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Charlotte Observer: A Mother's Worst Fears Come True

Patsy and Ronald Martin in 1994.

Patsy Martin sets out to run some errands with her son Ronald, 2, in 1994. "Living here is like living on the edge," she said. "It's unpredictable. One minute it can be peaceful and quiet, and in the next half an hour, all hell can break loose." Photo: Charlotte Observer What Patsy Martin had feared most for her son came true on her front porch Monday. Ronald Martin died from gunshot wounds as his mother watched paramedics try to save him. Moments earlier, she held the 20-year-old as he told her, "Mama, I'm shot, I'm shot, Mama." Ronald Martin's death in Grier Heights came after family members, a police officer, teachers and an unlikely mentor reached out to Ronald Martin to try to save him from the streets. Liz Chandler, a former Observer reporter who wrote about the Martins for a series of stories about neighborhoods in trouble, found her heart captured by Ronald Martin, whom she met when he was younger than 2. She decided to be a part of his life, helping his mother - a neighborhood leader and single mother - where she could. "A lot of people tried a lot of things to save Ronald, but it's like fighting the tide," said Chandler, now in public relations at Luquire George Andrews. "His friends, family, the schools and the police all took small steps to intervene in his life. In the end, our efforts were too half-hearted and shallow. "We're all devastated. Not only because we won't see Ronald's big ol' smile again, but because we all saw something bad coming yet were too inept to stop it." In reporting the story 18 years ago, Chandler saw prospects for the engaging toddler. As he grew up, she found opportunities for him, spoke to his teachers, brought him to the newsroom occasionally to meet reporters and editors. When he wasn't waking up in time for school, and Patsy Martin had to work, Chandler would pick him up and drive him. Later, she'd show up at his court appearances. Chandler and Patsy Martin encouraged judges and prosecutors to make part of his punishment community service or educational programs. "Make him learn a skill," Chandler recalled telling them. Chandler was part of a team of Observer reporters and editors who worked for three years covering neighborhoods with high crime rates in Charlotte. The efforts of the series, which drew national attention for how it engaged neighborhood leaders in developing solutions to crime, also brought a community center to Seversville, northwest of uptown, and hundreds of volunteers helped start activities for children and political attention. One story in the series began with Patsy Martin, the community president and mother of four, standing on the front porch with Ronald, yelling at a drug dealer to stay away from her child. The Martins let the Observer into their home in the center city, and through it, Charlotte saw the dangers and the tough roads kids like Ronald would face. But Patsy Martin knew all that then - and she was scared. "It would crush my soul if anything happened to Ronald," Patsy Martin told the Observer in 1994. "All we want is a place where our kids are safe." Long after the project ended, Chandler's friendship with Ronald and Patsy endured. A violent era Ronald Martin was born in the fall of 1991 and named after a cousin who was killed during a fight in the parking lot of Garinger High School. As he was learning to walk and talk, the city experienced some of its most violent years, with homicide numbers reaching into the triple digits. In 1993, the city saw more than 120 killings - including six near the Martins' home. Patsy Martin, a cook at Presbyterian Hospital, was president of the Seversville Neighborhood Association in 1994. She was outspoken about the violence, and called on city leaders and her neighbors to do more. "Ronald's father abandoned him, but Patsy was a strong mama," Chandler said. "She preached and lectured and cajoled Ronald to stay in school so he could get a job and get out of the hood. She went to work at 4 o'clock in the morning, every day, to make sure he had food, shelter and medical care." Ronald Martin played junior high football at Randolph Middle School. But he acted out, disrespecting teachers, Chandler said, and was suspended and would spend days on the streets. "We lost him in middle school," Chandler recalled. "He got suspended over and over again, which put him out on the streets. We need more sophisticated interventions that can get to the core of these kids' problems." Chandler described him as "a big-hearted kid with a great sense of humor and amazing stamina to have endured the loss of both of his sisters and the difficulties of poverty." One sister was killed by a drunk driver; the other was hit by a car. He dropped out of school in ninth grade, according to Chandler. The family moved to Grier Heights in the late 1990s. A year before he died, he was trying to get his GED from Central Piedmont Community College, his mother said, and got a job with a tree trimming service. "I always asked him what he wanted to do," Patsy Martin recalled. "I told him he was going to go to either jail or hell. I told him you can do anything in this world that you want to do, but you need to do something outside of sitting around, playing around and sleeping all day." Last year, he began having trouble with the law. He was charged with cruelty to animals and assault on a female. The assault charge was dropped; the cruelty charge was still pending when he was killed. Earlier this year, he was charged with attempted murder and spent three weeks in jail, though that charge was eventually dismissed. It's unclear whether those circumstances played a role in his death. Gunshots outside On Monday morning, Patsy Martin heard gunshots outside her door. When she opened it, she saw her son slumped on the porch. "He had dialed 911 and he was talking to the 911 person on the phone," Patsy Martin said Monday. "I called his name and all he said was 'Mama, I'm shot, I'm shot, Mama.' " She held him until police officers arrived. Early Monday, police searched for his killer, a search that involved the police helicopter and K-9 dog units. Police canvassed the area, but there were no reports of an arrest late Monday. Patsy Martin called Chandler soon after the shooting. By 2:30 a.m. Chandler was at the Grier Heights home with the family, looking at the sheet covering Ronald Martin's body. "She always will be a member of the family," Patsy Martin said. "I always told him, 'You will always be Liz's baby.' She'd fuss at him when he acted up, but if he really needed something, she would give him anything he asked for. She'd call to check up on him. He loved her. He always loved her." On Tuesday, Chandler plans to help make arrangements for Ronald Martin's funeral. "A lot of us knew something bad was coming," Chandler said. "We didn't have enough in us to stop it." Staff writers Elisabeth Arriero and Steve Lyttle contributed. Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.