A shirtless boy of about 14 slurps from a plastic cup and jaws with two other teenagers in oversized T-shirts. They stand at the edge of a playground in the Oswego Mall public housing complex, enveloped in the summertime whoops and laughter of children playing all around them.
The teenagers occasionally turn toward a fourth figure, at first standing a bit apart. He is older, more man than boy, with short dreadlocks and wearing a striped polo shirt. They clearly defer to him, competing, it seems, for his approval as they dance in place and bump fists with him. To a casual observer, he could be an older brother or a favorite uncle.
But the undercover officer videotaping the scene from a second-story window knows Cyrus Lee Beads to be something else, a 19-year-old drug dealer, already the author of a six-year rap sheet testifying to a distinctly violent bent.
The video camera pulls back to show Beads walking off, and the shirtless boy calls out a farewell, chilling to the officer who is watching. "Hey Cyrus," the boy shouts after him, "I want to be just like you when I grow up."
It wasn't an idle wish. The cleverness of Beads and his partner, 23-year-old Joseph Omar Smith, was in building a drug-dealing operation on a network of teenagers. They called themselves "Cutthroat" and worked in Northwest Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood.
It is a model that law enforcement officials increasingly see repeated across the city, a modern-day version of Oliver Twist, with youngsters doing the bidding of older members whom they fervently wish to emulate one day in criminal enterprise.
Janet S. Hankin, deputy state's attorney of the juvenile division, calls what happened in Park Heights "Baltimore in miniature."
It is a dynamic that helps explain why more than 5,000 youths - some not even yet teenagers -- were arrested on serious drug-dealing charges in Baltimore between January 2004 and September 2005. This year a 10-year-old was arrested for cocaine distribution. Last year, a 9-year-old was booked on charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
The drug dealing has been accompanied by ruthlessness. At least 20 youngsters have been arrested this year on murder charges, about double last year's total of 11. One 15-year-old has been charged in two separate killings and is a suspect in a third.
"The younger they get, the more lack of respect they have for human life," says Sgt. Melvin Russell, a 27-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and the undercover officer who manned the video camera that day in June 2005 as part of the investigation into Cutthroat.
'The wolves come in'
The people who live in the communities ravaged by drugs have a more nuanced view of the young dealers. "The kids - they are pawns. ... The wolves come in, start smelling sheep," says Bryant Jones, a 22-year-old who grew up in Park Heights. "I don't look at them as kids selling drugs or as kids killing. I look at them as not yet knowing right from wrong."
Beads and Smith didn't prove clever enough to avoid criminal prosecution. They were convicted of murder and sentenced this fall to life prison terms.
Court documents and hearings from their cases, as well as police surveillance footage, provide a rare window into the apprenticeship of children and teenagers in Baltimore drug organizations and the distorted cycle of life that prevails in them.
"Cyrus and Joseph were role models for a whole group of kids who were the same ages that they were when they started to be arrested," says Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Shaffer, who prosecuted the suspects.
Beads and Smith set up shop in a troubled area between Greenspring and Park Heights avenues. The focus of their activities was Oswego Mall, a salmon and tan public housing complex of 35 townhouses lining a concrete courtyard.
Bryant Jones, a baggage handler at BWI, once lived in Oswego, and his mother and some of his siblings still do. He calls Oswego "Mother Mall" because women and children predominate here. The lack of adult males is what he believes makes it so attractive for drug dealers.
"Men are not going to let no boy sell drugs in his yard," he says. Women, he says, are more easily intimidated by drug dealers.
Jones says his teenage brothers and sister have grown up seeing drug dealing and killing.
"This world in this mall has some of the hardest people you have ever met. Some of these kids here will scare you."
Longtime residents remember when the neighborhood of rowhouses around Oswego was the kind of place where families have cookouts and children play outside. Now, towering police floodlights and flashing blue lights on police cameras mar the landscape.
"There's no togetherness," says Roslyn Peterson, 44, who grew up in one of the rowhouses outside the public housing complex but moved after her longtime boyfriend, Lawrence Johnson, was killed. "Everybody is afraid of somebody.
