Outpouring of support comforts mourning mom

Posted: March 30, 2014

THE LAST conversation Diedra Counts had with her oldest son wasn't that remarkable.

Montrell Freeman Jr., 19, called her to check in Jan. 9 while he waited for a basketball game to start at the Vare Recreation Center in South Philly.

Forty-five minutes later, Counts got another call: Freeman had been shot. He died later at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, police said.

"When this happened, I didn't know which direction to turn," Counts, 42, said last week at her home, a half-mile from where her son was gunned down.

Now, Counts is calling on the people who knew Freeman best to help honor his memory.

Today, the family is hosting a fish fry at the 22nd Street Cafe, 22nd and Wharton, to raise money for Freeman's headstone. He was buried without one at Upper Darby's Friends Cemetery.

Counts ordered 200 tickets for the event, thinking she'd never sell them all, but yesterday, she was down to a handful. The outpouring of support has been common for the grieving mother.

"It's absolutely amazing how many people knew him, how many lives he touched," Counts said. "My phone has been ringing nonstop with friends - people I never met - telling me how much they loved him."

It was standing-room only in Counts' house the night after Freeman died. She could barely breathe as she sat in her living room, lined with her son's basketball trophies, and was consoled by a litany of her son's friends, teammates and former coaches.

"There was a line wrapped around the block," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

Social media has also played a big role: Hundreds have commented and posted stories about her son on her Instagram page.

A recent comment from a young woman reads like an impromptu eulogy: "Truly missing him so much in so many ways. Never got to meet you Ms. D, but I thank God so much for you. If it hadn't been for you creating such a handsome, well mannered, humorous, smart, talented, clean, helpful little guy, etc. I would never got a chance to meet him and create so many memories."

"Stuff like this is helping me through my grief," Counts said. "I smile, I grin, but, inside, I'm messed up."

It pains her to think her son, a kid who she says lived to play basketball and never got into trouble with police, was killed over something as petty as an argument.

The exact circumstances of what led to Freeman's death are unclear, but surveillance from the store the teen visited just before the shooting bears plenty.

Freeman and a friend walked from Vare to the 8 Brothers supermarket on Tasker Street near 27th, where they argued with two men, Counts said.

"I hear different things about what it was over: basketball, territory, whatever," she said. "It shouldn't have ended like this."

Freeman and his friend left the store and were followed by the pair. A few blocks later, on Tasker near Bailey, they confronted Freeman. As he prepared to defend himself, one of the men pulled out a gun and started firing.

Freeman was struck six times in his torso, back and legs, police said. The shooters fled the scene.

Police have arrested Rasheem Martin, 19, and Omar Washington, 19, in connection with the shooting. Both have been charged with murder, conspiracy and related offenses, and are being held without bail at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, according to court records.

Counts doesn't know Martin or Washington, but Cecile Kase, the caretaker at Vare, knows all three boys from the rec center.

Yesterday, a tearful Kase recalled Freeman as a loving teen who'd shoot hoops with her grandson in an alley by her house.

"He was just a lovable guy who loved basketball," she said. "If there's a court somewhere in the city, guarantee someone knew Montrell."

Kase isn't sure if she'll attend the fish fry - her emotions are still raw - but she knows what must come next.

"We need a solution to this violence - it's so senseless," she said. "These kids need to understand that they're destroying one family by taking someone away, and they're also destroying their own families."

On Twitter: @Vellastrations

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