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City police arrest teen in slaying of church caretaker

A teenager was charged Thursday with fatally shooting a 70-year-old church caretaker during a struggle last year over a scooter, a crime that drew outrage not only among the victim's friends and family but from a city reeling from eight killings in a single week.

The suspect, 18-year-old James Jeffrey Johnson, lives five blocks from the rented rowhouse of the victim, Milton Hill, who was shot in an alley behind his home on East North Avenue, next to the Ark Church where he volunteered as a custodian.

Johnson was charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and assault, and ordered held without bail.

Hill was killed five days after Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn was fatally stabbed while walking to his home in Charles Village, a slaying that left residents seething over the violent criminal records of the suspects and attracted the attention of the city's political and community leaders.

The two slayings occurred 16 blocks apart but in contrasting neighborhoods— mostly middle-class Charles Village and impoverished, crime-ridden Oliver. Pitcairn was white; Hill was black.

Mourners from a cross-section of the city packed sidewalk vigils for both victims, a diverse outpouring of grief and anger.

"We all came together, across geographic lines," said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who helped organize vigils for both victims. "Fresh off the Pitcairn killing, emotions were running raw. People were angry and upset, and felt they had to take a stand, and they weren't just people who lived south of North Avenue and east of Charles Street.

"We had a white graduate student in Charles Village walking to his apartment, killed for no reason," Stokes said. "And on the heels of that, we had a 70-year-old, well-respected citizen who out of his own goodness was a caretaker of his own church. That's two outrageous killings in a row."

J.L. Carter, who has been pastor at Ark Church for 24 years, said the mayor had assured him "that the Police Department would work until a person was caught" in Hill's slaying. "The fearless are becoming immune," he said. "That's a sad state to be in."

A neighbor found Hill's body on the morning of July 30 last year, lying face down against a chain-link fence in a narrow alley in back of his home. His hat was on a sidewalk nearby, and a brass shell casing was found near his feet.

The green motorized scooter his daughter had given Hill for Christmas, and which he had used to drive around the neighborhood, was missing.

Police charging documents filed in court on Thursday reveal for the first time that Hill had been attacked the night before he was found, just after he came home and while he was securing his $1,500 scooter in his backyard. Police at first said up to three people attacked Hill, but later said only one suspect was involved.

The court documents say that the frail Hill fought back against the suspect, who was 17 at the time, and stood 6 feet 1 inches tall and weighed 240 pounds. Police said Hill was shot twice in the upper body and left to die in the alley.

An anonymous phone call led authorities to Hill's scooter three days later, recovered from the backyard of a house in the 1400 block of Bethel St., three blocks from where the suspect lives in the 1500 block of N. Caroline St.

Police would not say how Johnson became a suspect. Homicide detectives interviewed him on Oct. 19, 2010, three months after the killing. Court documents say that he admitted to being at the scene with two other people but denied shooting Hill.

Detectives said in the charging documents that they released Johnson after that interview and took him back into custody Wednesday after gathering additional evidence. Police declined to describe the new evidence but said in the court papers that the suspect "confessed to shooting the victim Milton Hill."

Johnson's parents could not be reached for comment Thursday; no one was home at the house listed as his address, and no lawyer is listed in court documents.

Hill's relatives also could not be reached. His two daughters visited his North Avenue home two days after the killing and went through their father's belongings. They described their father as an active man who loved yardwork and collecting Motown records.

On Thursday, both Stokes and Carter, the church pastor, said the city has come up with the money for a new playground in the neighborhood where Hill was killed, and construction should begin this spring.

"It's important for our city officials and the faith community to forge a relationship," Carter said. "We're in a community where playgrounds are barren, a community where rec centers are being closed, which deter some of what is going on."

On Thursday, Edie Adams stood in her flower shop, two doors from where Hill lived, and recalled him stopping by to buy green plants to hang in his home. She talked about his smile, how he said hello every morning, how he watched to make sure she was safe.

"I'm going to miss him," she said.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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