City homicide count rises for second year; victim 218 killed in Park Heights

Rodney Eric Smith was shot to death in a dirty alley.

Police found him surrounded by foam containers, liquor bottles and trash bags thrown into trees, yards from an uncovered storm drain that could break a car axle.

Smith deserved better, said neighbor Norma Jack, whose home shares the alley where police said Smith was fatally shot Thursday night. "Every time he saw me, he hugged me," she said. "Called me his grandma."

The killing of Smith, 26, pushed the number of people murdered in the city this year to 218, marking the second straight year Baltimore's annual murder count has increased after two years of reductions — a worrisome trend for public officials, advocates and residents.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Baltimore is a "much too violent city" and that the rise left her "disappointed." But she noted that most other types of crimes are down and that she believes the Police Department has strategies in place that will lead to safer streets next year.

"We are going to be aggressive, and we will work to use partnerships more effectively and efficiently to reduce the homicide rate," she said in an interview.

Three weeks remain in the year, and police said they are committed to saving lives, not focused on statistics.

"Our efforts and resources remain committed to doing all we can to prevent violent crime in the city of Baltimore," said acting Capt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman.

Officers found Smith just before 7 p.m. lying in the 3300 block of Virginia Ave. in Park Heights, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, police said. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead less than an hour later.

Neighbors said they heard about seven gunshots. While almost every other house is boarded up, charred or vacant, neighbors said they are tight-knit and generally feel safe — though they are careful once the sun sets.

"I don't like to walk here around night," Jack said.

On Friday morning, at least four patrol cars circled the streets near the scene of the shooting. Two officers walked along the sidewalk of Virginia, knocking on doors and handing out Metro Crime Stoppers fliers and applications for Operation Crime Watch, a city-sponsored program that helps neighborhoods start block watches and citizen patrols.

Jack's grandson rolled up in a sedan, got out and hugged her as she was standing on her porch.

"You OK, Grandma? You OK?" he asked. "I'll stop here later to check on you."

Across the city in West Baltimore on Friday afternoon, a group of outreach workers in orange jackets marched in the rain through the Parkview/Woodbrook neighborhood, repeating a chorus one man chanted from a megaphone: "What do we want? Safe streets. When do we want it? Now."

The workers were members of the Mondawmin branch of Safe Streets, a city Health Department program staffed by reformed criminals who help mediate neighborhood conflicts. They were holding a "stop shooting" rally in honor of James Seals, 48, who was killed Wednesday. The outreach workers had started the event at the street corner where he had fallen.

"People should not be dying of gunfire," Dante Barksdale, a lead outreach worker, barked out. "You're not just hurting one person. You're hurting that person's mother, their brother, the family."

As others took the megaphone to air their messages of peace, Barksdale said in an interview that it's not just a problem for police that homicides continue to rise in the city.

"When murders go up and down, it's everybody's fault," he said. "This is a collective effort. It's going to take public, private — everybody to solve the problem."

He said one solution would be to generate more jobs. "Allocate me 2,500 jobs, and there'll be no crime," he said.

Will Hanna, president of the New Park Heights Community Development Corp., said the city had seen declines in its gun violence rate in the past few years. But he said underlying problems, such as living and economic conditions that drive crime, remain.

He said police have been working with the public and monitoring crime "hot spots." But he also said they can only do so much.

"Right now, law enforcement is not the problem. It is a lack of resources," he said. "You have 12,000 young people in the area, only three rec centers and now they're going to close the schools. It's just going to create a huge problem in our communities."

The Baltimore school district recently announced plans to close 26 school buildings in the city in the next decade.

Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts recently pledged to step up enforcement against quality-of-life crimes such as loitering and littering around Pimlico Race Course. Hanna said the implication that more arrests would be beneficial to Park Heights sends a bad message.

"The direction the administration is taking almost goes back to 'Let's just lock up everybody,'" he said, adding that that would lead to more men with criminal records and no skills.

The killings of Seals and Smith are unsolved, and police have no suspects.

Maryland court records show Smith had a arrest record that included convictions for narcotics distribution and armed robbery. In June, he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute narcotics and received a 15-year sentence with 14 years, 11 months and 26 days suspended, court records show.

Neighbors said they never saw him involved in drugs or drug dealing. They knew Smith as "Rick" and said he lived with his girlfriend and a child in an apartment in a large yellow house in the 3300 block of Woodland Ave. No one answered the door there Friday.

The home was just a few yards from where he was killed.

Neighbors said he had grown up without a father and had been raised primarily by an older brother.

Lystra Purcell said she could not remember a more polite boy. One woman said that she had recently chided Smith as he crossed the street to pull up his sagging pants.

He responded not with any cross words but by obeying with a smile.

"All I can say about him is he was very, very polite," Jack said. "So many young people are cussing and carrying on today, and he was so polite."

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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