BALTIMORE — They were born 11 blocks and less than two months apart in a city notoriously perilous for black males. Freddie Gray Jr. and William G. Porter Jr. did not know each other, but their lives circled and mirrored one another for 25 years.
Each was named after his father. Each was raised by a single mother who went to court seeking child support. For about a decade after their births in 1989, they lived in the same struggling West Baltimore community, where both their mothers said they were diagnosed with dangerous levels of lead in their blood. They played sports in the city’s recreation centers and attended public schools, where each found his share of trouble.
Over time, their paths diverged. Gray began getting in trouble with the law; Porter became an enforcer of the law. Then, on a quiet Sunday morning in April, their lives collided in an encounter that led to Gray’s death, criminal charges against Porter and five other police officers, and a city shaken by rioting and a crime wave that followed.
These two sons of Baltimore have been cast as martyr and villain in the vociferous debate over the brutal treatment that black men too often suffer at the hands of police. But their stories are more complicated than that.
In his first interview since he pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other related charges, Porter said he recognized the similarities he shares with Gray, who suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody.
“If I had made different choices, I would have been Freddie Gray,” said Porter, who is awaiting trial. “If he had made different choices, he could have been an Officer Porter.”
Helena Porter was 17 when she gave birth to William Jr. at Mercy Hospital on June 26, 1989.
A second son, Darian, arrived 17 months later.
The boys’ father, William G. Porter Sr., was away, serving in the Air Force. Helena was an unmarried high school dropout, with no idea how she would provide for her children. But she was determined to find a way.
She and her sons lived in a series of apartments not far off North Avenue in West Baltimore, which then, as now, was among the city’s most dangerous areas. Her boys were coming of age during a particularly bleak period in Baltimore’s history.
The city lost nearly a third of its residents between 1960 and 2000, according to census data, leaving once-vibrant neighborhoods hollowed out and littered with abandoned homes. Drugs and violence were rampant. The city tallied more than 300 homicides a year throughout the 1990s, police reported. The vast majority of the victims were black men, and many of them were killed in West Baltimore.
“All I knew is this is not the environment I wanted my kids to grow up in,” said Helena Porter, now 43, who took a minium-wage job at a commercial laundry, then as a nursing assistant at a hospice. She took classes to earn a GED and began training to become a medical technician.
“She was really working to get us out of the neighborhood,” said William G. Porter Jr., who is free on $350,000 bail and agreed to talk about his life growing up in Baltimore but not the incident that led to his arrest.
When he was 7 or 8, his mother said, Porter tested positive for lead paint poisoning, which can cause brain damage. His mother was terrified, though he seemed to be of normal intelligence. His behavior was another matter.
Porter said he was kicked out of Rosemont Elementary/Middle School in second grade for hitting a teacher during an argument over a lunch ticket, only adding to his mother’s sense of urgency to get out of West Baltimore.
She signed him up for programs at a Police Athletic League recreation center, where there were football and basketball games, free lunches, field trips and relationships with the cops who staffed the center. “I met a bunch of officers,” he recalled, and he liked them.
By the time Porter was in fifth grade, his mother had a new job as a medical technician, a stronger relationship with his father (they married in 2007) and enough income to buy a home in a middle-class North Baltimore neighborhood.
“It was a different world,” Helena Porter said. “There were different possibilities.”
Porter went to school just up the street at Guilford Elementary/Middle School, where he began to flourish. At National Academy Foundation High School, a public charter school, Porter ran track, played football and interned both at Baltimore public school headquarters and the investment firm Legg Mason.
He went to Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) just outside the city but left after two years. “Student loans were piling up,” he said, “and I was rethinking my life.”
He wanted stable, meaningful work. For him, that meant becoming a cop. Though his father had been twice convicted of drug possession charges, Porter had looked up to the officers at his PAL recreation center years earlier. Like them, he thought he could make a difference for a new generation.
The first time he applied to the department, in 2010, he was rejected for being colorblind, Porter said. But the department contacted him two years later, and this time it hired him.
He was ecstatic; his mother was not. Porter is imposing enough physically — he is stocky and more than 6-foot tall — but he can be soft-spoken. His mother wondered whether he had the tough edge needed to be a city cop.
“I didn’t want him to do it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how he was going to adapt to the job.”
Though she worried about his safety, Baltimore was experiencing a historic drop in crime. At the direction of then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, the police had spent years cracking down on the petty drug dealing, public drinking, loitering and other behavior he believed encouraged open-air drug markets to proliferate and eroded the city’s quality of life.
The number of homicides fell from 305 in 1999, the year O’Malley took office, to 217 in 2012, the year Porter joined the police force. The city’s population also stabilized at 622,000 residents, halting decades of decline.
