When the police pull up at Park Heights and Woodland avenues on a sizzling Saturday noon, the cocaine dealers are in their usual spot in the shade of the big maple on the corner.
Two beat cops step from their wagon, greet the dealers by name and inform them that they are loitering in a drug-free zone. It is a ritual familiar to both parties.
"I know you can get bailed out in six hours," says Officer K. S. Baskette, who has worked the area for six years. "But it's awful hot in that little cell."
After a couple of minutes trading banter, Steve Oglesby yields. "I think I'll just go sit on my porch," he says. He's more or less the boss on this corner, and the other dealers saunter after him. He stretches his heavy-duty frame across the top step of the house at 4805 Park Heights, the third from the corner. His chubby baby face frames four front teeth that are capped with gold.
It is only a tactical retreat. No one -- not the dealers, not the police, not the neighbors -- expects the cocaine trade to end here soon. Nor does anyone expect the accompanying violence to subside. Within a half-mile of this maple tree, the traditional epicenter of the neighborhood's drug market, there has been approximately a shooting per week -- and a murder every three weeks -- since 1988.
To understand the workings of the drug corner, its foundation in money and youth culture, is to get at the most important reason for Baltimore's soaring murder rate. Especially since the cocaine trade boomed in the late 1980s, drugs have provided thousands of young men with the money and motive to buy guns. Those guns have come to be used to settle every disagreement, however inconsequential.
As it happens, Steven B. Oglesby, 22, recently has beaten a murder rap, the 1992 shooting death of Michael Hope, 16, at a pay phone two blocks away on Delaware Avenue. The sole witness disappeared on the eve of the trial, just as a jury was seated.
Word on the street is that the witness, another young dealer named Shawn Dorsey, was whisked away to Florida by some of his drug-corner colleagues on an involuntary vacation. Without a witness, prosecutors were forced to drop the charges.
As Steve Oglesby, sitting on the steps, continues to banter with Officer Baskette, Stover Stockton mounts a bike and rides in lazy circles nearby. From time to time he lifts the front wheel off the ground in a boyish display of riding skill.
Stover N. Stockton, 22, is scheduled to go to trial this month in the death of Roger Aleong, 27, shot in 1991 in an alley a couple of blocks away. Witness problems have delayed the case repeatedly. Before the alleged partner in the murder was convicted in April, a reluctant key witness had to be tracked down by sheriff's deputies and held in lieu of $1 million bail.
To an outsider, the paradox of the drug corner is that the police can know so much and appear able to do so little about it. In fact, swollen prisons are testimony to how much the police are doing. The corner's climbing death toll confirms that it is not enough.
Neither Steve Oglesby nor Stover Stockton would talk with a reporter, except to deny that they have done anything wrong. From interviews with other dealers, police and neighbors, the drug corner emerges as a resilient economic force, a many-headed hydra that grows two heads for each one that is cut off.
Around Park Heights and Woodland, perhaps the oldest of a dozen drug corners that dot the neighborhood, the police know pretty much who sells what where. They see it happen, during hours of covert observation. They piece the story together from arrests. They hear it from informants, who are paid $25 for making a drug buy.
At this crude, street-level mall, the merchants are known by the colors of the tops of their $10 cocaine vials, a way the drug market builds brand loyalty. Graffiti sprayed in the neighborhood refer to "Red Top Boys" and "Blue Top Boys."
"It's like Datsun and Ford," says Officer John Morcomb, a plainclothes narcotics officer who has worked the area for several years. "They're saying, 'This is our product. If you like it, ask for it by name.' "
The Oglesby crew, police know, usually sells Red Tops and controls the east side of Park Heights and Woodland. The action shifts; in recent weeks the crew has moved a block east and a block south of the maple tree, to Virginia and Delaware avenues. Blue Tops are at Virginia and Pimlico Road, Black Tops at Pimlico and Wylie Avenue. For heroin, a customer must walk a block or two north, to Palmer and Oakley avenues or Palmer and Spaulding avenues. The marijuana purchaser goes farther still, to certain spots along Belvedere Avenue.
