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"Like Him Right There"

What does the random murder of Zachary Sowers tell us about urban violence? And what does a widow do in the aftermath?

By Michael Anft
Photos by Jennifer Bishop

Zachary Sowers left his rowhouse near Patterson Park late on a sunny, 90-degree afternoon on the first day of June 2007. He was looking forward to drinks with friends. He met his buddy, Bobby Byrd, and others at the Bay Café in Canton, the neighborhood in Southeast Baltimore where he, his wife, his brother-in-law, and a group of 20-somethings who'd grown up elsewhere made a habit of enjoying city life.

Zach, seen by his crowd as an easygoing guy with an observer's quirky sense of humor, was, for the moment, a free man about town. Anna, his wife of just over eight months, had left Baltimore for a weekend off — rare for the 28-year-old who raced between her job as a marketing project manager for the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and her MBA studies at Hopkins' Carey Business School on weekends. Zach, age 27, worked as a financial analyst for Johns Hopkins, but by night he, like Byrd, had a passion for deejaying, spinning trance-tinged progressive house music. With the weekend to himself, Zach had arranged to hang out with Byrd for each of the two nights. Their plan was to drink and socialize Friday night, then on Saturday, visit a deejay party downtown.

After several rounds on Friday, Zach left Byrd and their crowd at the Bay Café to head home to walk the Sowers' pug, Mia. It was around 8 p.m. Zach and Anna had bought their rowhouse four years earlier, even though it was just north of Eastern Avenue — an area many young city denizens believe lies beyond a ring of safety encircling the nightlife of Canton Square. But they never felt seriously threatened in their neighborhood. "Canton was developing," Anna says. "I couldn't see the area getting any worse."

Around 9 that night, Zach locked his front door and headed back out to meet Will Cheng, Anna's younger brother, at a pub on Canton Square, a magnet for young professionals. Zach and Will, then a 22-year-old technical support analyst at the Johns Hopkins campus in Montgomery County, fit the bill. The two caught up over a pint of Yuengling, then walked a block east to J.D.'s Smokehouse and Grill and headed to the upstairs bar.

Anna, meanwhile, was sending Zach text messages from Chicago: Scottie Pippen, the former NBA star, was at the same club as she and her friends; she would be taking an architectural tour on a boat in the Chicago River. At some point, Zach stopped answering her. Will lost sight of him after he had navigated his way through a crowd to the bathroom sometime around 11 p.m. Will continued to call Zach's cell phone, but without much luck. "I had it in my mind that we were going to walk home together," Will says. "I must have tried him about a dozen times, but he got lost in the crowd and I never saw him again."

Zach walked the 10 blocks home alone. As he did, four teenagers — Trayvon Ramos and Eric Price, 16; Arthur Jeter Jr., 17; and Wilburt Martin, 19 — parked a borrowed Dodge Stratus two blocks up the street from the Sowerses' rowhouse. "We went out to rob somebody," Price later told police. When Ramos saw Zach walking up the street, he said, "Like him right there," Price recalled.

Ramos and Price got out and walked toward Zach, while Jeter and Martin waited in the car. When Zach reached his front steps, Ramos, who outweighed Zach by 90 pounds, applied his heft and his fist to knock Zach out, Price said. Ramos then used the fender of a Nissan Sentra parked outside the house as leverage, leaning on it with his right hand as he repeatedly slammed his foot against the back of Zach's head, which lay between the car and the curb. When police arrived, they thought the man lying facedown in the gutter, a flung flip-flop a few feet south of him, might be drunk. A flashlight search discovered his head was bloodied — the first sign of the long struggle his brain and body would eventually lose.

After brutalizing Zach; stealing his watch, cell phone, and wallet; and using his credit card to buy cigars, food, and gasoline, the quartet went on a weeklong crime spree, robbing Martin's next-door neighbor of $300 at gunpoint and pistol-whipping a tattoo artist hired by Martin. By the end of the week, detectives in Baltimore County had tracked down the car (seen in gas station videotapes) to a rundown suburban apartment complex, where they found Zach's watch and wallet, along with a backpack of tattoo equipment.

City police brought each of the defendants in for questioning. "Some were remorseful, but others had no emotion at all," says city robbery detective Phil Lassahn, one of several cops who cracked the case. Ramos laughed upon hearing Martin's first name and denied any involvement in the beating or knowledge of the other suspects. Earlier, in an interview room, Lassahn had shown the other three suspects pictures of Zach Sowers' bloodied, swollen head. They confessed to being there, adding that Ramos had done the beating, which Price labeled a "scraping." Price was the first to finger Ramos: "He just got a problem," he told Lassahn. "He's violent."

