For Detective Michael Baier, it's the start of another investigation, another day of

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Detective Michael Baier pulls his unmarked Chevrolet Cavalier to a stop outside Johns Hopkins Hospital and hurries inside, weaving through the corridors until he finds the emergency room. Inside, a large man is lying on a table. Two doctors raise one of his legs, examining a gunshot wound. Another sticks a tube into his neck, while a nurse probes a hole in his left arm.

One of the doctors looks at Baier and makes a circle with his index finger and thumb. "The wounds are this big," he says. Baier nods.

Baier, a police detective on the shootings squad in East Baltimore, knows the man on the table. His name is Troy Kane. He's a 22-year-old civilian employee in the central records section of the Baltimore Police Department. Kane, a hulking man at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, had been shot twice on a dimly lit street in East Baltimore a few hours earlier.

After 10 years on the force, and more than four years investigating shootings, Baier knows that now can be the best time to ask questions of shooting victims, a notoriously tight-lipped bunch. Sometimes, when they think they are going to die, they actually talk.

"What happened?" Baier asks, and Kane begins to mumble, barely audible through his oxygen mask.

He and some friends were driving by Rose Street after going to a Southeast Baltimore nightclub, he tells Baier. They wanted him to stop, so he did. All three got out. Someone asked Kane for a cigarette. Then another man approached with a gun. Kane "tussled" with both men and fell to the ground. He got shot with a .357-caliber handgun. One man was wearing a camouflage mask and hat. The other was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans.

Kane knows only the first name of one of the friends who was with him. He doesn't know the name of his other friend at all or where he lives.

Baier jots down some notes, tells Kane they'll talk again soon, and heads back to the Eastern District police station on Edison Highway.

It's his first interview in this case, but already Baier knows he's in trouble. His victim doesn't know the names of his "friends." There were no shell casings at the scene, meaning the gunman probably used a revolver and the detective has one less clue. One suspect was wearing the uniform of the street: a white T-shirt and blue jeans. The other was masked.

But Baier also has gotten lucky. He's picked up a lead: a pager recovered at the crime scene. Maybe it belongs to the shooter, Baier thinks optimistically. Then, about "2,000 questions" surge into his head.

First, the detective is perplexed: "Why [would anyone] mess with this guy? He's 300 pounds," Baier thinks. "There must be a reason. What is it?"

At the station house, he sits down, alone in the cluttered and humid squad room, sips cola and munches on chocolate. It's a little after 5 a.m., his second night on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, a grueling schedule that will continue for five more nights. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. "Damn it," he mutters.

The night, the victim, the neighborhood, the guns, the lack of witnesses and clues -- the daily fare of a cop's life in the Eastern District -- weigh on him.

"I'm sure the victim won't be any more help and I'm sure his 'bunkies' won't help either," he says. "How do you hang with boys and don't know anything about them?"

Baier writes up a few reports, then goes to the board where detectives jot down information about their pending cases. For the Kane case, Baier writes the case number, Kane's name, the address and date. Then he adds: "Need w / s [witness] hope and prayer."

At 40, Michael Baier is 6 feet tall, thin, with blond hair and a weathered face. You probably wouldn't guess he did some modeling before he joined the department. That was when he was 30, a good deal older than most new police officers. He thought it might be a fun job, a job where he could "do some good."

He grew up in a conservative Northeast Baltimore household with four brothers and a twin sister. His parents drilled self-reliance into him at an early age, making him pay his own way through Archbishop Curley High School. After graduating, he worked in construction, as a meat cutter, and did some modeling for print advertisements. He married young and had two children, got divorced, remarried and had two more children -- daughters, a 10-month-old and a 3-year-old.

After joining the force, he spent some time in patrol and as a detective, then joined the Eastern District shootings squad in May 2000, when police commanders moved shootings detectives into the districts, hoping to solve more cases by putting them closer to the action. The plan was for them to become steeped in the neighborhood life, to know the stick-up men, the dealers, the snitches, the rivalries, the nicknames.

