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The Least of These

Did Vatell Murray Have To Die?

Photos by Michelle Gienow
Kinji Scott, Vatell Murray's former caseworker, holds up the program from Murray's Jan. 10 funeral.
Damar Blanch, a friend of Murray's from the Harris House group home, says Murray was living under a death threat and afraid to die.
Kinji Scott (above) says his former employer, Ross Pologe of Fellowship Of Lights (below), fired him because he spoke to the media about Murray's death.
Murray lived at Jumoke (above) after a death threat prompted the Department of Social Services to move him there from Harris House (below).
Murray's body was found underneath a CSX railroad bridge three days after he left Jumoke.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 4/26/2006

Last New Year’s Eve, a slight teenager with light-brown skin and cornrowed hair left the Jumoke group home in the Woodbourne-McCabe area of North Baltimore. Jumoke had been the young man’s only home for less than two months; before that, he had been bunking at a group home in Mount Vernon. No one who knew him knows where he was headed when he stepped out onto Evesham Avenue, although he told others he planned to go to a late-night New Year’s service at a church called Latter-Day Ministries, to bring in 2006 right. He was trying to turn his life around.

At just 15, Vatell Murray had already lived a tough life. Sources familiar with Murray’s history say he grew up the son of a mother who had been a substance abuser and had six other children to raise. Living with his grandmother Vanessa Collins, on Westmont Avenue on the city’s west side, Murray had started hanging out on the streets and getting into trouble. Collins decided that it would be best to get him out of the neighborhood in an effort to keep him safe; in the early summer of 2005, she turned over guardianship of his well-being to the city Department of Social Services (DSS).

But trouble in the streets of his neighborhood turned into trouble at Walbrook High School where Murray was in the 10th grade. Fights and other problems at school led to Murray being put on probation within the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS). (Vatell’s DJS file, like all such documents, are confidential.) Perhaps searching for a sense of belonging, he had, friends say, become a member of a street gang.

Still, there was hope. As 2005 wound down, his father, Anthony Bryan, was trying to re-establish his own life and planned to get a new place and move his son out of Jumoke.

Just after nightfall on Jan. 3, a train conductor spotted the body of a black boy riddled with bullet wounds, lying in the CSX railroad tunnel under the 2600 block of Greenmount Avenue—less than three miles from Jumoke. The body was quickly identified as that of Vatell Murray. Police believe that he was killed Dec. 31, the victim of multiple gunshot wounds.

Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been the end of the story. After all, young black men getting shot in Baltimore is as commonplace as I-95 backups; another corpse on the heap barely registers with citizens desensitized to such faceless slaughter. But there is a small contingent of people who knew Murray, and who know other boys like him caught up in the juvenile justice and social services systems, who say that there’s more to tell here than will fit in a brief mention in a newspaper.

Kinji Scott is a member of that contingent. Murray’s former case manager at Harris House, the group home at 1300 N. Calvert St. where Murray lived before moving into Jumoke in mid-November, Scott says he won’t let the boy down, even in death. Scott, 36, says that what happened to Murray, and what happens to too many kids in Baltimore City who look to the DSS for help and protection, is “heinous.”

“All these agencies, like DSS and these group homes, concern themselves with is their jobs, contracted beds, and money,” Scott says. “Vatell’s killer is out on the streets. And instead of officials from the Department of Social Services being on the news and in the paper letting the killer know they were working with police to bring the killer to justice, their top officials are trying to cover up the details behind this boy’s murder.”

Scott says that’s because DSS made a promise to Vatell Murray to keep him safe. And then, Murray, who the staff at both Harris House and Jumoke knew was in trouble and living under a death threat, was issued a pass to leave Jumoke. Once Murray was out on the street, someone made good on that threat.

At one point while Scott tells Murray’s story in a Mount Vernon café, he pulls out a program from Murray’s Jan. 10 funeral service; the young man’s almond-shaped eyes stare up from the front page.