If what happened to Zach Sowers wasn't so horrific and real, it would qualify as an urban cliché, a cautionary tale from the gentrification file. The victim is white; the assailants, black. The Sowerses were newcomers, former suburbanites who chose to live in an up-and-coming city neighborhood. The young men were residents of the other Baltimore, the one only blocks away but worlds apart from the rehabs and roof decks that limn the city's newly affluent quarters. Little wonder, then, that in the public square, the tragedy for the young couple came to represent far more than just another crime in a city that is full of them. In newspaper columns, blogs, radio shows, and Web sites, hundreds of angry and petrified commentators took an abiding interest in Anna and Zach's plight — interest that dwarfed any mention of the human facts behind perhaps any other recent individual homicide in the city.

Academics, columnists, police, and radio talk show hosts asked: What are we going to do about these kids? Never mind that the case is an anomaly, a relatively rare instance of black-on-white crime. Last year, 282 people died of homicide in Baltimore. Only 13 were white — less than 5 percent. In the first three months of this year, only one white person in the city died of homicide: Zach Sowers, who perished on March 25 after 10 months in a coma. And never mind that the attack on him had nothing to do with the drug-related violence that has come to define much of the city's reputation here and elsewhere. Reaction to the case stoked an ongoing and often ferocious debate. On one side are those who say the crimes were committed by amoral young men who lack personal responsibility or basic respect for the criminal justice system. On the other are those who say that poverty and low social status — functions of social responsibility — breed desperate teenagers who become violent at a much higher rate than the general youth population.

In the months after the incident, Anna Sowers sought her own answers for understanding this clash, speaking publicly about trying to turn Zach's harrowing struggle for life — and, ultimately, his death — into stronger laws "so criminals no longer run this city," she says. The wheels of justice spun, but without coming to rest with the finality or severity that satisfied either Anna or many of the case's observers. Jeter, Martin, and Price received 30-year sentences, with all but eight years suspended; Ramos got life with all but 40 years suspended, with a possibility of parole in 20. Academics, columnists, police, and radio talk show hosts expressed outrage about the lightness of the sentence. Some of them, viewing the Sowers case as just one of many, shrugged and asked a vexing, if utterly familiar, question: What are we going to do about these kids?

Interrupting a
Cycle of Violence


Last year, more than 8,000 juveniles were detained or arrested in Baltimore City, most often for assault or drug charges. Eight in 10 were male, and more than 90 percent were black, though blacks make up only two-thirds of the city's residents. Dozens of others are regularly charged with crimes as adults, usually for serious offenses. Roles as victim and perpetrator seem interchangeable at times — a victim often later victimizes others. Baltimore children are eight times more likely to die from homicide than are kids nationwide, according to a study released in February by the city health department. From 2002 to March of this year, 172 city youths 18 or younger were victims of homicide, and hundreds of others had been shot.

Those who study the issue, including faculty members at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, say violence can come to the fore all too quickly in the young and poor. In a surprising number of instances, kids go at each other for petty things — misheard conversations, eyeing someone else's girlfriend, a fight on the basketball court. At the Bloomberg School, academics help public agencies develop policies geared toward reaching kids and young adults who are more likely to become violent, or to be in harm's way. Faculty members are studying a new wave of Baltimore-based programs that use new, on-the-ground strategies to defuse youth violence. Often, programs have been created in answer to the fatigue many feel while dealing with the politics of the issue.

Johns Hopkins' Caroline Fichtenberg: "If we can find potentially violent kids earlier, we can point them toward a wider array of services." "So much of what is done currently, whether it is on the law enforcement/criminal justice side of things or the prevention side of things, is politically expedient 'strategies' that don't work," says Daniel Webster, associate director for research at the Bloomberg School's Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. "We need smart, evidence-based criminal justice policies and smart, evidenced-based early prevention and rehabilitation."

Webster and others hope that a study now being performed jointly by the city, state, and the Bloomberg School might offer new insight into who might become violent and why — and how agencies can intervene before a young person becomes either a perpetrator or a victim of violence. Informally called the "youth trajectories project," the study taps a state law that allows the health department to collect information from the police, the school system, and state social services and juvenile services departments on kids who might be at risk.

Several indicators, such as early truancy and abuse and neglect in the home, have already been used to predict behavior. A preliminary (and not yet confirmed) analysis shows that two in three victims of violence in Baltimore have had criminal histories, says Caroline Fichtenberg, a research scientist at the Bloomberg School and chief epidemiologist with the city health department. Fichtenberg's task is to collect data on 500 homicide and shooting victims from 2002 to 2007, as well as 140 perpetrators, then compare the data with that of the general youth population. After reviewing the results, health officials could look for red flags common among victims and violent youths, then develop a way to find and target at-risk kids and create a "toolkit" of services for them.