Baier knows the game. He speaks the language of the street, tossing slang and expletives together, using nicknames to try to make informants and witnesses feel more at ease. He dresses casually -- no ties out here -- and even wears a diamond stud in his left ear, a reminder of his days in narcotics.

He's worked in the Eastern District for much of his career and knows by heart its mostly blighted 3.7-square miles. Even though it is the second smallest of the city's police districts, and only about 4 percent of the city's land mass, the Eastern has long been known as one of the roughest. This year, it's accounted for about 22 percent of the city's 545 shootings and 12 percent of its violent crime. Baier agreed to let The Sun follow him on the job over the course of a month, provided that names and identifications of some victims and witnesses were kept confidential to protect them.

In the Eastern District, as in many parts of Baltimore, police are up against a major foe in solving crimes, from burglaries to shootings to homicides: a culture that tends to supports drug dealers, where detectives are often greeted by hard stares and antipathy. Shooting victims, frightened for their lives or distrustful of police, often seem to read from the same script: "I was walking down the street. I heard gunshots. I felt a burning sensation. I was shot. I don't know who shot me."

It's a line detectives assume is a lie. It usually means the victim is not interested in helping them lock up the shooter, a would-be killer with bad aim.

Shootings, in fact, are tougher to crack than homicides, detectives say, because dead souls evoke sympathy from relatives and strangers. Living victims lie, sign affidavits denying a suspect shot them, throw police off the trail of the real shooters. Other potential witnesses shrug their shoulders: If the victim doesn't care about being shot, why should we?

With the lack of a flesh-and-blood suspect in so many cases, detectives have come up with a nickname for the Eastern District: "Area 51," after the secret government installation in Nevada where UFO enthusiasts believe the Air Force is hiding evidence of aliens. Baier and his fellow investigators say they could solve every case if they could only arrest the "flying Martian shooting everyone up in East Baltimore." Baier has even sketched out a logo for the shootings unit: an E.T.-style alien riding a bullet. It hangs over his desk, above photographs of his children.

It's a joke born of frustration. In his decade as a cop, Baier has seen enough human misery and urban decay to distort anyone's sense of good: victims who don't care; suspects who have no sense of right and wrong; potential witnesses who would rather walk away than help.

Nothing surprises him, he says. Only a few things really upset him. The worst, he says, is the children who are innocent victims. He's seen them living in filth, with parents strung out on dope who stash crack vials in their living rooms, who don't care about cockroaches crawling across their floors.

"They can't do anything, can't count on anybody, their parents are just too wrapped up in the game," Baier says. "They are helpless."

He tries to help with small gestures, buying kids candy, potato chips, giving them a dollar here and there. But he knows that's unlikely to amount to anything.

"Most of the people in Baltimore are good people. I believe that," Baier says. "But the criminal element is stronger. That is what I deal with."

"You can have the greatest mayor in the world, the greatest police commissioner in the world, but you can't do anything until the citizens change. If you see a green light and call it a green light and they keep calling it a red light, then you are in trouble."

Michael Baier's mind is littered with shell casings.

Since joining the shootings squad 17 months ago, Baier has been the lead investigator on more than 20 investigations, and the cases merge together in his mind: among them a junkie wounded in a gunbattle between drug dealers; three people hit when a two-year-old beef erupted in gunfire; two men shot when they refused to remove the hoods of their sweatshirts on a dealer's turf, a sign of disrespect. At one of his first shooting scenes, near Broadway and Chase streets and Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baier found 50 shell casings over a three-block area. "It was like World War II," he recalls.

"The shootings here," Baier says, "are all deja vu shootings. Only the names change."

The streets also hold personal pain. Whenever Baier drives along a stretch of Harford Road, he grows quiet. He almost left the force several months ago, after one of his colleagues was shot and killed there. Baier was the first detective on the scene. He saw Officer Michael Cowdery's thick blood draining into a gutter in a light rain and searched for his nonexistent pulse.

