Man's death recalls turbulent history of Odell's nightclub

Ronald Watkins was shot on Aug. 17, 1992 the same day that supporters and opponents of Odell's night club were readying to pack a hearing room at City Hall to testify on its request for a "dance hall" permit.

There had been a rash of previous shootings and other crime outside the club, located at North Avenue and Charles Street, angering residents and zoning officials. Watkins' shooting, it would seem, was icing on the cake. But the club's owner, Milton Tillman Jr., and his attorney, Elijah Cummings, argued that he was being made a "scapegoat for the ills of society" and would leave city youth without enterainment options.

Tillman would go on to be convicted and sent to federal prison for trying to bribe one of those zoning board members $30,000 to keep the club open. He went on to open a bail bonds business, 4 Aces, and was sentenced this summer to more than four years in federal prison for convictions on wire fraud and tax evasion charges.

Cummings, who was then a state senator, is now an influential member of Congress.

And Watkins, shot in the back when a gunman shot into a crowd, died this summer at age 35 after he developed internal bleeding as a result of his gunshot injuries from two decades ago. This week, police added his death to the 2011 homicide count. He's victim 186.

The shooting recalls not just Odell's troubled history, but how officials were trying to grapple with crime during one of the most violent years on record in Baltimore. More than 330 people were killed that year as the crack cocaine drug wars exploded, a homicide total exceeded only the next year when 353 people were slain.

Odell's opened in 1976, under owner Odell Brock, and became a popular venue. It's slogan was "You Know if You Belong," and it played everything from classic soul to house music. Patrons danced the night away while up and coming deejays honed their skills. There were rumors that it was owned by the drug kingpin Maurice "Peanut" King, according to a book called Street Legends Vol. 2.

O’Dell’s was known as the baddest club on the strip where all the players, hustlers, ballers, dime pieces, and pimps congregated. “O’Dell’s was like Studio 54, the hood version. It was over on North Avenue between St. Paul and Charles Streets. The line would go around the block. It kicked like that from 1975 to 1985. They had a million dollar sound system. Thursday nights were the nights," the young hustler says. ... Peanut always had a reserved table and women all around him. His crew was deep up in O’Dell’s.

Brock died in 1985, and the club was shut down by the federal government in 1987 after the arrest and conviction of new owner Philip A. Murray for his part in a major West Baltimore heroin ring and laundering money through the club. Tillman took over three years later, and turned it into a private dance club for teen-agers and young adults - operating on Friday and Sunday nights only and without a liquor permit.

Even amid a rash of drive-by shootings, injuring sometimes as many as a half-dozen people at a time, supporters hailed it as a safe alternative for young people. A 16 year old told the zoning board she was at Odell's almost every weekend: "It keeps young black children out of trouble and off the streets."

After being shut down amidst Tillman's bribery case, it reopened again as Gallery 21 East. Today, Odell's sits vacant. Property records list it as a tavern, and say it is still owned by Tillman's 19-21 Inc., which appears to have dissolved years ago. 

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