Two years ago in Baltimore, Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in police custody, setting off days of peaceful protests -and eventually, violent ones. But it all started when Gray, a 25-year-old black man, turned and ran from the police who were patrolling his neighborhood.
In this Reveal/WYPR collaboration--we look at two cases of running from cops that reveal some truths about the intersection of policing and the courts.
First up, reporter Mary Wiltenburg brings us the story of Greg Butler, a young man who took part in protests in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death. At the age of 21 he cut a hole in a fire hose on Pennsylvania Avenue and ran from the cops. Butler narrowly escaped jail time for that act.
The poster child
Greg is from Baltimore. He grew up in a rough part of town with his two sisters, sometimes his dad, who was in and out of prison, and rarely his mom, who also served jail time and was addicted to heroin.
“I remember being 4, 5-years-old, and I’m sleeping on the floor. I haven’t seen my mom in days and I don’t know where my dad is,” he said. “And me and my sister are feeding my little sister.”
The kids relied on each other and sometimes went hungry. But Greg was bright and focused. He stayed out of trouble. He became a basketball star – “literally slept with the ball, like a pillow” – and captain of the team at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, or “Poly,” the most selective public high school in the city. He won a full ride scholarship to college.
Then, Greg’s dad lost his job, Greg took on more hours at work, his grades slipped, and he lost his scholarship. He tried community college for a while, but struggled to pay for it. Shortly before the unrest, he landed back in his old neighborhood, no longer a sports star or a college kid, feeling like a failure.
“At some point you feel defeated, you feel beaten, like, I can’t get over the hump,” he remembered. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college, but I don’t have anyone in my family that can relate and understand that now I need you more than ever.”
The night before the unrest, violence hit close to home for Greg: his good friend’s dad was killed. Greg spent the evening with friends at a bar talking about people they’d lost. When he got home in the wee hours, Greg searched Google, wondering if he might have a role to play in Baltimore, not as a basketball star, but as some kind of activist.
“I researched the number of people killed in my city, and I find out that I was born in the year that had the most murders in Baltimore, ’93,” he said. That year saw 353 murders in one year, still the deadliest on record.
Firefighter Eric Corpella was on Pennsylvania Avenue when things started to escalate. “We see the CVS catch on fire. Next thing you know, boom, we’re responding to that call and they’re throwing a 2x4 at us,” he said. “Usually people in the city love us, ‘cause we’re taking care of their mothers and their grandmothers. But that day, we were nobody’s friend.”
Police threw tear gas, protesters linked arms and formed a line, and an uneasy calm fell over the intersection. In the haze, a line of police advanced on protesters, beating their nightsticks against their riot shields.
When he heard what was happening at Penn-North (the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue) Greg felt like he had to be there. A friend gave him a ride most of the way, and loaned him a gas mask. When he dropped Greg near the smoky intersection, Greg said he spotted an abandoned bike and hopped on. He took in the scene.
“You had the Muslim brothers creating a line between the police,” he remembered. “You had young kids on bikes, you have women just yelling to the top of their lungs, you had women crying. You had young guys cussing out police and throwing bottles. And when you sit back and just look, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ This is my city letting the world know that we understand what’s going on with us, and we ain’t standing for it.”
In the middle of the smoky intersection, Greg faced off against a line of riot cops. All kinds of people who were at the intersection that day, protesting, or documenting, or just watching, noticed the guy on the bike, raising one fist in the air.
Two local activists share their recollections of Greg that day:
“He was looking like a damn king in the middle, with his hands up. And it was like, damn, I wish I was him,” said sound engineer Proofe Dreamchaser, who was out filming the protests “It was just great to see no fear.”
“When I think of Penn and North, when I think of the riots, I think of him – with the gas mask, riding around on the bike,” said local activist Saba Nazeer.
After riding around a while, Greg saw a fire hose that had just been hooked up to a hydrant. It was in the 2400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. CNN was doing a live report. In this video you can Greg, in the red and grey hoodie, poke the hose twice while reporter Miguel Marquez speaks with community activist Davon Neverdon.
That evening in 2015, as water rained down, strangers hugged and high-fived Greg, and he did a little happy dance that was caught on camera. Then, he hung around the intersection for hours, having intense conversations with strangers about how to fix Baltimore. He’d taken a risk, and it appeared he’d gotten away with it. Nobody had gotten hurt.