If the drug dealing is an open book, the related violence is only a little more mysterious. Informants keep police up to date on the shifting feuds and alliances among dealers and the hierarchy of the drug crews. They report which stickup men are targeting which corners. Often they can say who shot whom, and why.
But to prosecute a gunman requires credible witnesses. As the Michael Hope and Roger Aleong cases and dozens like them suggest, credible witnesses are a precious and volatile commodity.
"Informants will say, 'I'll tell you what happened, but I won't testify to it in court because I don't want to get killed,' " says Officer Dennis Raftery, who investigates nonfatal shootings in the city's Northwest District.
Even shooting victims often are disinclined to identify their assailants. "They don't want to tell me they were dealing drugs or buying drugs or owe money for drugs," Officer Raftery says. "A lot of times, they want to get revenge their own way -- by shooting the guy who shot them."
Look over a pile of nonfatal shooting reports from the neighborhood at the Northwest District police station and a familiar pattern emerges: The victim was walking down the street when suddenly he heard gunfire and felt a sharp pain. He didn't see who shot him and has no idea why anyone might wish him harm.
And toward the bottom of the report, penned in by the investigating officer at Item 57, Solvability Factor, will be one discouraging word: "Poor."
Of course, good police work and good luck conspire regularly to put a dealer behind bars. Eventually, many dealers who are not killed and do not leave the trade lose a gamble and end up with a prison term that takes them off the street for a decade or for life.
But this is where the most discouraging blow comes for police, prosecutors, politicians, neighbors, for all who want the social corrosion of drugs and shootings to stop. For every drug-corner kingpin who goes down, there are a dozen understudies ready to step into the void.
Money abhors a vacuum. In a booming mall, the space left by a closed shop does not stay empty long.
It was business
When Michael Hope got shot at the pay phone on Delaware last year, he had just left his old friend, Jesus Womack. Someone came running in and said, "Mike-Mike got shot," and Womack ran outside and down two blocks and found his friend lying on his back.
Womack identified the body for the police. There was a shotgun wound in the back of Michael Hope's head, a bullet wound to his left kidney, and five vials of cocaine in his pocket.
"We had on the same shorts," recalls Womack, who just turned 19, sitting at a table inside the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown before he was freed in August. "Lime green. A little darker than lime green."
What were his thoughts? Womack shrugs. "I thought, 'I could be next.' I was hurting, really. We were just too close," he said.
But two months later, he says, he contributed $7,500 toward Steven Oglesby's bail money. He didn't think Oglesby had really ordered the hit. And, anyway, it was business.
After all, for a kid recruited into the drug trade at the age of 12, violent death was a familiar acquaintance.
"During the summertime, especially, they start dropping like flies," he says. "In the summer there's nothing to do, and people get into beefs. Little beef over a female -- somebody's dead. Little beef over $15 -- he's wasted. Or something over drugs: I fronted him 5 ounces and he only paid me for 1."
Womack admits to taking enthusiastic part in the violence at times. He describes three occasions when he shot people, none of whom, he says, died. He describes two times when he sprayed gunfire at houses, once the house of a man alleged to be hassling a girlfriend; once the house of a kid who had robbed him.
He adds, candidly: "I just liked playing with guns, that's what it really was."
Asked about the people he's known who died of gunfire in the neighborhood's drug wars, he starts a list, composed mainly of first names and nicknames: Courtney, the Langley brothers, two guys named Rahim, the twin brother of one of the Rahims, Babytalk, Pork Chop, Junkie Tony. . . . The list grows during a lengthy interview, as he remembers and adds to the roll of the dead.
"I read the paper every day," says Womack, who reveals a quick and curious mind. "Two or three times a month I come across someone getting killed that I know." Last December, it was Corey Baker, 15, whom he describes as a quiet, gentle boy who had sold drugs for him "and wouldn't shoot a fly." In January, the victim was Scooter Toles, 16, a childhood buddy who used to meet him at the laundromat on Park Heights, where the two would do their families' wash.