"You don't see kids playing dodgeball or jumping rope. You see them walking around with a blunt and talking about who they're going to fight."
Boys pedal down the streets on bicycles, but it is far from the idyllic scene it seems to suggest. The cyclists are more likely the harbingers of crime, says Irvin Valentine, a 72-year-old who has lived in the area for 40 years. They are scouts for drug dealers, and if they notice scarce police presence, he says, drug corners spring up.
The police officers who patrol the area say a huge amount of drugs - marijuana, heroin, cocaine - moves through Oswego and the street corners around the public housing. Cyrus Beads was a fixture on those corners for more than six years.
"He was always working the streets, working the streets," says Detective Juan Diaz, who patrolled the area as a beat cop before moving to homicide. "It's like any job - you start from the bottom and work your way up."
By 2005, police say, Beads and Smith had organized Cutthroat. They employed about a dozen youths, some as young as 11 and 12, who sold heroin, mostly on the public housing grounds.
That Beads and Smith would rely on so young a work force was as practical as it was callous. Children are ideal drug dealers, Hankin says.
They're smaller and swifter, so they can more easily evade police. And if they are caught, the punishments are minimal, Hankin says. Most juveniles receive multiple convictions before they are sent away - and even then they are released on their 18th or 21st birthdays.
And the children are willing, Hankin says. They're usually poor and from broken homes and are eager to feel a part of something.
Doris Barnes, Bryant Jones' mother and an Oswego tenant council member, mentions another reason: the conspicuous consumption of drug dealers. If a dealer walks through the neighborhood with his spiffy new tennis shoes, children notice.
The next time the dealer walks through, he might point to his shoes and tell a kid he can earn $5 just for acting as a lookout. A connection is made.
During a spate of violence in and around Oswego in June 2005, Russell, a longtime police officer who ministers on the side, set up surveillance on Cutthroat. He moved into a vacant public housing unit and used his family's digital video camera to capture footage from a second-story window, with its a view of the playground.
During his three-week surveillance, Russell watched Beads and Smith maintain tight control over their crew. Last week, he showed excerpts to a reporter. Cutthroat had taken over about half a dozen public housing units, where the teens slept with the permission of the renters. Fearing violence if they resisted, the renters were resigned to the arrangement, Russell say the renters told him.
About noon each day, one of the older teens made the rounds of the units, pounding on doors and throwing pebbles at second-story windows to wake the dealers.
They passed the summer days as most children did. One afternoon, with the temperature nearing 90 degrees, the teens splashed around in a giant, inflatable swimming pool on the public housing courtyard.
The next day, an even hotter one, boys filled water guns from spigots outside the housing units. Fierce water fights consumed everyone in the courtyard.
Later that day, a group of teens - none older than 16 - cracked open what appeared to be a bottle of wine and sipped it from small plastic cups.
Beads and Smith were often with them, joining in on the horseplay. One day Smith pedaled through the courtyard, his long, thick dreadlocks streaming behind him and his broad frame looking out of place on a child's bicycle.
Mixed in with the typical summer scenes were less innocent interactions that drew Russell's eye.
A teenager on a mountain bike tucked drugs into his left sock and rode off. A 14-year-old and an 11-year-old, each carrying a .40-caliber handgun, were stopped by uniformed officers.
Day after day, Russell's camera found a tiny 13-year-old wearing a ball cap, white tank top and sagging shorts that revealed his boxers.
By far, he was the smallest Cutthroat member, Russell says, under 5 feet and "maybe 100 pounds, dripping wet. But he sure did have the swagger out there."
On the video, the kid was frequently with a huskier boy, who Russell says was nicknamed "Cocky."
On June 15, the 13-year-old knocked on the door of a woman who Russell says sold marijuana from her home. The boy palmed a baggie and hopped on the back of a scooter driven by an adult.
From his second-story perch, Russell called patrol officers, who arrested the duo. The 13-year-old was out of police custody in time for Russell's camera to capture him rolling a blunt, a marijuana-filled cigar, six days later.
On those summer days, if a customer wandered through the courtyard - usually a much older man or woman - one or two teens would break off from play to make a sale.
