Forever a Hero
Angela died on all fours, trying to shield one of her children from the smoke and flames. The fireball also killed all five children who lived at home. Husband Carnell, 43, a construction worker, jumped from a second-floor window but died one week later from burns that covered more than half of his body. "I've been a cop all my adult life, and this is the worst thing I've ever seen," Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris told the more than 400 mourners at a funeral for the family on Oct. 24. "I just can't shake it."
Neither can the crime-weary citizens of Baltimore (pop. 635,200), which ranks No. 4 in violence and No. 5 in drug-related health crises among the country's largest cities. "Even monsters and drug dealers sometimes have certain rules—killing so many kids at one time crossed the line," says Angela's brother John Harrington Jr., 33, a state corrections officer. "This is terrorism in our city."
Angela spent her entire life in and around Baltimore. A high school dropout, she gave birth to Lakeesha, now 18, at age 18, then to Lawanda, 14, and Juan, 12, before meeting Carnell in 1990, soon after he arrived from Oklahoma. Though the pair soon had three children together—Carnell Jr., 11, and twins Keith and Kevin, 9—they did not marry until about four years ago. "Angie wasn't so sure about getting married, but Carnell wanted to do it right," says his sister Alice McNack, a secretary.
What the couple readily agreed on was the need to create a safety zone for the six kids. Though they didn't always have much money, Carnell was able to provide three TVs, video games and an inflatable pool and gave Angela pocket money to scour thrift stores in search of homey knickknacks. "When I walked into their home, I didn't expect what I saw: the furniture, the way she set everything up. It was very warm," says the Rev. Willie Armstrong, director of the Baltimore Child Development Community Policing Program. "They had created a safe and secure place for their kids."
Angela kept her children happy, clean and well-fed, often throwing cookouts and basketball games in the backyard. In return she demanded courtesy and respect. "She was the only mother I know who fed her children on a schedule and made sure they ate right," says a neighbor. Lucretia Coates, principal of the elementary school attended by Angela's four youngest, says that Angela was such an involved mom that she "often came to school to eat lunch with them."
When the drug dealers began to retaliate, police increased their patrols of her rented house; but they, like many relatives, urged Angela to move out of the house and perhaps even away from the Badlands, as her area of Baltimore is known. Prosecutors even offered the Dawsons the chance to enter the witness-protection program. Angela was particularly concerned about Carnell, who had taken to sitting on the front stoop to guard their house, and considered several alternatives, among them moving to Oklahoma or to a different part of the city. "But she was struggling with the idea," says Reverend Armstrong. "They were committed and stood their ground." Councilwoman Pamela Carter, 48, who lives nearby, sympathizes. "It's hard to leave when it's your home," she says.
Police have arrested and charged Angela's neighbor Darrell Brooks, 21, with arson and six counts of murder. (A seventh murder charge is expected.) Though Brooks has had repeated run-ins with the police, people who know him cannot square the current charges with the boy who once clerked for the city council president. "He wanted people to need him," says Sabrina Sutton, 42, a constituency outreach worker. "He wanted to be useful."
The slayings have ignited a fiery community debate. "People will speak up now," says neighbor Paige Bailey, 36. Education consultant Kevin Parson, 39, warns, "In a few weeks the politicians will move on, the police will leave, and we will forget too. We can't let that happen this time." Many agree with Sgt. Joseph Orem, 32, who fears that the tragedy will make people "more wary of calling the police because they are afraid of retaliation." But many more, fearful of policing the streets themselves, are convinced that the community must join forces.
The one person certain never to forget is Angela's surviving child, Lakeesha Bo well. "My mother used to tell us all, 'When I'm gone, my children will be my legacy,'" says the stunned girl, who is seven months pregnant with her first child. "Well, now I'm her only legacy left. I have to shine for them."
Carolyn Ruff Spellman and Melody Simmons in Baltimore