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Feb 27 2009

Dart Award Winner

A Stolen Soul

"Why Can't I Go to Heaven?"

Sooner or later every homicide detective catches a case that eats away at his gut.

Sooner or later every homicide detective catches a case that eats away at his gut.

The Laurence Jones case would be the one that taunted Baltimore homicide Detective Donald Ossmus Jr. It crept into his thoughts as he showered each morning, as he mowed the lawn, as he played with his four kids.

Ossmus took most of his cases personally, believing it was his job to speak for the dead, to avenge their violent departures from this world. He also kept the victims' families in mind as he hunted for the killers. He knew making an arrest gave them some small measure of peace. In Yong Jones' case, he felt an even stronger obligation to solve her son's murder.

She called him every week asking for updates.

''We're working very hard,'' he told her.

''Then why don't you have an arrest?''

Ossmus explained to Yong that her son's murder wasn't the only case he was working on. He, like other homicide detectives, juggled as many as a dozen open cases at a time.

The detective's caseload mattered little to Yong. She begged Ossmus to find Junior's killer so his soul could rest in peace.

The idea of this young man's restless spirit waiting for justice haunted the detective. Despite the other murders that demanded his attention, Ossmus found himself working extra hours on the Jones case.

But after investigating the murder for a month, Ossmus was no closer to making an arrest. The only thing he did know was how Larry Jones Jr. had spent his last few hours. Above: Yong Jones sobs as she recalls the slaying of her only son, who was killed in a Nov. 20, 1993, shooting on a street in Baltimore. Jones begged the homicide detective in charge of the investigation to find the killer, or her son's sould would be damned forever.

Larry had been upset the November night he died. A girl he'd dated briefly had broken up with him, and he had sought comfort at several bars in Fells Point, a trendy neighborhood about a 15-minute walk from his apartment. After he left Fells Point on that Friday evening, he made his way to Bohager's, a cavernous bar where live music blared and young men and women danced and drank until the early morning.

Larry left that bar sometime after 2 a.m. and walked a couple of blocks to 430 Eden St. He pounded on the door at the home of Robin Quinlan, a former roommate. He believed Quinlan had taken some compact discs from him when she moved out a few weeks earlier and he wanted them back.

Quinlan's boyfriend, Michael Barker, came home to find Larry drunk and making little sense. Larry was unsteady on his feet and slurred his words when he spoke.

Barker urged him to leave. When Larry refused, the two of them tumbled out the door and down the steps of the rowhouse. A stranger walking by tried to separate them, telling them he was an off-duty cop. Barker stood and went back into his apartment. He closed the door and left Larry with the stranger.

Ten minutes later, Barker and Quinlan heard what they thought was a gunshot.

Just a few blocks away, on Bank Street, Larry Jones lay dying on the sidewalk. Someone had shot him in the left eye.

The killer had taken his wallet and Larry's gold, fire opal Korean ring, a treasured gift from his parents.

At first Ossmus thought someone involved in the scuffle, or the supposed cop, had followed Larry and shot him. For weeks he searched for the mysterious police officer. He had a composite drawn up and passed it out to the media. He showed it to people who lived in the Bank Street neighborhood. A few tips came in, but none of them led anywhere.

At a dead end, Ossmus had no news for Yong when she called each week. He dreaded the calls. It pained him to hear her anguish.

While the detective worked the case, Yong prayed for her son. In her mind she saw his spirit hovering over the streets of Baltimore. She sensed that he was lonely, that he felt abandoned in the city where he'd moved just three months before his death to pursue his master's degree in psychology.

She wondered if her son knew why his soul was damned. She pictured him asking for her help, his wide brown eyes searching for an answer, asking her why. ''Why can't I go to heaven, Mom?''

Yong feared that her son's case might never be solved. The thought of his spirit forever trapped between heaven and hell tormented her.

She couldn't eat or sleep. She had no strength to continue working. She took a temporary leave from her job at a local paper mill. Except for visiting her son's grave, she rarely left her home in Bangor. She paced, and prayed, and cried.

She talked to Junior often. ''Don't worry, Junior. Momma's gonna see that you get justice,'' she'd whisper. ''Momma's gonna make sure you rest in peace.''

Sometimes, she heard her son's voice talk back to her. He spoke to her as he had when he was 4 years old, asking her to put a Band-Aid on his cut finger or skinned knee.

''Mommy, fix it,'' she heard him asking. ''I'm hurt, Mom. Please help me.''

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Barbara A. Walsh

  • Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter working on special projects for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Walsh was one of two principal reporters at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who worked on a yearlong series about Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer and furlough escapee whose crimes drew attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system. The series won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

David A. Rodgers

  • Rodgers has been a photographer at The Portland Newspapers since 1988. He previously worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the Boston Globe. Rodgers won third place in the National Press Photographers' Association's international pictures of the year contest this year for his work on the newspapers' Island Odyssey series, which ran in the summer of 1996. Rodgers also has won numerous regional and state photography awards.

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