Killings may be tied to kidnapping case

As many as five Baltimore homicides over the past three months might be connected to the April kidnapping of two teenage boys from a Catonsville home, according to several law enforcement sources.

In the past week, three people police believe are connected to the kidnapping have been slain in Baltimore in brazen daytime shootings that authorities say might be part of a continuing feud between at least two rival drug gangs. The recent slayings include the double murder of two men in their sport utility vehicle last Friday in Northwest Baltimore and the fatal shooting of a teenager in East Baltimore on Tuesday evening, according to several police sources who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.It is not clear if the kidnapping of Stephon Blackwell, 16, and Sterling Blackwell, 15 - who were later returned to their relatives - triggered the violence or if that act was itself part of a rivalry, police sources said.

Specialized units planned to swarm over the Southeast, Central, Eastern and Western districts last night, searching for associates of the Blackwell family and members of another group with drug ties, according to a police source with knowledge of the sweep.

Police Department spokesman Sterling Clifford and other police officials declined to comment for this article because the investigations are continuing.

The slayings police believe are connected to the kidnapping have been unfolding this year even as the city has marked a significant reduction in homicides and shootings. As of yesterday, 126 people had been killed in Baltimore this year, compared with 184 slain over the same period last year. The number of nonfatal shootings has also declined this year - 337 incidents, compared with 444 for the same period last year.

Yet, since the Blackwell brothers were kidnapped and returned, there has been a steady pace of shootings and killings that police suspect is connected to deep-running disputes between rival criminal organizations. Many of the shootings have occurred in broad daylight, in some cases involving multiple victims.

At least three of the victims might have been Blackwell associates, according to police sources. Police sources would not say how the other victims might have been connected to the kidnapping.

Warren Brown, a criminal defense attorney who had initially tried to help broker a deal for the Blackwell brothers' safe return, said yesterday he heard at that time from "surrogates" of Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III who wanted him to help prevent future retaliation.

"They were happy with the [homicide] numbers and didn't want to see a change in that," Brown said. "Of course, I have no influence with those people [in the drug world]. But I strongly suspected there would be a response and a response to that response."

Brown said other, similar kidnappings have occurred in the city - they just receive less publicity. He said he did not know whether a ransom had been paid for the brothers' return. "I think the police knew that it wasn't the first time there'd been a kidnapping [in the city drug trade in general]. The response was predictable," he said.

On April 1, Stephon and Sterling Blackwell were among 10 people - including their mother - who were held at gunpoint at a Catonsville home for eight hours. Police said at the time that they were investigating reports that a woman was sexually assaulted during the home invasion. Six masked gunmen kidnapped the brothers and, as they were leaving the house, fired shots at the Blackwells' older brother, Steven "JR" Blackwell Jr., as he arrived, police said at the time.

The kidnappings drew widespread media attention as authorities issued an Amber Alert for the brothers. Several local and state law enforcement agencies assisted Baltimore County police in the search for the boys, even as others in the house declined to cooperate with authorities.

Two days later, the older Blackwell regained custody of his brothers and drove them to Baltimore County police headquarters. Police could not say whether relatives paid a ransom for the brothers' return, and the boys told authorities little about their ordeal. But the investigation into the kidnappings remains active, according to Cpl. Michael Hill, a county police spokesman.

"We continue to get more information on the case," Hill said. "We have been conferring with city police."

At the time, county authorities attributed the incident to Baltimore's lucrative heroin market, where it is not uncommon for people involved in the illicit drug trade to be robbed or kidnapped and held for ransom. Such victims rarely cooperate with police in follow-up criminal investigations.

The older Blackwell, 24, has been convicted of drug distribution. The brothers' father, Steven Blackwell Sr., 48, is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for heroin offenses, according to court records.

Police suspect that a triple shooting April 11 - in which Anthony Izzard, 25, was killed - might be connected to the fallout from the kidnapping. Izzard was shot about 9 p.m. in the 1700 block of W. Lexington St. in the city's Franklin Square neighborhood.

At Izzard's funeral, 10 days later, gunfire erupted shortly after noon, outside Unity United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, as mourners listened to an anti-violence sermon inside. Two men were found shot - Michael Ellerby, 24, and Derrell Mack, 29. Ellerby died later that day at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Then, last Friday, Quinton Hogan, 23, who police believe was connected with the Blackwells, and Donell Rogers, 21, were killed shortly after Hogan appeared in District Court.

Hogan had been charged with several traffic violations and illegal possession of a handgun, court records show, after he was alleged to have crashed into a car containing two adults and two children June 24. But his 8:30 a.m. court hearing July 25 was postponed at the state's request, records show.

At 9:45 a.m., Hogan and Rogers were ambushed three blocks south of the courthouse on Wabash Avenue, near a stoplight at West Rogers Avenue, according to police.

A small white sedan pulled up next to them, and a gunmen fired several shots at their black, late-model Jeep Cherokee, police said. The sport utility vehicle accelerated and crashed into a Ford Escort driven by a woman in her 80s. The Cherokee continued to accelerate, pushing the Escort over a median strip, into oncoming traffic and across West Rogers Avenue, into a light pole, police said.

Both Hogan and Rogers were killed. The woman suffered minor injuries.

One of the more recent slayings police believe might be connected to the Blackwell kidnappings happened Tuesday evening. About 6 p.m., Troy Wilson, 17, was placing items in a car when a gunman approached him and shot him in the upper body, city police said. Police believe he might have been associated with the Blackwells.

After Wilson fell to the street, the gunman stood over him and shot him at least one more time before fleeing, police said. He was pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Hospital 20 minutes later, police said.

As of yesterday evening, police had not made arrests in any of the five cases suspected of being connected to the Blackwell kidnappings.