Benjamin Chapman Jr., a panhandler known on the streets as Joe Cool, had a way with words, using sarcasm and insulting people who ignored his requests for spare change.
But did his taunts goad a man to kill him, plunging a knife in his chest as visitors to Baltimore's Inner Harbor watched in shock? Was the assailant simply fed up with panhandlers, or angry over something else? No one -- the police, the witnesses, the panhandlers who work the same area -- is really sure.
Mr. Chapman was panhandling near Redwood and South streets on Sunday evening, offering to watch parked cars in exchange for money. A man and woman approached him and spoke to him briefly, then the man thumped Mr. Chapman on the chest. Witnesses, who couldn't see a weapon in the assailant's hand, initially thought Mr. Chapman had only been punched.
"It was a little eerie," said Mark McDonnell, a safety engineer from New York City on his first visit to Baltimore. "It's definitely going to stay with me for the rest of my life."
Mr. McDonnell -- who says it's unlikely he'll ever come back to Baltimore -- said he and a female friend had just gotten out of his car about 6:30 p.m. when Mr. Chapman approached, asking for change.
"We said no, and he said, 'I knew you'd say that, I knew you'd say that,' " Mr. McDonnell said. "He was kind of rude, but I thought he was harmless. I've been through a lot worse than that in New York. Beggars come up to you every two blocks."
Moments later, Mr. McDonnell and his friend heard Mr. Chapman's cup drop.
Annetrea James, 24, on a trip to the Inner Harbor with her three young children, said she saw Mr. Chapman stagger across to the opposite side of South Street, clutching his chest. He grabbed the pole of a street sign and crumpled to the ground, dying from a stab wound to the heart.
"It was the first crime I'd really ever seen . . . it was awful," said Ms. James, of Wilmington, Del. "The kids weren't really looking at the time, but afterward they kept asking, 'What was going on?' and 'Who did it?' "
Mr. McDonnell and Ms. James were two of six witnesses, all out-of-town visitors. But police said no one was close enough to hear the brief exchange between Mr. Chapman and his killer.
The assailant is described as black, in his late 30s, between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9, with a heavy-set build, broad shoulders, a round face and dark skin. He wore dark shorts and a blue and white striped shirt, police said.
Sought for questioning
The woman was black, in her late 20s, and about 5-foot-4. She was heavy-set with a dark complexion; she wore white shorts, a white top and had her hair pulled up. Police are seeking only to question her at this point.
"Our witnesses said she seemed distraught right after the stabbing, so she may be involved in something she doesn't want to be in," said Gene Constantine, a city homicide detective.
Anyone with any information about the pair is asked to call the homicide unit at 396-2100 or Metro Crimestoppers at 276-8888; a $1,000 reward is offered.
With his long ponytail and a tattooed heart on his cheek, Mr. Chapman was a familiar sight in the downtown area. His friends thought he was from East Baltimore, but police couldn't find any relatives. Little was known about him except that he preferred to sleep outside, instead of in shelters. A criminal record check showed he had a long arrest record that included assault and battery.
The 37-year-old man often approached tourists as they parked in the South Street lot.
"He would sit there with an old plastic cup and tell the tourists, 'I'll watch the car if you can spare some change,' " said Detective Constantine. "Sometimes he could be argumentative if didn't get any money."
'Services' for spare change
Most of the panhandlers along the narrow streets just north of the Inner Harbor offer "services" with their requests for spare change -- feeding parking meters, washing windshields, watching over parked cars.
The panhandlers approach almost everyone. The only rule is to avoid those in their late teens or early 20s, who generally seem to be the most calloused and hostile.
Other panhandlers in the area said the slaying has scared all of them.
"I've been paranoid because if a person is that zapped, to go and kill someone like that, I could be next," said Jamal, who would not give his last name. "Any of us could be next."
The killing comes at a time when there seem to be more panhandlers in Baltimore -- and less tolerance. Arrests are up, and panhandlers report increasing harassment.
Lauren Siegel, a social worker and an activist involved with City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless (CASH), said she was asked just last week if people should fear panhandlers or homeless people.
"I replied that it's more likely the person in the streets is going to be victimized," she said. "He has no power, less access to a weapon and a lot more to lose."
CASH, which recently drew national attention by distributing "polite panhandling kits" outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, released a statement yesterday noting that the causes for such hostility are complex.
"Baltimore is not alone in being an increasingly hostile environment for the poor and homeless," the statement said. "As we struggle to abolish the conditions which produce and reproduce homelessness, we must also work to diminish the antagonism toward our less fortunate neighbors."
For the six out-of-state witnesses, it proved to be an unusual trip. First, they were driven around the area for about an hour, in an attempt to locate the killer. The group then spent part of the night at the city homicide unit providing statements, and didn't leave there until about 9:30 p.m. Detectives said they all decided to forgo the Inner Harbor and head home.
"It was late and after what we'd been through, we just wanted to go home," said Ms. James. "But we'll be back. Crime happens everywhere. . . . It's not going to stop me."