The killing unnerved him. It made him sick. He had nervous twitches, nightmares. He grew angry at city residents: Police are trying to protect them, save them, but they don't care, he thought. Then that rage subsided, only to be replaced by anger at his neighbors in suburbia. Where he lives in Baltimore County, he says, people seem to have no idea about the city's dangers.

"They live in their little worlds," Baier says. "They have no concept of what is going on in the world outside of theirs. If they came and worked with me for a week, they'd know."

After Cowdery's death, Baier began hating the job and wanted to quit. But something kept him from leaving. Partly, he admits, it's his pension; he needs to stay on the force another 10 years to reap any benefits. But there was something else, too. In the weeks after Cowdery was killed, Baier sought the advice of his priest, who told the detective he was doing God's work, good work.

The priest's words helped Baier calm down. He realized, he says, that even though the dividing line between victim and suspects in East Baltimore is often "fiber-thin," that he might prevent future violence. "What if one of these guys hits a child?" Baier says. "I know a lot of those kids don't have much a chance growing up here. But they deserve one."

And despite its frustrations, he still loves the challenge of his job.

"I enjoy solving problems and pulling things apart," Baier says. "It's like working a puzzle and people are stealing the pieces from you. I like trying to complete it."

It's 7 a.m. the morning of the Troy Kane shooting. Baier is exhausted, but he isn't going home yet; the case is still too fresh in his mind. Working the department's computers, Baier finds his first promising lead: Kane was assaulted a year earlier, and the suspect in the incident is out of jail.

He's also hopeful about the pager he found at the scene. But he doesn't know where that clue will lead. He needs to subpoena phone records and research the numbers that appear on the beeper's screen. By the time Baier heads home, it's 11 a.m.

Eight hours later, he's back at work -- and learns that his case has been put in jeopardy.

Another detective tells him that Kane's supervisor, a lieutenant, questioned the victim at the hospital without Baier's approval or knowledge, a major violation of protocol. Baier squints his eyes in anger, bangs his fist against a table and begins spewing expletives.

"That lieutenant had no ... right to talk to my victim!" Baier yells. "This seriously compromises my case. This place, this job is hard enough without these [guys messing] with you. He can have the whole ... case then and do his own ... investigation!" Baier's sergeant manages to calm him down. But he's worried that the meddling lieutenant might have pressured Kane into changing his story to protect his career. He rushes out of the stationhouse to question the shooting victim a second time.

Back at Hopkins Hospital, Baier finds Kane in a room on the sixth floor. Baier turns down the volume on the television, and two visitors leave the room.

"I don't care who talks to you again, whether it's a lieutenant or major," Baier tells him. "They have no right being up here talking to you. Tell them to talk to me."

Kane nods. Then, at Baier's urging, he begins elaborating on his earlier statement. His friends wanted to see some people on Rose Street, Kane says, so he pulled over. They were walking when a man approached and asked for a cigarette. That man had gold teeth. Another man, wearing a camouflage mask, suddenly appeared, pointed a gun at the group, told everybody to freeze and give him money. His friends ran; he couldn't escape because he'd just had foot surgery.

"They were trying to rob everybody," Kane says. "They were trying to rob me."

The gunman and his helper then pushed Kane inside a rowhouse, where a pregnant woman and a young child were. At that point, he started to fight with the men and grabbed for the gun. "I tried to snatch it away," Kane says because he didn't want the gunman to harm the woman and child.

They rolled outside, onto the street; Kane grabbed the gun but dropped it as he fell to the ground. The mask-wearing man picked it up, stood over him and fired four or five times.

Baier asks again about the men who were with him, and this time Kane offers more information. In fact, Kane says, one of them just left the room.

Baier finds Kane's friend in the hallway outside, asks some questions but gets little information. So he makes a pitch: "I need a call," he tells the man. "I don't care if it's a fly-by-night thing. I need a call. Your friend should be dead. You guys are lucky he shot [Kane] because he is big. If it had been you, you'd be dead."

The man nods as he sips on a drink. "You know the people in the neighborhood aren't going to talk to me," Baier says. "I'm on your side. I'm on his side. He didn't do anything to deserve this. You'll hear stuff before I do."

