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Witness intimidation is likely motive for firebombing at the home of a woman who faces down drug dealers

The Baltimore Sun

She was never shy about telling the young men who were hanging outside her home - often in pointed and colorful language, neighbors say - that she was going to call the police.

After they splattered white paint and wrote "rat [expletive]" on the porch of her rowhouse in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood earlier this month, she filed charges. But she worried that things could escalate.

"My family are in fear that they might try to harm us more viciously. For instance the Dawson family. I don't want my family to be subjected to such a deadly act," the woman wrote in an Aug. 7 statement to prosecutors, invoking the name of the city's most well-known victims of witness intimidation.

"They committed this act because I call the police every day they are around here selling drugs. The people in our neighborhood are tired of them disturbing our neighborhood. It's not safe for our children because they claim to be Bloods and Crips. ... That's why we call the law to put a stop to this madness."

In what police say was a brazen act of witness intimidation, someone threw a firebomb at the woman's house about 2:30 Wednesday morning. The device exploded on the porch of an adjoining rowhouse, scorching the brick front.

No one was injured, and no arrests have been made.

The woman who was targeted, a nurse technician at a local hospital, owns the house and lives with her husband and two children. Authorities placed them in protective custody. The Sun is not naming them.

The incident has not only unnerved neighbors - many of whom are homeowners in a community that is not usually troubled by violent crime - but has garnered a frustrated defiance from city officials vowing to find the firebombers and prevent this brand of witness intimidation from happening again.

Baltimore prosecutors and police have long struggled with witness intimidation issues and have said the problem hampers investigations. An underground video, Stop Snitching, featured drug dealers warning against cooperating with police.

In 2005, the Harwood home of long-time community activist Edna McAbier was firebombed and she was eventually forced to move after she testified against her attackers, all of whom are serving long federal prison sentences. In 2002, six members of the Dawson family, whose matriarch repeatedly confronted drug dealers in her neighborhood, died in the firebombing of her East Baltimore home.

"We have to send a strong message to these criminals who think they can get way with this. We're not going [to] allow it," Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday. "We have to be on point. ... This woman is a vigilant community person who is active in the community. We don't want people to stop being active. We want them to know we're there with them and we're going to work together."

Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford said police were mounting a vigorous investigation to make arrests and had identified "persons of interest." Police officers are standing guard on McKewin Street 24 hours a day.

Baltimore's witness intimidation problem has attracted the attention of federal authorities.

"People have a right to insist that the streets be free of crime," said Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland who prosecuted the McAbier case. "So I think citizens who see people hanging out on the street corners selling drugs ... should confront the perpetrators if they feel comfortable doing it, and if not, they should call the police. We have to expect the police to be the first responders to this. We need to expect the police to step up."

City Council members Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the area, and Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is running for City Council president, visited Waverly after the firebombing.

"This is the first time I've ever had a firebombing in my district," Clarke said. "And it will be the last. Nothing will be spared. We're not going [to] tolerate that in this neighborhood or any other. I'm working with the police and I'm going to stay on the police and I'm sure they're going to be right there with us, to get them arrested. It's outrageous and completely unacceptable."

Clarke, who said the woman called her at 3 a.m. after the attack, said, "She's fighting for her life. They bought a house. They live in a nice neighborhood. ... She's fighting for what she owns and who she is. And I'm going to fight for her, too."

In Wednesday's firebombing, someone threw a glass bottle set on fire in the front of the house. It landed on the porch of an adjoining home. At least two other bottles were set ablaze in the rear of the home. A neighbor, Gabriel Rivera, 39, said he heard a loud noise while watching TV in his bedroom and rushed outside to warn others to flee.

"I was banging on the doors real hard," Rivera said, adding that he screamed, "Get up. It's time to get up out of here. There's a fire going on."

The rowhouses in the 600 block of McKewin Ave. have broad porches, many of them filled with plants and flowers. American flags hang. In the windows of some homes, signs read: "No Trespassing."

Neighbors say the street is relatively free of violent crime, but they have voiced concern recently about groups of teenagers and young men who sell drugs. Most people said the young men, who wear blue bandanas and tag gang signs, were generally respectful when asked to move, but the woman who was firebombed often took an aggressive stance with them, yelling and swearing and threatening to call the police.

"She'd get out of her car and start cursing at them and telling them she was going to call the police. So she put herself out there," said Wallace Robertson, president of the Waverly Improvement Association and a neighborhood resident for 26 years.

"These kids pretty much can do anything they want, they're intimidating the neighborhood. The woman reported drug dealing [because] she didn't want that around her family. How do we combat this problem when every time you report a crime, you're going to be intimidated?"

Paul Smith, the block captain, held a meeting at his home Saturday night to discuss the vandalism to the woman's home, which concerned other neighbors.

"Not just me, but other active people on the block told her, 'Sweeten it up the way you talk to those kids ... one day something's going to happen to you.'" Smith said yesterday.

After the woman filed vandalism charges this month claiming paint and graffiti damage to her house, law enforcement authorities said they warned her that she could be in danger if she continued to brazenly confront drug dealers in her neighborhood.

She was advised to instead call the police when she saw illegal activity. At the time, the woman also declined an offer of witness assistance, according to two law enforcement sources familiar with the case.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called witness intimidation "a very, very serious issue," and said, "We call it the conspiracy of silence. These individuals are plying their trade, ... are attempting to silence good people."

She said the city's witness assistance program has helped more than 162 people this year and has relocated 30 families.

"We are using every tool in our tool box to address this issue. Every time we talk to people, we talk to people about personal responsibility. I tell people the way we can make a dent in the number of bad guys out on the street is through assistance cooperation in the community. We can't do this by ourselves."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Julie Bycowicz contributed to this article.

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