Baltimore man who died in police custody was well-liked, friends say

Freddie Gray was known for his sense of humor and laid-back personality, friends and neighbors say

As stubborn clouds hung low over the Gilmor Homes on Monday, those who knew Freddie Gray sat on front steps or stood in close circles, shaking their heads at the death of another young black man while in police custody. They described a 25-year-old who was well-liked by older residents and beloved by his peers for his sense of humor and laid-back personality.

"He was so funny. Any time you're looking for a laugh, you're going straight to Freddie," Raheem Gaither said. "We're all from the same neighborhood. All of us here are family."

Gray, who died Sunday, had some run-ins with police, mainly on drug charges and minor crimes, according to court records. But friends and acquaintances said black men like Gray often are stopped without reason by police.

"I'm not saying Fred was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past. But the police already have made up their minds about who we are," said Rudolph Jackson, 51. "They figure every black person with their pants hanging down is a suspect, and they stop them without probable cause."

Police have said Gray — listed at 5 foot 8 and 145 pounds in charging documents — made "eye contact" with an officer near the 1600 block of W. North Avenue on April 12 before running away and subsequently being caught near Presbury and Mount streets. They said he was found to have a knife on him and was injured sometime after his arrest, as he was being transported to the Western District station in a police van.

Gaither, 21, said police made assumptions about Gray, even though he "could have been running for anything" that day.

"He could have been running home to go to the bathroom," he said. Gray was a hilarious, good friend, Gaither said, and didn't deserve to die.

"He could have been a comedian, for real, but nah. Now look at him," Gaither said.

Longtime friend William Stewart, 27, remembers Gray as an avid football player as a boy, playing in the Pop Warner league. He wanted to play at Carver Vocational-Technical High School as well but was told he was too small for the position he wanted to play, tight end, Stewart said.

"We played football together, but not on the same teams because he was two years younger than me," Stewart said. "He was like a little brother to me. He used to come to my house and say, 'Make sure you come to my game.'"

Gray was close to his family, Stewart said, adding, "He saw his mother every day." Gray had two sisters, he said.

Danielle Holloway, 30, said she knew Gray as a "kindhearted" neighborhood guy who was "the life of the party."

But he was no stranger to police, she said, recalling a recent incident in which, she said, Gray hid from police in one of the Gilmor Homes apartments. Officers stood in the courtyard pointing their guns at a window in the apartment, even though children were all around, she said.

When Gray finally came outside in that incident, police began "harassing him" and "slinging him around," she said.

"Everybody knows if you run from the knockers, the police, you get beat," Jackson said, adding that he is eight years clean after being in the local drug trade and having plenty of his own run-ins with police.

Police did not respond to a request for comment about their policing tactics, or the allegations of racial profiling and brutality in the neighborhood.

Court records indicate that Gray's arrests were mostly for drug charges and minor crimes, and sometimes were not prosecuted. He had several cases scheduled for trial in the coming months. One case, involving charges for second-degree assault and malicious destruction of property, was scheduled for a June trial.

He also faced drug charges that were scheduled for trial in April and May. He has been found guilty of drug charges in the past; his sentences were unclear from court records.

On Lorraine Street off Greenmount Avenue, where neighbors say Gray lived in a rowhouse with his mother and sisters, Darryl McCallum said Gray "was a likable guy. He wasn't a knucklehead."

McCallum, 39, stays with his aunt next door to the home where Gray lived in the 400 block. "When I would see Freddie, he was always respectful, especially to the older women. He always had a smile on his face."

McCallum, who has a moving and hauling service, said he often saw Gray on the block working on his van. He has heard the talk of Gray's previous drug arrests, and how police said they stopped him in an area of known drug trafficking — and said none of that justifies an incident that ended with the young man's death.

"Regardless of what we do in our personal life, we don't deserve to end up with a cracked vertebrae," McCallum said. "I'm a little frustrated of the continuing violence against us black individuals. It's just happening everywhere."

The narrow block, between 26th and 27th streets, is a tidy one with only a few vacant. Signs in the windows speak to interest in current issues: "Black Lives Matter," "We Must Stop Killing Each Other," and "Have you had a water shutoff?"

Young men played dominoes on the steps of a house, most not wanting to talk on the record to a reporter. One watched a video of Gray's arrest on his phone, others speculated about how Gray ended up so grievously injured.

"He was really a gentleman," said Ebony Washington, 32, who lives in Parkville but comes down to the block because her grandmother lives nearby.

She and her brother, Cortez Deano, 20, recalled a time last summer when Gray made some kids on the block very happy.

"The ice cream truck came through," said Deano, a student at Morgan State University. "He bought all the kids ice cream."

Washington called Gray's death "a tragedy." She had seen him a couple weeks ago, and the two walked to a store on Greenmount Avenue for water and, for her, Newports. Like others in the neighborhood, she believes Gray was a victim of police brutality.

"They're the law, they're supposed to protect and serve," she said. "It's really easy for them to get away with things, because they're the law."

Back at Gilmor Homes, Gaither wore a black shirt in his friend's honor. Pinned to the front was a small black ribbon.

"Justice for Freddie," Gaither said, when asked about their meaning. "Black lives matter."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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