The gunmen who opened fire Monday on an outdoor party in East Baltimore might have been hoping to silence witnesses to the murder of the man whose life was being celebrated at the event.
Four of the 12 people shot - including the one who died - have been identified by prosecutors in court papers as possible witnesses in the July trial of Tavon Dewayne Dixon.
The shootings also occurred after a series of run-ins between associates of Dixon and of the man he is charged with killing in November, Keith "Bone" Hamlet.
But police were hesitant yesterday simply to label the case an attempt to intimidate witnesses, saying there were other possible motives behind the Memorial Day shooting that ended a "Gone but not forgotten" party staged by Hamlet's mother.
The gunmen might have been retaliating for an escalating series of assaults and shootings between two camps of neighborhood rivals. The shootings also might have resulted from long-running disputes between competing area drug gangs, police said.
A spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office said the shooting was a police matter and declined to comment on whether the state's case against Dixon could be affected by it.
Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said witness intimidation was "the first motive we looked at" when officers responded to the sidewalk outside 2032 E. North Ave., where Hamlet's relatives and friends were shot.
But other police officials were reluctant to emphasize witness intimidation as the likely motive. In Baltimore, witnesses frequently recant or refuse to testify for fear of retribution.
Maj. Robert M. Stanton, in charge of the Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division, said officers are scrutinizing every possibility, and "to say ... we're looking at as many as six different scenarios is not a lie."
"Considering that this neighborhood is closely knit and everybody grew up together, witness intimidation by shooting somebody wouldn't be necessary," said homicide Detective Kevin Turner, the primary investigator of the mass shooting case. "They could just say, 'Look, don't testify because we go way back together.' Things like that. But anything is possible."
Police believe two men sprayed bullets into the crowd of about 60 people just after 10 p.m. Based on early forensic tests on more than 46 bullets and shell casings found at the scene, police believe that more than two guns - perhaps as many as six - were fired, indicating that some of the partygoers might have fired back at the assailants.
"There was an exchange of gunfire there," Stanton said.
Friends of Hamlet and Dixon - most of them lifelong neighbors who live within a few blocks of each other - have battled in the months since Hamlet was shot, according to court documents.
Their brewing vigilantism reached authorities' attention in January, when the wife of a Dixon associate was allegedly kidnapped and shot by one of Hamlet's cousins, Shawn Henry. Police have issued a warrant for his arrest, court documents show.
Lashonda Nisha Byers told police the men wanted her to reveal the whereabouts of her husband, Charles Lewis, and his friend Kevin Miller. Byers' kidnappers told her the two men were responsible for Hamlet's death, "and someone is going to die," according to court records.
In Monday's shootings, most victims suffered bullet wounds in the leg or hand, except Hamlet's mother, Sharon Evans, who was grazed in the head, and Lakeisha Moten, Shawn Henry's girlfriend, who received a fatal head wound.
There might have been other reasons for gunmen to shoot into the gathering: Court records show several of the partygoers have been charged with crimes ranging from drug distribution to attempted murder in the area of the 2000 block of E. North Ave. and the 1800 block of N. Chester St.
In March, police seized two handguns from 2032 E. North Ave., bags of marijuana and gel capsules of heroin. At a drug raid there five years earlier, police seized evidence that gave them reason to think of the two--story red brick house as a drug stash house: 79 vials of cocaine, 52 capsules of heroin, a loaded .38 Smith & Wesson handgun, more than $1,000 in cash and three walkie-talkies.
Shirley Evans, Hamlet's aunt, who lives at 2032 E. North Ave., was charged in both drug cases.
As of yesterday afternoon, none of the people named as state's witnesses against Dixon had accepted police offers of protective custody, Norris said.
Prospective witnesses told reporters they hadn't planned to testify anyway.
Oliver L. Reed, who lives at 2032 E. North Ave., said he was sleeping in the house when Hamlet was shot and killed in the living room in November.
"I didn't see anything," said Reed, 59. Reed said he attended the party thrown by Hamlet's mother Monday but went indoors before the shooting and started to watch television.
Derrick L. Fuqua, 21, said he, too, had no idea why he was listed as a witness. After Hamlet was killed, homicide detectives questioned him in their offices, Fuqua said, but he told them he didn't see Hamlet get shot.
Nor did he see the men who opened fire Monday, when he was injured, he said. His mother, Annette Rodgers, 41, said she briefly attended the party but left because she heard neighbors speculating that "beefs" between different groups of men might escalate.
"Someone carried it too far," Rodgers said.
Dixon's attorney, Leslie J. Dobres, said she could not comment on his case.
Dixon, who dropped out of a Harford County high school after his sophomore year, was charged in 1998 with attempted first-degree murder by Baltimore police. That case was eventually dropped by prosecutors.
Dixon, 20, has been trying to aid his defense in the Hamlet slaying.
In letters dated April 23 and 27, 2001, Dixon wrote Circuit Judge Audrey Carrion to claim he stands falsely accused and to ask for mercy when his trial begins next month.
"I am a defendant in the above matter," the earlier letter begins. "This is a dramatic moment for me. Because my dignity has been humiliated. But the reason why, I'm writing you is to. Ask you to have mercy on my freedom and half of my life."
Sun staff writers Gail Gibson and Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.
Course of events
Nov. 22, 2000: Keith Elmore "Bone" Hamlet is shot after being called to answer the door at his aunt's house at 2032 E. North Ave. Police charge Tavon Dixon as the triggerman and suspect others might be involved as well.
Jan. 9, 2001: Lashonda Nisha Byers calls police after three men, including Hamlet's cousin Shawn Henry, allegedly kidnapped her and shot her in the neck. Byers, 23, tells police the men wanted her to reveal the whereabouts of her husband, Charles Lewis, and his friend Kevin Miller. Byers' kidnappers allegedly told her that Lewis and Miller were responsible for Hamlet's death, "and someone is going to die."
May 28: Twelve people are shot outside 2032 E. North Ave. during a party to remember Hamlet. Most are shot in the leg or hand, except Hamlet's mother, Sharon Evans, who is grazed in the head, and Lakeisha Moten, Shawn Henry's girlfriend, who is shot in the head and dies a day later.