For what he gave, to his city and those he loved, Dante Barksdale’s sister says she can’t let his memory fade.

Pili Houston pushed to have a stretch of the street where he was killed dedicated in his honor. She hopes to transform a communal area nearby into a park with a memorial. And on Tuesday, she plans to do a balloon release in remembrance.

Still, two years after the beloved anti-violence worker’s stunning shooting death on Jan. 17, 2021, his family remains unsettled. Though a suspect was charged months later, he was acquitted by a jury, and a motive for why anyone would have taken Barksdale’s life remains elusive. That uncertainty, she said, causes apprehension.

“It’s a big mystery as to why,” Houston told The Baltimore Banner.

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Undated family photo of anti-violence worker Dante Barksdale with his mother. (Courtesy of Barksdale family)

She believes Barksdale, 46, a leader with Baltimore Safe Streets who worked to persuade young men to put down their guns, would forgive his killer. “That’s what he stood for — he wanted to end the gun violence, and what perpetuates the gun violence, which are societal issues. If he could speak for himself, he would want those responsible to know he’s not angry but he’s at peace.”

Police and prosecutors believed they had identified the killer, but a jury thought otherwise. The Banner, through a public records request, obtained the police investigative file for Barksdale’s killing, showing steps that were taken, holes that couldn’t be filled, and missed opportunities.

Moments before his death, Barksdale, who was known as “Tater,” was sitting in a vehicle recording a podcast. After the interview, he moved to the courtyard of Douglass Homes in East Baltimore, where he was standing with three other people.

One of them pulled a gun and opened fire. Barksdale was struck nine times, including six times in the head.

The investigative file shows that detectives were able to figure out the identities of two of the men, one of whom Barksdale was said to meet up with daily. That man had told one of Barksdale’s relatives that not only was he there when the shooting occurred, but that he knew who did it: a man nicknamed “Whammy.”

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Police ran the nickname through databases, and it came back to a 28-year-old man named Garrick Powell.

When the witness was brought to the homicide unit four days after the shooting, however, he denied any knowledge of what happened, claiming that he had been standing at his back door when he saw people running.

He added that “if he had any information about what occurred he would not relay it to the police,” detectives wrote.

Federal task force officers told city homicide detectives that they had picked up chatter on a wiretap that the witness was in a dispute with drug dealers from the area and that Barksdale was there to mediate the situation when he was shot. “This information is consistent with some scenarios/information that has been provided to investigators,” police wrote in the investigative file, though there doesn’t appear to be any other mention in the file of mediating a dispute.

The second man who had been standing with Barksdale told detectives that he had a conversation with Barksdale, then walked off to sell someone marijuana and heard Barksdale yell, “Don’t shoot me!” He said he never saw the gunman before and had no clue who would want to kill Barksdale.

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Investigators set out to find Powell and interview him, but struck out. But three weeks after the killing, Anne Arundel County police not only located him but a crucial piece of evidence as well.

County police pulled over a car he was traveling in and found multiple handguns, including a Polymer 80 with an extended magazine that they said was found under Powell’s seat. Powell and two others were charged; Powell’s girlfriend, Talathia Smith, was released without charges.

Firearms examiners would conclude that they believed the Polymer 80 was the same gun used to shoot Barksdale.

Powell had had extensive previous trouble with the criminal justice system; years earlier, he was charged with murder and a separate attempted murder. He was tried and acquitted in both cases.

After receiving suspended sentences for cocaine distribution and witness intimidation, Powell was sentenced in 2018 to 11 years in prison on a probation violation after a cocaine arrest in Baltimore County, even though he beat the drug charges at trial.

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But Powell was freed in March 2020, after the appeals court overturned his probation violation.

Detectives were narrowing in on Powell. On Feb. 23, detectives returned to Douglass Homes to re-distribute Metro Crime Stoppers flyers, and the next day someone sent an anonymous text message tip: “Wammy killed Tater, I want that reward money.” Cellphone location information received in March showed that Powell’s phone had been in the area an hour before the shooting.

Detectives tried to find Powell’s girlfriend to interview her but were unsuccessful. On March 19, she was fatally shot in East Baltimore. The case remains unsolved.

Police asked prosecutors for a warrant for Powell on March 31. Prosecutors did not give the green light until May, and Powell was taken into custody. City leaders including the mayor and state’s attorney gathered to make the announcement.

When Powell eventually went to trial in May 2022, the jury was presented with a circumstantial case: a surveillance video in which it was difficult to discern anyone’s identity, the gun recovered in Anne Arundel County and the cellphone location data.

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The jury didn’t hear the witness’s second-hand identification or other neighborhood chatter about “Whammy” being responsible for the killing — that information was hearsay. Neither of the men who had been standing with Barksdale at the time of the shooting took the stand. The cellphone location evidence put Powell in the area, yes, but not at the time of the shooting. There was no talk of a motive, or even any kind of connection between Garrick Powell and Dante Barksdale.

“Our system is designed so that it is better to let go of 10 people who maybe did something wrong than to let go of one person who did not do something wrong,” defense attorney John Cox told the jury.

They deliberated for only two hours before acquitting Powell.

Cox said in an interview with The Banner that Powell maintained his innocence from the start. Though the gun was a key piece of evidence, he said that guns trade hands in Baltimore City and that it could have belonged to other people who were in the car. DNA was recovered from the weapon but inexplicably not tested, he said.

“If I was a prosecutor, I would’ve been beside myself … that nothing was ever done to that gun,” Cox said. “One definitive thing they could have done to either eliminate my client as a suspect or to further solidify their case is the fact that there were swabs taken from that gun with DNA, and they never did anything with it. And they had plenty of time. I’ve always been curious about where the breakdown was.

“Part of me thought that was a case that shouldn’t have even been brought before the court in the state it was in,” Cox said.

Houston, Barksdale’s sister, said the family was frustrated by the lack of forensic analysis of the gun. She said she doesn’t know if police got the right suspect, but wants authorities to continue investigating the case, “not just for the purpose of justice but for the purpose of peace.”

A police spokesman, however, said detectives believed they had the right person and aren’t taking any additional investigative steps.

It’s unclear whether members of Safe Streets ever gleaned any information about the shooting or intervened in any mediations. By its nature, such work is considered confidential and not provided to police.

Houston said she saw enough of Safe Streets’ work, however, to believe it needs to be supported and expanded, and said her brother had been frustrated with a lack of resources.

“During these situations, I see citizens saying, ‘I don’t like Safe Streets,’ or ‘they’re not helping,’” she said. “They are helping. I witnessed it, I watched Dante and heard his stories. I’ve seen it myself. Some things would be a lot worse if it wasn’t for them.”

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries. 

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