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Killings in Pigtown prompt community anger, complaints of inaction

For a man who was only 21 years old, Rasheed Abdullah seems to have made a lot of people angry. Police called him a drug dealer and neighbors in Pigtown wanted to throw him out, and in the last three years alone he was arrested at least 16 times.

On Sunday morning, someone shot him in the head and killed him.

Abdullah's was the second fatal shooting in the neighborhood in a little more than two weeks. On July 1, James Lofton, who was also 21, was gunned down on the 1100 block of S. Carey St., a few doors from Abdullah's home, and Baltimore police are looking into whether the two killings were related.

Pigtown leaders, who admit to struggling to improve the area's image as blighted and ridden with crime, complain that police, prosecutors and judges have not done enough to rid their streets of people immersed in the drug trade.

"Both so-called murdered victims have the same story — long records of arrest, long records of not being prosecuted and long records of not being incarcerated," said Dan Cosgrove, president of the Washington Village Development Association. "Too many people in positions of power and influence in the city believe drug dealers are victims of society — lack of education, employment, etc. They argue against incarceration and make statements like, 'We can't arrest our way out of the problem.' "

Members of the community in Southwest Baltimore plan to hold a meeting Wednesday evening at St. Mark's United Church of Christ in Morrell Park to discuss the killings. In addition to Abdullah and Lofton, four other men have been killed in the Pigtown neighborhood or its periphery since the beginning of the year. Two were shot and one stabbed, and another died of blunt-force trauma.

Anthony Guglielmi, a city police spokesman, said detectives are investigating whether the killings of Abdullah and Lofton were acts of retaliation for an "incident of violence" in Pigtown last year, although he could not provide details.

"We're poking that theory pretty hard," Guglielmi said.

The spokesman said the department has assigned a team of detectives to examine the two slayings. "We've done some things to try to quell that violence," he said. "It's a complex problem to solve, and what we're focused on now is to try to prevent any further retaliatory violence in relation to these two killings."

Abdullah had two prior convictions, one for drug possession, another for drug distribution. But many of his arrests did not end with convictions, with charges connected to drugs and assault either dropped, put on the inactive docket or ending with not guilty findings.

In 2009, police said, they raided Abdullah's home on Carey Street and, according to a report, seized two handguns and drug paraphernalia. Prosecutors dropped those charges as well. A spokesman for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said he would not comment because they were handled by the prosecutor's predecessor.

Mark Cheshire, the spokesman, said the state's attorney's office had "designated this guy as a repeat offender to watch based on his many contacts with the criminal justice system." He said that on June 28, prosecutors added a felony charge of distribution of heroin to an existing misdemeanor drug offense. That case had been scheduled for Wednesday.

"We share the community's determination to make their neighborhood safer for everybody," Cheshire said. "That's not just empty rhetoric."

Lofton also had a lengthy arrest record, and was scheduled for trial on July 28 on 12 separate drug counts. He has been convicted twice since 2009 on drug distribution charges. Reached at home on Tuesday, a relative declined to comment.

Abdullah's family could not be reached, but the attorney who represented him in charges that stemmed from the raid two years ago provided a letter that the suspect's mother wrote to the court. She told the judge that her son did not live with her and she could not understand why police had raided her house. She said the two guns found belonged to her and were registered.

"That's why I couldn't understand why [the police] want to attack people who are doing the right thing and I know in my heart he was doing the correct thing because I helped him get there," wrote the mother, La Shaun Scott.

John Lam, the 31-year-old president of Pigtown Main Street, said Pigtown is "constantly fighting" against a negative image.

"Whenever something like this happens, it immediately sets us back," said Lam, a creative consultant in the advertising industry. "It's especially infuriating when we see the victims of these murders are drug dealers that have been arrested over and over again and let out barely with a slap of the wrists."

He said it just "demoralizes those that are here that try so hard to make Pigtown a better place."

Beth Hawks, who lives near the B&O Railroad Museum and owns the Zelda Zen gift store in Federal Hill, said she was "sick and tired of people's blase attitude that, 'It's Pigtown, what do you expect?'"

"Pigtown is not 'The Wire,'" she said. "It is our neighborhood and wonderful people live there, but one after another they are ready to throw in the towel, take a huge loss on their investment of their homes and flee for their safety."

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