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Southern Police District Commander Maj. Brian Hance talks about how the recent indictments of three dozen people have made Cherry Hill a safer neighborhood. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

Tensions once ran so high in Cherry Hill that when rival groups gathered in 2007 for a "truce" party, a shooting broke out that killed two and wounded three others.

There were shootings at a rec center, the neighborhood shopping center and at a cookout — all part of what federal prosecutors say was a two-decade war between deeply entrenched rival crews in the South Baltimore neighborhood.

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But Cherry Hill has been noticeably quieter since late 2013, when police and federal authorities teamed up to investigate the warring gangs and indicted three dozen people. Eight of the last nine defendants pleaded guilty last week, on the eve of what was expected to be a two-month trial.

Neighborhood leaders say the reprieve is allowing them to push forward on big plans for the community, which was created as a black enclave after World War II and remains home to Baltimore's largest concentration of public housing. Two area schools are being completely renovated and a new rec center is planned, and many hope an ambitious project in Port Covington, just across the Hanover Street Bridge, will spill over.

"This is a community working to flip the script, to take what was intended, and make it greater," said Michael Middleton, who works with the Cherry Hill Development Corporation.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said the Cherry Hill case "demonstrates one of the things that we do best": a lengthy investigation connecting the dots among criminals, and charging them under the federal racketeering statute.

A federal grand jury has added eight defendants to the prosecution of alleged Cherry Hill gang members, linking members to six murders and nine shootings, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced.

"The threshhold is so high for us to bring such cases," he said, "but the cases tend to be stronger."

As recently as 2006, Cherry Hill saw more than 35 shootings, a number that fell to four in 2014, following the indictments. Last year, as violence surged citywide, the neighborhood saw an uptick to 10 shootings, but only one of those incidents was fatal. A section of the neighborhood patrolled by the city's Safe Streets anti-violence outreach program celebrated 400 days without any shooting.

"It's taken a long time to get here, and there's still a lot of work to be done, but the changes that have manifested over the years to where we are now is night and day," said Baltimore Police Maj. Brian Hance, who commands the Southern District.

'Up da Hill,' 'Down da Hill'

Cherry Hill is one of the city's geographical anomolies, isolated by water on one side and train tracks on the other. Its population once exceeded 18,000 people, who enjoyed a movie theater, an A&P, clothing stores — "all of those things that a community would have," Middleton said.

Its rural-like atmosphere, with trees and hills overlooking the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, offered a peaceful alternative to the bustle of downtown.

Over time, the neighborhood's economic diversity waned. Public housing units were boarded up or torn down, and the businesses at the shopping centers disappeared as the population dwindled to about 8,100. With those declining fortunes came a rise in crime.

Among young men engaged in the neighborhood drug trade, two groups took root: one at the neighborhood's high point would become known as "Up da Hill," or UDH, and a collection of crews at the base referred to as "Down da Hill," or DDH, prosecutors say. Their turfs intersected at Round and Bridgeview roads.

Federal prosecutors wrote in court papers recently that cooperating witnesses described an ongoing feud dating back to the 1990s, while others were born into it "not knowing why, but that [they] had to pick a side."

"These men … describe childhoods growing up in a war zone, where each needed to know the specific violence occurring at all times so as to be prepared for retaliation," prosecutors wrote. "Each member understood they were responsible for, and could be made to pay for, the acts of their co-conspirators. For the most, each act of violence was retaliation for the preceding attack, with no memory of where or how it began."

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The shooting at the "truce party" occurred at the Arbutus Social Club in April 2007. The main source of drugs sold by the UDH was having a birthday party, and invited members of DDH, aiming to end the bloody rivalry.

A few moments after he began speaking, the organizer was shot by a DDH member he had brought up on stage. A UDH member tasked with protecting the organizer grabbed the gun, shot the DDH member, and in the ensuing chaos two others in the crowd pulled guns and opened fire.

Police and prosecutors said 26 people have been indicted for gang-related activities in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood

Court papers lay out a series of tit-for-tat shootings. Prosecutors used italics for combatants who would eventually lose their life, and italics litter many of the pages. Notably, several of the defendants did not even live in the area, but flocked there to set up drug shops, sometimes in the public housing units of addicts who offered their space in exchange for a fix.

