Undercover police officers have swarmed over Federal Hill and Otterbein for the past week trying to catch a group of teen-agers blamed for a series of armed holdups that has shaken the upscale neighborhoods.
They have arrested more than a dozen people on drug and gun charges, including a 12-year-old boy from West Baltimore who they said used a cap gun to rob five people in five days. Police are looking for four other suspects in the robberies.
A 17-year-old charged in five of the armed robberies told detectives his group targeted the area because of its affluence, police said. "The houses have garages and fenced back yards, and the houses look new," police said the youth told them.
The robberies occurred in two of the city's most fashionable neighborhoods, known for their restored 19th-century rowhouses, brew pubs, coffee shops and diverse ethnic food.
One result is that a business executive gave up trying to buy a $339,000 Otterbein home after he and his wife were robbed while strolling through Federal Hill.
And the crimes led to a controversial statement from police: Three officers told the executive it would be safer to live outside the city, while their colleagues were trying to arrest those responsible for the crime wave.
Some residents are afraid the robberies might scare people away from the neighborhoods.
"People don't have to live here," said Chris Rosenthal, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, who took exception to the officers' comments and is writing a letter of protest to the mayor.
"We live here because we want to," Rosenthal said. "We have other options. I'm starting to hear other people in the neighborhood say, 'Enough is enough. Do something or we're out of here.' "
The robberies began March 21, when the 43-year-old executive and his wife were robbed in the 300 block of Hamburg St., after dining at Sisson's and gazing at the city skyline from Federal Hill Park.
At least nine more holdups continued until March 28 in Otterbein and Federal Hill, with one near Rash Field. Included was an armed carjacking on Churchill Street, near William Street. In some cases, the robbers got away with hundreds of dollars. Once, they stole as little as $2.
Most of the victims were community residents robbed near their homes, including one held up in the 500 block of S. Hanover St., near a large, decorative wagon wheel between two secluded cul-de-sacs.
On March 28, police arrested 17-year-old Ronald Carter of the 1700 block of Riggs Ave. and charged him as an adult with five counts of armed robbery. The 12-year-old boy was charged as a juvenile with the same offenses.
Police said the two were arrested near the bottom of Federal Hill Park at Battery Avenue and Key Highway after they reportedly tried to divert the attention of a passer-by by asking him to point out the trail of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Monday, police arrested four other youths on prowling charges. Police said two of them are suspects in the robberies and that they were looking for four other robbery suspects.
Police said the youths took unregistered cabs, known as hacks, to the Inner Harbor from their West Baltimore neighborhoods. They walked to Federal Hill and Otterbein, robbed someone and then blended into the crowd.
Police said Carter told them that he and his friends were sitting around their neighborhood wondering what to do with their weapon and decided to rob someone at the Inner Harbor. According to police, Carter quoted a companion as saying, "I got some use for the gun."
Police said Carter told them, "We all came to the harbor. David pulled the gun out and pointed it at the guy. They took his keys and threw them, took his bag and credit cards and threw them on the ground. I gave him back two credit cards they were going to keep."
The robberies have hurt the neighborhoods. The executive who was robbed and then warned by police about the dangers of city living wrote a letter to his real estate agent explaining his decision to live in Baltimore County:
"In a few brief moments, the angry young man holding a .38 special only inches from my face convinced me that our lives would not be spent living in a city desperately working to remake itself into a viable and exciting alternative to suburban living.
"A shortcut home through an affluent neighborhood -- well-lighted and clean with distinctive charm -- was briefly interrupted by two young men demanding money, wallets and possibly our lives."
The police officers who have blanketed the two neighborhoods for the past week say armed robberies are uncommon in the area and that they hope the arrests end the spate.
Tuesday, Lt. Barry Baker had undercover officers walking the streets and parks, spying on suspicious characters and quietly watching residents to ensure their safety. The officers stopped a group of teens walking and carrying beer on South Charles Street and arrested a 13-year-old on drug charges in Federal Hill Park.
Watching women jogging alone and couples glimpsing the comet from the hilltop park, which offers a spectacular nighttime view of the city, Baker said, "A place like this should be totally secure."
A few blocks away, Sgt. William Eid was keeping an eye on a 16-year-old in Army fatigues, who for 45 minutes paced up and down Light Street, often intently watching people using the automated teller machine near the Cross Street Market.
Eid stopped the Cherry Hill youth at Montgomery and Light streets and found a loaded .38-caliber revolver in his front pocket as backup officers raced to the scene.
"It was just the way he was walking," the sergeant said. "He was looking for someone to hold up."
Pub Date: 4/03/97