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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Homicide chief replaced as killings remain unsolved

Baltimore police officials have replaced the commander of the homicide unit as two high-profile cases remain unsolved amid a recent spate of violence that saw a killing a day.

Maj. Dennis Smith, asked in April to oversee both homicide and the shooting and robbery units, has been removed from the homicide post, police confirmed. A former homicide commander, Maj. Stanley Brandford, has been pulled from his current assignment running the city's Eastern District and will temporarily oversee the unit again, officials said.

They gave no explanation for the change. But it comes as detectives continue to investigate the killing of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was hit by a stray bullet in Waverly on Aug. 1. Also unsolved is the killing of 20-year-old Devin Cook, a college lacrosse player and Mount Washington resident gunned down July 31 while dropping off a teammate in Park Heights.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, the vice chair of the public safety committee, said he was frustrated that members of the public who have information on the cases are "harboring people who kill children."

"It's unacceptable that adults are allowing people to murder children and nobody's saying anything," Scott said. "It comes to a point where we have to want better for ourselves. Police can't catch these folks if you're keeping your mouth shut.

"You're talking about a 3-year-old baby, and a young man who looked to be someone who could lead and change the way people view Baltimore," he said.

Rhonda Cook, Devin's mother, asked anyone with information to come forward. "My son didn't deserve to die. He had a lot to live for," she said. "It's very important for this case to get closed. I need closure. I want to know why."

Police did not respond to requests for comment seeking updates on the cases.

As with all homicides, the department is offering a reward up to $2,000 through MetroCrime Stoppers for tips that could solve the killings. Anyone with information is asked to call detectives at 410-396-2100 or submit a text message tip by sending "MCS" plus the tip to 274637.

Scott said top officials told his committee Tuesday they had "persons of interest" in both cases and were optimistic.

Days after McKenzie was shot, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts vowed that police would make an arrest by the end of last week.

A person of interest in the case was picked up Friday on an unrelated violation of probation warrant stemming from a prior conviction, but no new charges have been filed. Investigators hoped taking the man off the street would encourage witnesses to come forward with additional information. He is being held without bond on the probation violation warrant.

The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the man because he has not been charged.

"We've been one step behind a person of interest that we've been looking for. … We haven't slowed down; we won't slow down," Batts said before the man turned himself in Friday.

Police have not commented on Cook's case. He was fatally shot, and a lacrosse teammate was wounded, while dropping off teammates after a summer league game. Cook worked at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and was attending Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus. Coaches, educators, co-workers and relatives all described Cook as a leader and role model for others his age.

Since his death, 12 more people, including McKenzie, have been killed. Killings and shootings remain down compared with last year, though the number of homicides is the same as it was at this point in 2012 and 2011. Police say overall crime continues on a downward trend.

The homicide unit's clearance rate has sagged to 43 percent. In the 1980s, the unit regularly solved more than 70 percent of its cases. But in Baltimore and elsewhere, the rate in recent years has been on the decline. As of 2012, the Baltimore unit's rate of about 48 percent was on a par with the national average — 51 percent — for cities its size.

In recent days, police have announced arrests in two recent domestic homicide cases — a man who is accused of fatally stabbed his fiancee in South Baltimore over the weekend, as well as a 43-year-old man accused of fatally stabbing his 73-year-old father in Dolfield.

No arrests have been made in other high-profile cases, including the April killing of standout teen Michael Mayfield and two killings of transgender women that shook the area lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

The Police Department's district detective units, which investigate nonfatal shootings and robberies, recently moved to an "area" concept where teams of detectives investigate cases that occur within geographical areas — the Southwestern, Northwestern and Western districts; the Southern, Central and Southeastern districts; and the Eastern, Northeastern, and Northern Districts.

The agency's strategic plan released last year called for the same structure for investigating homicides, but commanders have said that they have not committed to that change. It would likely place a disproportionate burden on investigators assigned to the west side, which has seen almost half of the homicides this year.

Cook said she last spoke with detectives the day of her son's funeral. She raised Devin and his two brothers as a single mother, and said she made sure they were always involved in positive activities.

"I raised my son to be very respectful. He had a big smile, a big heart," Cook said. "This is something that I will never get over. But someone coming forward, it will really help."

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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