"If we can find potentially violent kids earlier, like after one instance, we can point them toward a wider array of services," including a combination of educational help and mental health and substance abuse counseling, says Fichtenberg, whose city position is financed jointly by the government and Johns Hopkins.

The project, under way for more than a year, may publish its first report this summer. "One of the reasons we were interested in doing this is that if we can come up with the right data, we can say, 'There are X number of kids who fit our risk profile,'" says Fichtenberg. "That's exactly the number we're looking to find."

Among them might be kids like Eric Price — a teen with fragments of history known to various city agencies, but who still ended up under the radar.

Latricia Reed, 35, lives in a neighborhood about eight blocks east of the Sowerses' front door. Her oldest child attends college; her youngest goes to high school and is a good student. Because she lives in fear of retribution, Reed doesn't want her children or their genders or schools identified. Price, their half-brother, who is now 17, is in prison doing time for his role as lookout during the attack on Zach Sowers.

Although Price's mother says he had no juvenile convictions on his record, his childhood could hardly be called carefree. He was the kind of kid who was subject to a variety of interventions and services, but not quite enough of them, she says. Facets of his story rhyme all too often with the fatalistic poetry of other inner-city lives.

Though his father, an ex-convict, was never on the scene, Price was healthy and happy during the first years of his life, according to Reed. Then he began to wet his bed during his elementary school years, worrying his mother by falling asleep in a tub full of water he'd drawn to clean himself up. Like 14 percent of Baltimoreans, Price suffers from asthma. (The national rate is 7 percent.) He was given counseling at Kennedy Krieger Institute for playing with matches at age 10, and prescribed drugs he often refused to take for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sometime during grade school, he was diagnosed with a language learning disorder common in children who have ingested or inhaled too much lead dust.

At age 11, Price threatened a male teacher, which led to a city school system psychiatric evaluation. He reacted strongly to teasing, sometimes ending up in fights. Reed says she sought treatment for a variety of his conditions, including psychiatric ones. Although Price would sometimes have minor problems at Canton Middle School, where he received special education services, counseling seemed to work.

Things began to change when Price moved on to Patterson High. He began flunking several classes and started leaving the house around midnight and staying out until dawn. Police picked him up for breaking the city's curfew law and for trespassing. At home he became increasingly angry and once threatened to hit his mother.

Like many boys who become violent, Price had been subjected to it himself. Three Patterson boys beat him and robbed him of his cell phone and $25 in March of last year, around the time school officials and his mother tried to stop a recent run of truancy. When the largest of the three boys returned to Patterson, Price took a week off.

As Price's life began to spiral once again, his mother kept trying to regain control. She contacted Patterson and asked that a counselor keep a close eye on her son. She also asked for contacts of organizations or programs that could help keep him off the streets after school. Several programs in the neighborhood, such as the Police Athletic League center and a Boys' & Girls' Club, had closed down. "There's no programs," Reed says. "Nothing for kids to get into, except for trouble."

Those who study public health in Baltimore see the same problem. "There are too few programs for teenagers in the city," says Philip J. Leaf, director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. "Most programs target younger children."

Trying to reach children earlier in their lives is a viable strategy for preventing them from becoming violent later, says Tina L. Cheng, an associate professor of pediatrics at Hopkins' School of Medicine and division director of pediatrics at Hopkins' Harriet Lane Clinic. (Tina Cheng is no relation to Will Cheng or Anna Sowers.) "We really need to support kids, even prenatally," says Cheng, who has formed and researched several violence-intervention programs in the emergency room at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, but had a hard time getting the funding to maintain them. "They need better schools, better-informed parents, more mentors, and more pre- and after-school programs. The prevention side is what we need to be interested in. Unfortunately, there's not always the money to do it."

Anna Sowers knew something was wrong when she did not hear from her husband for more than 16 hours last June. She rushed home from Chicago that Saturday, but she couldn't find anyone who knew where he was. By Sunday, cops and friends had put two and two together. The man found beaten into silence — a "John Doe" case at the Johns Hopkins Hospital — was Zach.

As police rounded up a quartet of suspects, Anna pledged that the assailants would somehow come to pay severely for what they had done. The public role of the wife seeking justice was at first thrust upon her, as people sent along prayers and wishes to the Web site that friends set up, Friends also sold T-shirts picturing a lean man spinning records, an homage to Zach as well as a way to help pay his medical bills. Anna, her friends, and bar and restaurant owners in Canton and Frederick (their hometown) held "neighbors' night out" events to raise money and awareness of crime.

But as months dragged on and Zach remained in a coma, through several cycles of worsening and stabilizing, Anna became "activized." The photogenic Asian-American woman morphed from victim to crusader, out to turn the crime that had silenced her husband into a strong impetus for change. She supports using public health interventions that help stop people before they hurt someone, but the focus of her efforts has been on the sentencing side. When juveniles commit violent crimes, they need to be subject to laws with teeth, she says. "I want criminals to think twice before they kick the shit out of someone."

