Police believe a long-running dispute between drug organizations contributed to an unprecedented eruption of violence on Baltimore's east side Sunday night that left at least 18 people shot, including two who died.
Twelve of the victims were struck at a backyard cookout that left a pregnant woman and a 2-year-old child injured, an incident that police say prompted a running gun battle between two vehicles three hours later.
Mayor Sheila Dixon called the shootings a "cowardly act" and implored the community to come forward with tips, as police directed dozens of additional officers into the eastern and southeastern districts.
"It's important from my perspective that people come forth - if not, they're going to see this happen even more, because whatever is happening is not going to stop," Dixon said at a news conference at City Hall.
Among those injured at the cookout was Steven Blackwell Jr., 25, whose younger brothers were abducted in April 2008 in what police said was part of an escalating rivalry between drug organizations. Police sources later that year told The Baltimore Sun that the abductions might have led to as many as five retaliatory homicides over three months last summer, and police vowed to crack down on the organization
Sunday's picnic, held in adjoining backyards in the 2600 block of Ashland Ave., was held in memory of Donell Rogers, and another man, Quinton Hogan, both of whom were fatally shot a year ago and who police say were connected to Blackwell. Thirty or more people, many of them women and children, converged on the home of Lakeisha Hill, Rogers' sister.
A DJ set up turntables in the dining room. Steak, burgers and chicken sizzled on the grill. Kids played with green and yellow helium-filled balloons.
But about 9 p.m., at least one gunman appeared and began spraying bullets from a semiautomatic weapon, turning the festive scene into a battle zone. Police believe the attack might have been an attempted hit on Blackwell, who was shot in the forearm.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the shooting was "calculated" and "premeditated" and acknowledged the connection to prior violence and warring groups, though he did not go into specifics. He said police have to step up their efforts to target violent offenders.
Sunday's violence in East Baltimore continued over the next five hours and into Monday morning. About 10:15 p.m., Darvin Jones, 19, and Gary Martin, 18, were killed in a shootout in the Baltimore Highlands.
An hour later, a pizza delivery driver was shot in the leg during an attempted armed robbery on Harford Road near Lake Clifton. Police do not believe either of the incidents was connected to the cookout shootings.
Near midnight, a 23-year-old man was shot during a running gun battle between two vehicles near East Baltimore and Bond streets. Bealefeld said that shooting is believed to be connected to the cookout shooting and that there may be a second victim. A white Lexus, riddled with bullet holes and carrying the victim, pulled up to the Johns Hopkins emergency room.
And shortly before 2 a.m. Monday, a 17-year-old and 20-year-old were shot in the 200 block of Aisquith St.
The Blackwell family and its associates have had repeated encounters with police. Steven Blackwell Sr. has been in federal prison in Pennsylvania since January 2006, serving a 10-year sentence after police recovered 130 grams of raw heroin, $25,000 in cash and a handgun from his residence.
In April 2008, two of his sons, Stephon and Sterling Blackwell, then 16 and 15 respectively, were among 10 people bound, gagged and held at gunpoint at a Catonsville home for eight hours. Six masked gunmen kidnapped the brothers and, as they were leaving the house, fired shots at Steven Blackwell Jr. as he arrived. Several local and state law enforcement agencies assisted the Baltimore County police in the search for the boys. Two days later, Steven Blackwell Jr. regained custody of his brothers. The boys told authorities little about their ordeal.
Attorney Warren A. Brown worked through an intermediary to negotiate their release. He said Monday that police had few leads at that time and "were just waiting for there to be some type of reaction." No one was ever charged.
Over the next several months, three people police believe were connected to the kidnapping were slain in shootings that authorities said might have been part of a continuing feud between associates of the Blackwells and the Rich family, which is based on the city's west side. Dixon said Monday that police were doing all that they could and that the ability of government and police to intervene in such feuds is limited.
Still, Bealefeld was critical of the Police Department's intelligence gathering and also of a federal investigation of the group that has not produced any significant arrests. Asked whether the investigation had stalled, Bealefeld vowed to "do everything we can to speed those efforts along and to put these guys out of business just as expeditiously as possible."
"Standing on the scene of 12 people shot last night, I can safely speak for the top levels of command in the Police Department [that] we are concerned about the pace and progress of some of these investigations," Bealefeld said.
An FBI spokeswoman in Baltimore said she can't comment on specific investigations.
On Monday, those who were at the Ashland Avenue picnic detailed how the party turned into pandemonium.
Shershallan Bond-Brooks, 37, who is a cousin to hostess Lakeisha Hill, was out front when he heard what sounded like firecrackers. He quickly realized it was gunfire - two guns, he thought. After a few short seconds, the noise ended. His first impulse, he recalled, was to get to his 5-year-old twins and 8-year-old stepson.
"I tried to run and get in the house," he said, "but the tidal wave of people coming through the door pushed me back. I had to stand on the side and let them go. I couldn't get in." He remembers shouting: "Where are my kids, where are my kids?"
Meanwhile, people who had been in the backyard raced down an alley and streamed onto Ashland from both directions.
By then Annette Young, who lives next door to Hill and Bond-Brooks, was huddled inside her home. She had been sitting on her front porch with her two infant grandchildren when the shooting began.
"We went in the house and shut the door," said Young, 46. "And that's where we stayed."
Two of the wounded made it to the sidewalk, another pair to Bond-Brooks' front steps, someone else to his porch. Then police cars swarmed the block, followed by a fire engine and ambulances.
Bond-Brooks managed to get inside his home. He found two of his children hiding upstairs; the third had been escorted out front. All were unhurt. But a 2-year-old girl who had been shot in the arm lay bleeding on the living room sofa.
Out back, three women ended up lying in the alley, said Annette Young's sister, Nicole Williams. Among them was a pregnant woman who'd told Bond-Brooks earlier that she was "due any day." She was hit three times, Williams said. Doctors induced labor and she had a healthy birth.
Hill, the hostess, was shot too - in the back. Bond-Brooks said doctors told the family Monday that she is in fair condition.
Bond-Brooks said he had no idea who might have shot up the picnic, in part because police officers took him to the Eastern District lockup for the night. He said he did not know Blackwell had been there until he heard about it later, and said the episode has left him shaken and afraid.
"I don't know how they look, I don't know who they are," he said of the shooters. "And that heightens the anxiety of, like, why are we going through this?"
He spoke dismayingly of the cycle of violence: "This type of stuff is repetitive. It doesn't stop. It constantly keeps going to one extreme to the next."
Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Hermann, Annie Linskey and Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.