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Life as a snitch: Anonymous to the end, 'Possum' tells secrets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"You don't look so good," says the cop, smiling. "You look like death."

Possum nods, the gaunt face bobbing. The Virus hangs on him, hangs on everything in the rented room. Three decades of firing heroin and thieving and turning over criminals to police at $50 to $100 a head, but it isn't a penitentiary or a bullet or a lethal dose that claims him.

"Yeah, I been sick, you know," says Possum in a mumble, his stick-leg stretched over a table. "I been sick but I'm back now."

Possum, showing some life, talking about working. The cop smiles.

They go back about 15 years, these two, back to Possum's glory days in West Baltimore, to the heart of his long run as the best police informant in the city. Possum out on the corner, marking faces. Possum calling cops at their homes. Possum getting paid. In a vocation dominated by rank amateurs and opportunists, this man was a professional.

"He worked for everybody -- FBI, DEA, city narcotics, homicide," recalls Ed Parker, a retired detective.

"He gave us at least 500 escapees," remembers Leo Smith, who worked with Mr. Parker in the Baltimore Police Department's escape-and-apprehension squad.

"His information was always dead-on," says Willie Cole, now a city homicide detective. "If he told me right now to go kick in a door, I'd kick in that door."

Testaments for the twilight of a unique career. On this fading February afternoon, as Possum inches toward death in a second-floor rowhouse room, he sits listening to more of the same.

"Tell him about the thing you did with the FBI with the hats," says the cop, conjuring up ancient history. "You remember that?"

"Hats?" asks Possum.

"The thing where the agents couldn't find the guy and you went to the corner and put the red hat on the guy they were looking for."

Possum smiles. The hat trick. He starts talking, giving up little pieces of his life, but soon enough, the conversation ends at the place where Possum always begins. If he's going to talk, it's got to pay cash money.

"Well, so," he says, looking at the reporter, "how's your finances?"

'I'm a watcher'

Possum is what they called him in New York, up on Amsterdam Avenue, in the stretch of Upper Manhattan everyone knows as Little Baltimore. For years Possum harvested that real estate for the FBI, turning up dozens of wanted men who had fled north from this city.

In Baltimore he was known by another street name, equally colorful. Officially, the police department here knew him as Larry Johnson, a name used on the weekly vouchers for informant money. He died last month at 48, but fearing retaliation, the family requested that Possum's real name not be printed. An informant's obituary is strange indeed.

He was born in South Baltimore, on an alley street now buried under the new stadium. At 15 an older friend paid him a debt with leftovers from a $6 bag of heroin. He got sick that first time but stayed curious.

Two years later he was firing drugs 'most every day and earning his keep as an a-rab street vendor by day and a sneak-thief at night. He liked to come down the roof caps and skylights of stores in South Baltimore and Pigtown, collecting goods, then busting a window on his way out to obscure the true point of entry.

One night in 1958, a crew Possum had worked with and trained broke into a South Charles Street pawn shop, coming down the skylight but forgetting to break the window. A city detective, Nelson by name, noticed the open skylight.

"That's what led him to me," Possum remembers. "He asks around and finds out that I'm always coming down the skylights. So he comes by my house and I tell him it ain't me and he says to me, 'Okay, but then you know who it was.' "

Either Possum would give up names or he'd go to the Southern District lockup.

"I gave him the names," says Possum. "And he paid me a few dollars."

And that began it. Detective Nelson became his first contact, but soon enough he was churning out information on burglaries, robberies and fugitives.

"I'm a watcher," he says proudly. "I can watch people and tell things about them. I can look at a face and remember it. I would go 'round a-rabing, or in my truck, or I'd ride my

bicycle even, and all the time, I'd be seeing what's up."

One minute, a Jessup escapee might be in a crowd on Division Street, Possum hanging near him; the next minute he was cuffed, waiting for the police wagon. And no one ever put two and two together.

1% "I was careful," he says proudly.

Photographic memory

Possum and the cop who sits next to him on the sofa met 15 years earlier at the corner of East Fayette Street and Fallsway, a block from police headquarters. Possum for years had been working with a string of detectives and agents, but in 1976 he himself was an escapee, a walkaway from a Maryland work camp and a 7-year drug term.

The cop learned of Possum's whereabouts -- and his usefulness -- and offered a fair deal. He arranged to have the original drug sentence commuted and the escape charge dropped. Ever after, Possum worked for the Baltimore Police Department's escape squad.

"He met us on Fayette Street and when he showed up, he had his baby boy in his arms," remembers Leo Smith, a unit veteran now employed as a Goucher College officer. "All the while, he was talking with us, he was holding onto this baby."

Months later, when Possum trusted them, he told them why.

"I figured they were just going to lock me up," he says. "So if it was going to be that way, I was going to hand the baby to the cop that looked the fastest. Then I was gonna outrun the others."