“This kid was mislabeled, neglected, and brutally murdered, yet they act like he deserved to die,” Scott moans. “I am damn tired of them treating Vatell like a piece of trash, even in death. He deserved better than that.”

Scott has spoken to several reporters about how Murray received a death threat two months before he was killed; how DSS officials told Scott that the department would move Murray out of the city for his safety, but instead only moved him a few miles away to Jumoke; and how Murray had been issued a weekend pass despite the death threat. Scott says he was fired by Fellowship of Lights, the nonprofit agency that owns and oversees Harris House, on Jan. 23, after he went public with his concerns in The Baltimore Afro-American and on WJZ-TV. Furthermore, after Murray’s death, Scott contends, DSS officials lied and said that Murray was on runaway status—meaning that he left Jumoke without the knowledge of the group home’s counselors.

“Why would Vatell have run away?” Scott asks. “He was so happy about living with his dad.” Scott adds that Murray called his father’s fiancée “‘my new mom.’”

So Scott is still talking. He says the stories of Vatell Murray, and a friend of Murray’s from Harris House who is still alive, Damar Blanch, show the embattled DSS and DJS for what they really are: agencies that do not properly use their resources to save the lives of kids, that make empty promises, and that, in some cases, contribute further to the problems at-risk kids face.

Scott’s quest is clearly personal, and not just because he knew Murray. Having grown up poor in tough East St. Louis, Ill., he says that “but for the grace of God,” Murray’s story could have been his own.

“I wasn’t supposed to graduate high school, but I went on to do what people could not imagine,” Scott says, noting his master’s degree in American history, as well as the master’s in city and regional planning he’s completing at Morgan State University. “So if I could do it, how am I going to give up on a 15-year-old baby?”

 

Kinji Scott has spent the last 15 years working with kids, first as a chaplain for St. Clair Juvenile Detention Center in Belleville, Ill., then as a schoolteacher in Smithfield, N.C. Scott moved to Baltimore in June 2004 to attend graduate school at Morgan State and joined the Fellowship of Lights staff at Harris House last Sept. 9. He remembers with striking clarity the day soon after when he met one of the house’s residents.

“When I first met Vatell, he had his hair down from the cornrows, back in a ponytail,” Scott says. “He was dressed in some black sweats, a white T-shirt. It was Tuesday, September 13th. The boys were getting ready to eat breakfast. Vatell was grabbing a bowl of Frosted Flakes.”

Scott remembers that Murray and two other boys sat down at the kitchen table and talked. Their conversation shifted from Murray getting ready to be enrolled in school to glancing at that morning’s Sun and talking about current events. “We were having brother-to-brother conversation, cracking jokes, et cetera,” he recalls.

It didn’t take long, Scott says, to figure out that Murray would be a handful to deal with. “He wanted to be the center of attention, so he would crack jokes and make you laugh,” he says. “And when he wasn’t the center of attention, he would act out.”

While trying to get Murray help with his anger issues, Scott says he had been told by DSS staffers that the boy had been placed in Social Services’ care because his family didn’t want him. Scott, however, says he believes that Murray’s grandmother, whom he met after the young man’s death, was trying to do the best thing for her grandson. “She thought placing him in a group home meant that he would be safe,” Scott says. “You’d be surprised how many people have said about their kid. ‘Maybe if I send him to a group home, it will straighten him out a little bit, and he’ll be safe.’” (Vanessa Collins declined to be interviewed for this story, saying “Mr. Kinji can speak for us.”)

Scott says he enjoyed getting to know Murray over their months together at Harris House. Murray, he says, was mercurial. One day he would be pulling his pants up to his chest and pretending to be Steve Urkel, the nerdy icon of Family Matters sitcom fame Another day, he got in a fight with a teen who was notorious for biting others; Murray one-upped him by biting him first, and then announcing it to the house. “His whole spirit screamed, Hey, look at me. I need some attention,” Scott says.

