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Link sought between ship agency owner's slaying, business deals


John R. Shotto, the shipping and storage company entrepreneur who was shot Wednesday in Southeast Baltimore, operated in a world of ship's captains and cargo and foreign ports and stevedores, a world where the waves were sometimes calm and sometimes stormy.

A year ago, Mr. Shotto's business, Meridian Ship Agency, ran into stormier seas than it could handle, slipping into bankruptcy and leaving scores of shippers, stevedores and others holding a $2.21 million bag of unpaid bills.

Now investigators are trying to determine if there are any connections between the shooting and Mr. Shotto's failed business deals, or his involvement as a "secondary figure" in a federal investigation that sources say was under way when he was killed.

Mr. Shotto, 52, of Bel Air, was shot in a parking lot at the Maritime Center at the Point Breeze industrial park with another man, Raymond Nicholson Jr., 38, of Prince George's County. Baltimore police believe that Mr. Shotto was the intended target of two men in a General Motors-model car who drove up alongside the two businessmen. One man inside the car fired at least two shots before the car pulled away.

Mr. Nicholson, who worked for the Hechinger Co. hardware store chain, had been at a business meeting with Mr. Shotto and others in a nearby warehouse. Police believe he was just "a victim of circumstance" and not the target of the assault.

Baltimore police Lt. Robert Stanton said investigators were going through paperwork from Mr. Shotto's business activities and did not yet have a motive for the slaying.

"It could go a half dozen ways," he said.

Included in that paperwork is a list of 88 unpaid creditors who did business with Meridian, a company that would charter vessels and book cargo -- a charter broker.

Ryan Walsh Inc., a Mobile, Ala., stevedore company, did business with Mr. Shotto, Vice President James Ryan said yesterday. That business cost Ryan Walsh about $407,000 in unpaid bills, he said.

"They [Meridian] came on pretty quickly, and we did a lot of business in a relatively short period of time," he said.

He believed that Mr. Shotto's financial woes might have been connected to problems he had with a shipment to Chile. "Some cargo he had delivered to Chile was allegedly in damaged condition, so he wasn't paid for the freight," Mr. Ryan said. "It was a legal hassle."

Others believe his problems may have started with a labor dispute in Australia. Mr. Shotto's firm leased a ship to haul some cargo to Australia and encountered striking longshoremen who refused to unload the vessel, said an associate, who asked not to be identified.

"They were real successful for a while," the associate said. "He got screwed on that one deal, and it was like a house of cards -- everything came crashing down."

Mr. Shotto also had supporters in the maritime industry.

Dominick Covello, a vice president with John A. Steer Inc., a Baltimore international freight forwarding firm, said he did business with Mr. Shotto for several years. "He was always a fine gentleman with me," Mr. Covello said. "He would give you the shirt off his back."

Mr. Covello said he found it hard to believe that Mr. Shotto had any problems that would prompt a shooting. "My first thought hTC was that they got the wrong guy, that he was the innocent bystander," he said.

Police were still trying last night to come up with a composite drawing of the gunman in the car. The man fired two or three shots from the passenger side, about 15 feet from the victims. He was described by witnesses as a white man in his 50s with gray-blond hair that was bushy at the ears.

Mr. Shotto died at the scene of a gunshot wound to the temple. Mr. Nicholson, shot once in the back, died several hours later at Francis Scott Key Medical Center.

Roger Twigg of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

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