As the 26-year-old woman beaten on a public bus by nine middle school students was put into witness protection yesterday, conflicting accounts raised questions about whether the attack was racially motivated.
One of the girls charged in the assault told The Sun yesterday that there were no racial overtones in Tuesday's after-school incident on West 33rd Street, insisting that no racial slurs were exchanged.
The victim, Sarah Kreager, told The Sun in a telephone interview last night that she feels race might have played a part in the attack, but she said the events spiraled out of control because the adolescents became caught up in actions of their peers.
"A woman at a corner house came out, and she saved my life. I think they would have killed me," Kreager said.
Maryland Transit Administration officials stood by their earlier statement that they are investigating the attack as a possible hate crime - though they did not release any specifics.
But the city state's attorney's office declined to confirm that prosecutors are looking at racial bias as a possible factor in the attack.
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said prosecutors met with Kreager yesterday and reviewed the initial police reports and evidence gathered by the MTA police.
Based on the information that prosecutors received from MTA police and Kreager, Burns said she would not confirm that the investigation includes a review of possible hate crime violations. She said prosecutors could not confirm statements made by the MTA authorities, who alleged that a possible hate crime had occurred.
"Right now, our intent is to gather the evidence and witness statements," Burns said. "It would be premature to limit the scope of the charging process at this point because the prosecutors have not received all of the witness statements and evidence, and interviewed all the victims."
Nine versus one
MTA police said Kreager, who is white, was punched, kicked and dragged off the bus during the melee, which started about 3 p.m. Tuesday on the No. 27 bus in the 800 block of West 33rd Street.
The nine youths, who are African-American, are all 14 or 15 years old and attend Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden. They were released to their parents and charged as juveniles with aggravated assault and destruction of property.
Paul J. Wiedefeld, the MTA administrator, said the authorities are considering racial hostility as a possible motivation in the attack, but he also emphasized that the investigation is exploring other avenues.
"It's one of the aspects of the case - racial bias - that we're looking into, but it's a number of things we're looking into."
MTA officials did not explain why they think race played a role in the incident.
Wiedefeld said the investigation is continuing and warned against jumping to conclusions. "We all need to step back and take a deep breath," he said.
Meanwhile, one of the nine middle school students charged with assault insisted that race did not play a role in it.
Britny Carter, 14, said in an interview at her home yesterday that the attack aboard the bus was prompted by Kreager, who she said spat at one of the other girls.
Britny, an eighth-grader, said students had been staring at Kreager, poking fun at the fact that she had a black eye. Kreager became angry and spat at a girl, Britny said, confirming an account given to The Sun by the mother of a boy charged in the attack.
"And then everybody on the bus started fighting," Britny said. No racial epithets were uttered, and neither the victim's nor suspects' race had anything to do with the clash, she said.
"It wasn't a hate crime," said Britny's mother, Monalisa Carter. "That's so untrue. I did not raise her that way. Britny is not a racial person. She has white friends, black friends; she gets along with everybody."
In a written report, MTA police said the beating took place after one of the boys kept jumping in front of Kreager, claiming that the open seats on the bus were reserved. When Kreager finally found a seat, the teens began throwing punches at her and her boyfriend, according to the report. Police said her male companion, Troy Ennis, was also beaten, but not as severely.
A law enforcement source close to the investigation said yesterday that Kreager, who is homeless, has entered the state's attorney's office's witness assistance program because officials are concerned for her safety.
Last night, Kreager told The Sun she does not think she did anything to antagonize the students.
"I never spit. I did not spit," Kreager said. "I never said a racial thing."
Kreager said she had gotten on the No. 27 bus Tuesday afternoon to go downtown to fill a prescription with her boyfriend of 10 years. She said the bus was crowded, and she found a seat in the back - but was confronted by a student telling her to move.
"When police asked me if this was a hate crime, I said ... . I do feel it was motivated by racism, but I think it escalated more out of them trying to be cool ... them wanting to be in on the action," Kreager said.
Burns, with the state's attorney's office, said prosecutors are reviewing the law to determine whether the juveniles can be charged in the adult system.
"Prosecutors have not ruled out additional charges or charges under adult jurisdiction," Burns said.
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who represents much of Baltimore, released a statement calling "the physical assault of any human being, regardless of motivation" unacceptable.
"As police continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, we must rise together as a community to take a stand against violence toward any of our neighbors," Cummings said.
The congressman said the incident should prompt an examination of the safety of the public transit system.
Statistics released by the MTA yesterday showed that the system, through the first nine months of this year, is on a pace to exceed the number of crimes last year, 454, by about 50.
If the total of 381 through September is sustained, the system will exceed 500 crimes and have its worst year since 2002. (Neither 2004 nor 2005 is comparable because of the shutdown of major stretches of the light rail system.)
The 2007 figures show that of the various transit systems, the most crimes were reported on the Metro subway, with 134. The breakdown shows 121 crime reports on the bus system and 95 on the light rail, with a scattering of crimes on the MARC train system and the Mobility service for the disabled.
Low bus crime
When adjusted for ridership levels, the amount of crime on local buses appears particularly low. MTA figures show annual ridership of 63.5 million on local buses, compared with 12.9 million on Metro and 5.4 million on light rail. The number of crimes detected on Metro could also be affected by the extensive use of surveillance cameras in subway stations and cars.
Wiedefeld defended the MTA's security record.
"I ride the No. 8 [bus] home and I take the No. 11, and I feel very safe," he said.
Wiedefeld said the MTA is working with the city school system to monitor the behavior of students who use public buses. He said MTA officials expect to meet with educators as soon as next week.
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Sun reporters Doug Donovan and Chris Emery contributed to this article.