At least 18 months before an arson fire that killed seven members of the Dawson family in East Baltimore, the father was chasing drug dealers off his front stoop to protect his children, court records show.
And in the month before the family's house was set ablaze Oct. 16, Carnell Dawson and his wife, Angela, made repeated calls to police for help. Their voices - often frustrated or desperate - can be heard on tape recordings provided by police to The Sun.
In one call, made by Carnell Dawson on Oct. 1, he complains that several dealers had surrounded his house and were menacing his family, apparently in retaliation.
"I'm going to court tomorrow for a guy that busted out my windows and all, and they let him out of jail," Dawson said. "He's got reinforcements. The drug dealers are all around my house. ... My wife is terrified, and she's crying. ... They are all around my house, trying to do something to my kids and my wife. ... They said they were going to bust up the windows and shoot up my house."
Police sent officers to the house to chase them away.
As preparations proceed for the September trial of Darrell L. Brooks, the 21-year-old charged in federal court with setting the fire, attorneys will likely delve into their neighborhood struggles. After the fire, police and neighbors said the family was targeted because they had persistently fought drug dealing.
The tapes and court records reveal a compelling - albeit fragmentary - record of the family's back-and-forth battles with neighborhood thugs and dealers who set up shop on the family's corner at Eden and Preston streets in the heart of East Baltimore.
Police officials say 35 calls were made from the Dawsons' address at 1401 E. Preston St. to dispatchers at the city's 911 and 311 center between June 26 and Oct. 16. Because the agency routinely erases older dispatch recordings, The Sun obtained only recordings of calls made in the month before the fire.
Court records also provide a vivid description of the family's efforts, dating back more than a year before the fire.
The first documented effort by a Dawson family member to rid their corner of drugs was just after noon March 21, 2001, when Carnell Dawson tried to chase away a dealer.
Dawson told police he spotted Joseph Bullock, 40, standing in front of his house hawking $10 packages of drugs. Dawson said that he asked Bullock to leave because he feared for his children, according to court records.
"You can't tell me to leave the corner," the man yelled, before reaching into his waistband as if to pull out a gun, Dawson said.
Dawson called police, who later arrested Bullock and charged him with second-degree assault. Bullock pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years' probation.
Trouble of their own
But as Dawson and his wife were trying to protect their children, they were running into trouble themselves. In May 2001, Angela Dawson was arrested and charged with assault after punching and kicking her husband in front of police officers.
It was not the first time she was in trouble with police, having been arrested several times on minor charges. In 1994, she was stabbed twice in the chest and back in a fight with a neighborhood woman, court records show.
In December 2001, Carnell Dawson was arrested by police who spotted him buying drugs a few blocks from his house. Police seized four vials of crack cocaine from his pocket. Dawson was given probation before judgment by a District Court judge.
The Dawsons do not appear in public records for the next nine months, when they accused a neighbor in what appears to be a series of increasingly violent face-offs.
In the first case, filed Aug. 23, last year, Angela Dawson wrote that Johnathan L. Colbert, 18, whom she refers to by the name John L. Henry, slapped her.
Nearly three weeks later, Carnell Dawson alleged that the same man, who lived around the corner in the 1200 block of N. Eden St., broke one of his windows and threatened his wife.
As the Dawsons prepared for court in those cases, they were calling 911 and 311 to complain about Colbert and others. The first still-existing recording of a call was placed Sept. 25 last year.
"A guy walked around the corner and hit me in my chest with a bottle," Angela Dawson said. "It's right on my steps."
That night, Carnell Dawson called 311, the police nonemergency number. He said he was "having problems with these people" at Preston and Eden streets.
"The same thing, with the drug dealers, smoking blunts on the corner," Dawson said, using the street term for a cigar filled with marijuana. "Tell them to move along. They have busted out my windows twice."
About 10 minutes later, Dawson called 311 again. He said an officer chased the people away. "Now, they're back out front, hollering the same thing, 'Red tops, black tops,'" Dawson said, using slang terms employed by dealers to promote their product.
"A couple of them ran, ... but now they are back again," Dawson said.
The next day, Dawson complained about someone throwing bottles, trying to break his windows. He identified a potential suspect - "His name is Durrell," Dawson said.
It is not clear whether Dawson was referring to Darrell Brooks, who would later be charged in the fatal fire.
A Sept. 29 call shows Dawson's frustration when dealers set up shop outside his home.
"Police came through earlier and they ran them off Caroline and Preston," Dawson said. "Now the drug dealers are on my corner, making noise and ... smoking reefer."
He also called 911 when his house was attacked by an arsonist Oct. 3. No one was injured.
"Somebody just gas-bombed my house," Dawson said. "Could I have some police over here now?"
The next day, he called 911.
"I'm at 1401 East Preston," Dawson said. "You know my house got firebombed last night, cocktailed? These guys are back around the corner in front of my house ... smoking reefer. ... The same ones I've been having problems with."
Police also provided recordings of emergency calls from horrified neighbors reporting the fire that consumed the corner rowhouse about 2:20 a.m. Oct. 16.
"Oh my God, get a fire company out here quick," one woman told a dispatcher. "There are five little children in this house. Eden and Preston street is a murder scene. There are five little babies in that house."
The calls can be heard at www.sunspot.net/dawsoncalls.