The man nods again and mumbles a promise to call.

That night at the station, Baier again works the computers. He learns that Kane's two buddies have criminal records and that Kane was supposed to be at home, on medical leave, instead of out partying.

His victim was violating two departmental rules -- hanging out with convicted criminals and ignoring medical leave requirements to rest -- and Baier is nervous Kane might ask for a lawyer the next time he's questioned. He's also thinking of ways to keep internal affairs from pestering Kane, at least for a few days.

"I need some time," Baier says. "I feel like I'm sitting on a ticking time bomb that's about to explode."

Three days later, about 1:30 a.m., Baier's radio barks: Shooting, 20th and Greenmount. The detective races to the scene and finds blood on rowhouse steps. The shooting, however, happened around the corner, in the 1900 block of Boone Street.

It's dark. Long shadows hide the alleys. Baier roams the street, shining his flashlight on the sides of buildings. On the ground, already circled with chalk by another police officer, Baier finds eight shell casings from a .22-caliber handgun. The victim, a young man shot in the leg, has already been rushed to the hospital.

An officer tells Baier that the victim says he was shot from a car. The shell casings, though, are clustered together, so Baier knows the car probably wasn't moving. And the casings are close to the curb, meaning the victim was probably near the car.

He speeds to the hospital and finds the victim lying on a gurney in a hallway. Baier asks some questions, and the man answers as if reading from the shooting victim's script: "I was walking down the street," the man says. "I saw a black car. I started to run. I don't know who shot at me. ... I was by myself."

Baier looks at him skeptically. In his few minutes at the scene, Baier learned the victim is on probation for a gun charge and lives near the shooting scene. He's probably a neighborhood player in the drug trade, or at least knows the dealers, so Baier throws out some nicknames of neighborhood tough guys. The man hesitates, then denies knowing them.

He's lying, Baier thinks.

"I gave you what I know," the man says, annoyed that Baier keeps questioning him. "You can't make me know nothing if I don't know nothing."

The victim's mother is sitting in the waiting room. Baier asks her a few questions, too. "I'm tired of people getting shot and killed," she says, then inadvertently tells Baier that her son isn't telling the truth -- one of his friends told her that he was there when her son was shot.

"I need your help," Baier tells her. "He knows who the hell was in that car."

Back at the station house, Baier types up his notes, then heads to the board. He writes the victim's information, and adds a plea: "Help!"

Later that morning, Baier drives back to the Boone Street shooting scene and wanders around. He talks to neighbors. "No, I didn't see nothing," one man says. "I heard gunshots and got on the floor," says a woman.

After 15 minutes, he heads back to his car, but for some reason -- he doesn't know why -- turns left down 20th Street instead of right and walks up to a potential witness sitting with a child on some rowhouse steps. This person heard an argument between the victim and the shooter. It sounded like it started up the street, the witness says, then ended in the 1900 block of Boone.

The witness gives Baier some other important details -- nicknames of the men who might have been in the car, the car's make and model, the name of its owner. Baier can hardly believe it. He hadn't even brought his notebook with him. Now he's jotting notes on the back of a receipt he's dug out of his wallet. He has names and leads.

After five minutes, Baier catches himself and realizes he's been talking to the witness too long. The people in the neighborhood know he's a detective. He gives the resident his card, says he'll call later. He gives the child a dollar bill for some candy.

As he walks to his car, Baier looks up. "There is a God," he says.

An hour later, feeling rejuvenated, Baier gets back to the Kane shooting. Kane's out of the hospital, but Baier wants to question him again and have him look at photographs. He picks him up and brings him to the station house, where he seats him in front of a computer and begins to call up photograph after photograph of potential suspects.

Kane soon thinks he recognizes one man, so Baier and his sergeant dispatch two detectives to find him. Then, after viewing about 200 more photographs, Kane points at the computer screen.

That's him, Kane says. Or, at least, he's 95 percent sure that the picture is of one of the attackers. "I feel really strongly about this person, right there," he tells Baier. If the man has gold teeth, he adds, he'd be 100 percent sure.

