A Teen’s Death in Baltimore and a Family’s Search for Answers

The grave of Lavar Montray Douglas, known as Nook, who was killed by the police in Baltimore in 2016.

BALTIMORE — As soon as I heard Davetta Parker’s voice, I knew I had to meet her. Her grandson, Nook, was one of seven young people from one high school killed in the spasm of violence that swept the city in the two years after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. I had cold-called her from New York. When she picked up, she was sitting at her desk in the central branch of Baltimore’s public library system, where she works.

I introduced myself. She said, “I think God sent you to me.”

She said she had so many questions about her grandson’s death and she needed someone to help investigate, because the police never did. She said she had written letters to news channels and newspapers. But no one had written back. And there I was on the phone.

My colleague Lynsea Garrison and I spent four months investigating Nook’s death for The New York Times podcast, The Daily. We were drawn to his story because we wanted to understand the violence in Baltimore. Nook, whose given name was Lavar Montray Douglas, was shot on Dec. 13, 2016, by a police officer in an unmarked car who worked for Coppin State University. But the more we looked, the more we discovered that the story of Nook and his family reflected the broader experience of many African-Americans in the 20th century.

Nook’s family, descended from slaves, had risen quickly, from farming in poverty in North Carolina in the 1930s, to middle-class jobs, a house and a car in Baltimore in the 1940s and 1950s. And in fact, most of the family kept rising, moving out to homes in the county.

But Nook’s mother, Toby, and her mother, Davetta Parker, stayed in the city, and were buffeted by every storm that blew through. Catastrophic job losses in manufacturing and other industries devastated black men in Baltimore in the 1970s and 1980s. Then came crack cocaine, crime and the Zero Tolerance policing strategy that was supposed to help communities like Baltimore, but only made things worse.

Nook died in the sharpest rise in homicides in the city in 25 years. When I first started reporting, I imagined this as random violence. But homicides in Baltimore are pretty tightly contained to the circle of people involved in drug crime. Here’s an amazing fact: The average number of arrests that homicide victims had in Baltimore last year was 11.

Nook was born in 1998, a little boy with bushy eyebrows. He spent his first few years living with a great-aunt in a large house with a big lawn out in Baltimore County. He took piano lessons. But he was drawn back to the city of Baltimore to be near his mother, Toby. His grandmother Davetta said he was “swallowed by the street.” By around 13, he started dealing drugs. Moments before he was shot in 2016, he’d been firing a gun, though for what reason remains unclear.

When we talked to Nook’s friend, Neek, about why they started selling drugs, he used a word that stuck with me. He said they had been “hypnotized.” He said people start for all sorts of reasons — some need to pay rent, others want new clothes, others are searching for camaraderie, for attention and comfort. But the money is distracting, and can make you forget why you started in the first place.

“You can get sidetracked by a lot of stuff,” Neek said, who has written about this in songs. “We like the money, we like the cars, we like the clothes. Money, it’s the key to everything, to getting what you want in life. Without money, you’re nothing. People going to look at you like you’re a nobody.”

He said they knew that selling drugs was illegal. But the whole point was to do it for a little while, to make enough to get to the legal-money part of life. Then maybe they’d go back to school, or own a bar or a Laundromat.

“Everybody want that legal money,” he said, sitting in the basement of a house-turned-recording studio in West Baltimore. “That legal money’s safe, secure. You make $100,000 in illegal money, people come kick down the door and take that money.”

But drugs hurt people. What did he think about that?

“I understand these drugs kill people,” he said. “I understand that. But I got to get mine. You get what I’m saying? In a day it’s all about getting your money and getting out.”

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