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Evidence links pastor to drugs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore County police have discovered two crack cocaine pipes in the trailer of the Middle River minister found slain over the weekend and are taking seriously the possibility that the minister was a user or dealer of drugs.

James Thomas Wood, 24, of Abingdon in Harford County, was denied bail yesterday by Towson District Judge A. Gordon Boone Jr. Mr. Wood is charged with first-degree murder in the Christmas Eve stabbing death and robbery of the Rev. Samuel Booth Jr., 55, pastor of the Christian Faith Tabernacle Church in the 900 block of Middle River Road. The victim's body was found by church members in a trailer behind the church.

Mr. Wood said in a statement to state police the night of the slaying, after his arrest at an Interstate 95 rest stop in Laurel and later in a written confession, that he robbed "$77 or $78 from Mr. Booth and $40 worth of Mr. Booth's crack cocaine after killing him," charging documents said.

Mr. Wood told police he and the popular minister had shared crack cocaine in the past.

On Monday, homicide detectives returned to Mr. Booth's trailer home behind the church and recovered two crack cocaine pipes concealed in the bathroom, police said. Suspected drug residue was in the pipes and was being analyzed.

A police source involved in the homicide investigation said the evidence seized from Mr. Booth's trailer and police statements collected from people familiar with the suspect and the victim support claims by Mr. Wood that he and the minister smoked crack cocaine.

"We tend to believe what the suspect is saying about his relationship with Reverend Booth and their drug use over an extended period of time," the source said.

E. Jay Miller, a police spokesman, confirmed yesterday that "detectives are taking a harder and longer look at the cocaine connection between the suspect and the victim. We're looking at the possibility of other criminal activity."

Also recovered in the search of the trailer was a 6-inch kitchen utility knife. The knife was on the minister's sofa and is considered the murder weapon, police said.

Police said results of toxicology tests on Mr. Booth's body are expected in about 10 days.

Tfc. Jeffrey Eichorn of the state police reported he found crack cocaine fragments under the driver's seat of Mr. Wood's car after the arrest. State police also reported finding two crack pipes in Mr. Wood's back seat.

Donald E. Brand of Bel Air, an attorney representing the Wood family, would not address specific questions about the case yesterday. Mr. Wood was represented in District Court by a public defender.

Mr. Wood's parents "are grief-stricken regarding the death of Minister Booth and the arrest of their son," Mr. Brand said in a news release. "They are anxious to learn the truth of what occurred and intend to support their son during these trying times."

During his brief appearance in court yesterday, Mr. Wood displayed no emotion and said nothing to the judge. He was dressed in a navy blue county Detention Center jumpsuit, and he and three other criminal defendants were handcuffed together.

A records check by the court revealed Mr. Wood was convicted in Harford County of theft in February 1991 and was sentenced to five years suspended. He was placed on three years' supervised probation. Mr. Wood also was charged by Tennessee authorities with armed robbery in January 1989 but the result of that arrest was not entered into the court record.

His parents, Joyce Lee and Jack Wood, said yesterday their son lived with them and had been battling an addiction to crack, a highly addictive form of nearly pure cocaine that is smoked.

"My son was born again," said Mr. Wood, himself a minister for 33 years. "We do not condone what our son did, but he was going to Harford Community College next month and start studying to be a drug counselor.

"Sam went with my son to get drugs; my son said he went to Sam's many times to smoke cocaine."

Last year, Mr. Booth was charged with eight violations -- including drug manufacturing equipment -- after a raid by the agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and police on a house in the 600 block of Old Orchard Road in Bel Air, where Mr. Booth lived then.

Bel Air Police Chief Leo F. Matrangola said yesterday a search warrant was served on a house that Mr. Booth owned but shared with other people.

Agents found syringes, drug paraphernalia, scales and a trace amount of cocaine in a plastic bag, Chief Matrangola said.

Even though others were in the house, only Mr. Booth was charged, Chief Matrangola said. "As the owner, we thought he should have had knowledge of what was going on in the house," he said.

Harford County Assistant State's Attorney Scott Lewis recommended that the case be dropped, Chief Matrangola said. "We felt comfortable with that for the fact that Booth had moved out of Bel Air," the chief said. "We were satisfied he was gone and we had cleared up the drug problem.

"The reason we were not really concerned is that it was a minor possession case and the guy moved out of town."

Allegations of cocaine use or dealing by Mr. Booth have been strongly denied by members of his Middle River church. They characterized him as a man willing to help drug addicts with food and a place to stay.

One such member, Erlina Taylor of Edgewood, said yesterday she knew Mr. Booth when he was a child. And it was clear what his calling would be.

"Even as a young boy, he'd be out there in this little shed preaching to the other children," Mrs. Taylor said. "I've known him 50 years and he definitely was not a drug person. He helped those addicts. He fed them. He let them stay at his trailer. He gave the church everything he had," she said.

"I wish they'd cut this garbage out, what they are saying about my son," Marion Green, Mr. Booth's mother, said last night from her Harford County home.

Mrs. Green said her son was divorced 13 years ago and had remained single.

"He was so tied up with the church, but people were in and out of his trailer all the time," she said.

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