A life exiled

Edna McAbier cannot go home again.

She will never again sit alone in her rowhouse off East Lorraine Avenue and gaze at the framed Declaration of Independence that her niece boasted to friends was real. She'll never again admire the Tuscany Tan paint on her walls or the original tin ceiling in her kitchen or the fake brick wall that she says fooled everyone.

More than 18 months after her home was firebombed by drug dealers now in prison, she remains in exile.

She doesn't hand out a card anymore with her address and telephone number. The former community association president who shoveled rat feces out of a local playground at 6 a.m. on Sundays and shouted at drug dealers who preyed on her corners now won't even tell people her last name.

She has spent months in hiding, appearing only to testify against the men who threatened her. Earlier this month, a federal judge sent away the last of her tormentors, the people who plotted against her because she cooperated with police, the men who tried to silence her that awful January night.

At this point, she once thought, she'd be home.

But those men, those drug dealers, those gang leaders, have friends. And friends don't forget. So after 30 years, beloved and beleaguered Harwood has lost Miss Edna, its greatest champion.

"I think the only community life I wanted," the 60-year-old said in her first interview about the attack, "is the one I had."

Born in West Virginia, then raised in Ohio, McAbier had little support from her large family when she announced in the early 1970s that she was moving so far away. She worked first at a fabric store in Baltimore County before renting a place on Guilford Avenue in 1974 to start a new Welfare Department job.

By 1983, she bought a home of her own on the 300 block of Lorraine. The streets seemed safe and clean, she says, but "I wasn't really aware of my surroundings."

During that time, she remembered a three-night class sponsored by the Police Department on the history of drug use in Baltimore. The seminars awakened her. "The place was packed. It was very informative. I started to understand what was going on."

After that, her splendid isolation was no more. She attended her first community meeting with police in North Baltimore.

"I wasn't politically correct," she said. Residents of Roland Park and other affluent communities complained about overgrown bushes and litter. She wanted to talk about drug dealing.

"They had an officer take me over to the side and talk to me," she said. "He gave me a ride home and said I should move out."

But McAbier would not be quiet. And no one would persuade her to leave, even when the criminals came to her doorstep. "Wait a minute," McAbier recalls telling the officer who drove her home that night. "This is my home."

She had work to do.

McAbier started with the playground on 27th Street near Greenmount Avenue.

"I went at 6 a.m. on Sundays and joined the drug dealers and the prostitutes. I was cleaning. They were doing something else," she said. "They thought I was nuts."

By July 4, 2000, she had organized and joined the community association. Two years later, McAbier was president.

McAbier felt conflicted, drawn to cajoling, if not confronting the dealers.

She couldn't help herself, she said, from approaching the young men she had known for years. Now they were standing on the corners, selling drugs, stashing their wares in abandoned houses.

"I'd say, 'I don't want you on this corner,'" McAbier said. "'I don't know why you are doing this to our neighborhood.'"

She shook her head at the memory.

"I know, it was probably wrong. But I couldn't stay silent." But, she said, "No one was talking to them. No one else held them accountable."

McAbier didn't stop there.

When her neighbors grew so rowdy that the banging through her walls knocked her belonging off a shelf, she called the police.

When she saw a drug deal, she called the police.

She wasn't the only one. But McAbier said neighbors trusted her with their complaints to be passed on to authorities. They'd drop her a secret note in her mailbox. They'd call her with a tip. They'd slip her a piece of paper as she cleaned her block.

Others saw her activism as needlessly reckless.

"I guess she was block captain in the neighborhood and it went to her head," said Nathaniel Wilson, a retired city employee who has lived on McAbier's block for more than 30 years. "I think sometimes she thought she was the police."

One of her strongest allies came from an ironic place. It was Maj. Regis Phelan, commander of the Northern District where she had first felt so shunned, so outclassed.

"It was my first day when I met Edna and she's on fire. She was like off the hook," said Phelan, who is now retired.

The new commander and the fearless activist toured Harwood.

"She would walk around, pointing to places" where drug dealers worked, Phelan said. Dozens of e-mails from McAbier soon filled the commander's inbox.

"I told people to contact Edna and she'd contact me," Phelan said. "She'd come on ride-alongs. I'd have cadets stop at her house. I wanted cops to hear from the community leaders in the field."

McAbier helped establish neighborhood festivals, planted trees and organized a town hall-style meeting of residents. But two years ago, the tide turned.

Phelan left his command after an internal dispute and eventually left the force.

McAbier was crushed.

"I had been feeling really safe," she said. "But when he was gone, the riff-raff moved in."

They threw bricks at her windows and urinated on her steps. They slashed her tires and keyed her car.