Beads and Smith tended to keep their distance during such transactions. Russell says he never saw Beads touch drugs at all.
When it came time to deliver more drugs or collect money, Russell says, Smith materialized. In Russell's words, the youths would "follow him like the Pied Piper into one of the drug houses."
Police determined that the violence in the neighborhood that spring resulted from Cutthroat's feud with other drug dealers. By late June, police say, Cutthroat members were responsible for at least seven shootings - two of them homicides.
A violent month
On June 7, 2005, police say, Beads and Smith spotted members of a rival crew across the street on Roland View Avenue, a tree-lined, typically quieter place in Park Heights nicknamed "the suburbs."
Beads and Smith opened fire, police say, striking several men who were sitting on a front porch and singing Temptations songs. Lawrence Johnson, 44, a city maintenance worker with six grown children and a little girl, was killed.
Then, after midnight June 25 in the backyard of an Oswego unit, that tiny 13-year-old covered his face with a bandanna, took a gun from a friend and shot to death Jerrod Hamlett, 23. And the boy shot and wounded a 21-year-old who tried to drag Hamlett to safety, police said.
The boy opened fire, prosecutors said, because he was angry that Hamlett had asked him to stop throwing glass bottles.
The 13-year-old became the city's youngest murder suspect that year.
After that, Russell says he was told to wrap up his investigation. He obtained search-and-seizure warrants for about a dozen houses and arrested three of Cutthroat's 15-year-olds on charges of drug trafficking and handgun violations. And the search of a house Smith slept at turned up a handgun linking him to the Lawrence Johnson killing.
As the cases wound through the court system, police and prosecutors could not help but notice the similarities between the adult drug leaders and their proteges.
Beads and Smith both were born in Baltimore to drug-addicted mothers and absent fathers, the prosecutor and their defense lawyers said.
After living with his aunt in Las Vegas as a young boy, Beads returned to Baltimore and his mother at age 11. That's when his problems began, the attorneys said.
By 14, he had been arrested for assault and possession of a handgun, prosecutor Shaffer said. He quit school in the 10th grade. At age 17, he picked up his first adult charge, for dealing drugs. He pleaded guilty in March 2004 and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison.
Smith followed a similar course. He began getting into trouble with the law at an even younger age - 10, Shaffer said. At 13, he received his first juvenile sentence for dealing drugs. Before he was 14, he'd been arrested for stealing cars. His schooling did not extend beyond the seventh grade.
At 16, Smith was arrested and charged as an adult with attempted murder. In that brutal case, Shaffer said, he pleaded guilty in June 1998 to firing a gun into the face of a man whose car he was trying to steal.
He was sentenced to 12 years and released from a prison in Hagerstown in early 2005. Within a few months, Smith was Cutthroat's co-leader.
When he heard the biographies of Beads and Smith at their October sentencing for the triple shooting, Circuit Judge Allen L. Schwait pronounced them "bright, attractive young men" who set a particularly bad example for youngsters in their neighborhoods.
The judge gave them as much prison time as he could, sentences of life plus more than 100 years apiece.
In an interview days after that sentencing, Shaffer said, "I am hopeful that all those kids who are so admiring of them will get the message that where this lifestyle leads is to jail."
Oswego resident Doris Barnes said last week that her neighborhood has been quieter in the past year. But she attributes that to the many police surveillance cameras that have gone up rather than lessons learned.
The city's youngest killer pleaded guilty last December in juvenile court. As he was led into a judge's chambers before his sentencing, he flashed a smile at fellow defendants. The boy, who has since turned 14, was sent to a reform camp until he turns 21.
And the three 15-year-olds, including Cocky, who faced handgun and drug-trafficking charges as a result of Russell's investigation, caught a break. A juvenile court judge ruled that prosecutors hadn't given defense attorneys enough time to review Russell's video footage. The entire case was dismissed.
The kids left the courtroom and erupted into laughter. Cocky pumped his fists into the air, victorious. Though now leaderless, the children were free to return to Park Heights. They didn't have the look of youngsters who had been scared straight.