His mother named him Jesus ("hay-soose"), but in the neighborhood nobody bothered with the Spanish pronunciation. They called him Little Jesus, or Black Jesus or, later, when he started flaunting his drug profits, G-Money. At 12, he began sneaking out of the apartment after midnight to watch the dealers lined up along a wall in the courtyard of Thorndale Apartments, a notorious drug hot spot.
"One time a guy asked me why I was up so late. I said I was just interested. A couple of months later he said, 'I'll give you $100 to hold my stash,' " he says. Soon, he was serving customers himself with $10 plastic bags of heroin. His mother moved the family out of Thorndale Apartments to Park Heights Avenue, but he kept selling for the same dealer -- who ultimately was murdered.
When Womack was arrested, the older dealers would send a junkie to the Northwest District to play the role of his "father" and sign the release papers, sometimes cursing him and slapping him in front of the officers for the sake of verisimilitude. His real father had long ago moved to Virginia Beach, and he rarely saw him.
Womack's record is answer to the natural question: If the police know who these guys are, why don't they lock them up? The answer is, they do. Long before his current two-year prison sentence for drug and gun convictions, Womack went away twice for extended periods: 13 months in a forestry camp in Western Maryland; 11 months at the Charles Hickey School for delinquents in Baltimore County.
'Fishscale' and 'butter raw'
The way he tells it, he returned from Hickey in 1991 half-thinking he'd get out of drug dealing before he got killed. But the booming cocaine business at Park Heights and Woodland changed his mind.
"These guys got pumped up while I was gone. I saw cars, jewelry, money, females," he says. "I saw the activity and I was impressed." On a big day -- especially "check day," when welfare checks arrive -- the dealers would gross $20,000 or more.
Jesus started "juggling," building up gradually by reinvesting drug profits into the purchase of steadily larger quantities of drugs. Within a few weeks, he says, he'd gone to Virginia to purchase a second-hand Nissan 300ZX. For the next 18 months, he says, he worked long hours in the drug trade.
For a supply of cocaine, at first he had to go no farther than a motel near the Beltway on Baltimore National Pike, which he said had virtually been taken over by drug wholesalers. He would go to a certain room and give a coded knock to be allowed in. A Hispanic dealer, whom Jesus believed to be Colombian, presided over a table covered with cocaine: a kilo each of "fishscale," "butter raw," "pink and white" and "brown" -- varieties of cocaine nicknamed for their appearance.
The wholesaler's guards, who had assault pistols in their belts, would pat him down and take his gun and ammunition for the duration of the transaction, Jesus says. He usually bought one-eighth of a kilo at a time, for $2,000 or so.
After perhaps a score of purchases, the motel wholesaler closed up shop, and Jesus began to buy "upstate" -- in New York City, where most Baltimore dealers find their suppliers. Using addresses and phone numbers supplied by fellow dealers, he generally would recruit to travel with him a female friend he believed was not known to police. If they drove up, the courier would take the train back separately.
"I'd try to use a new [courier] every time. I'd pay $350 or $400, or give them a new set [of clothes] or new tennis [shoes] or whatever," he says. "You got to know them real well, else they'll set you up for a robbery."
A kilo purchased for $17,000 or $18,000 could generate $50,000 in street sales -- 40 percent of which would go to young street salesmen. That would leave a profit of $10,000 or more to be spent or reinvested in the next kilo, Jesus says. The profits paid for clothes, cars, meals, motels and vacations for the dealers and girlfriends in Miami and Hawaii.
Arrests were an unavoidable inconvenience and expense of the drug corner. Every arrest meant posting bail and paying a lawyer; the Woodland drug crew routinely relies on the services of Baltimore attorney Stanley Needleman. Such costs add up. At his last arrest, Jesus says, he was free on bail in seven other cases.
At 19, Jesus Womack acknowledges, his life has been so entangled in drugs and guns that he finds any other life hard to imagine. Lawlessness is an old habit, even apart from the drug trade: He drove regularly, he says, even though he has never had a valid adult license. Of a score of young men selling around Woodland who drove, "only about three" had valid licenses.
