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Police struggle to sweep elusive, illegal dirt bikes from city streets


They ride in packs, ripping through Baltimore neighborhoods with little regard for traffic laws or common courtesy. Sidewalks are fair game. As are alleys, parks and front yards.

Youngsters and dirt bikes -- a dangerous combination that is of increasing concern to residents tired of being drowned out and run off their streets by what is supposed to be an off-road racing cycle.

Police say some of the riders are drug dealers darting through narrow public housing pathways. Most are teens on speedy joy rides, flouting the law -- dirt bikes are illegal on Baltimore streets -- and evading the police, who acknowledge the scofflaws are hard to catch.

In April, a 6-year-old girl was dragged 46-feet by a dirt bike speeding down a walkway in East Baltimore. Kashmela Johnson spent nearly a month recovering at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

"When those dirt bikes come, you can't hear telephones, you can't hear doorbells, you can't read," said Ann Nichols, who lives on Pulaski Street in West Baltimore. "They are the most dangerous things made. I pray to God every day that someone stops them."

The plague of dirt bikes is hardly new -- and is not limited to the city -- but police and residents complain of the increasing brazenness of the young riders.

"The problem has been here ever since the invention of dirt bikes," said Capt. Michael P. Fitzgibbons of the Anne Arundel County Police Department. "It's gotten to the point now where the community doesn't want to stand for it anymore."

In Anne Arundel and Baltimore, as in most jurisdictions, dirt bikes are allowed only on private property.

In Baltimore, the City Council passed a law last year requiring dirt bikes to be registered, and police say they try to seize the unregistered cycles from homes where they are stored. The department even bought two off-road motorcycles and are using them in South Baltimore.

"It's very difficult to enforce," Col. Leon N. Tomlin, chief of the neighborhood patrol bureau, said at a City Council hearing in May. "They are kids. If you chase them and they hit something, they are going to get killed. . . . The only thing that can catch a dirt bike is a dirt bike."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke even took time at a recent news conference to warn residents that police would start an aggressive campaign. "We will go and seize these bikes and actually take them from the owners," he said. "Just trying to chase them isn't enough."

Many of the complaints come from residents in public housing, where drug dealers give their young couriers dirt bikes to run heroin and cocaine from one complex to another. One former resident of Lafayette Courts said a van used to pull up with a dozen bikes for youngsters.

In the early 1980s, Maurice D. "Peanut" King, serving a half-century in jail for running a $75 million heroin business -- paid children as young as 10 $500 a week to run drugs in Baltimore on a squad of mopeds.

The dirt bikes, however, are fast and elusive. "We don't chase them," said Maj. Cornelius J. Hairston III of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City police department. "They know that. They use that to the hilt. They are really causing havoc."

Housing Authority police said the girl injured in April at Lafayette Courts was struck by a teen-age drug dealer who stopped only to lift the bike off the injured child before speeding away. He turned himself in the next day.

The most popular dirt bike, according to two merchants, is the Honda CR-80, which sells for about $1,500 and can reach 50 mph. No license is required to buy one, though many bike dealers say they won't sell to anyone younger than 18.

"It is the perfect thing for getting around the city," said Andy Lagzdins, 26, the owner of Dirt First, a motorcycle repair shop in East Baltimore and former salesman. "You don't need a license. All you need is the money to buy one."

Mr. Lagzdins said the Honda is designed for off-road racing on an enclosed, dirt track. The knobby tires offer poor traction on pavement.

Bob Cunningham, a salesman at Marc's Honda on Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn Park, said many dealers are getting robbed tTC of dirt bikes. "They back trucks through the window," he said.

The salesman, who lives in Southeast Baltimore, said he hears the dirt bikes in his neighborhood virtually every night. "I just wait for them to crash," he said.

An informal survey of several district police commanders found that each has problems -- from Walbrook and Rosemont to Reisterstown Road and the Gwynns Falls Parkway, from the parks and railroad tracks in South Baltimore to Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore and Monument Street on the city's east side.

"Most of the complaints are because kids drive them so recklessly, and they are loud," said Maj. Gary G. Lembach, commander of the Southwestern District. "They go the wrong way on streets, ride on sidewalks -- they really don't pay attention to the traffic laws."

Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., commander of the Eastern District, said he relies on residents and surveillance to inform police where the bikes are stored.

"Basically, kids are riding in packs," he said. "Our problem is, we can't chase them. . . . Short of community involvement, there is not a lot we can do. We need parents to use discretion. Dirt bikes are illegal on the streets of Baltimore, so why buy your child one?"

In the Southern District, police officers ride a Honda 250 and a Suzuki 350, designed for on- and off-road use. Sgt. Victor Gearhart said the bikes are used on rough terrain, such as railroad track beds, narrow alleys and marshy parks.

"Kids will take their dirt bikes and go over the hills and cross country," the sergeant said. "An officer can't run after them. The cars can't pursue them. This gives us a chance to follow them where they go."

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