Cultural district sees spike in crime

A trivia game was winding down in the dance room of Grand Central, a popular Mount Vernon bar, and a handful of customers stood in circles chatting and finishing their drinks.

Just after 1 a.m., a pair of men walked in and sauntered off to play a game of pool. Moments later one of the men returned with a gun. "He said, 'I don't want any problems, just give me the money out of the register,' " recalled Greg Lattin, who was working that October morning and handed over $1,800.


The holdup is part of what city police are calling a spike in crime in Mount Vernon and Mid-Town Belvedere - some of which police say is fueled by gangs who send recruits out to snatch cell phones as part of initiation rites.

"We've seen 11 robberies in the last 45 days. It is a rather alarming spike," Deputy Major Joseph Conway said at a community meeting in the former Belvedere Hotel on Tuesday night. Many of the robberies, he said, fit the gang profile.


The two neighborhoods affected are in the city's cultural district, an area that is full of historic rowhouses, hip dining spots, bar-hopping college students, museums and theaters.

Victims include a 19-year-old Peabody Institute student robbed at gunpoint and a Belvedere woman mugged at gunpoint. Cell phones have been taken from many of the victims, police said.

Crimes have also included purse snatchings and muggings. Victims have been threatened with guns and a knife. One person was shocked with a stun gun.

"Five years ago we'd have one drug dealer shooting another," said Lyle Nash, the public safety chairman of the Mount Vernon/Belvedere Neighborhood Association. "We didn't have Joe Citizen taken on by a guy with the gun."

Matt Jablow, a spokesman for the city police, said property crime is down in Mount Vernon. He acknowledged a robbery spike, but said violent crime is "about the same as last year."

Jablow said eight of the 11 robberies were at gunpoint and one involved a knife. Weapons were not used in the remaining two. Police have suspects in three of the 11 crimes, he said.

The Sun has reported five armed robberies and one attempted robbery in that area in the past six weeks.

At the community meeting, Don Davis, the proprietor of Grand Central, complained about late-night brawls after parties let out at nearby clubs. He said that on Monday night his bartender needed to lock patrons in the vestibule of his club to protect them from a man making threats.


Residents also said they were uneasy after Marcus Rogers was attacked in his St. Paul Street apartment in Mid-Town Belvedere on Oct. 12. His seventh-floor room was set ablaze, apparently to cover the crime, police said. Rogers died at 7:50 p.m. Tuesday at the burn center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Conway said homicide detectives believe Rogers was killed by someone he knew.

The armed robberies, though, were crimes of opportunity, Conway said. "This area has a lot of nightlife, a lot of clubs," he said. "People who are coming out of clubs might not be aware that they are targets."

Conway said some additional uniformed police officers will be on hand when bars and clubs let out, to serve as a deterrent. "We know what clubs are having club events. We know what clubs are having what," he said.

But other officers, he said, will be on undercover decoy patrols. Women or older police officers will wear cell phones on their belts or withdraw cash from ATMs, hoping to attract criminals.

Conway told residents that police arrested and charged two people in connection with an armed robbery on East Chase Street on Oct 1. One of the suspects was identified as Ivory Latham of Baltimore. The identity of the second person could not be verified.

According to police charging documents, Latham followed her victim as she walked by an alley. She asked for a light, then pulled a revolver and said "give me your [expletive] everything," according to the documents. The woman handed over her Kenneth Cole purse, her cell phone and cash. A video surveillance camera captured a person running to a car and fleeing the area.


Conway said some of the victims are people preyed upon by fledgling gang members. Authorities have said in recent weeks that Baltimore has a growing problem with gangs and crime.

"What we have from debriefings is a lot of them [new gang members] are snatching cell phones." Some of the recent neighborhood crimes, he said, "fit the profile."

At least one business owner is stepping up security. Jay LaMont, the owner of a new upscale piano bar on Read Street, hired an extra man this week to escort patrons to their cars. "People tell me constantly, 'I won't walk on the sidewalks, I walk in the middle of the street because I'm afraid,'" he said.

"In no other city would they allow the cultural district to be taken over by predators. And that is what we have in Mount Vernon."

Nash, head of public safety for the neighborhood association, said the association wants "discreet" cameras in the area. On the whole, he said, city police have been responsive to their concerns.

He also sought to put the recent spike in perspective, noting that the neighborhoods are "500 percent better" then they were five years ago.


But with a better neighborhood, he said, comes higher expectations. Many of the new people moving into condos and frequenting fancy wine and pizza shops are from surrounding counties. Others have been priced out of the Washington housing market. These are people, Nash said, who find any crime shocking.

"It just takes a little bit of fear for people to stop coming down," he said. "It is not that it is that bad right now. We want to nip it in the bud."