Of violence and tragedy


When the Mass was ended, the woman in the red coat and hat stood and walked to the altar, the glorious altar of old, rugged St. Alphonsus Church, and she delivered Calla lilies to the feet of the statue of Mary. The last time Aldona Pilius made this offering, it was her wedding day, and her groom Vito was at her side. They made the offering together, right there on the same altar in the same church, a place of abiding tradition and love in a city that, on a day such as this, seemed to be crumbling beneath our feet.

Aldona Pilius must have the blessing of a brave spirit. For not only did she make the gesture with the flowers, but she moved to the lectern to speak to the hundreds of people who had gathered on this rainy Tuesday morning for her husband's funeral. The men and women and children in the pews stopped moving so they could hear Aldona Pilius. Older men who could not find a seat and who had been kneeling and praying at the rear of the church, their heads pressed against the back of the last pew, stood to listen. A young woman with long blond hair nestled a toddler in her arms and hushed it with a finger.

From the pocket of her coat, Aldona Pilius took a sympathy card that a friend had given her over the weekend.

"In one sense," she read from the card, "there is no death. The life of a soul on Earth lasts beyond his departure. You will always feel that life touching yours, that voice speaking to you, that spirit looking out of other eyes, talking to you in the familiar things he touched, worked with, loved as familiar friends. He lives on in your life and in the lives of all others that knew him."

Then Aldona Pilius, having comforted those who had come to comfort her, returned to her pew and sat with the four little boys who are the sons from her marriage with Vito. She gave one of them a Calla lily to place on his father's casket.

This is a bitterly frustrating, frightening and infuriating story.

Kidnappings. Young men, one of them fresh from jail, go into parking garages to abduct well-dressed professional men, knowing nothing about them except that they apparently have jobs, and probably wallets. They rob them and force them into the trunks of cars. There is no ransom demand, nothing as rational as that. All they do is run up bills on stolen credit cards. In one case, they choke a Hopkins doctor and leave him for dead. In another, a jewelry designer escapes when he manages to pop open the trunk of his car. In another, the kidnappers kill their victim, a support engineer for Hewlett-Packard who had just left an appointment in downtown Baltimore. That's why there was a funeral at St. Alphonsus yesterday. Vito Pilius was the victim who did not survive.

One who did, Douglas Legenhausen, attended the funeral. He was the man who last Friday managed to pop the trunk of his car and escape and, in the process, lead police to their key suspect.

Yesterday, Legenhausen obtained a Mass card for the Pilius family and carried it with him to St. Alphonsus. He took a seat in the grand old church and listened to the Mass, the sermon, the Lithuanian hymns and Aldona Pilius' remarkable soliloquy. And he saw the little boys, as we all did.

"A lot of guilt," he said after Mass, stumbling over words to describe how he felt as he sat in the church, ravaged by the experience and the terrible could-have-been.

Last Friday, Legenhausen had parked his car in the same downtown garage where, it turns out, Vito Pilius had parked three days earlier, when he was abducted and later killed. "My car was in the same aisle, the same level as his," Legenhausen said he later learned.

He works downtown, as thousands of us do. He drives to work every day from a Baltimore suburb, as thousands of us do. This story is not about the degree of security in parking garages. It's about the degree of security in the hearts and minds of people who return to Baltimore each day to make a living and provide for their families. It's about people trying to come to grips with the specter of young men lashing out in a random and violent way for the sake of a joy ride and a fling with credit cards. It's more evidence of a human rot that makes us fear the city is crumbling beneath our feet.

"I worry that it's going to get worse," a business executive said two weeks ago over lunch at a fine restaurant with a view of the Inner Harbor. "With this recession added to everything else, all the problems that already exist that we haven't dealt with, I worry seriously about the resentment and violence building, downtown, right here."

"I don't know if it's the recession," a friend of the Pilius family said yesterday after the funeral. "What happened here was building for a long time, for 18 years." Eighteen years is the age of the man arrested in this crime spree.

"He didn't look any more serious than anyone else," Douglas Legenhausen said of the man who accosted him in the parking garage. "At least, I didn't take him seriously at first. I brushed him off as a panhandler. Then he showed the gun."

Legenhausen is having a terrible time with survivor's guilt. "I'm feeling pretty weird," he said nervously. Last Friday's daytime nightmare revisits him. But he's getting therapy now, and friends, relatives and customers keep calling. He couldn't bring himself to speak directly to Aldona Pilius yesterday, so he passed along the Mass card through a family member. Then he went back to work in downtown Baltimore.

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