The 1700 block of E. Oliver St. could be any ordinary Baltimore venue on a hot asphalt day -- neat little rowhouses with windows agape, neighbors on their stoops watching life go by, children splashing one another with water guns.
But then there are other sidewalk details not uncommon in an impoverished stretch of the city such as this -- the sound of random gunfire at sunset that forces residents to cower in their kitchens.
It is a puzzling atmosphere in which the likes of Anthony Ayeni Jones rises to become one of the most vicious drug lords in city history, faces life without parole in prison when he's sentenced in August, and still garners respect in his neighborhood.
"He was a good person, he never done anything wrong. He didn't have a fair trial," said a friend of Jones, a 23-year-old woman who identified herself as A. Adams. "They have no idea how the ghetto is."
It's an urban phenomenon that is recurring as frequently as ever across the country.
From Al Capone to John Gotti, and now Anthony Jones, people are looking up to notorious criminals.
That it's occurring in Baltimore has community elders concerned.
Frightened that children are in danger of imitating one of the worst elements, they are calling for a return to spirituality and for the emergence of role models to steer children down the right course.
"In the African-American community, in the urban community, the answer is still the church," said Pastor Melvin Baxter Tuggle II, president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore.
"Sometimes society doesn't understand. The church still is the center."
It hadn't been for Jones. Based on his criminal record and prosecutors' arguments, he was a devious killer who ordered executions and ruled a $30,000-a-day cocaine and heroine ring.
But even as he was spared the death penalty Monday in federal court in Baltimore, many neighbors on the block where he once sold drugs held fast to their admiration for one of their own, portraying Jones in stark contrast to the murderous descriptions given in court.
To hear his friends and family tell it, Anthony Jones was just a good guy: He treated children to ice cream. He helped friends pay for college tuition and books.
"He'd say, 'Don't use drugs, don't sell them,' not to play with guns," said 20-year-old Natasha Harvey, sitting on a stoop on Oliver Street, attending to her 7-month-old daughter.
"He was a positive role model to everyone around here who knew him."
What is at play, sociologists say, is a complex community reaction to a suffocating life of poverty, unemployment, discrimination and distrust of the criminal justice system.
To survive, people in Jones' world feel they must rely on themselves and their own set of rules. Some call it the code of the street.
Anthony Jones lived by it.
"Probably this type of person is the embodiment of the code. He's admired for getting his 'props' by being violent, by confronting authority, by having heart, having nerve, really doing it his way, not by the white man's way," said Professor Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has written a forthcoming book on the issue called the "Code of the Street." "What we're really talking about is alienation."
But authorities dismiss abstract theory in favor of a more vivid description.
Jones, 25, convicted on charges of murder in aid of racketeering, federal witness retaliation and drug dealing, was so ruthless that he ordered the murder of a bit player, they say, for simply selling cheaper-grade cocaine in similar green-tinted crack vials.
"He's one of the most violent drug dealers in the history of Baltimore City -- without a doubt," said Detective Ed Bochniak, who investigated Jones' organization in the early 1990s.
"He was unbelievable, and I was messing with him when he was 17. Even then, he was a scary guy."
In the ensuing years, prosecutors say, he became numb to the violence he was inflicting, setting fire to one man, sending a lieutenant into a hospital in an attempt to kill another by using a hypodermic filled with drain cleaner.
"You must ask yourself how we, as a society, are to deal with an individual such as Anthony Jones, who is completely committed to a life of crime, who has killed for highly personal reasons of control and pride, who has manipulated the system and who stands before you completely free of even a shred of remorse," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie M. Bennett said in her opening statement of the death penalty phase of his two-month trial.
It is, authorities say, a paradox that makes sense: A man capable of unflinching murder can also possess redeeming qualities. Even a killer knows how to lay on the charm, spread goodwill and instill loyalty among his lieutenants and neighbors.
And however distorted, a drug lord can grow in status in his neighborhood, if only for his management skills in matters of fear and destruction.
"In many areas which are economically deprived, and deprived in social ways also, there is a tendency to look for people who are successful in whatever business, even if it's an illicit one," said Professor Diana Fishbein at the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area research program at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"Particularly youngsters need someone to look up to. There are a lack of role models, a lot of single mothers. And here's somebody who controls a drug market. And they're seen to be leaders. It's a completely different system of values."
Glorified criminals with an enterprising bent are abundant in American history.
The aforementioned mobsters Al Capone and John Gotti, and such criminals as Bonnie and Clyde, have an almost hypnotic hold on American culture. Western society, sociologists say, rewards the risk taker, the money maker, even the independent leader gone awry.
"Al Capone killed people, right? And a lot of people felt very strongly that he had good traits," said Maryland criminologist Faye S. Taxman.
"I think we tend to forget our historical roots. He took care of people in his organization. In many ways, he was a good manager. He expanded his market place."
The same could be said of Jones.
His boyhood friend, 24-year-old Brian Brooks, said that Jones was a good student in math and reading in high school, that Jones financially helped his friends from the neighborhood who went on to college.
"If you knew him personally, then you would know he was a nice person," Brooks said. "He wasn't what they portrayed him to be -- a killer."
Another neighbor, 22-year-old Towanda Adams, said Jones cared about children's education, urging her younger brother to stay in school.
Among his acts of kindness, she said: "He treated people to ice cream when it was hot."
And Jones' foster mother, Ruth, defended her son. "Anthony was about the best child I ever had," she said standing at her front door on Oliver Street, a gold cross draped across her neck and rage in her voice.
"I'm 71 years old, and I don't have no right to tell no lie. Anthony is a good child."
Jones was given up at an early age by a well-to-do couple from Nigeria. Growing up in more stable environments with different foster parents, his three older siblings have fared well.
When jurors opted not to sentence Jones to death, they cited among their reasons that he had had a difficult youth and his accomplices were spared the death penalty.
But not everyone in the neighborhood sympathizes with him. While many younger residents defend Jones, he seems to have less support from older generations.
"Keep him in there [prison] and let him know how it feels in there. Let him suffer," said a 55-year-old Broadway resident who declined to identify herself.
She's bitter about how drugs have damaged the community since she moved there 20 years ago.
"You can't use your living room and sometimes your kitchen because they start shooting at night," she said. "Everybody knows that."
Gurnie Edwards, 60, believes that Jones' departure has helped the neighborhood: "It's a lot better as far as [police drug] raids are concerned."
But Edwards said that drugs are still a way of life in the neighborhood, that dealers still sell drugs with impunity in daylight, that for every Jones, another young man will come along to take his place.
For some in Jones' old neighborhood, the only hope is to move out.
"My hope for my son [is that] he goes to school and goes to college and does something," said an 18-year-old sitting on a stoop, holding her 10-month-old child, Christopher.
"But not live around here. It's no way to live. Nothing around but a bunch of junkies."
Pub Date: 6/11/98