Murray was a hothead who had an anger problem, Scott acknowledges, but it seemed he was beginning to settle down a little. Then in late October, Scott says, Harris House got a visit from Rose Hamm, Murray’s principal at Walbrook High, warning that Murray, as Scott characterizes it, “was getting in with the wrong crowd at school.” During a subsequent conference call with Hamm; Scott; Murray’s DJS services caseworker, William Wiley; his DSS worker, George Mitchell; and Murray’s therapist, Joanna Cottman, as Scott recalls it, the Walbrook principal said she was “concerned” about Murray, especially considering the recent death of a friend of his nicknamed 8-Ball.

 

Someone else was worried about Vatell Murray, too. On a mid-April afternoon, in a chain restaurant in Northeast Baltimore, an 18-year-old African-American youth tries not to scarf down a nacho burger. He is hungry, though—he says he has been homeless for the past week, sleeping outside of an apartment complex in the mild air, barely bathing, contemplating the state of his life.

In spite of his current straits, Damar Blanch’s ebony-skinned face shines when he speaks about Murray. He, too, remembers those months last fall in vivid detail, especially the day in October when he met Murray at Harris House: “He came into the room, sat down next to me, and he was like, ‘What’s up? I’m Vatell, and your name . . . ?’”

Blanch was committed to Social Services when he was 15, and had spent so much time shuffling from one group home to the next that he was surprised by Murray’s outgoing hello. “You don’t really come across that too much in group homes,” Blanch says with a chuckle. “You might eventually end up being cool, but [other boys are] not going to immediately come up to you and say, ‘What’s up?’ So we started talking.”

Murray and Blanch shared a second-floor bedroom at the spartan old three-story brownstone-like structure on North Calvert Street. Murray’s bed was on the far left of the room, near the window, Blanch’s on the right.

“Whenever we were together, we would always be laughing, just having a good time,” Blanch says. “We used to talk about whatever—we would be up all night. We used to write raps. So it was like we had a real good relationship.

“But, at the same time, [Murray] had a temper problem,” Blanch acknowledges. “I used to talk to him: ‘Every time you get mad, you can’t always want to hit somebody in their mouth. You’ve got to think of a better solution.’ He used to laugh at me, but I was serious.”

Blanch says that Murray once came home from Walbrook with scratches on his face, saying that someone at school had pulled a knife on him. Another time, after Murray was arrested for knocking out a window at Walbrook, Blanch says his friend told him “he was glad that he had been suspended from school, because he was scared to go back.” On Nov. 4, Blanch says Murray got a telephone call from his sister that made him angry.

“Vatell was a Crip,” Blanch says, connecting his friend to one of the oldest and largest street gangs in the country. Conflict between the blue-clad Crips and rival gang the Bloods has ripped apart the gangs’ native Los Angeles over the past several decades, and chapters of the two gangs, official or otherwise, have since spread out across the country.

Blanch says Murray told him that “some Bloods had come up to his sister with a gun. [They] basically told her, ‘Tell your brother when we find him, we’re going to kill him.’”

Kinji Scott provides a copy of a report by Murray’s therapist, Cottman, which states that on the day Murray got the call from his sister, “he was cursing and swearing, [ranting] and raging.

“After about 30 minutes of talking he began to calm down,” the report continues. Murray called his father, but hung up the phone, the report says, because “his dad was not listening to him . . . not believing what [Murray] was saying to him. Dad accused him of continuing to associate with a gang.” (Attempts to reach Anthony Bryan for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.)

Blanch says that after the death threat came in, Murray sat on the front steps of Harris House and lamented the death of his friend 8-Ball, who had been killed a few months earlier. (Efforts to establish 8-Ball’s identity or the circumstances of his death were unsuccessful.) Blanch says Murray told him that 8-Ball was like a little brother to him, and that Murray began to cry. “‘I don’t know if they’re going to try to kill me or not,’” Blanch remembers him saying. “And I was like, ‘Just pray.’”

