Odis Lee Sistrunk Jr., a retired Baltimore police lieutenant colonel known as the "Big O," died of undetermined causes May 19 at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Northeast Baltimore resident was 65.
Born in Steubenville, Ohio, he was the son of Odis Lee Sistrunk Sr., a steelworker, and Winnie Mae Sistrunk, a homemaker. He was a 1968 graduate of Steubenville High School, where he played on the basketball team.
He joined the Job Corps in New York and responded to an ad that said Baltimore was recruiting police cadets.
Family members said he joined the Baltimore Police Department in May 1969 and was initially assigned to the Southeast District. In 1974, he was named a detective in the Criminal Investigative Division.
In 1979, he was promoted to sergeant and worked in inspection services in the Criminal Intelligence Section and was an acting commanding officer. In 1992, he became a lieutenant in the Western District and was later a neighborhood patrol leader. He soon became a major and oversaw the Property Division. In 1994, he became district commander of the Eastern District.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke described him as "one big dude" in a 1994 Baltimore Sun article, which said he stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 290 pounds.
Then-Major Sistrunk said at the time that "his first task is to clean the streets of the prospering drug trade."
"If the district succeeds, then I succeed," he said in The Sun. "If the district fails, it is my failure. I guess that's pressure. But it's something you deal with every day."
Family members said Colonel Sistrunk became a popular figure in the neighborhoods he served.
"He was well known in East Baltimore, and they loved him in Pimlico," said his daughter, Saundra Sistrunk Mason of Baltimore.
News articles detailed how Colonel Sistrunk battled youths riding dirt bikes in East Baltimore in the 1990s.
"Basically, kids are riding in packs," he said in a 1995 Sun article. "Our problem is, we can't chase them. ... Short of community involvement, there is not a lot we can do."
He participated in a 1996 action dubbed Operation Border Patrol, in which police broke up narcotics trafficking in places where districts overlapped.
That year, he was one of several police officials depicted on billboards donated by Penn Advertising. His photo appeared at Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street.
"It's a larger-than-life image of a city police commander who has larger-than-life ideas for cleaning up his crime-battered section of Baltimore," said a 1996 article in The Sun. "Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., who heads the Eastern District station, has his face — and a saying — plastered on a billboard. The hulking 6-foot-6-inch smiling commander looks down on troubled Greenmount Avenue."
Colonel Sistrunk selected the wording on the sign: "New possibilities, new pride. Join us for a better, safer East Baltimore."
"What's important is the saying. We are building a better future here and we want the community to be a part of it," he told The Sun when the billboard with his 10-foot-high picture went up.
He was later promoted to lieutenant colonel. He retired in 2008.
"My father looked forward to gatherings with family and friends," his daughter said. "His home became the location of choice, and he was always the consummate host. He had a big heart. He was the patriarch known as 'Uncle Odis.' He was a great father, and how he loved his grandchildren."
Colonel Sistrunk enjoyed playing pinochle and fishing trips to Deal Island and Massachusetts.
Family members said he was allergic to crabs, but would go crabbing and then steam them for his wife and daughter.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Rock City Church, 1607 Cromwell Bridge Road.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 44 years, the former Saundra L. Queen, a District Court worker; a brother, Graylen Sistrunk of Steubenville, Ohio; a sister, Minnie Simon of Philadelphia; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.