Golden memory is supplanted by blood and fear

The Baltimore Sun

This is how Linda Dennis remembers Queensberry Avenue, the street she grew up on in the 1950s and 1960s near the end of the first turn at Pimlico Race Course: shade trees lining the block. Jewish and African-American residents living and playing side by side. "How happy people were."

This was Queensberry Avenue yesterday: shattered glass on the street from Dennis' white Volvo sedan and gray Volvo convertible, vandalism she blames on drug dealers angry at her for refusing to sell them one of her cars. Trash piled on sidewalks, steps from a blinking police surveillance camera.

It's nearly 9 in the morning, and Dennis is standing on her front porch screaming into the phone at an insurance agent while Officer Antonio M. Williams patiently waits to complete his report. Not more than two blocks away, homicide detectives are on Palmer Avenue, where two hours earlier a man had been shot to death on the street.

"Something has to be done, and I mean today," Dennis yells at Williams, loud enough to be heard across a cold, deserted Queensberry.

In a rant turning to rage, she launches into a tearful soliloquy about her battles with the drug dealers, about how no one wants to help her, about her house being broken into and set on fire and her cars repeatedly vandalized, about the Dawsons, the family of seven killed in East Baltimore in 2002 after they complained to police and drug dealers firebombed their house.

"They're going to end up killing me if somebody doesn't help me," Dennis says later, sinking into her sofa, crying into her hands after the officer leaves. "I'm going to end up just like the Dawson family - dead. ... I don't understand the government. I work, I do everything I'm supposed to. I obey the laws here in this country and I end up like this.

"I put central air into this house just so I wouldn't have to go outside and be with these people," Dennis says of the dealers. "They have to go. I shouldn't be forced out of my home. I should have the right not to be associated with people who live like them. I don't talk to them, and that's part of the problem. They say, 'That bitch thinks she's better than anybody.' "

Her tearful rant continues. "They've destroyed my house before. They tore up my house and then they did it again. All I do is ask them to not stand around my property and not hide drugs in my front yard. They need to go to jail. This system is not working. They don't need to go to jail for four or five months; they need to go for years."

Dennis bravely allowed her name to be published, hoping perhaps beyond hope that someone will answer her plea: "Please, God, help me." She talked in her living room next to a decorated Christmas tree with a train going around the base, soft holiday music playing in the background.

There are many Linda Dennises in Baltimore, hiding in their homes, afraid to call the police much less stand up in a city where the Stop Snitching video becomes an underground hit and the code of the streets turns citizens seeking help into traitors marked for death.

The Dawsons were killed. So was John P. Dowrey, a witness in a federal murder case shot on a bar stool in the Kozy Korner in 2006 when he returned to his neighborhood to share Thanksgiving with his family. Edna McAbier repeatedly testified in federal court to put away the eight dealers who firebombed her home on East Lorraine Avenue in 2005, yet the threats continued after some of the men went to prison for 80 years. In a cruel irony, McAbier was unable to return to the home she had risked her life to protect.

Those are just the ones we know about or remember.

Witness intimidation remains a real threat in communities around the city, even as prosecutors use new laws to safeguard people who witness crimes and come forward to point out their attackers, even as police counter the underground DVD with a video of their own, Keep Talking.

A Baltimore Police Department spokeswoman declined a request for me to talk with the major in charge of the Northwestern District, where Dennis lives. Police did say that in the past 90 days, the furthest back for which records could immediately be obtained, three 911 calls had been made from Dennis' house, including yesterday's for the damaged cars. Williams, the police officer who responded yesterday, left her a pamphlet with numbers she can use to get help. He jotted down the name of a drug enforcement sergeant and a community services officer.

Dennis finds herself in an impossible situation. She moved back to her childhood home in 1996 so her mother could spend her final years in the house where she raised her family. Her late husband, Ivory L. Dennis, a steelworker and union official at Sparrows Point, left her tens of thousands of dollars, but she said she has spent it all renovating her home and paying for damage done by drug dealers.

On Monday night, Dennis said, she was walking home when she saw a young man point to her white Volvo and overheard him say that it had returned from storage and that the woman who owned it had refused to give it up.

"I'll teach her," Dennis said she heard the man say. "She won't have either car."

When Dennis headed to work yesterday morning, she realized that the threat had been real. Both passenger-side windows and the back window of the convertible were shattered, the passenger-side mirror was dangling by a wire and red spray paint marred the right front fender. One window was shattered on her sedan, parked directly behind the convertible.

Because of recent surgery, she can't work as a nurse's assistant or social worker, so she took a job as a part-time home health aide. She's behind in electricity and phone payments. The white Volvo is no longer insured for the damage caused yesterday. And she doesn't have the $250 deductible to get the convertible fixed.

When she returned to Queensberry Avenue 12 years ago, she thought she was coming home to the neighborhood she remembered as a child. Had she known about the drugs and the violence that replaced the playing children and the shade trees, she says, "I would never have come back."

Now, with her cars vandalized and a man shot and killed around the corner, she has nowhere else to go.

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