On his way home that night, craving a smoke, Greg spotted a looted 7-Eleven with its glass front door smashed out. Climbing inside, he went behind the counter and picked up a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, plainclothes police who’d been casing the store ran in. They ordered Greg to the floor, searched him, cuffed him, and took him outside to wait for the transport van. But when it pulled up, Greg made a split-second call. Like Freddie Gray, he ran.
“I took off and the guy that had me, he was nowhere close to catching me. The police officer that did catch me, he used the bike that I had,” he said. “If he didn’t have the bike, I don’t think he would have caught me.”
Because Greg fled from the police, a judge held him without bail in the Baltimore City Detention Center for over a month. That same month, six Baltimore police officers were charged in Freddie Gray’s death and released on bail.
Things began to go downhill for Greg. His jail stay gave the detective who arrested him time to see the CNN footage of Greg cutting the hose. Over a week went by before he recognized Greg’s sweatshirt, and put two and two together.
Greg always carried a pocket knife, but he had never done anything like this. Speaking to Mary Wiltenburg a year and a half after the incident, he explains why he did it.
Deputy Fire Chief Karl Zimmerman was in charge of the fire ground at Penn and North that day. He wanted to know what was going through Greg's mind too.
“Why would you put a hole in a hose? He had no idea what the results of his actions could be,” he said. “When you take away that water supply, all you get is fire.”
Zimmerman has worked in Baltimore for nearly 30 years. He said he and the firefighters under his command are part of the communities they serve, and sympathize with the challenges those communities face. He said not everybody was out on the streets that night.
“The good citizens in Baltimore went inside,” he pointed to his firefighters, “and then these guys went out and cleaned up what was left.”
Over the past years, Greg has also wrestled with the question 'who am I?' His family background shades his answer.
"If you watch your parents as drug addicts, and their parents were drug addicts, you know, it's no reason for me to cower and hide, because I'm a die on these streets regardless," he said. "Once you got that type of mentality, it's dangerous to step in front of that person and not give them what they want. You know, I’m ready to go at any day."
Greg knew once the police booked him, that was it. But if he ran, he had one last shot at freedom. He took the chance. He gave more insight on what made him run.
“My political answer is that the landscape of the day was just so hectic. I didn’t know what – if the police had me what they would really do. If they want to stake their claim by dragging me around this alley and beating the hell out of me, so I took off with that in my mind. But also from you know the street point of view: they caught me too easy. You know? They caught me way too easy. You gotta work for this.”
Eventually, Greg got a lawyer, who got him out on bail. Seven months later, his case finally came up. When Greg arrived at Baltimore’s city courthouse, the place was a zoo. William Porter, the first of six officers to be tried for Freddie Gray’s death was on trial three floors down from Greg. The line to enter the building stretched down the block, the cafeteria had been converted into a media center, and protesters gathered across the street.
Baltimore activist JC Faulk had organized the protest. He was indignant that the officers charged in Gray’s death faced lower possible sentences than Greg did.
“The cops are getting off scot-free,” he said. “The two guys who beat up Freddie Gray, they could get convicted and not go to jail for as long as he would go for a freaking water hose.”
Waiting at the courthouse to detain Greg were seven agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The government had decided to take some of his charges federal.
For a surreal few days in December 2015, Greg was shuttled back and forth between Baltimore City Detention Center and state and federal courthouses. While his lawyer in state court painted Greg as a novice wrongdoer (who didn’t even successfully shoplift a single pack of cigarettes during a riot blocks away) federal prosecutor Philip Seldon portrayed Greg as a scheming criminal.
Phillip Seldon: “The very fact that he had a gas mask when he cut that hose line would suggest that Mr. Butler planned this. Because Mr Butler provided an alias name. Provided an alias date of birth, and an alias address. So that coupled with the fact that he actually fled from law enforcement gives the idea that he actually had a consciousness of guilt associated with his conduct.”
One of Greg’s federal public defenders, Lucius T. Outlaw, countered. He said it was important to remember all of the emotions and chaos that surrounded the day. He also said that Greg, like a lot of other black men, ran because he was scared.
Lucius T. Outlaw: “Seeing a police officer, the natural instinct, even me, today – law degree, college – my natural instinct is to turn and go the other way, cause you don’t know what happens.”
