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Who is Freddie Gray, whose death is at the center of Baltimore's unrest?

This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Undated family picture of Freddie Gray. (Baltimore Sun)

The unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray has left portions of the city in ruins and again elevated the national debate over police treatment of African Americans. Yet little is known about the man who suffered a severed spine after taken into custody on April 12.

Here’s some background about Gray.

‘He was so funny’

Gray was a 25-year-old resident of Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park in West Baltimore. He was 5 feet 8 and weighed 145 pounds and was a graduate of Carver Vocational-Technical High School.

Around his neighborhood, friends often referred to him by his nickname, Pepper.

"He was so funny. Any time you're looking for a laugh, you're going straight to Freddie," Raheem Gaither, a friend and neighbor of Gray's, told the Baltimore Sun. "We're all from the same neighborhood. All of us here are family."

Gray also sang in the youth choir at his church, enjoyed fashion and played for a neighborhood football team, according to a program from his funeral.

He had a twin sister, Fredericka, who in recent days said her brother “would not want this,” referring to the rioting that has roiled their city. He also had an older sister, Carolina.

A man walks along a street in the Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived. David Goldman/Associated Press

‘I'm not saying Fred was an angel’

Gray was arrested more than a dozen times since he turned 18, according to court records. Many of the cases stemmed from possession and distribution of narcotics. When he was arrested, Gray had two drug cases pending. One was a felony on suspicion of selling heroin. Other charges against Gray included trespassing to shoplifting.

"I'm not saying Fred was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past. But the police already have made up their minds about who we are," Rudolph Jackson, 51, told the Sun. "They figure every black person with their pants hanging down is a suspect, and they stop them without probable cause."

A childhood exposed to lead paint

In the mid-1990s, Gray lived in an apartment in West Baltimore where paint peeled off the walls and littered bedrooms and kitchens, according to court records obtained by the Sun. Those records stem from a 2008 lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court by Gray and his sisters against the property owner for lead poisoning.

Gray and his sisters were exposed to high lead levels in their blood, which led to multiple educational, behavioral and medical problems, according to the lawsuit.

An undisclosed settlement was reached, according to the court documents.

What was his neighborhood like?

Jobs are scarce.

Unemployment in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park among those aged 16 to 64 was 52% in 2012, according to a Justice Policy Institute report. The median household income in 2010 was $22,000, compared with $37,000 for Baltimore overall, according to a 2011 Baltimore City Health Department report.

Mixed in with drugs and dismal school systems, poverty is an epidemic that plagues inner-city black neighborhoods nationwide.

In Gray’s neighborhood, young blacks are nearly as likely to be arrested as they are to finish high school, according to the Health Department report. One of every four juveniles was arrested between 2005 and 2009, nearly double the rate in the rest of the city.

How did he die?

Gray died from an injury that severed his spine, according to an autopsy report. There were no indications of force or bruising, police said, and they do not know when or how his spine was severed. He died April 19, a week after his arrest. Baltimore’s police union asserted that none of the officers did anything criminal, and has warned against a rush to judgment. But because it's an ongoing investigation, little information about his death has been released.

“When Mr. Gray was put in that van, he could talk and he was upset,” Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said during a televised news conference April 13. “When he was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.”

Times staff writers Michael Muskal, James Queally and David Zucchino contributed to this report.

This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Follow Kurtis Lee on Twitter at @KurtisALee, Michael Muskal @LATimesMuskal, James Queally at @JamesQueallyLAT, and David Zucchino at @DavidZucchino.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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