10 years after Dawson killings, uneven results in Oliver

The word of the week, "hope," was written on a whiteboard for East Baltimore students — part of an after-school program on the site where an arsonist killed Angela Dawson, her husband and five of their children a decade ago. The children who come to the Dawson Family Safe Haven won't run into trouble like that, organizers say, not if their plan works.

"Standing here now you can hear children laughing and talking," said Pamela V. Carter, a former city councilwoman who runs the programs in the home that was set afire by a drug dealer in retaliation for Dawson's complaints to police. "Out of that tragedy you can hear something positive."

The center is a sign of progress in the Oliver neighborhood, which on Oct. 16, 2002, saw one of the worst acts of witness intimidation in Baltimore history. But echoes of the attack still linger, as Oliver and other sections of the city continue to struggle with the problems of drugs, violence and uneven cooperation with law enforcement.

Memories of the blaze — and suspicions of arson — also are rekindled when the city confronts a deadly fire. Last week, a woman and four children died in a Northeast Baltimore rowhouse fire, and some neighbors worried about the possibility of arson, even though fire investigators said that was not the likely cause.

After the Dawson fire, the city seized on the idea of raising Oliver, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the family's home. The housing department spent more than $1 million to rebuild the structure, and other city agencies sought to combat underlying problems of poverty and substance abuse. Police and prosecutors, meanwhile, vowed to toughen up on people who intimidate witnesses.

But residents continue to struggle in Oliver, a small neighborhood tucked behind Greenmount Cemetery.

Recent U.S. Census estimates show that more than 48 percent of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty line, an increase of five percentage points since 1999. Many others left; the area's population fell by a quarter between 2000 and 2010.

There have been eight homicides in Oliver this year, more than in any year since at least 2007. Even as children studied at the Dawson center, a teddy bear strapped to a lamppost marked the nearby spot where Yarndragus Stanton, 26, was gunned down in July. His killing has not been solved.

In such neighborhoods, police and prosecutors often confront a wall of silence when they investigate crimes.

"Sometimes you'll go to a shooting and [people will] know exactly who shot them but they won't tell us," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

More than anything else, the Dawson killings showed how far Baltimore's drug rings would go to retaliate against someone who interfered with their operations. The Dawsons had called the police or the city 109 times between 2000 and 2002 to report drug activity, according to court filings. Dealers fought back, mounting a campaign of intimidation.

After numerous confrontations, Darrell L. Brooks kicked down the door of the Dawson house, doused the home with gasoline and set it ablaze. Angela Dawson's husband, Carnell Dawson, jumped from the building and died in the hospital a week later. One of Angela Dawson's daughters, Lakeesha Bowell, then 18, was not home the night of the fire and survived, but five other children died in the blaze.

Henry Rogers, who did maintenance work on the house, said the family did not have a chance once Brooks set the home alight. "The fire just caught quick," he said.

Brooks was convicted on federal charges in 2003 and is serving life in prison without possibility of parole.

'Nothing changed'

Wanda Brewer, 52, who operated heavy machinery for Halliburton at Camp Anaconda in Iraq, returned to the neighborhood to look after her ailing grandmother. She looks back bleakly on the last decade.

"Nothing changed," said Brewer, who lives on East Oliver Street. "We just got poorer — a lot of us went to jail."

After returning, she found that she was "more at war here than I was in Iraq."

Still, there is evidence of positive change. Crews are at work renovating some of the neighborhood's vacant houses — there are nearly 1,000. And as he looks down the hill from where the Dawsons lived, Deputy Housing Commissioner Reginald U. Scriber said the streets were never as clean 10 years ago as they are today.

His department spends $270,000 a year to run the Dawson community center and is proud of the investment. The program is intended to help children with their studies while keeping them away from the temptations of the streets.

"The understanding was it's not so much about the cost, but about the message," Scriber said.

Now there's a waiting list for the after-school program, and Carter said that out of the five members who will graduate from high school next year, two are bound for the Air Force and three for college.

Nina Harper, executive director of the Oliver Community Association, can reel off a long list of programs her group has helped start.

"We knew there were a lot of services that were missing in the community, and so what I did with the board of the community association is sought out various grants," she said.

City officials say the attack provided a compelling story as they sought federal and state funding for programs. Two new substance abuse facilities were opened near Oliver after the fire, and one treats 1,500 people a day, said Greg Warren, chief executive of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems.

"As we compete against other cities, other states, fortunately and unfortunately the Dawson story continues to be very helpful for us getting the funding and resources that that community needs," Warren said.

Cracking down

But witness intimidation remains a problem in Baltimore. Soon after the Dawson murders, the notorious "Stop Snitching" DVD, an amateur documentary produced by a Baltimore rapper known as "Skinny Suge," openly glorified witness intimidation.

Prosecutors highlighted the "Stop Snitching" video in pressing for a tougher witness intimidation law; it was passed by the General Assembly in 2005. This year, city prosecutors have brought 11 cases against people accused of intimidating or interfering with witnesses.

The police also adapted their tactics in neighborhoods such as Oliver in years after the fire, recognizing a need for a softer approach in some instances. Police have focused in recent years on tracking violent offenders, shifting from a "zero-tolerance" approach to minor crimes that netted many more arrests but soured relationships in some communities.

"What we did in the early part of the decade is we arrested everybody," Guglielmi said. "That didn't help at all, that as a matter of fact set us backward."

Former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III got officers out of their cars and onto their feet, Guglielmi said. And the department launched social media accounts to explain to communities what police are up to.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office runs a program to relocate and protect witnesses, but Elizabeth Embry, who oversees it, said some people understandably do not want to be torn from their homes to help the government with its cases.

In fact, two weeks before the fatal arson attack on the Dawsons, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window of their home. The family escaped, and police said an offer was made to help relocate them, but the Dawsons turned it down.

Alice McNack, Carnell Dawson's sister, said she wanted to take the children into her home, but her brother thought police could protect the family where they were.

"He trusted the system," McNack said.

This year, the state's attorney's office has assisted 182 families in which someone was either the victim of a crime or witness to one. That puts the office on course to offer more assistance than in any of the past seven years, according to spokesman Mark Cheshire.

Embry said the relationship between police officers responsible for witness protection and their counterparts in the prosecutor's office is now much closer. The officers are based at the courthouse, making it much easier to involve them in cases, she said.

While the program's funding is relatively modest, the office has found ways to cut costs, and it can go over budget.

"We don't turn people away," Embry said. "We spend more money if we have to."

Embry said that while no one in the program has been harmed because of a connection to a crime — a woman was killed last summer, but prosecutors attributed that to a domestic dispute — protection does not ensure that witnesses will overcome their fear of retaliation.

"The fact that they've been relocated is no guarantee of cooperation," Embry said.

Although other cases of intimidation have resulted in federal convictions, witnesses continue to be attacked, including in several high-profile firebombings over the past decade.

The Rev. Marshall Prentice, pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Oliver, said residents have developed ways to report crimes to police without leaving themselves at risk of retaliation — making complaints through a church or a community organization, for example.

"They don't want to be visible and they don't want to be identified," Prentice said. "But they want to do the right thing."


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