Denfeld News

July 18, 2009
Duluth News Tribune

Brutal beating led to a hard life
By Christa Lawler

Albert George Morrison played football and basketball at Denfeld High School, earned A’s and B’s, and was on track for college when he was a victim of a brutal beating that left him brain-damaged, his family said.

More than 15 years later, another beating in downtown Duluth left him dead in an alley behind the YMCA, Duluth’s second homicide of the year.

In the years between was a troubled life.

One former friend from Grant Elementary and Washington Junior High — Duluth Mayor Don Ness — talked about Morrison on Saturday.

“We played basketball together,” Ness wrote in an e-mail, “and he’d come over to my house after school and we’d run pass patterns in our alley that we would then run during the daily football game, during lunch recess at Grant.”

“In recent years, I’d see him around and we’d talk,” Ness said. “He would bring up his intent to go back to school and we’d talk about the city. It was good to see Al, but it was tough to see the physical impact that his lifestyle was having on him.

“The kid I knew that had the most fluid stride, a soft jump shot and an easy, shy smile was now homeless and struggling to survive.”

When he was about 19, Morrison — known in his childhood as Al Blacketter — had been beaten and left in an alley while walking to his mother’s home downtown in the winter. He was hospitalized for weeks after the attack, close to death, and suffered brain damage, his aunt Bonita Williams said Saturday. His uncle, Lewis Williams, said the attack caused Morrison’s head to swell to the circumference of a steering wheel.

In the following years, Morrison struggled to focus: His college plans were derailed, he was in and out of alcohol rehabilitation centers, and it was difficult for him to hold onto a job or an apartment.

“He was affected mentally,” Williams said. “This was how he was the rest of his life. He just couldn’t cope, from the head injuries he had then. He had trouble in life because of the accident. … He’s had a hard life.”

Morrison wasn’t breathing late Wednesdsay when he was found in the alley behind the Duluth YMCA on the 300 block of West First St. Police said he probably died of head trauma.

Antonio Lewis and Isaac Johnson are being held on second-degree murder and aggravated robbery charges in connection with the death, which police have labeled a homicide/robbery.

Morrison lived with the family of his aunt and uncle three or four times from late adolescence through high school. Bonita Williams said Morrison was a good student with plans for college, and he talked about going into law enforcement with his cousin, their son, Gaylen Williams, who went on to be a state trooper.

“I saw a massive transformation after [he was beaten] of the person I knew, who sat at my table,” Lewis Williams said. “He changed overnight. I would see that empty stare.”

Morrison was convicted of second-degree assault in 1994 and pleaded guilty to fifth degree assault in 2008, fourth-degree assault of a peace officer in 2008 and minor offenses including urinating and drinking in public and disorderly conduct.

His sister, Laura Morrison, said he struggled with alcohol and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his mid-20s. She said her brother’s most recent plans were to go back to school again.

“My brother was suffering on a daily basis trying to live a normal life,” Morrison said. “He’s in a better place now.”

Bonita Williams said Morrison called weekly from the CHUM Center to let her know he was OK. During a recent phone call, he apologized for any trouble he had given the family.

Ness remembered Morrison as quiet and friendly and a talented athlete.

“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share this,” Ness said, “but in the end, I though providing this glimpse into the person I knew might give proper perspective on what a tragedy this is.”

Morrison was well-known at the CHUM and Damiano Centers, where many people called him an acquaintance, but few knew him well.

“He had some close friends he kept close,” said Justin Brooten, who knew Morrison for years. “He never messed with anybody; he just tried to live his life.”

It was this shyness that has his aunt Bonita Williams puzzled by the events of Wednesday night.

“He never talked to strangers,” Williams said. “I don’t know how these two people got him to go with them. He never spoke to strangers. He never dealt with people outside of his family.”

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