Kinji Scott believes in prayer, but he also believes that, to quote James 2:20, “‘faith without works is dead.’” He says that he made it his mission after the death threat to make sure that Vatell Murray would be moved out of harm’s way. Scott says he called Murray’s DSS caseworker, George Mitchell, to tell him of the death threat, but he was surprised by Mitchell’s response.

“Mitchell told me, and I quote, ‘Vatell needs to be thrown in jail,’” Scott says. “And I said why? He hasn’t done anything besides get into fights.”

Mitchell was not available for comment; Department of Social Services spokeswoman Sue Fitzsimmons spoke in his stead. She says her department is “refusing to participate in any story with this person [Scott]. He is divulging confidential information and he’s not giving [you] all of the information.” She adds that neither she nor her agency can talk about the specific case of any child committed to DSS, or even give a general comment about what happens procedurally when a child in its care falls under threat.

Scott says he also called the state Department of Juvenile Services after hearing that Murray had received a death threat, and was told that since the boy was in the care of Social Services, that it would be that agency’s responsibility to move him if his life was in danger.

While DJS spokesman Edward Hopkins notes that he can’t speak about the specifics of Murray’s case, he acknowledges that “we do not have a written procedure or policy in place that deals with threat. When a threat is received, each one is taken on its merit, evaluated for its credibility, and then we determine how we will proceed with that youth.

“In the past we have moved youths to other facilities [out of state], and in some cases hotels, while we attempted to keep that youth safe,” Hopkins continues. “Some of our kids are used to being threatened regularly because it’s part of the lifestyle where they came from. To some youth it’s nothing. Some want to retaliate. And others would prefer to be moved.”

Scott and Blanch are adamant that Murray would have preferred to be moved. “He was afraid for his life,” Scott says. “He teared up when I talked to him about it.”

DSS did move Murray out of Harris House on Nov. 10 as a result of the death threat. Murray was an inveterate practical joker; as he was leaving the house, Scott had just come clean on a practical joke of his own—hiding some of Murray’s hip-hop CDs. “He was like, ‘I know you’ve got my Young Jeezy,’” Scott remembers with a laugh. Scott says he told Murray to take care and keep in touch. He never saw him alive again.

Murray was relocated to Jumoke. Damar Blanch remembers Murray calling him in early December, excited that he was eventually to be moved out of state. But in a subsequent phone call a couple of weeks later, Murray confided his disappointment that he had not been moved out of the city, and that it looked like he was going to stay at Jumoke. Blanch says Murray told him that he thought Social Services was “bluffing,” because no one had started any process to move him to another jurisdiction. “He was like, ‘Man, they’re probably just playing with me. But my social worker was kind of serious when he said it,’” Blanch recalls.

About a week or so later, Blanch heard from another youth at Harris House that his friend’s body had been found on some train tracks.

 

When Vatell Murray left Jumoke for the last time Dec. 31, Kinji Scott says, he left because he was allowed to leave. “He was issued a weekend pass by an employee of Jumoke who was also an employee of the Fellowship of Lights,” Scott says. “Everybody at the Fellowship knew that Vatell was under threat.”

Usually, when a group home issues a pass to one of its charges, there is a certain date and time by which the youth has to be back or the police are called. “If you’re supposed to be home by 5 o’clock and you don’t come home by 8 o’clock, somebody ought to be calling the police,” Scott says. But, he says, the staff at the Fellowship of Lights knew that Murray was dead before the folks at Jumoke did.

On Jan. 5, The Sun ran a short update on the murder, identifying Murray as the body found in the railway tunnel two days prior. According to Scott, Ross Pologe, executive director of Fellowship of Lights, saw the mention and phoned Jumoke. “Ross called over there and said to them, ‘I’m so sorry about what happened with Vatell,’” Scott says. “And they didn’t even know what happened.”

According to the Baltimore Police Department, a missing person’s report was filed for Vatell Murray on Jan. 3, four days after his death, the same day his body was found.

