Attacks on elderly women, carjackings and muggings raise fears among residents, shopkeepers

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
'Done with Baltimore,' some say after recent crimes, even as others vow to stay and fight for their city.

Baba L'Salaam, a 69-year-old artist and musician, lives in a senior community downtown but is often out and about, doing music and storytelling gigs or volunteer work. He never felt in particular danger in the city.

But last month, while leaving a pub in Station North, he was jumped and robbed, and now is wary of returning to his old haunts.

"I've never seen it like this before," L'Salaam said.

After one of the deadliest years in Baltimore's history, violent crime is up this year. And in recent weeks, L'Salaam and other Baltimoreans have seen a spate of particularly frightening crimes that have risen above the usual drumbeat of daily crime in the city.

In Northwest Baltimore last month, one elderly woman was attacked and later died, and another was raped. In North Baltimore, a Memorial Day drive-by shooting left five people injured. Police have warned residents about "bump-and-rob" carjackings in which perpetrators stage fender benders. And on Friday, a teenager was robbed as he stopped by Frederick Douglass High School to pick up his cap and gown.

"You're minding your own business," L'Salaam said, "but it's not like you can shield yourself from it."

Crime in Baltimore is nothing new, of course, nor are the fears and frustrations over it. But the latest statistics are grim.

The per-capita homicide rate is nearly keeping pace with last year's record. After the rioting that followed the police-custody death of Freddie Gray last April, violence surged and the city had 121 homicides through early June. As of Friday, the city has recorded 111 homicides this year.

Other crimes are up as well: Compared to last year, shootings, street robberies and carjackings have increased, by 11 percent, 32 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

"Our system is so broken," Lauren Chasan, a Bolton Hill resident, wrote to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis in April after she was choked and knocked unconscious by two teenagers. "Is it possible that Baltimore is hopeless?"

On Monday, a brother and sister arrested in connection with her mugging go on trial.

Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake canvassed the Park Heights neighborhood this week and held a meeting with residents that ran well into the night as residents expressed concerns and fears about crime.

Both have asked that residents continue collaborating with police to help solve crimes, and called on prosecutors, judges and others in the criminal justice system to keep violent repeat offenders behind bars. Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that "a lot of work" remains to address a complex and long-entrenched problem.

"Baltimore has a tragic history of high violence," she said. "We have a culture of violence that is accepted in some quarters."

'We're outraged'

Dorothy Brown has lived in her Central Park Heights rowhouse for decades. She has been alone since her kids, now middle-age, moved out. But ever since her neighbor a few doors down, Mary Helen Dickson-Hines, 90, was attacked last month in a home invasion and later died, Brown's friend, Donna Crichlow, has spent the night with her.

"It scared us," said Brown, 69, a retired assisted-living and day care worker. "Scared everybody around here.

"We're outraged. And we want something done about it," she said.

But as she sat on the front porch with Crichlow, 65, on a recent morning near a blooming pink rose bush she planted six years ago, Brown vowed to stand her ground.

"I'm not going nowhere," she said.

Still, she is frustrated by what she sees as a system that continually releases criminals back onto the street.

"They catch 'em, they put 'em in, they let 'em out, and then they come right back out and do the same thing," she said.

It's a frustration that Davis expressed this week, when he called on judges to keep repeat violent offenders behind bars — something that remains necessary, he notes, amid "a national conversation" about ways to reduce incarceration.

Maryland's General Assembly passed a sweeping criminal justice reform measure this past session that will lift some mandatory minimum sentences, and in the case of low-level drug offenders, shift them toward treatment. Davis and Rawlings-Blake said this can happen even as more violent criminals are treated more harshly.

"There are people who harm others in our neighborhoods, who commit violent crimes," Davis said. "Jails are built for those people."

Davis said he found reason to be optimistic despite the range of emotions — "anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, dissatisfaction" — expressed by residents in response to recent crimes. Out of this came some positive ideas, such as starting a citizens-on-patrol group. He said he's also seen a higher level of community engagement that should help police find and arrest the perpetrators.

Brown said she and her neighbors look out for one another. It was the relative of a neighbor who noticed Dickson-Hines' door open on May 4, which led to police being called to the home.

"All of my neighbors know: If you hear anything, dial everybody's number, 'cause we coming. We got a plan," Brown said. "We gonna fight back."

'Temptation to move'

Matt Post, who lives on the other side of town in Original Northwood, had found security in his tight-knit neighborhood, where his three young children have plenty of playmates and parents organize regular Thursday popsicle nights.

