Robinwood's trouble has long history

The Baltimore Sun

On this block of Tyler Avenue in Annapolis, 17-year-old Kwame Travon Johnson was fatally shot Sunday night. A day later, a bloodstain and a flower marked the spot where his body was found.

On this block, Timothy Hayes Marsh, 48, was fatally shot a month earlier. The family of the Severna Park resident, who was found slumped over the wheel of his 2001 Acura Integra, speculates that he was in the area to purchase drugs.

And on this block is where Frank R. Jones, a 38-year-old electrical contractor, lived before turning up dead last month on a Davidsonville roadside. As recently last February, Jones was convicted of drug possession.

They are the latest casualties in the Robinwood public housing community, whose troubles are as old as its squat, utilitarian townhouses.

"I look at it as the capital of all [Annapolis'] 'hoods," said Curtis A. Spencer, a civic activist and convicted drug dealer.

But Johnson's killing - the fourth this year on the heels of a record eight in 2007 - has shaken the city into action. Just weeks after the launch of a new state-led effort that brings in federal and state resources to help tackle the city's crime problem, Mayor Ellen O. Moyer has floated the idea of a curfew, and the councilwoman who represents the area suggested bringing in the National Guard to keep the peace.

On Thursday, police raided several homes in Robinwood and arrested five teenagers, ages 15 to 17, on charges ranging from ammunition possession to possession of crack.

Residents view the city's commitment with a mix of hope and skepticism. A year ago this month, city officials hoped to make Robinwood a model for other public housing complexes through a $750,000 plan to start an alcohol- and drug-treatment program, community gardens and mural projects. The community center received computers, donated by a private company, but the overall initiative was largely shelved.

"It didn't even get started," said Betty Ann Weekly, a longtime resident who directs the center.

Built in 1970, Robinwood is the second-largest of 10 properties run by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, in a city with one of the highest ratios of public housing per capita in Maryland.

Located just off Forest Drive near Annapolis Middle School, Robinwood consists of about 150 plain townhouses of brick and blue siding - some of them boarded-up - where more than 430 residents pay an average monthly rent of $200.

Many of the shocking crimes from the state capital's recent history have a connection to Robinwood:

The shooting at a food court at the Westfield Annapolis Mall in 2006 was chalked up to a rivalry between teens in Robinwood and another public housing complex.

The two teens convicted in a fatal 2002 carjacking in Annapolis' Historic District hailed from there.

It was also the scene of a 1996 police-involved shooting that polarized the city's black and white communities and prompted marches on City Hall.

Robinwood is notorious in Annapolis, but not unique. The public housing complexes, along with several private, low-income housing developments, have been the setting for nearly all of the city's killings in the past four years.

Some note that while larger cities struggle with entire swaths of neighborhoods consumed by poverty and urban decay, Annapolis' troubled communities take up no more than a few blocks each and are often surrounded by vibrant businesses, single-family homes or waterfront.

Police and city leaders have struggled to balance demands for a greater police presence with the need to respect residents' rights.

"It's a resource issue, but I also don't think people want to live in a police state. There's a lot of talk about stopping every car and identifying every person who goes into a community, but this is a free country," said Lt. Brian Della, an Annapolis police spokesman who once patrolled Robinwood's streets.

"We know there's good people there, and we need their cooperation."

More than 75 people - including church leaders, teachers, community activists and residents - marched through the heart of Robinwood on Thursday to mourn Johnson's death and call for action.

They joined hands in a prayer circle and stood amid liquor bottle caps and broken glass in front of a makeshift memorial of balloons and stuffed animals.

"Everybody who is tired of talking, say 'Amen!'" yelled Sheryl Menendez, an associate pastor at the Light of the World Church.

Among those in the crowd were familiar faces from the neighborhood's criminal past, such as Spencer, who 10 years ago was brought down in one of the largest drug busts in the city's history. He was described then as the "kingpin" of a large-scale crack cocaine operation - using his proceeds to fund youth sports programs, help residents pay bills and support political causes.

"I didn't become a drug dealer because I needed money or I wanted to get rich - my thing was helping my peoples," he said.

Albert Jones, a 36-year-old former drug dealer from Robinwood who now mentors youths and is active at Light of the World, remembers bumper stickers that read, "Living is good in Robinwood."

Jones, whose son is involved with the Army ROTC and swim team at Annapolis High School, said it pains him to see neighborhood teens repeating his mistakes.

"When I was young, those kids [getting into trouble now] were toddlers. If there was two or three crack houses and we were hanging out, those were the kids crawling around in the smoke. Those were the kids that mom set on the couch while she went in the kitchen [to do drugs]," said Albert Jones, who as a PCP dealer was known as A.J. Love.

"To come back years later and see those kids - that's where you get the rebellion, the hate. It's hard to deal with."

Another face in the crowd was Ruby Tyler Brown, whose 18-year-old son was fatally shot by a city police officer in Robinwood in 1996.

Brown, who unsuccessfully sued the city years later, said she has "forgiven the police department" and has only in recent years gained the strength to speak publicly about it, though she still has reservations.

"I wanted to stand in for the mothers that have lost their children," Brown said.

Most attendees seemed to accept that solving the community's problems will have to come from within.

"In order for the dumb stuff to stop, you gotta stop," said the Rev. Stephen A. Tillet, pastor at Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church, as he spoke to a group of young people. "You gotta make up your mind, that if there's any dumb stuff, it's not going to be because of me."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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