Women are being raped in East Baltimore, and now the body of a 35-year-old woman has been found, partially naked and bruised, in a vacant lot behind a corner convenience store. And now the people struggling in a community under siege are even more worried.
"Everybody is scared," said Pero Gomez, the 33-year-old owner of the Josbel City Mini Mart. The store is at the northwest corner of Harford Road and Eager Street in the Johnston Square community, across from the Latrobe Homes housing complex and up the street from the state prison fortress.
On Tuesday afternoon, a woman ran into the shop and screamed through the counter-to-ceiling protective glass that she had seen a body out back. Gomez said he ran outside and found the remains off a paved drive in a plot of overgrown weeds. He got on his cell phone and called 911.
A city police spokesman said Wednesday that the woman's death has been ruled a homicide by blunt-force trauma. Authorities have identified her but have withheld her name until relatives are notified.
The police spokesman said authorities have not linked the killing to the other attacks, most of them in East Baltimore, that have been reported since Oct. 20, but he said they are exploring that possibility. The woman's death has prompted the department to bring homicide detectives aboard a task force of sex-offense and plainclothes officers who have been investigating the incidents.
Police have received some clarity about the number of rapists they may be dealing with. Though a series of attacks at bus stops were believed to be linked, DNA results show at least two men are responsible. That comes in addition to a separate string of attacks that occurred inside homes, which are believed to be the work of a different man.
A community meeting to discuss the incidents and the police response is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at the Knox Presbyterian Church in the 1300 block of N. Eden St.
Police sent police recruits to canvass the area Wednesday and put up posters of a possible suspect in the rapes.
"We respectfully ask that you spread the word to your neighbors, travel with a companion when possible, be observant of your surrounding, and whenever feasible stay in well-lighted areas," one police warning says.
The message is taped to a utility pole, sharing space with remnants of yellow crime scene tape used by officers investigating the woman's death, and it describes a possible suspect in two of the rapes that occurred near bus stops, one just a few blocks from the store. The man is black, in his 30s to 40s, standing 5 feet 8 to 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 160 to 180 pounds. Police said he was last seen with a "scruffy beard" and wearing a black shirt and blue jeans, and might have recently injured his right hand or fingers.
One of the bus stop attacks occurred in the 1300 block of Harford Road when a 19-year-old woman was dragged, punched, stripped naked and sexually assaulted. The other was on Colvin Street, where police said a 55-year-old woman was attacked after leaving a late-night church event. A man grabbed her by the throat, threatened her with a shard of glass and raped her in a parking lot.
Police are investigating at least seven other rapes in and around East Baltimore. And now there's a killing.
The lot where the woman's body was found is partially covered with broken asphalt and partially a wilderness of weeds and trash. On Wednesday, a police evidence marker was left lying next to a small empty bottle of vodka.
Two women buying crossword books in the convenience store said police knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood Tuesday evening, warning residents and asking for help. Both women said they have studied the sketches but have no idea who the man might be.
"We just have to be careful and make sure we're always out with somebody," said one woman, who like most people interviewed said she was too scared to give her name. She is a grandmother raising children near the store, and she said, "I make sure the little ones go out with the bigger ones, and the bigger ones go out together."
Her friend paused at the open entrance to the store:
"They need to catch him."
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.