The matriarch of a powerful Gypsy family was found decapitated in her East Baltimore home yesterday morning, jolting a clan that traces its Baltimore heritage to the turn of the century.
Deborah Stevens, 62, who had worked as a palm reader and fortune teller out of her Pulaski Highway house for three decades, was a revered and respected member of what once was the most powerful Gypsy band in the nation.
Known to give refuge to caravans of Gypsies who follow carnivals up and down the East Coast, Ms. Stevens was related to King Dick Stevens, a national Gypsy leader who operated a Cherry Hill coppersmith shop from the 1920s until his death in 1959.
"They are in turmoil right now," said Preston Pairo Jr., a lawyer who represents the Stevens family. "It's a great loss to them.
"Right now they are unhappy because somebody killed one of their leaders."
Last night, police said they were questioning a suspect at police headquarters.
The unidentified man had been captured after a failed suicide attempt.
As word spread of the brutal slaying at Ms. Stevens' home and office in the 4000 block of Pulaski Highway, carloads of grief-stricken family members and friends pulled into a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot next door and watched as homicide detectives scoured the scene for clues.
A dozen relatives filled the small doughnut shop, grabbing one another for comfort and talking in their own language -- a mixture of Romanian, Middle-Eastern and Indian dialects -- as they peered through rain-streaked windows at the two-story red brick house that Ms. Stevens lived in for 30 years. A sign out front reads, "Psychic Reader and Adviser: Sister Myra."
"You want to say something nice?" one family member shouted at a reporter. "Find the guy who did this. If we had an idea, we'd go get him."
Police said the suspect apparently tried to commit suicide yesterday morning by jumping in front of an Amtrak train near East Biddle and Washington streets.
Howard Robertson, an Amtrak spokesman, said rail police went to the location about 11:15 a.m. after an engineer of a southbound Metroliner headed to Washington from New York reported that he may have hit a man on the tracks.
Officers saw the man, Mr. Robertson said, and chased him to Chester and East Biddle streets, where he twice tried to dive under a moving police cruiser. The man, whose name was not available, was arrested and turned over to Baltimore police.
Treated and questioned
Officer Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a police spokesman, would say only that investigators have received information that the man may know something about Ms. Stevens' slaying.
Police said the man apparently was not injured, but was being evaluated last night at Johns Hopkins Hospital before being taken to police headquarters and questioned.
Authorities released few other details about the homicide or the police investigation.
They said a family member discovered the woman's body about 9:30 a.m. in the living room near the front door.
Officer Weinhold said the woman had been decapitated, most likely early yesterday, but he would not release further details. Police said they had not found a weapon and had no motive as of yesterday evening.
Two panes of a living room window had been broken, and crime lab technicians could be seen dusting for prints around the broken frame. Detectives had the front storm door removed and taken to police headquarters.
While Mr. Pairo said the apparent motive was robbery, police said they were investigating all possibilities. One man at the scene told detectives that he saw a man arguing with the victim about 9:30 a.m., but police said that story was still under investigation last night.
Ms. Stevens, who moved into the house about 30 years ago, had lived alone since her husband died in 1979. Many members of the Stevens family are in the fortune-telling business, and own several such shops in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
"She was a loner," Mr. Pairo said, adding that there are about 150 Gypsies living in Baltimore. He said the Stevenses are the largest of three families in the city. "She was a grand old lady. She was revered highly and was respected by everybody -- loved and adored."
Ms. Stevens was a relative of King Dick Stevens, who died in his Eutaw Street home in 1959 at the age of 72. He moved to Baltimore at the turn of the century and became a citizen in 1904.
Until his death, he led an estimated 10,000 Gypsies from around the nation, and the Stevens clan was considered the most powerful in the United States.
"Dick was the king of kings," The Sun quoted a Gypsy leader from New York and New England in 1959. "There can never be another one like him."
His funeral was an elaborate spectacle that drew hordes of curious onlookers as the hearse, trailed by 20 cars of Gypsy followers, made its way through the streets of Baltimore to the Holy Trinity Russian Independent Orthodox Church and on to Western Cemetery.
A respected elder
Mr. Pairo said Ms. Stevens was one of the oldest women in the tribe, and was respected as an elder.
Funeral plans were incomplete yesterday, and Mr. Pairo said family members were discussing what kind of service to hold.
Neighbors said Ms. Stevens lived a quiet life, and they described cars with out-of-state license plates frequently stopping by.
Gary Lehnhoff, owner of Lehnhoff's Exxon, down the street from Ms. Stevens' house, said she has known the family of the slain woman for 20 years.
"I've seen them at carnivals -- they mostly run games, you know with water balloons and squirt guns," he said. "They come over here and buy gasoline or borrow an air tank once in a while. They're pretty neighborly."
Eva Sain, 87, who lives across the street, said she only knew Ms. Stevens in passing, once when they met on the street and another time when she baby-sat her goldfish when Ms. Stevens went on vacation.
Once, she thought about having Ms. Stevens tell her fortune. "I thought it would be interesting," Ms. Sain said. "But I never had the nerve."