Loretta Blackledge woke up early on the morning of March 25, 2006. She prepared, as she has almost every morning to this day, to work a double shift at her job. Her eldest child and only son, nicknamed Smook, called to her as she left their home. “Ma, I love you. Have a nice day.” She didn’t think much about his words at the time. He was always loving and praised her in front of his friends and family, often calling her his “favorite girl.” While some women may have felt threatened by this close connection, Smook’s girlfriend, Laprea, embraced his relationship with his mother.
Laprea and her siblings all share the same mother and father and she was determined that her children would as well. Loretta still remembers the day she learned her son was going to become a father. Smook called to his mother in her bedroom and asked her to join Laprea and him in the living room for exciting news. Beaming with pride and excitement, he announced, “Ma, Laprea and I are expecting our first baby.”
On March 25, 2006, Loretta returned from her long day of work at Embassy Suites in downtown Baltimore. The first thing she did upon entering her home was to look for Smook. It was habit. The early years, when she was just returning to work after his birth, were the hardest. As a toddler, Smook sobbed when Loretta left the house for work and begged her to stay with him. While he eventually overcame his separation anxiety, he always called his mother to check in on her and their close bond remained steadfast.
Loretta tried to protect Smook and his sister Cecelia from her arguments with their daddy and to shield them from any sense of having to pick a side. Yet, Smook was angered by the way his father spoke to and treated Loretta. On many occasions, he confronted his father about behavior Smook deemed disrespectful. Loretta never wanted her son and his father to argue, but she valued Smook’s attempts to defend her. “He always took care of me,” she remembers. She is still haunted by the night she may have failed to take care of him.
She was tired that early spring evening. She sat down to a meal of shrimp and fries and tried to relax. A few hours later, she heard shots and an ambulance siren. The sound of gunfire was not atypical in Summer Set Projects. What was atypical was that she didn’t go outside to see what was happening. Typically, the first thing Loretta did when she heard gunfire was to check to make sure Cecelia and Smook were safe. But something, she cannot explain what, kept her inside.
Loretta left for work, without her typical goodbye from Smook. It wasn’t like her son not to return home, not to call, not to let her know where he was. As she walked down her street, she saw yellow police tape barring entrance to a neighbor’s home. She made her daily stop at the gas station to pick up a snack for her work break and asked the gas station attendant if he knew anything about the police activity the night before.
“Some young boy got killed,” he told her. Loretta looked at the attendant and said, “Smook.” She just knew. The young attendant tried to calm her and persuade her that he was sure it wasn’t her son who was murdered. “I just remember standing there feeling my heart drop to the bottom of my feet,” Loretta recalls.
She continued into work and called all of Smook’s friends and family. No one had heard from him. Loretta told all of her coworkers that she was certain her child was the one who had been murdered the night before. When Loretta asked Cecelia to call all the hospitals and the morgue, Cecelia teased her mother for being overprotective. Cecelia was knee-deep in forms, working on her taxes, and didn’t have time to indulge her mother’s irrational fears. Finally, after much convincing, Cecelia called the city morgue.
She called her mother back and explained her conversation with the official there. “Ma, they kept asking me all these questions. Did Smook have a tattoo? Did Smook have. . .”
“Cecelia, you know what you just did,” Loretta interrupted her daughter. “Cecelia, you just identified your brother.”
Her daughter laughed, “No, Ma. Can’t be.” Then just moments later a hysterical Cecelia called her mother back. She spoke to the official at the morgue again and had indeed identified her brother over the phone. Smook’s father went to the morgue to identify his son, a task no parent should ever face.
The days after Smook’s death are a blur. Loretta recalls moments where she was dead inside. She remembers her daughter’s sons, just children, coming to comfort her. Her grandson, just a toddler at the time, found her crying and wrapped his arms around her, “Smook died. But you don’t have to cry no more. I’m here for you.”
Her other two-year-old grandson yelling, “You all stop your crying. Smook’s not dead. He just went to the dollar store.” She remembers the police coming to her door shortly after her Smook’s father identified his body. Loretta invited the officers in and showed them a photo of her son. They gasped and looked at one another.Her two-year-old grandson yelled, “You all stop your crying. Smook’s not dead. He just went to the dollar store.” Go #Behindthe Statistics with Loretta.Click To Tweet
“That’s the Dog Man. He never did bother anyone,” one of the officers said. Smook was fondly known by the police officers who patrolled Summer Set Projects by this nickname because of the two big dogs he adored and frequently walked around the neighborhood.
