In his eight years on the City Council, Kenneth N. Harris Sr. worked diligently to make parts of North and Northeast Baltimore safer from crime, including the Northwood Plaza, an aging strip mall that some say had its heyday in the 1960s.
But Harris, who lost his bid for City Council president last year and left public life, died after falling victim to crime at that shopping center early yesterday.
Harris, 45, was shot outside the New Haven Lounge, a well-known venue for live jazz at the center, by men who then entered the club, and robbed owner Keith Covington and other employees. The gunmen fled out the back door as Covington shot at them.
Covington said Harris, who was a friend, had stopped by about 1:15 a.m. to use the restroom and borrow a corkscrew when both of them were ambushed by the masked gunmen. Covington counted four robbers, but police said there were only three.
Soon after being shot in the chest, Harris died at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His slaying shocked residents in the northern and northeastern Baltimore communities where he served as an outspoken councilman who often called for more police resources for his constituents. His death also left many of his former City Council colleagues and others struggling to explain an apparently random act of violence that took his life, even as the city this year has experienced a significant reduction in homicides.
"He [was] out front as a council person in wanting our city to be safe, challenging all of us, the Police Department, in doing the best job that we can do," Mayor Sheila Dixon said at a news conference yesterday morning. "He was a great young man who did so many great things."
Covington said the robbers had the "same build" as the people who held up his club July 8. If they are the same, the assailants have contributed to a 74 percent increase in robberies in the Northeastern District since mid-August, police statistics show.
News of Harris' killing "just totally devastated me," said Paula Purviance, who lives behind Northwood Plaza and is a past president of both the Hillen Road Improvement Association and the Northeast Community Organization. She said Harris used to work on community issues pertaining to the shopping center.
"There's no explanation of how hard it's hit me, because Ken has always been a tireless leader for our community," Purviance said. "Any time we've asked him to look into something for us, he's always come through."
Dixon called on residents in the communities around the shopping center to help the police and provide them with anything they knew about the incident and the men who killed Harris.
"We really need the community, if they have any information, to speak up on this," Dixon said at police headquarters, where she was flanked by Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and City Council members. "It's just extremely hard, right at this moment, to speak about how traumatic this is for our city and our community."
Harris, a Democrat, represented the 4th District, which comprises parts of north and northeast Baltimore, from 2004 to 2007. From 1999 to 2004, he represented the 3rd District.
When Dixon moved from City Council president to mayor after the election of Martin O'Malley as governor, Harris made a bid last year for the council president position. He ran against community activist Michael Sarbanes and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who won.
Last night, Covington gave a detailed account of the shooting, which happened just minutes after Harris arrived at the club in the 1500 block of Havenwood, about a half-mile from the district police station.
According to Covington, Harris knocked on the locked door about 1:15 a.m., interrupting his staff meeting with five employees. After Harris used the restroom, borrowed a corkscrew and chatted briefly with the staff, he and Covington walked back outside, where Harris' car was parked.
They didn't take more than three steps before a masked gunman emerged from behind a column, quickly followed by three more armed robbers, he said. The first gunman aimed at Covington's head and started screaming for him to open the door. As he turned to the door, Covington "caught a glimpse of Ken trying to get to his car" and heard a "pop," he recalled. With a gun to his head, however, Covington didn't turn back.
He was followed into the club by all the gunmen, he said, who quickly forced him into an office where the safe was. Only after the robbery was completed did Covington go back outside and was relieved to see that Harris' car was gone.
But then he saw flashing police lights down the street and realized that something was wrong. Harris had tried to drive away but came to a stop near Loch Raven Boulevard.
No one besides Harris was injured, although there was a woman in Harris' car, according to two people familiar with the investigation.
"We are not going to go into details about" witnesses, said police spokesman Sterling Clifford.
"I lost a great friend," Covington said outside his club. "Greater Baltimore has lost a great leader."
Bealefeld said one of the robbers wore a Halloween mask similar to one in the movie Scream, and the other two covered their faces with bandannas or clothing, according to Bealefeld.
Police could not determine whether any of the robbers were struck when Covington fired his .38-caliber revolver at them as they headed north, into the Hillen neighborhood, but some evidence was recovered, including the mask and Covington's wallet, Bealefeld said.
"We need calls from the Hillen community to help us identify anything suspicious that they saw last night," Bealefeld said.
Community groups in the area have tried to work with nearby Morgan State and the plaza's owner to improve security and jump-start a revitalization of the shopping center.
Lisa Leventhal, co-chair of the Northwood Plaza Working Group, said she wasn't surprised that Harris was killed at the plaza, which has struggled with crime problems over the years.
"It's very sad, but surprising? No," Leventhal said. She said the neighborhoods have tried to push the private property owner, Morgan State and the city police to make the plaza safer, with only limited results.
Sylvia Elhai, a co-owner of the center, disputed that the owners haven't done enough to make the property safer and blamed the police for not doing enough to crack down on crime and drug dealing. She said police told her recently about drug turf wars flaring up among dealers who frequent the front and rear of the center, and that she hired a security company to patrol the center six days a week.
"I think it's disgusting," Elhai said. "I think it's positively disgusting that the police are not there enough to take care of this situation."
Councilman Robert W. Curran, who lives two blocks west of the plaza in Original Northwood, said he feels safe at the center, which was built in the 1930s, but conceded that it has had problems with crime.
Covington canceled last night's performance at the New Haven Lounge but said he will reopen today. He plans to host a tribute to his friend of 10 years. "I've always believed in giving people their flowers while they're alive," he said. "But in this case, we will have a tribute."
Baltimore Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
Funeral Arrangements for Kenneth N. Harris, Sr. (Two events) Wednesday, September 24, 2008: Public viewing: 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. Location Huber Memorial Church 5701 York Road, Baltimore.
Thursday, September 25, 2008: Public viewing: 10 a.m. - 11 a.m. Funeral service - Starts 11 a.m. Location Morgan State University Murphy Fine Arts Building 2201 Argonne Drive, Baltimore.