This summer, Stephanie Olden of Pigtown goes on trial for destroying Jesus.
Her day in court may offer the last chance for resolving a neighborhood feud so heated it seems likely to be seared into urban legend. The tale of how Christ fell in Pigtown involves a 10-foot crucifix, a federal empowerment zone, a vacant lot and a slain barmaid.
At the center of the dispute is a mystery: What was in Olden's heart when she walked into the vacant lot last month and pushed the crucifix? The giant cross tumbled over and landed face down, scarring the legs and breaking both arms of the plaster Jesus statue that had been nailed to it.
For the next 13 days, it rained in Baltimore. Many folks in the 1100 block of Sargeant St. do not believe this is a coincidence.
"The crucifix is all that anybody is talking about here," says Helen Shadle, a 66-year-old widow, who believes Olden tried to wreck the crucifix. "I think God is punishing the neighborhood for what she did. It's such a sad story."
"My intention was to remove the crucifix, not to destroy it," says Olden, 37. "I made some comments I'm not proud of. But pressing charges and taking me to court? That shows you what has happened to the neighborhood."
Olden's personal history, in fact, offers a window on the gales that, in recent years, have blown Pigtowners apart.
She moved to Sargeant Street two years ago, one of a number of African-Americans to move to Pigtown after the demolition of the Lexington Terrace public housing complex. Olden, a recovering drug addict scared straight by a pregnancy six years ago, applied her Section 8 certificate to a quiet, well-kept rowhouse at 1104.
Some blacks, wary of their white neighbors, keep to themselves in Pigtown, but Olden plunged right into community affairs. Last year, she was elected vice president of the Southwest Community Council, the larger of two competing neighborhood associations. Olden also got a job with an Americorps program that operates out of the village center office, the local arm of the federal empowerment zone, a $100 million economic development initiative.
Ironically, her ties to the council and the zone made her unpopular on her block, which is dominated by longtime Pigtown residents. Several neighbors, expressing anger at the growing number of neighborhood newcomers in the council, aligned with the old-line Hearts of Pigtown, a rival association. And many Hearts members stopped participating in empowerment zone projects after the Hearts' president, Doc Godwin, lost his job running the village center after a long dispute.
Sargeant Street residents burn with frustration at the village center and people who work there, often lumping in Olden with those who work for the zone. If the empowerment zone means $100 million, why hasn't more of the money found its way to Pigtown? If the village center was supposed to build up the neighborhood, why can't it stop the city from razing perfectly good rowhouses, three in the 1100 block of Sargeant alone?
"The village center has been the scene of a lot of fighting between these neighborhood groups," says Mary Lou Kline, chairwoman of the village center board. "This thing with the crucifix has become part of that. It's a problem that could have been solved with conversation or mediation, but instead it just snowballed."
Melt away that snow, and at the center of the ball was a slaying this winter.
Teresa E. Ambrose, 35, was Pigtown royalty. Her father, Raymond Watkins, 57, grew up here, and runs the popular bar on Sargeant Street that bears his nickname: Rainbow. Terry, as everyone called her, was Rainbow's barmaid. She organized the neighborhood Easter Egg hunt and baby-sat other people's children.
The robbers came 20 minutes before closing. They asked her to empty the cash register, but she froze. The bullet entered her neck. The Shock Trauma doctors tried to save her, but she bled to death at 5: 18 a.m. Feb. 12.
It took homicide detectives two weeks to arrest four teen-agers. On Sargeant Street, neighbors took note: all four African-American, all four from West Baltimore.
The Hearts of Pigtown met in March. Ambrose, they decided, had died because of outsiders, and outsiders had let the neighborhood rot. Outsiders had killed lots of their neighbors. Brian Michael Jackson in September 1992. Gary Lee Helmick, a year later. The police shot Dominic DeFino in 1996. In the long, hot summer of 1995, someone killed Denise Anne Cooke for 52 cents.
All the victims were white. All the accused were black.
Cheryl Hesterberg, a bookkeeper who lives at 1108 Sargeant, was determined that the victims wouldn't be forgotten. The neighborhood would turn one of the empty lots left from the rowhouse razings on Sargeant Street into a memorial to Ambrose, and the four who fell before her.
The neighbors settled on 1102 Sargeant, next door to Olden, for the Teresa E. Ambrose Garden of Angels project. City property records list a dead man as owner, and the director of the Neighborhood Service Center, Jerome Stevens, said he wouldn't mind, Hesterberg says. Stevens denies this.