Harassment reached a new height that Saturday in January of the next year.

"I had been home for three days from work," she said. "I had this feeling like something was going to happen."

That night she took a pillow and blanket to a couch to watch a movie until she could fall asleep.

"And then I heard a boom."

She called police at 1:40 a.m.

"I thought the bricks had come off the chimney," McAbier said. Then she saw liquid burning on the pavement out front.

Officers arrived and found shards of brown glass near a burned patch on the ground. On the second floor, they spotted soot just below a front bay window. The scar remains there to this day.

"I wasn't going to leave. This is my home," she said.

A fire investigator from the city held her hand.

"You have to be somewhere safe," he told her, according to McAbier. "They can't do their job and find out who did this unless they have you safe."

Police and fire investigators found evidence of five Molotov cocktails - brown Coors beer bottles filled with flammable fluid and with a cloth wick. Some never ignited, others never broke. Fire investigators estimated the damage at $100.

McAbier told investigators about previous attacks and about those in the neighborhood who had warned her to stop calling police.

Then she went into hiding, with round-the-clock police protection.

"I was in 11 hotel rooms in two months," McAbier said. One time, she was spirited out of a hotel by her security detail because another police team planned to raid the room next to her and arrest a suspected murderer inside.

"I was terrified, of course," she said. "But I thought it would all blow over."

She knew she would have to testify if the case went to trial.

The government first secured cooperation from three of the firebombers.

Their evidence showed that on that Jan. 15, 2005, Andre Wilkins drove a white Chrysler Town & Country minivan to two gas stations and a bar to buy a six-pack of beer and gasoline.

Nakie Harris, described by three co-defendants as a neighborhood cocaine dealer, had been the leader of the group on the night of the attack. But Harris first obtained approval from Terrance Smith, a reputed member of the Bloods.

It was at an address 50 feet from McAbier's home that Harris, Wilkins and several others emptied the bottles and refilled them with $2 worth of gasoline and affixed wicks to their tops, making five or six Molotov cocktails.

The lead federal agent on the Harwood case also investigated the October 2002 blaze that engulfed the East Baltimore rowhouse of Angela and Carnell Dawson, killing the couple and five of their children. The arsonist set the fire in retaliation against the couple, who had called police about neighborhood drug dealing.

"There were a lot of eerie similarities," said Agent Matthew Varisco of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives of the witness-intimidation cases. McAbier, he said, "had a log that was truly amazing because she was able to provide us information about the neighborhood that we couldn't get from the Dawsons."

In the end, seven men and one woman - who had made a fake 911 call to divert police from the Harwood firebombing - were convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Bloods leader Terrance Smith, who received the longest prison sentence at 80 years, wanted McAbier dead, court papers show. Others received decades behind bars.

Plain-spoken and composed, McAbier took the stand against three of the defendants, including Terrance Smith, who went to trial under heightened courthouse security. She also attended almost every plea entered in the case, watching almost every sentencing from the courtroom's back rows.

As a witness, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kwame J. Manley said, McAbier "always wanted to do the right thing. She cooperated; she never wavered from that."

But her case also highlights the tragic legacy of witness intimidation in Baltimore. She helped put her attackers in jail, but authorities finally convinced her not to reclaim her house or the neighborhood she fought to keep safe.

Michelle Blue, a local young organizer and the vice president of the Harwood Community Association, mourned McAbier's move, saying, "We all have to rally for support. But we want to continue the work that she did in the community."

And then, she sighed.

"I'm missing that passion from her. She had a spark. We didn't agree on every issue, but I knew she wasn't going away."

Blue said McAbier's legacy lives on in such projects as a renovated children's park on Boone Street, organized by Blue and funded by Carroll Fuels. A hip-hop recording studio for teenagers also thrives in Blue's rowhouse.

But the association vice president doesn't mince words about the conditions in the neighborhood today.

"I will be honest: Gang violence is on the rise," Blue said. "We need some mediation to come in. They're not flashing colors. They're very discreet."

Violent crime shows no signs of abating. There were two homicides in Harwood between January and mid-September last year. The number for the same period this year is six. Robberies have doubled.

A raft of open-air drug markets still flourish steps from McAbier's home. While some blocks are kept well-tended, others are pockmarked with vacant houses, strewn with garbage and filled in the middle of the day with men still young enough for high school biology.

But investors are also renovating homes here, flipping them for more than $200,000. The playground on 27th Street is scheduled for a makeover by next spring.

McAbier, of course, knows this all. She might have left the neighborhood for an undisclosed location, but she can't stop checking in, asking friends for regular updates:

"I just want them to be very, very, very careful."