Yet many residents of Baltimore’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods had paid a steep price for the progress. There were huge numbers of arrests, more than 100,000 in 2005, according to a report by the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute. Almost half were for disturbing the peace, loitering, disorderly conduct and other minor infractions. More than 1 in 5 people arrested that year were released from jail without charge, the report said.
O’Malley left office to become governor in 2007, but the resentments his policies unleashed have lingered — both over the arrests and the treatment many people say they receive from police. Between 2011 and 2014, the city faced more than 300 lawsuits alleging brutality or false imprisonment, the Baltimore Sun reported. The city settled more than 100 of the cases at a cost to taxpayers of $5.7 million, the newspaper found.
As a 23-year-old rookie cop, Porter knew he would be greeted with suspicion by some. His first night on patrol was a midnight shift in the Western District, which includes his old West Baltimore neighborhood. He and his training officer responded to a call to disperse a large crowd that had gathered outside a nightspot. As they approached the club, Porter said, he heard a burst of gunfire. He pulled his service revolver and ran toward the sound of the shots, where he found a wounded man lying on the ground. He does not know whether the victim lived or died. His last call that night, Porter said, was for a fire that destroyed a church.
It was a jarring introduction, but, nonetheless, he said, “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Porter promised himself he would see beyond the violence and be the kind of officer who relates to the people he was sworn to protect. He was from the city and, he said, he understood “what people were going through.”
For a while he was on foot patrol near Gilmor Homes, a low-slung public housing complex close to where Gray was arrested for the last time. There were rats, trash, graffiti, boarded-up buildings and no shortage of crime and criminals, he said. But there were also, he said, many “good people” who relied on the police.
He hated litter. He would watch people leave a carryout while eating chicken from a to-go box, then just toss the garbage over a shoulder onto the sidewalk. Often, he would make them pick up the mess. At times they angrily protested, accusing him of being petty. But Porter would be firm.
“How do you expect the neighborhood to develop if it looks like that?” he said he told them. “Who’s going to invest?”
He carried business cards with him from a job-training program. From time to time, he would chat up the guys who were hanging out. If he sensed they might be interested, he would offer up a card. “Sometimes, people took it,” he said. “Sometimes, they just turned their backs.”
Though he had never met Gray before their lives intersected on April 12, Porter said he had heard of him — as had many cops in West Baltimore. “He was a frequent flier,” Porter said.
That assertion is supported by the long rap sheet Gray accumulated over his short life. He was arrested more than a dozen times, mostly on charges of selling or possessing heroin or marijuana. He had done a couple of years in prison and was facing charges in two criminal cases at the time of his death.
For years, Gray’s mother and her longtime companion, Richard Shipley, tried to dissuade him from running the streets. “We talked to him until his ears burned off,” said Shipley, who spoke on behalf of the family. “We told him, ‘You’re not good at what you’re doing. You keep getting locked up. What does that tell you?’ ”
Gray’s prospects seemed limited even before he entered the world. His mother, Gloria Darden, described herself in court documents as illiterate. She used heroin and already had two other children when Gray and his twin sister, Fredericka, were born at the University of Maryland Medical Center on Aug. 17, 1989. The twins were premature and tiny, requiring them to spend several months in the hospital before they were allowed to go home, according to court records. Their father, Freddie Gray Sr., was not a daily presence in their life.
They were still babies when Shipley began courting Darden. Introduced by family members, they talked on the phone for months before meeting in person, he said. One of the first impressions Shipley had when he visited Darden’s West Baltimore home for the first time was that she needed to move.
“The house was not in too good a shape,” he recalled. “It wasn’t safe for the kids.”
As it turned out, the family’s subsequent home, a shabby, two-story rowhouse a few blocks away, also proved to be hazardous. It had peeling lead paint, and the children were poisoned by the toxic material, harming their ability to focus and contributing to their poor school performance, according to testimony in a 2008 lawsuit brought by the family and settled by a former landlord.
“All the schools that I went to, I was in special education,” Gray said in a 2009 deposition. His twin sister, he said, was suspended all the time for fighting. “She still got problems like that. She still do. She always was the aggressive one.”
The twins attended Head Start. But when they went to West Baltimore’s Matthew A. Henson Elementary School, it was not unusual for them to miss long stretches of class time. Gray was four grade levels behind in reading, one court report said.
Darden, who said in court documents that she had never held a job and survived on disability payments, struggled with her basic duties as a parent. Still, Gray used to describe himself as a mama’s boy. As a young child, he often left his bed to sleep beside his mother.
Family and friends tried to help. Gray took part in recreation league football and baseball. His godmother made a point of taking him to a neighborhood church, which he loved. He helped deliver Sunday dinners to seniors, volunteered for church car washes and worked in his pastor’s flower shop, Shipley said.
But soon enough, the family’s problems overwhelmed those efforts. When Darden went to drug treatment, the family sometimes huddled in the house with no electricity or food, according to court records.
