said.