The crowd of more that 80 people that packed a Belair Road bar for an extended happy hour featuring $2 drinks did not deter a gunman who, police said, got by a bouncer, pushed through the patrons and found his target sitting in a secluded spot in the back.
Derrick Deon Smith was shot several times in the head and body early Wednesday morning, and collapsed between the bar and breezeway, police said. The 33-year-old was the seventh person killed in Baltimore by gunfire since Friday night — the deadliest stretch this year. The city's homicide count now stands at 55, one more than at this time last year.
The recent killings include a man shot Friday while eating crabs in West Baltimore, and two men shot on consecutive days in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. Four people have been killed in that community this year, and the police department's Eastern District leads the city in homicides with 13.
Authorities have made no arrests in the recent spate of killings and offered no motives. Most do not appear linked, but police said they are looking into the shootings in Oliver to determine if there is a common theme.
Baltimore recorded 196 homicides last year, the fewest since 1979. But April was the deadliest month, with 26 slayings.
Wednesday's killing at La'Son's Bar and Grill stands out — for the brazen nature of the attack and because it raises new concerns about a bar with a history of problems in Belair-Edison. The once-stable community along Belair Road has been prone to violence in past years.
The neighborhood has made a comeback, and some residents fear that progress could be threatened by the shooting at La'Son's, the first area killing of 2012. Community leaders who five years ago unsuccessfully fought expansion of the bar in the 3200 block of Belair Road now complain that it has become more of a nightclub than a neighborhood tavern.
City Councilman Warren Branch, who represents communities in Northeast Baltimore, said he plans a series of meetings with police and residents "to assess what our next move is going to be. I'm very much concerned about what happened."
Branch said he would reserve judgment on whether to ask the police commissioner to initiate padlock proceedings against La'Son's, a maneuver that has been used to close bars where there are frequent incidents of crime. Typically, police work out a security agreement with a troublesome bar rather than shut it down.
Anthony Dawson, a past president of the Belair-Edison Community Association, said he drove by La'Son's at a minute past 1 a.m. Wednesday and called 911 as he watched people run outside. He thought the rush had been triggered by a fistfight.
"They were running up the street and down the street," said Dawson, a retired commander for the department of corrections. He said he opposed the bar owner's bid to obtain a live entertainment license several years ago, "because of their past history."
Dawson acknowledged that the bar has sponsored a neighborhood softball team and has worked with community leaders. "The manager has tried to be supportive," he said. "He's trying to little things, but I told him, 'You have to change your clientele. If you don't do that, nothing is gong to change.'"
La'Son's manager, Brian Lason King, emerged from the bar on Wednesday but declined to comment on the slaying, or on other aspects of his business.
"I don't care to talk about that," King said, as another worker could be seen sweeping inside. "Come here when I throw a party for Easter Sunday, or a block party for the kids."
The manager went back inside the then-closed establishment, which is located between a pizzeria and a grocery. Etched on the front door is a sign promoting live entertainment, bands and open microphone nights.
Stephan Fogleman, the city liquor board chairman, said La'Son's has permission to use its second-floor but does not have a live entertainment license — even though the bar promotes bands and disc jockeys in its ads. The holder of the bar's liquor license is Marlene R. King, records show.
Liquor board records detail a strained relationship between the bar and its neighbors, including fines of serving alcohol to underage, undercover police cadets. The last citation came in 2010 when an underage police cadet was served alcohol; the bar owner paid a $500 fine.
Records also show a citation in 2007 for "inappropriate live entertainment."
That same year, several community groups and a state senator voiced objections to a bid for La'Son's to use its second floor. But the owner got permission to expand as part of an agreement with community leaders that required them to hire a business advisor, redo the exterior, add outside lighting, hire a security guard, and hold a "meet and greet" session with residents.
The fatal shooting Wednesday, said Michael Hilliard, director of community services for an umbrella neighborhood group, "is exactly what Belair-Edison was afraid of five years ago."
Hilliard, who works for Harbel, which oversees 27 community associations in Northeast Baltimore, said that too frequently bars located on city streets grow into nightclubs.
"A club-like venue will work in a light industrial park or shopping center," said Hilliard, who retired as a city police major in 2003. "But when you put it in the middle of a residential area with no off-street parking, it's a nightmare."
He said that what has happened to La'Son's, which advertises entertainment and college nights with cheap drink specials. Hilliard said the bar has been quiet in recent months, with the most common complaints being trash and loitering.
Baltimore Police Maj. Darryl DeSousa, the commander of the Northeast District, said that last year police went to the bar nine times for calls that included fights and a stabbing between two patrons who knew each other. He said one drug-related call was unfounded.
But DeSousa said the bar's owner has made improvements, including replacing the exterior with glass to allow police and anyone else to see inside as they pass by. There also are several surveillance cameras inside, he said.
"They have made improvements," DeSousa said. "They normally have a bouncer out there. We're working with the community to help the owners clean it up."
He said that once a motive is determined for Smith's slaying, he'll have a better way to deploy officers. Until then, the major said, "we will continue our heavy deployment."
Police have not made any arrests in Wednesday's shooting, which occurred minutes before 1 a.m. Police said the gunman walked in and went immediately to Smith.
The shooting occurred at the back of the bar, near a breezeway that police said was used by patrons to smoke. It's not clear how the gunman escaped, and whether he went out the front or could exit from the back.
Smith's relatives could not be reached on Wednesday. His last known address was in the 3500 block of Chesterfield Ave., also in Belair-Edison. He had an extensive criminal record, and at the time of his death had been free on bail, with a drug distribution trial scheduled to start in May.
Two years ago, Smith pleaded guilty to selling drugs and was sentenced to seven months in prison. In 2001, city prosecutors dropped a first-degree murder charge, but he pleaded guilty to handgun possession and served eight months in prison.
Prosecutors could not say why the charge was dropped 11 years ago. Police had charged him with killing Kevin Archer, 27, on North Wolfe Street in April 2000.
Baltimore killings since Friday
Brandon Simms, 23, shot while eating crabs in the 400 Watty Court, in West Baltimore.
Clarence Nicholson, 31, shot about 11:15 a.m. in 2000 block of Rayner Ave. in West Baltimore
Phillip Scott, 34, shot about 8:30 p.m. in 1900 block of Etting St. in West Baltimore
Ricardo Mabray, 27, shot about 9:10 p.m. in 1300 block of Aisquith St., in East Baltimore.
A 34-year-old man shot about 9:40 p.m. in the 4700 block of Liberty Heights Ave. in Northwest Baltimore. Police withheld his name pending notification of relatives.
Marvin Lee Buckson, 29, shot about 11:15 p.m. in 1700 block of North Spring St. in East Baltimore.
Derrick Deon Smith, 33, shot about 1 a.m. inside La'Son's Bar and Grill in the 3200 block of Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore.
Source: Baltimore Police Department