Once the cops did right by him, Possum remained utterly loyal. That first day, the detectives showed him the blue binder that contained police photos of prison escapees and bail jumpers. As RTC Possum began to turn pages, a remarkable thing happened.

"Most guys would come up and look through the book and recognize someone every few pages," the cop recalls. "Possum would go down a page, saying, 'I know this one, and this one, and I seen this one here, and this guy too. . . .' "

And it was all true. The man had a photographic memory for faces, for clothing, for locations. A-rabing, buying dope, stealing copper piping or metal gutters and selling it to junkmen -- Possum had enough dodges to explain his presence in any neighborhood. He moved through the city ignored by just about everyone.

"He's the kind of guy that always blended in," recalls Mr. Parker, the retired cop. "And he always had a reason for being wherever he was."

In the beginning, Possum was turning in suspects he knew byname. But after a time, he simply memorized photographs from the blue binder and incredibly, found those faces on the street.

"He'd call up and say, 'One of your guys is up at Pennsie and Gold,' and he'd describe them. I'd call up the district and have them run a car by," recalls Officer Smith. "The guy would always be there. And if he moved to another location, Possum would call back to tell me that."

For his part, Possum had only two complaints. The first was the usual good-natured banter over money -- $50 to $80 a head -- some of which the cops paid out of their own pockets. The second complaint was that police often failed to get to the right corner fast enough.

"He couldn't get paid unless we caught the guy," muses Mr. Parker.

Possum had his favorite tricks, too. Witness the legendary hat story.

At times, Baltimore cops would put Possum on a bus and send him north to scour Manhattan's Little Baltimore for local fugitives. After locating one escapee, Possum called the FBI office in New York, but the agents kept coming down and grabbing the wrong guy.

Eventually, the frustrated informant collected a string of old hats and wandered down to the corner, rambling to the crowd there as if he were trying to sell head wear. As if trying to encourage a purchase, he put a red cap on the wanted man.

NB No sale, but minutes later the agents had the fugitive cuffed.

'I gave him up'

"Was there ever someone you wouldn't give up?" the reporter asks.

"One guy," says Possum. "My man Shad."

Shad was his partner on the junk truck, another Camden Yards native who spent years junking and a-rabing with Possum.

"What happened to him?"

"I gave him up," says Possum. "I never would have done it, but I found that he had been cheating me on some things. Cheating me even though we were tight."

Tiring in the late afternoon, the informant presses on, telling each story with the kind of pride that only comes from professional accomplishment. Most snitches are creatures of circumstance, men or women who find themselves facing one charge or another, then bartering their own freedom for that of another. Many are disloyal, incompetent or dangerously stupid. Quite a few get themselves killed.

"We never had to worry about Possum calling up to say that he'd robbed someone or shot someone, the way you did with a lot of informants," recalls Officer Smith. "In all the years I knew him, he only called me once, when he was locked up outside a city market for selling without a huckster's license."

Ed Parker agrees: "If he got into trouble, it would be theft or drugs at most. I guess it was the drugs that finally got him."

No violence, Possum tells the reporter, saving his darkest secret for the end of the interview. "No violence, but I killed two people once." He recalls a stickup artist in the projects who kept taking dope from him when Possum was trying to sell a little on the side.

"Every week he robbed me," he says. "And every time, he would take not only what I was selling, but the couple bags I kept in my pocket up here for myself."

After three or four robberies, Possum replaced the heroin in his shirt pocket with battery acid: "It took a couple days, but he eventually fired it and got dead right then and there. Another someone died because they fired with him."

Possum frowns. "I felt bad for that person, but hey, it's all in the game."

The interview winds down as Possum begins to fade, his eyes closing. He tells the reporter to call next week for some good information: "You tell me what it's worth," he says, then asks for an advance. "I need to run out to the store."

The reporter gives him $20. Possum pockets the bill, then offers a long, skeletal hand.

'I never knew'

"You ever hear of a guy named Possum?" asks the reporter. "A junk man?"

"He was an a-rab, right?" says Donald "Frog" Nelson, a westsider now doing time for federal drug violations. "Tall, dark-skinned?"

"Yeah. That's him."

"Oh yeah, I do know him."

"He died a few weeks back," says the reporter. "It turns out he was one of the best informants ever. He gave the city escape squad something like 500 fugitives."

Silence on the line.

"Were you ever on escape?"

"Fifty-eight days once, back in the seventies," Nelson remembers. "I was hanging on the westside but laying my head at the Flag [House] projects. They kicked in a door at the Flag and got me in bed. I never knew how they found me."

"Did you meet up with Possum before then?"

"I'm sure I did somewhere. He was always around."

A long silence.

I= "Possum," he says finally, laughing. "I'll be goddammed."

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