She didn't get her wish in Zach's case. Prosecutors say they had solid reasons for pursuing the plea bargain that left three of the four assailants eligible for parole in four years, and deprived her of the full jury trial she dearly hoped for. Prosecutors worried that magnetic resonance images of Zach's brain wouldn't clearly show injuries horrific enough to convince a jury that an attempted murder conviction of Ramos would be warranted. Four months after the sentencing, the full implications of the deal became clear: Even though Zach Sowers died from his injuries, none of his assailants can be tried for murder.

Offering Incentives to
Stay in School


Anna's campaign has included attempts to convince the state legislature and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's office to enact a "Zach's Law." As yet undefined, the law could enable prosecutors to hold parents accountable for their children's crimes. Or it could become part of laws designed to guarantee the impartiality of jurors in places like Baltimore, where a fear of retribution and a distrust of police can taint cases. Or it could allow prosecutors to charge defendants with murder when their victims end up in long-term comas.

Sowers and her supporters also courted local African-American leaders — a group they dubbed "The Black 25" — in hopes of encouraging them to speak out against violence and the "stop-snitching" mentality that has silenced witnesses and hamstrung the courts. Among others, former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, A&S '84 (MLA), has expressed sympathy for her and her positions, Anna says. But people aren't exactly jumping on the Black 25 bandwagon. The reasons have a lot to do with the breach in race and class that defines this city — and conflicting views on whether we should try to reach kids before they go wrong, or spend more energy and money locking them up earlier and for longer.

Baptist minister Heber Brown suggested Sowers "traffic a bit in black Baltimore" to find common cause. Several black leaders contacted by Sowers' group bristle at suggestions that the African-American community doesn't already have regular conversations about violence. By far, most of the city's victims are black, they point out. "You can't put African Americans on a guilt trip about this and expect them to join you," says Melvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter. Cheatham sat with Anna during several court hearings to offer support.

Others continue to talk with Anna to see if there is a common cause — some concrete steps — they can take up together. Heber Brown, a prominent Baptist minister, suggested that she and her collaborators "traffic a bit in black Baltimore. I got a sense they didn't have a lot of contact with people in the street," Brown says. He also suggested they work with the family of a black 17-year-old who was killed while being handled by staff at an exurban juvenile facility. But once Anna found out that the youth had once been arrested for armed robbery, she refused to get involved with his family.

At the heart of Anna's campaign is a desire to ensure that youths who commit violent crimes are sentenced like adults. But researchers who study youth violence say that tougher sentences for teens would have little effect on lowering juvenile crime rates. Laws enacted in other states have tended to disproportionately target poor members of minority groups, and they don't serve as viable deterrents to crime.

"There have been numerous studies of policies that transfer juvenile offenders into adult systems," says Webster. "Unequivocally, this has had harmful effects on the juveniles transferred. They are targeted for sexual and other violence in the prisons, get little help or rehabilitation, and re-offend at higher rates than otherwise similar youth who have not been transferred" to the adult justice system.

In the state penitentiary at Hagerstown, Eric Price is in lockdown 23 hours a day, his mother says — for his own protection. Sometime between his first statement to police in June and another in November, Ramos and others singled him out for naming names.

Back home in East Baltimore, Latricia Reed worries about the safety of her other children. In addition to the people who would punish her family because of her son's willingness to testify against a co-defendant, Reed is afraid of those who have vilified them because of her son's crime. Since Zach Sowers' death in March, the phone has been ringing a lot. Sometimes, people leave threatening messages.

A few blocks away, Anna Sowers has to plan for the life ahead of her. This summer, she'll finish up her MBA. Strained by time and circumstances, she sent Mia to Frederick, where her father and Zach's family "share custody" of the dog, she says. Now she studies; takes classes in krav maga, an Israeli form of self-defense; works to raise funds for the Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund, which was recently formed at Johns Hopkins; and lives in the home she shared with Zach.

Zach had planned to get his MBA in information technology systems from the Carey Business School this summer as well. He and his wife had made plans for after that — plans Anna will honor as faithfully as the act of wearing Zach's wedding ring on a chain around her neck, she says. Baltimore was never going to be a part of their future. "We were looking to live in other cities, like San Francisco," Anna says. After her degree, she'll search for another job while applying to law schools. Perhaps, she reasons, she can improve the justice system from the inside.

"I've decided to see where fate will take me," Anna says. "I look forward to going someplace where no one knows who Anna Sowers is, where I can start over."

Michael Anft is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

- Interruping a Cycle of Violence
- Offering Incentives to Stay in School

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