The Justice Department put out a report on their investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, suggesting that young black men may have good reason to run for their lives when approached by Baltimore cops.
Two counts, two courts
Greg Butler faced two federal counts: Obstruction of Firefighters During a Civil Disorder – that carried a 5 year maximum sentence – and Aiding and Abetting Arson, which carried up to 20 years. As the hearing got underway, the prosecutor explained that Greg was also on trial in state court. Greg had an ankle monitor and was told to come back when his other trial was over. He had just minutes to make it the seven blocks back to circuit court.
The judge stammered before he got his words out.
“As they say in the street, I’m not feelin it,” he said. “I think it’s rife with problems.”
But Greg still had to sprint from state court to circuit court.
The next morning, the jury in Greg’s state case found him guilty of two charges. The first was Attempted Theft of Under $100. That’s when he tried to take a pack of cigarettes from a looted 7-Eleven. The second was Escape in the Second Degree – for running from the cops who’d arrested him.
Citing Greg’s youth and the fact that this was his first offense, the judge gave him probation. The charges could be expunged from his record after 3 years of good behavior.
At the federal courthouse, Greg sat before the judge. His sisters were in the gallery. The prosecutor, Philip Selden, argued that Greg should be locked up until his case came to trial. He brought up the CNN broadcast where you can see Greg cutting the hose. Liz Oyer, Greg’s public defender rose, and questioned why Greg was even being charged federally.
Liz Oyer: "Your honor, I think the way the government is handling this case is really just reinforcing the dynamic between law enforcement and residents of this city that got us here in the first place."
The next 331 days of Greg's federal case were just as fractious, as the lawyers squared off in motions and hearings. Meantime, all six cases against the police charged in Freddie Gray’s death ended without convictions – and without more unrest in the city.
Eventually, Greg’s lawyers persuaded the judge to throw out the more serious charge against him. He pled guilty to the lesser one, obstructing firefighters. In November 2016, days before the presidential election, Greg appeared in federal court one last time to be sentenced.
The prosecution wanted three years of jail time and millions of dollars in restitution. Things looked bad for Greg. Then something strange happened. Greg’s lawyer asked the judge if she could call a witness who was supposed to be testifying for the prosecution: Baltimore Deputy Fire Chief Karl Zimmerman. A year earlier, Zimmerman had spoken to Mary Wiltenburg about Greg’s cutting the fire hose and the danger that put his firefighters in.
Zimmerman: "To turn around and put one of their lives in jeopardy because you feel like you need to be liberated doesn’t really hold a lot of water with us. We’re not real hip to that."
There on the stand, Zimmerman took a different tone. He testified that Greg had showed up when the drug store had nearly burned down, so stabbing the hose hadn’t hurt anyone. Then Greg’s attorney asked him, did he have an opinion about what Greg’s punishment should be? And Zimmerman shocked the room by saying "Yes. Community service. With the fire department. Supervised by me."
When it was Greg’s turn to speak, he stood, wearing black-framed glasses, a new navy suit, and a bowtie – the spitting image of one of his idols, Malcolm X. A few nights earlier he’d sounded like the activist when talking about why he thought people in Baltimore had taken to the streets.
"Black people have been living this way since the first day we touched soil. We live like somebody's watching us, from slavery to Jim Crow to now. So when you have black people feeling like 'yeah you watching me but you can't stop me' it's no telling what's going to come out there. Cause my ancestors are speaking through me at this point."
Greg started to apologize, but the judge interrupted him to ask why he did what he did. Greg said he had lumped firefighters and police together.
"Firefighters aren’t letting black people burn in buildings. Firefighters aren’t taking two hours and stopping for sandwiches because they going to serve a low income neighborhood. So from that aspect I can be sorry, I can want to make amends," Greg said. "I’m a man of values and principles. Anybody who doesn’t bring me harm doesn’t deserve harm from my hands."
When Greg sat down, the judge delivered his sentence: community service, no further jail time, and a million dollars of restitution for the damaged CVS drugstore, to be paid $100 a month.
Recently, Greg met with the firefighters whose hose he cut, and apologized. Today, he is doing his community service in the Baltimore Fire Marshal's office.
Greg became a father to a son, Kai. Greg said he wants to be a good example for his child.
Jamyla Krempel and Brendan Reynolds contributed to the online version of this story.