At press time, Jumoke executive director Zachary Dingle had not responded to numerous telephone messages requesting comment for this article.

Scott says he was haunted by images of the discolored body in the casket at Murray’s funeral on Jan. 10. A few days later, Scott chose to speak out against Social Services; he spoke with Roderick C. Willis of the Afro-American for an article that ran in the Jan. 14 edition. Scott is quoted as saying, “This is a classic example of what happens when people really don’t care about what happens to Blacks.”

Initially, Scott contends, Pologe approved of his going public. “Some of the [Fellowship of Lights] board members had come to Ross about going public about Jumoke and DSS,” Scott says, adding that he recalls standing in the doorway of Pologe’s office the day before Murray’s funeral, and Pologe telling him that some of his colleagues were also urging some sort of attempt to draw attention to the circumstances behind Murray’s death.

“So after the article was published, Ross patted me on my back and called me ‘Kanye Kinji,’” Scott says, a reference to hip-hop star Kanye West’s remark in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that President Bush didn’t care about black people. Scott produces a postcard bearing the image of a black man with his hand out, dated January 2006, that he says Pologe gave him after that interview. The card reads, “In appreciation of the hand that you extend to young people. With much respect, Ross Pologe.”

Then, Scott furnishes the e-mail that he thinks got him fired. On Jan. 20, he wrote to Christopher McCabe, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, of which the city Department of Social Services is a branch, to complain about DSS—to let McCabe know that “we still have kids dying because of neglect by DSS,” Scott says.

“I was told that they would move Vatell out of state for his [safety],” the e-mail reads in part. “Vatell and I thought they were moving him out of state but [instead] they [moved him to] a Group Home called Jumoke. The director of Social [S]ervices Sam Chambers was also called and made aware of the threat on Vatell’s life. Less than 60 days later he was found dead in a Train tunnel on Greenmount.

“By the way Jumoke did not even get approval from DSS to have Vatell out on a visit the weekend he was killed.”

Later that day, Scott was interviewed by reporter Richard Sher of WJZ-TV for a story to that effect that aired that same day.

On Jan. 23, a few days after he hit the “send” button on that e-mail, Scott says Pologe called him into his office, made reference to the e-mail to McCabe and the WJZ interview, and told him that he was suspended pending termination.

To this day, Scott insists that he didn’t reveal any confidential information: “All I said was that I contacted DSS and they didn’t do anything to protect Vatell.”

Pologe and the nonprofit Fellowship of Lights have been lauded for their work with homeless teens, including an award-winning series of articles published in October 2005 in The Sun titled “On Their Own.” His mission, he says, has included promoting the safety and well-being of children for the last 30 years, currently through administering the all-male Harris House and Peggy’s Place, for female youths. During an April 13 interview in Fellowship of Lights’ Mount Vernon headquarters, Pologe is careful when talking about specifics of what happened to Vatell Murray, but he is willing to talk about who he was.

“He was a fun-loving kid, who [made] young people happy,” Pologe says. “He [also] plucked people and pushed limits.” When asked which room Murray slept in at Harris House, or for any stories that would give more insight into who Murray was, Pologe demurs: “I really can’t.”

But Pologe is willing to talk generally about the credibility of death threats, particularly their credibility based on the reputation of the kids who receive one “We don’t always know the backgrounds of young people,” Pologe says, adding that in cases where their charges have “juvenile justice involvements,” it is often unclear that there may be a serious problem. “What is of concern to this organization is that there seems to be an increased incidence of young people involved in organized gang activity. That seems to carry with it heightened risk for bad outcomes.”

Pologe will not confirm that the staff at Jumoke did not know about Murray’s death until he called about it, as Scott alleges. But he will talk about Jumoke generally by talking about what the Fellowship of Lights would never do. “In a situation where we felt that a young person’s life was in jeopardy, we would have never [issued] a weekend pass,” he says.

