- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

BALTIMORE — The little sandstone row house on the corner of Preston and Eden streets remains boarded up, its windows still blackened from fire damage.

Across the street, a group of schoolchildren in bright yellow T-shirts are bent over garden tools, laboriously clearing a vacant lot of trash and debris. The children, middle-schoolers from the Stadium School, an East Baltimore charter school, have been working for more than a month to transform the lot into a memorial garden in honor of Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children.

“We felt like they were heroes,” says 13-year-old Porchae Russell, standing in front of a hand-painted sign reading Dawson Family Memorial Garden. “We felt like they shouldn’t have to have died for helping the community fight back against drugs.”

The murders of the Dawson family a year ago stunned the Oliver community in East Baltimore and became a national symbol of the ruinous effects of drugs in urban America.

The Dawsons lived in the three-story row house on the 1400 block of East Preston Street, an area that had grown infamous as an open-air drug market. Mrs. Dawson had called police 35 times between June 26 and Oct. 16 last year to chase young drug dealers from her front steps, according to court records. Mr. Dawson had confronted the dealers on numerous occasions.

Early in the morning of Oct. 16 last year, a small-time drug dealer named Darrell Brooks told his cronies that he planned to “get” Mrs. Dawson and her family for “snitching on people.”

While the couple and their children slept, Brooks doused the first-floor foyer with gasoline and set it ablaze.

Trapped and killed in the inferno were Mrs. Dawson, 36, and her children — Lawanda Oriz, 14, Juan Oriz, 12, Carnell, 10, and Kevin and Keith, 9. Mr. Dawson, 43, escaped by crashing through an upper-floor window, although he received burns over 80 percent of his body. He died a week later.

Brooks, 22, pleaded guilty in federal district court in August to setting the fire and was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

“Everyone vowed a year ago that we would never forget what happened to that family, that we would do everything in our power to keep them before us,” says the Rev. Iris Tucker, pastor of the Knox Presbyterian Church, which is across from the home. “And that’s what we’ve tried to do. We don’t want the incident ever to recede in people’s memories.”

She marvels at the way the Dawson loss has brought the community together, adding that police have been responsive in the past year.

City police have created a Community Hero award in honor of the Dawsons and will recognize 10 citizens who have helped police fight crime.

The deaths inspired Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, to obtain more than $3 million in federal funds for crime fighting and victims’ assistance.

But some members of the Oliver community say the basic problems that led to the tragedy have barely been touched.

A block from the burnt-out row house, a group of third-graders were playing Wednesday in the new Dawson Memorial Playground at Harris Elementary School. The playground was built after the fire.

But Lloyd Barnes, a teacher at the school, said young men continue to buy and sell drugs openly along Preston Street — especially at night.

“Nothing has really changed,” Mr. Barnes said.

But others remain determined to keep the memory of the Dawsons alive. Across from the Dawson home, the students of the Stadium School found a lot overgrown with weeds and littered with broken glass, abandoned syringes and drug vials, when they first began work on their memorial garden a month ago.

But they are excited about their vision: a mural featuring the faces of the Dawsons on a brick wall at the rear of the garden, a row of small bushes lining the sidewalk, a bench for people to sit.

Kenya Johnson, their teacher, says the children came up with the project by themselves, as part of the school’s experiential learning program.

“I was impressed that they hadn’t forgotten about it all,” she said.

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