These days, though, he's looking over his shoulder a little more, ever since coming home late one night several weeks ago and getting carjacked at gunpoint.

"I see the streets very differently at 11 p.m. now," said Post, 36, a Johns Hopkins computer research scientist who moved here in 2010.

It was the second time his minivan had been stolen in the past three years. The first time, it was taken and recovered by police while he and his wife were asleep. This time around, it was more terrifying, with two teens sticking a gun in his face, demanding "everything" and telling him to run while they took his keys and car.

And yet, Post said, while he wants the perpetrators to be held accountable, he remembers being a kid himself — albeit not one who ever carjacked anyone.

"When they held me up, they didn't seem to know what they were doing," he said. Rather than racing off with the van, for example, they stopped to unwrap a present some friends had given him for his wife, Post said. (It was a teakettle, and the kids tossed it into the street.)

Post said police found nine kids — plus a fake gun — in his minivan a couple of days later in the White Marsh area. They scattered in different directions when they were stopped. He has nothing but praise for police, who he said have kept him up-to-date on the investigation and answered every question he's had.

"There's always a temptation to move to the county," he said. "But there's a lot of community in my neighborhood. And that's hard to find."

'I'm done'

Celeste Perilla of Remington did much "soul searching" before deciding to stay after the 33-year-old's commitment to the city was tested in November.

"#Baltimore I'm heartbroken. Some kids tried to jump us AT THE PLAYGROUND," she tweeted Nov. 1. "I was with my kids. My babies. I just can't do this anymore."

Two boys who appeared to be 13 or 14 years old tried to rob her, she said, grabbing at the cellphone in her back pocket while she was at the Stadium Square Playground on 33rd Street in Ednor Gardens. When she yelled at them to back off, the boys threatened to hurt them, and she grabbed her kids — one is 4 and the other 18 months old — and fled.

Perilla, a manager at Strong City Baltimore, a group that works to strengthen schools and communities, has been a victim of crime before. But she had never felt as shaken, particularly as she follows the recent news of more serious crimes.

"I feel like it's very different. I grew up in Baltimore. I've been jumped before. I feel like it's more exigent," Perilla said.

"The number of places I can take my kids is getting smaller," she said. "I don't want to be in this place of not wanting to leave my home. I was born here. My life's work has been doing community work and working in schools."

Perilla no longer takes her kids to that playground, which is where her daughter learned to walk. She acknowledges that other residents face "a lot worse crime." And yet it feels like too much.

"We're asked to accept more and to take whatever we do get as far as city services and police," Perilla said.

"It's just one thing after another," said Pat, a 62-year-old Waverly resident, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears for her safety.

Leaning heavily on her cane, she shook her head thinking about the crime that has beset the neighborhood she's ready to leave after 18 years. Police still haven't solved the shooting death of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was struck by a stray bullet from a gunfight while on the porch of her Waverly house two years ago.

"I've been trying to sell my house for three years now," she said. "I'm done with Baltimore."

'Time ... to move on'

Baltimore's struggle with crime also raises concerns about efforts to increase the city's population and business base.

Donald Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said that all urban areas "wrestle with public safety concerns."

"One only needs only to look at the intense building activity taking place to realize that Baltimore remains a very attractive city for business and investment," he said.

But some small-business owners say recent crimes in their areas make them want to close up shop.

A 47-year store owner on Belvedere Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, a few blocks from where a 71-year-old woman was sexually assaulted a week ago, said he calls 911 several times a day about the suspected drug dealers loitering outside his business. He asked that his name not be used for fear of his safety.

"I just got robbed three months ago," he said. Four kids came into his shop with guns and demanded money, he said.

"It's gotten worse. This area used to be nice years ago. ... But now we don't even want to be here," he said of his neighboring shopkeepers.

On a recent morning, Myrtle Parker worked a find-a-word puzzle while sitting in her empty Park Lane Barber Shop on Park Heights Avenue, near where the 90-year-old Dickson-Hines lived. Business has slowed, as many of her regulars who used to live in the neighborhood packed up for the county.

Now she sees scores of unemployed young people "just roaming the streets with nothing to do."

"I have no idea what's going on." she said. "It's horrible. But it's not just this section. It's all over the city. ... We've just had crime, crime, crime."

Parker has owned the building her barbershop is in since 1980, but says she has put it up for sale.

"I've been here long enough," she said. "It's time for me to move on."

Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Wyatt Massey contributed to this article.

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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