When asked if Scott was fired because he spoke to the media, Pologe draws in his breath. “Mr. Scott was an employee here,” he says. “He was in a very sensitive role, had a lot of knowledge. We have pretty strict policies on confidentiality that I’m happy to share with you. And he violated those polices.”

Pologe contends that employees sign confidentiality agreements, and that all staffers receive a series of memos on policies and procedures to be followed. When asked for a look at confidentiality agreements signed by Scott, Pologe says, “I don’t have the copies that he signed, but I have blank ones.”

“I signed a lot of forms, but I never signed a form that said that I couldn’t talk to the media,” Scott says. Plus, he contends, Pologe gave him approval to talk to the media. “He said, ‘That’s fine, just don’t mention the Fellowship of Lights,’” Scott says. “The only thing I have said was that DSS knew that this kid’s life was in danger. If that’s confidential, so be it.”

Scott has hired attorney Steve Curtis of Bierer, Margolis and Curtis to pursue a lawsuit over his termination from Fellowship of Lights. “We believe Mr. Scott was terminated for speaking out about the death of Vatell Murray and the negligence shown by Fellowship [of Lights] as well as the Department of Social Services,” Curtis says. “Mr. Scott ruffled a lot of feathers at the Department of Social Services, and DSS has a lot of influence over organizations like Fellowship of Lights.”

Indeed, Scott says that DSS has hid its ineptitude behind a shroud of confidentiality for a long time. He produces a copy of a March 2004 Sun editorial that criticized the Department of Human Resources, the state agency to which the city agency reports, questioning why the records of kids who have died under DSS’s care are not public. “In Maryland, the potential logjam is the discretionary power given the Department of Human Resources secretary, the local DSS director, and the state’s attorney’s office,” the piece argues, “any of whom may veto release of information in the name of protecting other family members or protecting the case against the alleged killer.”

“‘Under the most rigid reading of the law, the department need never release details after a child has died,’” Scott reads from a printout of the story, “‘which is to ensure that things that are broken—be they regulations, interagency connections or front-line service—get fixed.’”

 

The burger Damar Blanch wolfs down in a Northeast Baltimore restaurant may be the best meal he’s had in a long time. Before his recent homeless stint, Blanch had been locked up at the Baltimore City Detention Center, awaiting trial on charges of having stolen $167 from Fellowship of Lights. He says he was accused of cutting some security wires on a door inside a staff office at Harris House and stealing the cash from the office. But to get to those wires, he contends, he would have had to get through a locked door that showed no forced entry, with keys he says that are always kept by the case manager on duty. “How could I have gotten in to cut those wires from the other side of the door?” he asks with almost painful sincerity. “Ma’am, I did not steal that money.”

Blanch was released a few weeks ago, after his charges were dropped—a fact Ross Pologe was surprised to hear during the April 13 interview at Fellowship of Lights. On April 14, Scott took Blanch down to the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Court Building to get the charges expunged. When they arrived, they discovered that Blanch had been recharged with the crime.

Blanch says he believes that Pologe went down to the courthouse to do it himself. Pologe won’t confirm that he went down to the courthouse but does acknowledge that the charges had been refiled. “The case had been dismissed because we hadn’t received notice of the court dates,” he says, meaning that no one from Fellowship of Lights showed for April 5 or April 7 court appearances. But a lawyer familiar with the case says the original charges were null prossed, which means they wouldn’t be pursued, because the court docket was full.

Regardless, Blanch puts Pologe in a box with long list of adults who he says have failed him. For another example, he mentions a former DSS worker whom he contends did not follow up with him for a year after she dropped him off at a group home, even though she was supposed to see him once a month.

“It makes me feel mad, because these are people who were supposed to look out for my best interest,” Blanch says. “But instead I’m going through these situations right now.”

Scott is enraged, and returns to his chaplain roots. “These service organizations are supposed to be providing support for these kids, not tearing them down,” he says, then quotes Matthew 25:45: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

“I’ve already lost Vatell,” he says. “But I’m not going to let them screw Damar’s life up, too.”

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