Detective Johnson, the lead detective on the case, treated Loretta and her family with great kindness and respect. “He was so good to me and I got so much support from the police,” she recalls. She kept in touch with Detective Johnson until he retired. The prosecutor, Kevin Wiggins, was another great source of support. “I stayed in touch with him too. I think he’s a judge now. But he too was so good to me. I wish I could find him to tell him that again.”
The trial wasn’t easy. Loretta learned during the proceedings that her son was alive when his killers left him. Had someone called the police, his life may have been saved. She often wonders what would have happened if she heard the gunshots, walked outside her door that night, and made it to her neighbor’s home. Could she have saved her son?
The young man who shot Smook is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years in prison. He killed Smook in front of a young child. Not long before his death, Smook helped the baby take his first steps. The murderer, his friends, and the baby’s mother fled the house with the child. Loretta does not know what happened to that baby boy.
The detectives helped make arrangements for Loretta’s family to move out of their home in Summer Set Projects shortly after Smook’s death, and she lost touch with most of her neighbors. Shortly after Loretta moved out, the Summer Set homes were torn down because of black mold. Yet, Loretta thinks about that little boy who would be a teenager now. What must it have been like for him to watch a man shot eight times in his torso? What is the impact of a scene that violent on a young child?
Loretta saw the baby’s mother, the woman who ran from her house and left Smook to die on the floor, just a few months ago. The woman walked up to Loretta and began to cry. She begged Loretta for forgiveness. Loretta had only one question for her: “Why did you leave Smook to die? He would be alive today if you called the police as soon as he was shot.” The woman did not have an answer, she just begged for forgiveness. Loretta told her, “The God I serve today allows me to forgive you. There is too much hatred in this world. I forgive you.” Then she hugged the young woman.
Loretta took me to Smook’s gravestone to talk about her son. Her daughter, Cecelia, surprised her grieving mother and bought a tombstone for her brother. A few months ago, Loretta, Laprea, Cecelia, and Smook’s now 13-year-old son Darren Dewayne Green III had a picnic by his grave to celebrate what would have been Smook’s 34th birthday. As promised early on, Laprea has never had a child with another man. “
She is an awesome mother,” Loretta says. “She does everything for her son.” Laprea drives a city bus and takes classes on her days off to become a therapist. Darren still struggles with the death of his father. He was only 5 ½ months old when Smook died and has no memories, just photos of his father. Loretta, Cecelia, and Laprea tell him about the boy who passed his 9th-grade achievement tests at a college level. They tell him about how his father loved to rap with his high school friends, The 1200 Boys, named after the block they lived on in Summer Set Houses. They tell him about his entrepreneurial spirit, selling water to tourists in the Inner Harbor. They tell Darren about his father being a star point guard on his high school basketball team.
They tell him about the new winter jacket that Smook and Loretta went shopping for, just two months before his father’s death. The young woman at the cash register got flustered while making change and mistakenly gave Smook $250. Instead of taking it, money a young father could easily use for mounting bills, he told the woman she made a mistake. The woman was shocked by his honesty. He told her, “Ma’am, I suspect you have a family. If I took this money, you might lose your job. You need to be able to provide for your kids as much as I do.”
As Loretta and I prepare to leave the graveyard, I make a quick survey of the nearby graves and comment on how young so many of the dead are. The birthdates on the gravestones are shocking: 1981, 1986, 1991,1996, 1998, 2001. Loretta turns to me and starts pointing out Smook’s friends’ graves. There is a young woman who was allegedly accidentally shot by her boyfriend while he was playing with a gun. Her brother, also shot, is the neighboring gravestone. She names a handful of children from Summer Set Project, all dead, all shot as young men.
Just days before we came here, this graveyard was the scene of a horrific crime. As a mother was burying her son, a group of men arrived and shot and killed her other son, right before her eyes.
I look back at the graveyard, overgrown with weeds and high grass, appearing to be at or near full capacity. Loretta is convinced that Smook’s gravestone has been moved to make room for more dead men. His headstone has been defaced once already. Someone broke off the locket with his photo that she paid $300 to have installed. The owners of the graveyard replaced it with a simple photo, not a locket. But it shows a young handsome man with bright eyes, loved by a mother who will never let the world forget her child. Loretta will fight to make sure his photo remains on the gravestone intact as long as she is alive.
However, outside the graveyard fence, the rest of Baltimore seems at peace to let the weeds grow over the graves and forget about Smook and all the young people of Baltimore who are killed every day in this complicated city.
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence
Photo by Jen Pauliukonis, President, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence