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Drugs and violence claim their own turf; Neighborhood: Resettled gangs escalate the misery and terror for residents in O'Donnell Heights, Baltimore's "concentration camp."


It has gone beyond the daily echoes of gunfire and the lines of addicts who stagger up Gusryan Street looking to cop their next cap of crack. That has been going on so long in the O'Donnell Heights housing project that it has become a way of life.

What frustrates people is the loss of simple amenities. The phones often die because dealers cut the lines to prevent calls to police. Cable television goes out because the outside boxes are pried open to hide cocaine. The streets are dark because the lights get shot out.

"Now you have to worry whenever you open your door that someone is behind it, ready to blow your brains out," said Shirley Dorsey, who lives in this sprawling public housing project on the southeastern edge of Baltimore.

Life has gotten more dangerous for the people who call O'Donnell Heights home.

Last Sunday's execution of five women in Belair-Edison began as a botched drug deal in this development isolated by a confluence of interstate highways.

The four young men police have charged in one of Baltimore's worst mass killings -- in which members of three generations of a family were shot -- frequented or lived in the Heights.

Even with three of the four suspects in custody, police are worried that violence could escalate as friends retaliate for a killing spree labeled an "atrocity" by the police commissioner.

One of the men charged was found with his throat slashed 90 minutes after his photo was splashed over the nightly news.

Detectives believe the women were killed to send a deadly message to their drug-dealing relatives.

Last week, police swarmed the Heights and its 62 acres of white clapboard dwellings -- rowhouse-Quonset hut hybrids laid out like Army barracks -- grabbing dope pushers and crack addicts as they searched for the fourth shooting suspect.

"I got a feeling he's in this development right now," said Housing Officer Douglas L. Smith as he slowed his cruiser in front of a house on Urban Way where the suspect's aunt lives.

"These guys have nothing to lose."

Temporary wartime housing

O'Donnell Heights was built in 1943 as a temporary shelter for wartime steel and aircraft workers. It was one of 11 projects built in Baltimore by the federal government to house workers at Bethlehem Steel, Martin Aircraft and Edgewood Arsenal.

Many such developments were demolished at war's end or rebuilt to make them attractive for families who needed assistance, but the Heights remained virtually unchanged.

Millions in grant money went to Brooklyn Homes, Armistead Gardens and Westport Homes, but none made its way to Southeast Baltimore.

For more than 20 years, the development at the end of O'Donnell Street remained an all-white project known as "Hillbilly Heights."

Authorities called out the National Guard when integration took effect in 1967. It remains one of the few integrated projects in the city.

Problems have persisted for years. A 1978 Sun article chronicled the "city's forgotten edge" and noted not only crime and rampant drug dealing, but also stagnant pools of water, eroding lawns, peeling paint, backed-up toilets and weeds growing out of cracks on playground asphalt.

Tenants then described their community as a "concentration camp."

Today, the city's second-largest public housing complex in terms of acreage, with more than 2,000 residents in 800 dwellings, remains poor. The average family income is $5,400 a year.

City and housing officials have tried programs to turn O'Donnell Heights around. A Police Athletic League is routinely packed with children who have free access to computers, books and tutors. A day-care center opened to help single mothers find work and take care of their children.

Changing the streets

Officials tried altering the directions of the streets to confuse drug sellers and their customers and to make it easier for officers to see the criminals before being spotted by lookouts. One-ways headed east were changed to westbound, and those headed north were changed to southbound.

The community has long been a haven for drug dealers because of its location near highways and Dundalk, Essex and Middle River in Baltimore County, just outside the city.

A traveler can get off Interstate 95 and be on Gusryan Street in less than a minute, never having to pause for a traffic light.

Police say most of the addicts arrested come from the suburbs.

Tear it down and rebuild

"I don't know what can be done except to level the place and build it again," said Detective Christopher Graul of the Baltimore Police Department, who investigated two warring O'Donnell Heights gangs for a federal drug task force.

The Nickel Boys, so named because they sold enough $5 packets of cocaine to gross $40,000 a day, disintegrated during an eight-week trial at the U.S. District Courthouse that ended last month.

More than a dozen gang members with nicknames such as Cheese, Sleepy, Bunky and Fonz went to prison, each sentenced to 20 years to life.

They started out small in Dundalk and hit it big in O'Donnell Heights, sending girls to New York with $50,000 bundles of cash to buy cocaine and heroin from Dominican suppliers.

Prosecutors outlined in horrific detail brazen homicides by young men who killed the father of a rival and then executed a star high school quarterback whom they mistook for a rival enforcer.

One dealer used his earnings to buy a black Mercedes Benz for himself and a purple BMW for his wife.

Commerce abhors a vacuum

With the Nickel Boys gone, other dealers stepped in. Contributing to the tension, residents say, were the recent closings of the Murphy Homes high-rises and the Lafayette Courts and Hollander Ridge projects.

Many displaced residents were moved to O'Donnell Heights.

"When you put one set of projects in another, you are going to have more rival gangs around," Dorsey said. "It can be an argument over a pair of tennis shoes and the guns will come out."

Police said the new dealers, including members of the family targeted in last Sunday's shootings, were a ragtag group of low-level street pushers with no allegiances and no knowledge of how to build a fluid organization.

Moving to a better life

Mixed in with this disjointed band were members of Mary McNeil Matthews' family, who lived on Cavendish Way, a street controlled by dealers for years, police and neighbors said.

Upset that drugs were taking over, Matthews, who mentored elementary school children, moved her children from Elliott Way in the Heights to the more secure Elmley Avenue in Belair-Edison.

"She was a good person," said a 60-year-old woman who has lived in O'Donnell Heights for a quarter of a century and, like most residents interviewed, was too frightened to give her name. "She moved to make a better life for her family."

Police said her new house on Elmley Avenue continued to be used to harbor narcotics. Detectives allege that more than 2 pounds of cocaine moved from the dwelling to mid-level drug distributors each day.

Debt paid in blood

A drug dispute erupted involving old friends from O'Donnell Heights. Police said four men with two guns came to Elmley Avenue last Sunday night looking for owed drug money.

Finding none, they began shooting.

Mary Helen Collien, 54, was killed in the kitchen. Shot and killed on a bed in the basement were Collien's daughter, Mary McNeil Matthews, 39; her granddaughter Makisha Jenkins, 17; and family friends Trennell Alston, 26, and Lavanna Spearman, 23.

Collien's grandson and Matthews' son, Tavaris McNeil, 22, was killed the same night near an apartment complex on Goodnow Road in Northeast Baltimore. His body was found the next morning by children walking to an elementary school.

New sense of fear

The killings made national news and instilled a new sense of fear in O'Donnell Heights. Police searching for the suspects staked out homes of girlfriends, aunts and mothers.

Though none of the wanted men was arrested in the Heights, many were spotted lurking on the dark "cuts," the name given to pathways that slice through the long rows of apartments, making it easy for dealers to hide from police.

Police got a tip Thursday that Robert Bryant was outside his girlfriend's house on Urban Way. He wasn't found.

A city police officer reported questioning Tavon McCoy at a carryout near the Heights a night before he was arrested last week. The officer said he released McCoy, not realizing he was a suspect in five killings who was being sought in a highly publicized manhunt.

Many residents interviewed said they will remain indoors until all four suspects are apprehended. But warnings by police couldn't keep the most hardened addicts from trying to score.

"Over there is black-tops," a teen-ager yelled to a man on a bicycle Wednesday afternoon, referring to the color of the cap of a crack vial. Dealers use different colors to distinguish their products.

"Naw, that stuff is no good," the man replied, pedaling on in search of a better high.

For the most part, the addicts straggle in from outside O'Donnell Heights. A police sting several weeks ago yielded 20 suspects, 18 of whom lived in Baltimore County.

Thursday night, with the search for Bryant in high gear, housing officers Smith and his partner, Roderick D. Jackson, pulled up the man on a bicycle searching for crack six days before his 41st birthday.

The Harford County resident, living temporarily with friends in Dundalk, first told the officer he was cutting through the Heights to get to a convenience store.

"I'm not looking for trouble," he said.

Smith didn't buy it.

"If you're here for any other reason, be a man and tell me," the officer shouted. "I'm not going to lock you up for being honest."

The man admitted his drug quest and said he had heard about the shootings of the women and that two of the suspects lived a block from where he was standing.

"I didn't expect to find anything because of the recent trouble," he said. Pleading for leniency, the man gave the street addict mantra: "I'm not part of the problem. I'm just trying to support my habit."

Smith angrily replied: "You certainly are the problem. This is a community, and people live here. If you didn't come here to buy drugs, these guys wouldn't be out here selling."

A pocketful of twenties

Guys like the 16-year-old Smith and Jackson had questioned earlier on Toone Street. Ordered to empty his pockets, the teen-ager pulled out a portable compact disc player, headphones and 30 $20 bills.

An early Christmas present from his mother, the boy told the officers.

Proceeds from selling dope, the officers responded.

Finding nothing illegal, the officers allowed the youth to stuff his money into his jeans and walk away. He disappeared down a path left dark by bullet-shattered streetlights.

A day earlier, John Brown, a maintenance worker for the city housing department, had stood near that spot, called "The Hole," shaking his head.

"Baltimore City should be ashamed," he said.

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