A sequence of incidents in 2011 finally prompted the intervention of federal authorities. That January, Davon Martin, a DDH member, received word that UDH member Rhidell Price was in the area, gave chase and gunned him down. The man who drove Martin to the area would be killed in August 2011.

Two days after Price was killed, an associate of DDH, Harry Hicks, was getting out of his vehicle with his pregnant wife and two small children when two masked gunmen approached. Hicks tried to run but was shot and fell to the ground. His attackers stood over him firing as his wife begged them to stop. The killing was retaliation for for Price's murder.

In April, Martin tracked down and killed UDH member Dwight Taylor at a West Baltimore barbershop in retaliation for Hicks' murder. Martin eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 35 years.

Prosecutors say a firearm discarded by Martin was the same gun used by a DDH associate named Dominic Hope to shoot a UDH member leaving Price's funeral. Hope was killed in January 2012.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Smith said the shootings were "out of control." The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was sought for assistance, and arranged a home invasion sting that would ensnare suspects from the neighborhood and get the investigation going.

"When it was all said and done, people started cooperating and we started piecing together this war," Smith said.

A key tool was reviewing old police files. Even minor arrests, such as trespassing, helped establish who certain people hung out with, and where they frequented. Prosecutors said trespassing arrests are often viewed as police harassment but were an important tool in the case.

"It was really very, very hard for police to make any inroads," Smith said. "People were afraid. Nobody wanted to talk to the police. It wasn't just the threat of being murdered — it was happening. Once we got them off the street, people started talking to us more than they had before."

Hopeful for change

The defendant at the top of the indictment, Steven Jackson, at one point faced the death penalty, but pleaded guilty for a 25-year sentence. His attorney, Charles Curlett, called the outcome "fair and reasonable."

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But he wasn't sure the case can change the community.

"You're taking a lot of people off the street, and you'll see a decrease in crime. Is that a long-term solution?" Curlett said. "Without education and economic opportunity, and the proper guidance and mentoring for people growing up there, invariably you'll see a return to crime and everything that comes with it."

Community leaders such as Betty Baze say Cherry Hill's reputation for violence has been overstated, in part because the area is 95 percent black. She is the tenant council president for the Cherry Hill Homes, and said the neighborhood is "one of the safest" in Baltimore.

Residents heap high praise on the Safe Streets program, which has been in place since 2008, mediating conflicts outside the view of law enforcement. Though there have been fewer shootings lately, after every incident Safe Streets members hold a community event and speak out against the violence.

One homicide has occurred in Cherry Hill in the past 10 months, when Isahia Bonner was shot while seated at a kitchen table inside a home in the 400 block of Roundview Road. Police have charged Lemar Williams, 25, the son of the Safe Streets' lead "violence interrupter" Warren Williams, with the killing.

Safe Streets officials did not respond to requests for comment about their work in the community, and Lemar Williams' attorney could not be reached for comment.

Lifting up the community will require broader change, leaders say. As of 2013, the Census Bureau estimated 40 percent of families were living below the poverty line. There are very few jobs in close proximity, and more than 50 percent of households do not have a vehicle available, according to the data.

The school system has approved plans for a revamped Arundel Elementary School and Friendship Academy, and the city approved funds for a new recreation center.

Middleton, of the Cherry Hill Development Corp., looks forward to the Port Covington project.

"A rising tide raises all ships," Middleton said, while acknowledging that some are concerned about displacement.

"The main crisis we have is not having a grocery store," Baze said. "Everything else is coming along. We mostly have the crime down. We're getting the schools, the community center. More people are working closer together."

The development corporation put together a master plan years ago, and is seeking developers to build new affordable, mixed-income units on vacant land. Community leaders feel Cherry Hill is mostly ignored by the city, which they try to make up for by taking matters into their own hands.

"If we don't do it, who's going to do it?" Baze said during an interview before a candidates forum at a neighborhood church. "This is our community, and we have to take care of our own."

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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