Neighbors filled 25 garbage bags with trash and construction debris. Supplies were supported, in part, by the tip jar at Rainbow's. They planted 100 different kinds of flowers. They gave Hesterberg small figurine angels for a memorial display; she kept them on a shelf, near an urn that contains her mother's ashes.
Next door, Olden watched the garden go up. She says she was happy to see the flowers, but she worried about living next to a garden dedicated to white victims of crimes by African-Americans.
The neighbors unnerved her, too. People who had once welcomed her, helped her get elected Southwest vice president, shunned her after the slaying. And then there were the strange phone calls, she says. A call to the city accusing her of child abuse. A challenge to her Section 8 standing. A call to her employer, wondering about her criminal record.
"It was harassment," says Olden. "I can't say who did it. I've tried not to say it was racially motivated. But why else would someone make those calls?"
Hesterberg says race had nothing to do with it. "She was not a good neighbor, and she didn't represent this neighborhood's views at Southwest Community Council or the village center. It makes me angry. We pulled together on the Garden of Angels, but everything since then has pulled us apart."
Ambrose and her fiance Louis "Van" Vanevera had been planning a June wedding. Since her death, he has buried himself in work. Vanevera spends the days as a glass installer in Washington. At night, he takes Ambrose's shift at the bar, the same place she was shot, the same place where, on karaoke night, he once grabbed the microphone and asked her to marry him.
He needs the money from bartending to keep the house they owned in Lansdowne. He has trouble sleeping, and says he spends nights looking at her picture, feeling anger. He says he sees little difference between Olden and the people who killed Ambrose.
"Those people, black people, took everything they can take from me when they took her," says Vanevera, 41.
On the afternoon of April 30, Vanevera was installing glass in a church on Northern Parkway when he saw the crucifix. He told the pastor about the memorial garden, and within an hour, the church had donated the monument, and Vanevera was lifting it into his truck. "The minute I saw it, something kind of shook my insides," he says.
Vanevera drove the crucifix to 1102 Sargeant St. That evening, dozens of neighbors walked over to see it. A minister from East Baltimore drove by. Rainbow Watkins saw it and teared up.
Olden knew none of this. She didn't know Vanevera. She knew only that someone had put a 10-foot-tall cross on the lawn next to her house.
The next morning, she brought Chris Ryer, the village center's land use coordinator, down to see the crucifix. Several neighbors sat on their stoops, talking about the gift. Godwin, the Hearts of Pigtown president, was there.
Olden was livid.
According to interviews with dozens of witnesses, Olden walked up to Godwin and began yelling that the crucifix should be taken down. "I am not living next door to a cemetery!" she said. The neighbors and Godwin -- who says he was angry in particular at the intervention of the village center's Ryer in a "neighborhood matter" -- yelled back.
Accounts differ, but Olden acknowledges that she used obscenities and one anti-gay slur. At one point during the 20-minute shouting match, she got so close to one man, Stephen J. Girod, that he used his hands to back her away, witnesses said. Olden says she was shoved, unprovoked. Finally, Henry Hettche, a retired truck driver who has lived on the block for more than 40 years, told her, "It's not going to be moved. You'll have to do it yourself."
At that, Olden disappeared up the street and into the vacant lot. No one saw what she did next. But by the time Godwin and others arrived, the crucifix was lying on the ground.
Olden said she had only been trying to move the statue. She and her fiancee, Willie Burton, tried to make peace. Later that day, she walked down to Rainbow's bar and offered to pay to fix the statue. Watkins wouldn't accept her apology. At the urging of neighbors, he says, Watkins decided to press criminal charges.
"I don't understand how anyone could have done this accidentally," says Watkins. "Who would do something like this? Black people, they're supposed to be pretty Christian."
Olden and her neighbors haven't spoken since. She says she won't pay unless they drop the charges -- malicious destruction of property greater than $300, which is punishable by up to three years in prison or a $1,000 fine. The trial is set for Aug. 21.
Both sides express some regrets, though not to each other. "In a way, I feel sorry about this," says Watkins. "I'm not sure if going to court will make it any better."
"I behaved terribly," says Olden. "I've got to take responsibility for what I did, and some of the things I said that day. But they've got to take responsibility for how they treated me. We're all guilty in my eyes."
There will be two fewer people in Pigtown soon. Watkins is trying to sell the bar and leave the neighborhood. Olden thinks she'll move. Folks on Sargeant Street say they'll be more cautious in getting to know new neighbors.
Vanevera has been visiting churches and artisans, searching for someone to fix the crucifix.
For now, the broken body of Jesus rests inside Rainbow's Pigtown Bar for safekeeping.
Pub Date: 6/23/98