Life Sentence: The Brief and Tragic Career of Baltimore’s Deadliest Gang Leader by Mark Bowden

Described by the city’s police commissioner as “Baltimore’s number one trigger puller,” Montana Barronette was in his early 20s, a young man in the richest country on earth. He was also a drug dealer and murderer, raised in poverty in an area riddled with issues so long-standing they reached back to the roots of his family tree. From 2014 until his arrest in 2016, Barronette was the leader of Trained to Go, TTG for short, and surrounded by childhood friends, teenagers who embraced an existence in which violence was not only accepted but celebrated as a lifestyle.

Mark Bowden’s new book, Life Sentence, chronicles Barronette’s rise and inevitable fall and tries to understand why a young life comes to be lived in such a way in modern America.

Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, Guests of the Ayatollah, and plenty more, is well placed to tell the story. Not only is he a well-established writer of narrative nonfiction but he was raised in the suburbs of Baltimore—10 miles from the district of Sandtown, TTG’s patch, and a world away. Baltimore was Bowden’s city when he was a young journalist, but the newspaper largely ignored the Black half of the population. A separated world; close, but distant.

Life Sentence chronicles the rise and inevitable fall of “Baltimore’s number one trigger puller,” and tries to understand why a young life comes to be lived in such a way in modern America.

The issue of racism burns through every part of this book—in policing, media coverage, political disinterest. Familiar and depressing. Bowden excels in relentlessness, illustrating the constructed divides. Sandtown, with the highest incarceration rates in the state, had an almost inevitable divide between community and police. Us versus them. HBO’s The Wire made Baltimore globally infamous for this sort of gang violence; Life Sentence drives home the point that it’s part of something much wider.

Bowden’s proximity, largely untouched by the troubles that plagued every aspect of Sandtown residents’ lives, serves, perhaps, as an example of how society manufactures and curates the opportunities it hands out to each of us. People funneled down pathways with no easy exits. Being born into a culture decades, centuries, in the making, having it drummed into them every day, makes the pull strong.

The streets of Baltimore, made globally infamous by The Wire.

Still, most can resist. Bowden seeks to offer explanations, not excuses. Sympathy for Barronette would obviously be misplaced—his path was lit well enough to see what he was walking into, and he went with relish—but environment is clearly formative. After he was arrested at the age of nine for stealing a car, Barronette’s weakness to the pull seemed set.

Corners are worked, drugs are sold, money rolls in, status rises, and, to fuel it all, blood is spilled. Barronette is, more than anything, a serial killer. The police approach changes, seeking RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charges, originally intended for Mafia families, to bring the gang down. Life Sentence goes deep, putting the microscope on the investigation, the evidence-gathering, and the informants involved. Wiretaps provide real-time, firsthand commentary of killers hunting victims, a sense of being there accurate enough to be unsettling.

The Wire made Baltimore globally infamous for this sort of gang violence; Life Sentence drives home the point that it’s part of something much wider.

Authenticity is, with TTG as with this book, the watchword. Members appear in drill videos on YouTube, their gang-affiliated rapper bragging about their kills. They are hungry for celebrity, to gain standing, respect, and it comes not from throwing cash around but from proving how close to death they live. Money matters, but credibility is king.

Social media provides a toxic fandom, celebrating and encouraging more violence, cheering for ever greater extremes. Reputations made and maintained amid the endemic fakery of the online world. A place of vast human interaction and very little human contact, where consequence beyond profile-boosting doesn’t register.

It’s another of modern society’s false promises, the absolute freedom of social media dangled before us while the algorithm works silently in the background, stuffing each of us into our pigeonhole. A generation raised with the broadest, shallowest platform on which to seek validation. A fitting stage for gang culture. It feeds the ongoing gamification of humanity, TTG as protagonists and everyone else a disposable NPC in their world.

A memorial, around the corner from the Baltimore police station where the 25-year-old Freddie Gray was taken after being arrested in 2015. Gray was found dead in a police van 45 minutes later.

There are fine lines to be walked in any book of this sort, foremost being to avoid turning a community’s misery into entertainment. Focusing on the single case of Montana Barronette allows Life Sentence to move at pace without sacrificing depth. Bowden understands how to build readability around the issues that matter, rather than instead of them.

Some lines are harder to walk. Barronette is often referred to as smart, charismatic, but in wiretaps and interview transcripts he comes across as arrogant, naïve, instinctively vicious. Honest cops are shown doing brave and difficult work, but, coming on the heels of references to the corruption, racism, and thuggery of some of their colleagues, lionization is a hard sell. Of course there are good cops, but the bad cast long shadows.

Hope is an easily smothered thing. Other gangs rushed to fill the vacuum left by the TTG arrests, so violent deaths in Baltimore didn’t go down, and in Sandtown they went up. Some that followed were themselves targeted, brought down, but where demand for drugs and easy access to guns remains, outcomes don’t change. As one dealer puts it to Bowden in a text message, “People do shitt [sic] for money and drugs so as long as they are around killing will always be in the mix …”

Life Sentence is a deftly written examination of how Montana Barronette came to be, and then came to be caught, a stark reminder that lasting change is dependent on long-term political commitment. Hardly a reason for optimism.

Malcolm Mackay is the author of eight crime novels with a focus on organized crime, including the award-winning Glasgow Trilogy