N.Y. dealers-in-training traffic in Baltimore blood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Get this much straight: He didn't see the guy.

From the jump, he wants it known that he saw the shooter running toward him, squeezing round after round from a semiauto, until there was 20, maybe 25 feet between them. But he didn't actually see the guy.

"Not to recognize him, you know," he says, choosing the words with care. "Like you see a guy shooting and that's all you see. You don't see him to know who he is."

Of course you don't. People who see other people shooting semiautomatic handguns in the street are commonly known as witnesses. Witnesses do not exist at the West Baltimore crossroads of Gold and Etting -- not even when the victims are two innocent women, shot down after the midnight of Christmas Day.

"I felt lucky when I heard about the women," he says. "I mean, if me and my buddy hadn't dropped down, that could have been us."

Could have been. After all, he's spent time down around Gold and Etting, dealing with drug touts and runners. No point in lying; not about that, anyway. He uses.

He's a construction union man with no job, a second-floor bed in a battered Upton row house and 35 years of living in his city's margins. He's got one set of wounds, entrance and exit, in his left arm, another near his right hip, and a University Hospital bracelet for a souvenir. He's moving slowly toward a kitchen chair.

"I'll tell you the truth," he says. "I was high on Christmas. I was high when it happened."

His whole life, he's lived on the side streets off Pennsylvania Avenue, where for generations now, a man willing to pay up front and mind his own business could buy dope without getting shot to death in the process. But not now. Now you go down to Gold and Etting, and it's all 19-year-olds with no sense and Bronx accents and handguns that fire too many damn bullets. Now, every other dealer down there is a New York Boy, a man-child three months removed from West 136th Street, a kid with no real connection to Baltimore, with not a care for anything in his gun sight.

"Little Harlem," he calls Gold and Etting. "It's changed."

The official version of the Christmas Day tragedy on Gold Street has three ruthless New York drug dealers hunting a local employee who shorted them on their money. They chase their target into the crowded drug market, firing repeatedly, killing two, wounding three more.

The dead, in this instance, included a 30-year-old West Baltimore woman and her aunt, murdered for no discernible reason. Relatives said the two were walking through the Gold Street drug market to buy eggnog at a Pennsylvania Avenue bar; homicide detectives say they know of no reason to dispute that version. Innocents, true victims -- "taxpayers," in the parlance of detectives accustomed to drug-related homicide.

"I never saw the women," says the man with the hospital bracelet. "I only heard about them later. I was walking east on Gold, and I figure they were behind me."

The official version ends with the Baltimore Police Department responding quickly and effectively, with detectives arresting one suspect for the murders, charging two more in warrants and kicking in the doors of stash houses on Gold, Etting and Division streets early Friday morning in their search for weapons.

That's the clean version -- the one replete with utterly evil, utterly dangerous criminals, utterly determined cops and the sound of holding cell doors slamming shut as the credits roll.

But the truth is more equivocal than that. The truth has a collection of incompetent teen-agers firing wildly into a crowd, oblivious to the notion that a massacre of customers and bystanders alike is not synonymous with a well-executed drug slaying.

The truth is about young men lacking the sense and self-control of a common criminal, firing so many rounds on a crowded corner that one of the gunmen himself was wounded -- and later arrested at a county hospital.

And the truth includes a Police Department in which the best street cops have been telling the bosses downtown for years that the New York Boys were here to stay, and the bosses have told them time and time again that the problem was exaggerated.

"The issue is being looked at, and we are aware that people are coming here," says police spokesman Dennis S. Hill in the wake of the Gold Street murders. "I was talking with several detectives today [Friday], and they are discussing ways to create some kind of deterrent."

This is, of course, the butt end of 1991. Tactical officers and district plainclothesmen and even a city prosecutor or two have been pleading for help since the middle of the last decade. Where once only the dope came from New York, now the city's drug corners are five and six deep with out-of-towners. This year alone, at least 13 slayings are known to have involved New Yorkers.

Detectives say the dealers from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx are for the most part very young, their fledgling pharmaceutical careers in the care of an older lieutenant sent south by New York wholesalers to watch over the money and product.

"They're kids, and they're all over the place," says one homicide detective, who has met a couple of dozen in the wake of the Christmas shootings. "We interviewed their lieutenant, and he was actually angry about [the shootings] being stupid, you know, bad for business. To him, they're just children."

That's the essence of it. Go back a decade or so, and the men who killed for drugs and money in this city were just that: men. Dennis Wise, Hercules Williams, Vernon Collins -- every last one a stone sociopath. But even detectives concede that people like Wise and Collins knew their business. When they did a drug murder -- they did it alone, in the dark, beyond the realm of witnesses and bystanders. Bystander massacres were scarce.

Now, a decade later, the drug markets are filled with second-class criminals -- small change tossed from the pocket of some Bronx wholesaler, sent south because a $5 cocaine cap brings $10 here in Baltimore, because New York is already cluttered with dopers. These are young men who have no allegiance to this community, who will fire a 9mm Glock near anyone, certain that no one they know will suffer.

"They just don't care," says a detective. "Even if a Baltimore guy is going to shoot someone over drugs, he knows he still has to go back and sit on his stoop in the same neighborhood. The New York Boys don't have a neighborhood."

Second-class criminals, pursued by a Police Department that in the minds of many of its best officers remains utterly reactive.

When Jamaican drug violence in Northwest Baltimore began to boil over several years back, the department responded aggressively with prolonged narcotics details. When five Jamaicans were murdered in a Woodland Avenue apartment in 1986, the case was aggressively pursued for years -- until five suspects were convicted. The message was heard: Jamaican-related violence in the Northwest tailed off.

Departmental officials say they have locked up a number of New York violators, but those cases represent the individual efforts of detectives and patrolmen rather than any concerted departmental response, many officers say. For the New York Boys, there have been no citywide initiatives, no task forces. When the colonel commanding the department's Criminal Investigation Division was told by subordinates that those responsible for the Christmas murders on Gold Street were New Yorkers, he shook his head. "Don't tell me that," he said.

But at Gold and Etting, everyone already knows.

"No," says the man with the hospital bracelet. "They ain't goin' nowhere. Them New York Boys is dug in. The Baltimore people ain't fightin' them because they've got the best dope."

Did you know it was a New York Boy shooting toward you?

He shakes his head. He's not going near that one.

"I don't know who the hell it was," he says.

Portrait of a man-child, out of control on an alien street. Two dead, three wounded and more bloodshed to come if one New York Boy, waving a 9mm that carries a clip of 15 to 18 slugs, only had some more bullets.

"Oh yeah. That clip was empty," says the man with the hospital bracelet. "If it wasn't, he'd have kept shooting people."

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