But Baier isn't so certain. His victim has too many angles to play, saving his job among them.

Over the next few weeks, as he continues to investigate, Baier remains uneasy about Kane's identification, enough that he doesn't feel comfortable writing an arrest warrant. "I want to be 100 percent sure because I'm taking someone's freedom away," he explains.

Only once before has he ever doubted the guilt of a person he's arrested. When he was a undercover narcotics detective, he spied a man selling drugs and then leaving a rowhouse in thick snow. He lost sight of the man for a few minutes but radioed his description to officers on the street. They arrested a man, a dead-ringer for his suspect.

Baier charged the man with dealing drugs. But something always troubled him: The man's shoes weren't wet, something that would have been impossible given the amount of snow. At the man's trial, Baier told the prosecutor he thought he had the wrong man. The prosecutor dropped the case.

So now, instead of writing a warrant in the Kane case, Baier continues trying to examine the one clue recovered from the crime scene: the pager. He hasn't been able to locate its owner. The serial number is no help, and the phone and pager companies have no idea who bought it and can't track it without the pager's phone number. The pager has beeped several times since he found it, and Baier has looked up the paging number in a reverse directory. But by the time he gets to the address, the person who sent the page is already gone.

So, he waits. "Maybe I've put too many apples on the pager," Baier says. "I just got a gut feeling. If I can just find out who owns that pager."

Baier gets lucky in the Boone Street shooting. He has printed out dozens of photographs of people with nicknames identified by his one witness. And now, the witness is sitting in the squad room.

Thanks to threats, the witness is nervous, shaking all over, growing ever more inclined not to help. Still, the witness goes through the photographs and picks out the man who was driving the car -- a man named Bud. That's enough for Baier, who writes an arrest warrant charging Bud with attempted murder.

Baier, though, doesn't really feel like he's succeeded. The victim doesn't appear to care that he was shot. Within a week, he's signed an affidavit stating that the suspect didn't shoot him, and the prospect of prosecutors being forced to dump the case grows exponentially.

"If [the suspect] stays in jail for a year, that's a victory," Baier says.

Meanwhile, other breaks come in the Kane shooting, but they prove dead ends. Through subpoenas he finally tracks down a name and address to go with the pager, but it's bogus. He finds the man Kane identified as one of his attackers, but the man has a strong alibi, and Baier has a gut feeling that he's not his man.

In the next week, Baier gets three more cases to investigate, including a triple shooting and double shooting. Six detectives have left for other assignments and haven't been replaced. Baier is often alone in the squad room, a pile of papers and cases on his desk.

Then, one morning at 7 a.m., two months after the shooting, the pager goes off. Baier checks the phone number that appears on the pager's screen against those for addresses he's compiled in his notebook. He finds one and rushes to an East Baltimore rowhouse.

This time, someone is there. A woman tells him that she was paging a friend, and gives Baier his name. Within days, he has the man's driver's license photograph. The man, in city jail on unrelated drug charges, is a dead-ringer -- down to his facial hair -- for the man that Kane initially identified.

Baier eventually pulls the suspect out of jail to question him, but the man asks for a lawyer before the detective can get anywhere. Kane also picks the man out of a photo lineup as one of his attackers -- a fact that strengthens Baier's faith in his victim.

"I didn't want to put all my eggs on that pager," Baier says, but "it was all I had left."

His case is far from perfect. Kane has already identified another suspect and a good defense lawyer will be able to drive a truck through that hole. A good lawyer also will ask Baier whether he knows who actually owns the pager. The detective will have to answer no.

And there is another problem: The man in the photograph does not have a single gold tooth, a fact his victim was certain about. But Baier is not too worried about that detail. People can remove gold caps from their teeth, he says. This just might turn out to be a case he can make stick. Maybe this time, he'll catch that elusive Martian.

"This is a roller coaster," Baier says. "You have to try and stay on a straight track. You can't turn your back on anything. I have to keep pushing until I find that one piece of evidence I need."

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