Shyam Adhikari thought he was going to die outside his home on the morning of May 8, 2021.
His neighbor was in the middle of a shootout, and as Adhikari knelt in the grass next to his injured friend, the gun was trained on him.
Adhikari was shot in the right leg before the police arrived and shot and killed his neighbour: Everton Brown, 56.
The shooting at Woodlawn killed three other people and left Adhikari with lasting injuries. Even as the first anniversary of the incident approaches, Adhikari said he struggled to stand unaided and could not walk for more than 30 minutes at a stretch.
The incident has raised painful questions about the policies in place in Maryland to help those experiencing mental health crises. Brown had extensive contact with law enforcement during his years at Woodlawn. He called the police more than 120 times to complain about being watched by the federal government, to report altercations with his neighbors, to claim that items had been stolen from his home.
The Baltimore County Mobile Crisis Team has stopped by Brown’s home more than once for wellness checks, and at least one neighbor has filed a peace order against him. But none of this was enough to prevent the tragedy.
Adhikari spoke last week in favor of a bill before the Maryland General Assembly that would convene a task force to reassess Maryland’s extreme-hazard weapons law, including representatives from relevant agencies, law enforcement and health professionals.
The existing law, which took effect in 2018, allows officials to remove firearms from those deemed to pose an immediate risk to themselves or others for up to one year at a time. Family members, cohabitants, medical professionals and law enforcement officials can ask the court to initiate proceedings. The law, commonly known as Maryland’s “Red Flag” law, was one of the most widely used in the country just a few years after it was passed.
This year’s bill, sponsored by Del. Harry Bhandari of Baltimore County, is named after Sagar Ghimire, Adhikari’s friend who died that day. A couple, Ismael Quintanilla and Sara Alacote, were also killed. Ghimire, a 24-year-old Nepalese, had just graduated from Claflin University in South Carolina and moved to the Parkview Crossing townhouse complex in Woodlawn when the shooting happened.
“His family must have wondered why – if the clues were there – no action was taken, which could have prevented this incident,” Bhandari said. “This bill would take a step towards that answer.”
The bill is supported by Baltimore County Executive Office Johnny Olszewski, Jr. and Ghimire’s family in Nepal. At last week’s hearing, a representative read a letter from the family.
“May the government and administration be inspired to be aware and take further corrective action to mitigate brutal violence like that which my son and many sons of innocent parents have faced,” it read.
The bill will need to pass the plenum by Monday, but remains in committee, so it has a steep hill to climb. But Bhandari said he plans to continue pushing for the measure in future legislative sessions if necessary.
“This is a complicated case touching on many critical issues, and I understood from the start that there would be no easy solution,” he said in a statement. “While I hope my colleagues will help me pass HB1344 this year, I am ready to take advantage of another year to prepare an even stronger bill.”
Adhikari was the first in his house to wake up that May morning when an explosion rocked Brown’s neighboring house.
When he saw flames engulfing his neighbor’s house, Adhikari woke up his housemates and helped them evacuate. Ghimire attempted to retrieve the two international students’ very important travel documents from their home, but could not find Adhikari’s. So Adhikari entered himself to retrieve them, leaving Ghimire in the parking lot.
When he returned, Adhikari saw Ghimire lying on the ground and rushed to his side.
“I thought he just passed out because I hadn’t heard any gunshots until then,” Adhikari said. “And I just pulled his body and brought him to the grassy part and just kept his head on my lap, and I just said, ‘Wake up, Sagar. To wake up.’ “
Suddenly, Brown approached the couple, gun in hand.
“At the time, I couldn’t do anything else,” Adhikari said. “I thought: this is the end of my life. And I just closed my eyes, and he fired the gun.
When the police approached, Brown fled. Four officers shot Brown and killed him.
Recovering from his leg injury has been difficult, Adhikari told lawmakers during the hearing.
“It’s already been eight, nine months, and I’m still in bed,” Adhikari said.
He and Ghimire first met in 2013 while attending high school in Kathmandu. They moved to the Baltimore area together in hopes of applying to local graduate schools. But the shoot changed everything.
Now Adhikari lives in Fairfield, Ohio with his wife, who is helping him recover from his injury. Adhikari said he did not have health insurance and therefore could not afford the physical therapy recommended by his doctors. But he is doing what he can to strengthen his leg from home and says it has started to improve.
In the early years, the evaluation of Maryland’s “red flag” law – which aims to prevent tragedies like the one that occurred in Woodlawn – was made more difficult by confidentiality provisions, which protected some of the data from the public view, said Shannon Frattaroli, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the measure.
Last year, the Maryland General Assembly updated the law to allow for more data sharing between courts and researchers, Frattaroli said. His team at Hopkins is just beginning to assess additional data on extreme risk protection orders, including more information on who most often requests the protection orders and whether they are most often used to protect against self-harm or harm to others.
“I really appreciate the attention of [Del. Harry Bhandari] on the need to have a working group,” she said. “But any group that does that needs to have those data-informed recommendations. And this became possible less than a year ago. And the process of processing this data takes time.
That being said, there are talks about changing the law, perhaps to make it easier for medical professionals and other eligible groups to go to court by allowing virtual testimony, Frattaroli said.
In Brown’s case, it was often the neighbors who reported his behavior; they are not eligible to file for an extreme risk protection order under Maryland law.
“During the legislative process, there was some movement to try to extend the protection order petitioners,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, who helped craft the Maryland law. and train the police to use it. “But there was a real concern about neighbors – someone who didn’t even know a person – getting one of these ERPOs.”
Several of Brown’s interactions with Baltimore County Mobile crisis teammade up of specially trained plainclothes police and mental health professionals, happened before the ‘red flag’ law was even in effect.
In November 2015, the team responded to his home after he had filed several complaints with county officials that the FBI was harassing him and had stolen his tooth, according to a police report.
When officers arrived at his home, which had large signs and security cameras in the front yard and tarps covering his front door, Brown answered the door wielding a video camera and asked officers to investigate the theft of his tooth. He initially refused to answer a question asking if he was planning on harming himself, but eventually said no before hurling a racial slur at one of the officers, who was already trying to leave.
The team found him “very delusional but very aware of dates and times”, according to the report.
Maryland’s extreme-risk firearms law is deliberately specific, Popkin said. The person must demonstrate that they pose an imminent danger to the community, perhaps by threatening to use a firearm against themselves or others. While peace orders can be obtained to settle disputes between individuals, taking someone’s guns away must meet a higher threshold, Popkin said. The same goes for taking someone for an emergency assessment at the hospital.
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Mandating that someone who receives an extreme risk protection order also receive a mental health assessment would also be a risky proposition, Frattaroli said.
“We risk stigmatizing people with mental illness when we draw too clear a line between mental illness and violence,” she said. “The ERPO laws were written very clearly to focus on dangerous behaviors – not diagnoses of mental illness.”
Popkin said he believes Maryland’s law is working, with hundreds of orders granted each year, but he would welcome any opportunity to reevaluate the state’s law.
“Whenever you bring together a group of people — especially with the list of members who would make up that working group — only potential good things can happen,” he said.