As the last residents of Wagner's Point accept a city buyout and slowly leave their homes, the tiny neighborhood in southern Baltimore's chemical belt is suddenly beset by unwanted new arrivals: looters.
During the past month, scavengers have broken into dozens of Leo Street houses, often within hours of the departure of their former owners. These intruders have been so methodical that their handiwork provides an easy-to-see record of who has left: the newly empty homes are clearly marked by shattered windows, kicked-in doors, smashed walls and splintered fences.
The vandalism and theft have coincided with an abrupt change in the appearance of what had been, until a few weeks ago, one of Baltimore's cleaner neighborhoods. Six-inch piles of trash fill the gutters. The streets reek of feces. Yesterday, a neighborhood dog named Mace nibbled at a deer's head that had been left on the corner.
"The neighborhood is terrible," says Betty Lefkowitz, a longtime renter who has been sweeping the 3800 block of Leo St. for years. "With people moving out, no one cares about this place anymore. So we're letting people destroy it."
Remaining Wagner's Point residents -- never reluctant to complain -- have been uncharacteristically sanguine. Police say they have had no specific reports about looting. But housing and public works officials have heard complaints, and said they are boarding up houses and working with police to stop vandalism. Southern District Lt. Barry Baker says officers were in Wagner's Point last night to check into the matter.
"We've been doing everything we can for the neighborhood," says George G. Balog, whose Public Works Department is acquiring neighborhood property for a sewage treatment plant expansion. "We are aware of this problem and we're doing everything we can to make the transition smooth."
The looting is the latest chapter in the breakup of a neighborhood that is in essence a collection of six extended families. After several highly publicized chemical accidents and cancer deaths, residents this year persuaded city, state and federal governments -- and two local chemical plants -- to fund the buyout of their homes and the relocation of all 270 residents.
Despite its environmental problems, Wagner's Point has been clean and safe by city standards, a condition reinforced by aggressive community leaders and the neighborhood's geographic isolation from the city.
Since the buyout began in the summer, about 20 of the 90 families have moved. Among the first to go were neighborhood association President Rose Hindla and several other longtime homeowners.
'I can't believe my eyes'
Temporarily flush with cash from chemical companies, many of these departing residents have bought furniture for their new homes in the suburbs. The old items they leave behind have proved a tempting target for thieves. Nearly every home has been stripped of possessions, down to the metal light fixtures and wiring.
"I can't believe my eyes -- the filth and destruction of the homes," said Hindla, who recently moved to a house in Anne Arundel County. "The way things are going, I would not want to be the last person out of there."
Of a dozen newly empty homes examined yesterday, all but one showed signs of looting. While playing in the neighborhood, Eric Skrzecz, 12, has witnessed thefts. Luxie Vance's old refrigerator was carried out. Wayne Gray's front door is gone. Hindla's house lost two air conditioners and a stove, and her front windows have been shot out. The backyard shed that Dave Long kept so neat has been torn apart, and his kitchen cabinets and appliances are gone.
'It's a different place'
Residents concede that much of the vandalism is being done by neighbors, but signs point to outside marauders as well. As a reporter watched during the weekend, two men from a pickup truck entered two newly empty homes in the 3700 block of Leo St., and emerged with several metal items. The Sun traced the license plate to an address in Brooklyn Park.
"I've seen people I never seen before coming into Wagner's Point and going into these houses," says Eric. "I guess the word is out."
For fear of attracting vandals, some residents have decided to move in the middle of the night, without saying goodbye to neighbors. Rich Rotosky has been sleeping in his new house in Linthicum for more than a week, but he shows up on Leo Street to pick up stray items and let looters know he is watching.
"For the first time in my life, there's fear of crime in the street," says Rotosky, 48, who had lived in Wagner's Point all his life. He has lost two sisters to cancer he blames on the surrounding plants -- one died last week -- but says he loves the neighborhood. "It's sad. It's only been a few weeks, but, you know, already it's a different place."
Pub Date: 9/27/99