Maryland Transit Administration Police said last night that they have found no evidence that the severe beating of a 26-year-old woman on a city bus this week was provoked and that they are investigating the attack as a possible racially motivated hate crime.
Nine middle school students have been charged as juveniles with aggravated assault and destruction of property in the Tuesday afternoon attack on a woman and her male companion on the No. 27 bus.
Police said yesterday that they have determined that there were two additional victims in the case - a third passenger and the bus operator who came to his assistance.
Investigators were examining video from a surveillance camera on the bus but had not completed their analysis.
Despite the beating incident, one of several recent high- profile crimes to take place on or near MTA property, police insisted yesterday that it is safe to use mass transit in Baltimore - pointing to a crime rate they estimate at one per 183,000 riders.
"It's a very safe system," said Col. John Gavrilis, deputy chief of the MTA Police.
MTA Northern District Capt. David Marzola said yesterday that the suspects could face additional charges after the emergence of new information about the attack, which occurred about 3 p.m. Tuesday in the 800 block of West 33rd Street.
Jawauna Greene, an MTA spokeswoman, confirmed that investigators were considering racial hostility as a potential motivation for the assault, which left the female victim, Sarah Kreager, 26, with broken facial bones and other injuries after she was punched, kicked and dragged off the bus. Her male companion, Troy Ellis, was also beaten, but not as severely.
"We are at this point investigating it as a hate crime," Greene said.
Greene said the suspects, who have been released to their parents, are African-American while the two originally identified victims are white. Marzola said the suspects are also believed to have menaced an elderly passenger, who is white, and to have assaulted the bus operator, an African-American male who defended his passenger.
"He probably saved this gentleman's life," Marzola said of the operator. The MTA declined to identify the driver, saying they consider him a witness to a crime.
Police said no evidence had been found to back up the claims of suspects' parents that Kreager or Ellis had provoked the incident by spitting or displaying a knife.
Greene said that at the time the incident reports were taken, no child reported any spitting or knife being pulled. Gavrilis said the operator hadn't mentioned any provocation.
According to police, the operator's response - to summon police first rather than immediately intervening - was exactly what he had been trained to do.
Police said Robert Poole Middle School, which the suspects attend, has not been a problem and that they believe Tuesday's incident was the first involving the school this year. Gavrilis said the MTA Police have had an officer on that bus run since Tuesday and that the city schools' police force has assigned extra officers to the Hampden school.
Greene, Gavrilis and Marzola said the assault was unusual for a bus system that this year has had no homicides, no rapes and no arsons. There was a non-fatal stabbing on an MTA bus last month in which police are still seeking a suspect, and Gavrilis recalled one non-fatal shooting in Westport last summer in which two suspects were arrested.
For the first nine months of 2007, police said, there have been only 381 crimes of any kind reported on its transit systems, which carry 250,000 riders a day. The vast majority, they said, are property crimes. The police were unable to produce detailed statistics yesterday to buttress their claim, but Gavrilis said he believes crime on the transit systems has been going down.
Nevertheless, Tuesday's incident was one in a string of high-profile crimes to have taken place on or near MTA facilities recently.
In one of those cases, 17-year-old Nicole Edwards was fatally stabbed near the North Avenue Light Rail station in November, 2006, in an armed robbery of herself and her brother. A 17-year-old girl, Lataye S. King, was sent to prison for 25 years yesterday after entering a no-contest plea to first-degree murder and aggravated assault. A 15-year-old co-defendant is to be sentenced in February for robbery conspiracy and aggravated assault.
In October, a twice-convicted rapist was accused of yet another rape in an attack upon a woman at the Nursery Road Light Rail station in Linthicum.
Late last year, there was a spate of violence on transit lines that led police to stake out the Reisterstown Road Metro station. After detectives saw one man rob another of his bus pass, police said, an MTA officer chased 23-year-old Jeffrey Marrow of Baltimore onto the tracks and fatally shot the suspect when he pulled a gun.
"We operate within the city and some of the same issues the city has to tackle, we have to tackle," Greene said.
Mayor Sheila Dixon released a statement saying she was "extremely concerned" about the attack.
"This incident was deplorable. I will not tolerate intimidation or violence anywhere in our city," she said. "I have offered the MTA whatever assistance they need to investigate this incident and to do our part to ensure the public transportation system is safe for everyone."
A leading local transit advocate said yesterday that he generally agrees the MTA system is safe but said riders have come to dread certain bus runs called "trippers" that take city youths to and from school. The No. 27 bus on which Tuesday's assault occurred was such a run - with its starting point at the Poole school as classes let out.
"I don't feel unsafe on the buses. I feel uncomfortable on the trippers," said Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council. "The general view of riders who ever happen to board one of those trippers is that they've boarded a rolling hellhole."
Cohen said he sees the problem of rowdy young people on buses as less of a problem for the MTA to solve than an issue for the city school system and parents to tackle.
"The MTA is sort of stuck because they are mandated by the legislature to carry Baltimore city school kids," he said. Cohen said the solution would be to see that there were parents on those bus runs who knew each of the students.
Cohen, a 59-year-old disabled white man who says he uses transit routes in all parts of town at all times of night and day, said he does not feel racially threatened on the MTA system.
"Every once in a while somebody will make some racist remark but you run into that on the street," he said.