Sitting in prison, pondering his future outside, he mentions that he has a girlfriend who wants him to quit dealing. Curious about other ways of making money, he asks a reporter about newspaper work.
Is it too late to turn his life around? His criminal record is considerably more impressive than his resume, which consists chiefly of a high-school equivalency certificate. His mother's home is just three doors up Park Heights from Woodland, where drugs are part of the landscape. Jesus' sister, Anissa, 17, was caught at Penn Station last March, bringing 9 ounces of cocaine back from New York to the Woodland drug market. Jesus' mother, Harolynn James, opens her rented house to the Oglesby drug crew; it was to her steps that Steve Oglesby retreated when challenged by the police.
When a reporter asked her why she tolerated the dealers, Ms. James replied: "I go along with the Bible. I just accept that we're living in the last days. I try to let people know that drug addiction is not the way to eternal life."
She added, gesturing at the knot of dealers nearby, "I'm like a mother to them."
'Killing each other'
Every once in a while when the pay phone rings at the corner of Park Heights and Virginia, a block south of Woodland's maple tree, whoever picks it up will hear a familiar voice say: "It's Cookieman." And the teen-ager will oblige him with the latest news and gossip from the familiar cast of dealers, enforcers, junkies, girlfriends and cops.
Like a retiree who cannot let go of the old workplace, Alan S. Snead likes to keep in touch. He can't visit. At the advanced age of 26, he's doing a term of double life plus 40 years at the annex of the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, one of many state prisons overcrowded with other drug industry retirees.
Alan Snead's story shows just how fleeting the impact on the drug corner is when bullets or prison carry off a particular dealer, even a big one. His truncated career attests to the impermanence of the players and the permanence of the corner. As when a family business passes to the next generation, there may be transitory conflict and a new set of faces, but soon everyone settles back down to the pursuit of profit.
Before he was convicted of shooting to death two men on Woodland in the summer of 1991, Alan Snead was the big man at Park Heights and Woodland. Steve Oglesby was just another of the younger guys, he says, part of a little crew known for their initials as "KSG." Womack was even younger, "one of the little kids I used to pay a dollar to to get off the corner."
Snead, whose nickname started with a childhood incident in which he swiped his uncle's cookies, speaks of the old days with nostalgia for rush hour under the maple tree.
"When everybody was out there, it was jumping," he says. "It was like the 4th of July down at the Harbor."
He drops references to his Mercedes 400, his Volvo 780, his Nissan 300ZX; craps games with $6,000 piled on the sidewalk; basketball games for $1,000 a man. He says he's been shot four times, and hints that he gave as good as he got.
"Cookieman," he says. "You ask anybody about the Cookieman."
But late in a four-hour interview, his tone shifts. Things are getting worse out there, he says. The hoppers, the youngsters, don't care who they shoot. The bravado is suddenly gone, and then Alan Snead reveals why.
His little brother, Troy Snead, 21, whom he introduced years ago to the drug corner, was shot dead near the Druid Hill Park pool one night in June. He learned the news from a prison TV, he says. They wouldn't let him out for the funeral.
"It ain't worth it," Alan Snead says. "There's only a couple things that can happen: You can get killed. You can get somebody in your family hurt. Or you can go to prison for life, like I did."
He watched four people die on Woodland Avenue and maintained the stony demeanor demanded by drug corner rules. Now, his brother's death has stirred old emotions.
"You ain't as hard as you think you are," Snead says. "You feel. You can watch your worst enemy get his brains blown out, and you feel something. You might say, 'Another one bites the dust.' That might be the words coming out of your mouth. But that's not what you feel."
The drug trade, he says, "is self-destruction for blacks. We're killing each other over nothing."
Who's to blame? he is asked.
He hooks two thumbs toward his chest.
"It's guys like me," he says. "No one put a gun to our head and said, 'Sell the stuff.' I say I'm to blame, because I always knew what I was doing was wrong."