Gray made it through middle school but not high school. The last record Baltimore school officials have of Gray dates to April 2008, when he was 18 and still in 10th grade. He left Carver Vocational-Technical High School for a facility run by the Department of Juvenile Services, the state agency that manages young people involved in the criminal justice system.
Nicknamed “Pepper,” Gray didn’t look or act like a tough guy. He was slight, standing 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing less than 150 pounds. Friends described him as charming, blessed with an easy smile and what Shipley called “the gift of gab.”
But that did not keep him out of trouble. “The streets,” Shipley said, “got ahold of him.”
Just weeks before Gray was arrested for the last time, Baltimore prosecutors asked police to target the West Baltimore corner of Mount Street and North Avenue for drug enforcement, according to court documents.
On the morning of April 12, Gray was posted up near that intersection when he made eye contact with police. He took off running and officers followed, apprehending him after a brief chase.
A video taken by a bystander captured Gray screaming in apparent agony while police pinned him to the sidewalk and locked his legs to restrain him. As officers moved him to a transport van, Gray seemed to be dragging his legs. At some point, prosecutors said, Gray also told officers that he has asthma and needed an inhaler.
Inside the van, police said, Gray was irate, prompting the driver to pull over so he could be restrained with leg shackles. Gray was reloaded into the vehicle face down on the floor, despite a new policy that required prisoners to be buckled into a seat.
About 9 a.m. Porter responded to a radio call from the van to again check on Gray, prosecutors said. Porter met the van on a corner not far from where both he and Gray once lived. He saw the shackled prisoner sprawled on the floor.
Gray again asked for medical attention, according to prosecutors, and Porter helped him up onto the vehicle’s bench. Porter did not secure Gray with a seat belt, nor did he call for medical help before the van pulled away, prosecutors said.
By the time Gray arrived at the Western District police station about 25 minutes later, he was in cardiac arrest. A medic revived him, but his spinal cord was 80 percent severed at the neck — an injury prosecutors contend occurred not during Gray’s arrest, but when he was tossed around by the van’s movements. He died in the hospital a week later.
On the day of his funeral, the city erupted in violence unlike anything Baltimore had seen since 1968. Bands of young people pelted police with bricks and rocks and set vehicles on fire. As night fell, people roamed the streets, torching cars and stores, smashing plate-glass windows and looting businesses. More than two dozen pharmacies had drugs stolen, as did a pair of methadone clinics.
The city remained on edge for days as police in riot gear faced off against protesters. Thousands of National Guardsmen, some in Humvees and other military vehicles, were called in to help enforce a tense curfew.
In the end, officials said, 130 police officers were injured in the disturbances. At least 285 businesses were damaged, more than 150 vehicles were burned and about 60 buildings were set ablaze.
Days after the uprising, State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced a series of criminal charges against the six officers involved in the arrest, alleging that Gray was detained without probable cause and callously ignored when he asked for medical help. The driver of the van is accused of second-degree murder. Porter and two other officers are charged with involuntary manslaughter. He also faces charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
The charges helped defuse the tension that had blanketed the city. But in the months since, crime has spiked dramatically while arrests have plummeted, fueling speculation that criminals are feeling empowered and police are holding back. In July, 45 people were killed, tying a record set in 1972 — when 900,000 people lived in Baltimore.
Gray’s death will haunt the city for months to come, as Porter and the other officers prepare for their trials, which could touch off more unrest. It also haunts his family.
“It feels so unreal,” Shipley said. “I am still waiting for him to come home.”
Instead Gray, whose funeral drew hundreds of mourners, is buried in a grave marked by a circle of stones, plastic flowers and a small white cross at Woodlawn Cemetery. Last month his twin sister marked their 26th birthday without him.
His name has joined the list of black men who have died after encounters with police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner in New York; and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. In Baltimore, a youth center has been named for Gray.
“Freddie Gray is a symbol for so many of us in this city and in this community of what it means to be a young black man, trying to fight against what seems to be insurmountable odds,” said the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple Church, which opened the center.
William G. Porter Jr., now 26, has heard few such accolades. He has been suspended without pay for months. He is surviving on donations from police groups and spending much of his time with an elderly grandmother.
His mother said that she is praying for the best and that she feels for Gray’s mom. “She had to bury her son, and that’s hard,” she said. “I can’t imagine that pain.”
She also feels for her own son. “If you never got locked up your entire life and you became a police and you get locked up for doing your job, that’s a little eerie,” she said. “Especially because I fought so hard to keep him on the straight and narrow.”
If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Porter could face up to 10 years in prison. The assault charge also carries a maximum penalty of 10 years.
“This is hard on me,” said Porter, who maintains he did nothing wrong and expects to be found innocent. He looks forward, he said, to one day returning to the job that gave his life purpose: being a police officer in his home town.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.