Baltimore police struggle to close murders with few talking

Angela Holland seems to know just about everyone in her North Baltimore neighborhood.

She jokes with a guy hanging out of the window of an apartment high-rise. She consoles the deli counter man at the East 25th Street corner store, who's distraught about losing his mother two years ago. Without saying a word, she slips a few quarters to a man sitting on a stoop, who in turn hands her a cigarette.

These folks know her. And some of the people in this neighborhood, she suspects, also know who killed her son, 22-year-old Jerry Isaac.

Four months after Isaac was gunned down in shopping center on Greenmount Avenue, however, no one's talking. As Baltimore's killings have piled up throughout the spring, Isaac's case and many others have remained unsolved — leaving city police with their lowest clearance rate in years.

"I miss my baby. Yeah, I miss him. He was a good boy," says Holland, 52, shaking her head as she lets a reporter inside her tidy home. "People are scared to talk now. But this stuff has got to stop."

The declining arrest rate has come as detectives have had fewer and fewer homicides to investigate, with murders declining to a 30-year low. Baltimore's murder rate is still one of the highest in the country, and with each new case detectives have to pick up, Isaac's case inevitably gets pushed down the list of priorities.

So far this year, homicide detectives have a clearance rate of 42 percent, down from last year's end-of-the-year figure of about 47 percent. Counting just this year's murders, the clearance rate is just 26 percent.

If that number holds, it would be the second-lowest figure on record as the percentage of cases closed has tumbled steadily over the years. Seventy-six percent of cases were solved from 1980 to 1989; by 2000 to 2008, that figure was 59 percent. The clearance rate nationally for cities of a similar size was 57 percent in 2010.

"My detectives are working very hard to clear these cases," Col. Garnell Green, the commander of the homicide unit, said when asked about the clearance rate at a news conference last month. "The community can call in, help us out. Cooperation would be greatly appreciated."

Police announced three murder arrests on Thursday.

One was a domestic altercation; another was a fight at a boarding home. The third case involved the killing of 19-year-old Lacy Lamb, who was shot through a window while playing video games in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood. In that case, police apprehended the suspect, Sean Randall, 19, and suspected murder weapon at the scene but had to wait three weeks to get approval from city prosecutors for a warrant.

The explanation for the declining rate is complex, but police officials have attributed it largely to an increasing unwillingness from the public to come forward with tips in today's "Stop Snitching" culture.

Holland knows it all too well. She has lived in and around the Harwood neighborhood, north of Green Mount Cemetery, for 40 years, and people here know her as "Aunt Angie" or "Angie Pangie." Most also knew her son, Jerry, who was living with her and helping to pay the family bills.

Michelle Dill, a social worker at Isaac's school, said he was sensitive and likable, a student who struggled but was striving to "do the right thing." She remembers his graduation from Harbor City High School and how proud he was: after everyone had cleared out of the auditorium, he climbed onto the stage.

To an empty room, he began thanking those who had helped him along the way.

After high school, he worked at a McDonald's and sold bootleg CDs. He once got in trouble for that, and that and a scuffle outside a pool hall account for the only blemishes on his court record. His mother said he wasn't a gang member and didn't sell drugs. He was a "good Muslim," she says, a faith he began practicing a few years ago.

Police wouldn't make the detectives involved in the case available for an interview.

Holland said the word around the neighborhood is that Isaac intervened in a fight among some teenage boys a week before his death. While he was at the Waverly Shopping Center the day before Valentine's Day, another fight broke out involving the same players, except this time the other guys had guns. He was shot to death on the sidewalk.

With her support system, Holland knows that there are people who would like to take care of her son's death. When she walks down the street, people say things to her like, "Jerry was a good kid — this one's gotta be taken care of."

If her older son, who is in prison, were home, he might have even dealt with it already.

"All I'd have to do is turn my back or say the word," she says. "But I don't live that way. My son would. But I don't live that way."

Retaliation fuels much of the violence in the city. Holland is trying to be patient and let the police investigation takes its course, because, she says, she wants to see an arrest, not more violence.

But the case, with its constant reminders, wears on her. The fact that detectives gave her pictures and the names of some of the juveniles believed to be involved — she keeps them in a folder — sometimes makes her wonder.

"Maybe that's why they give you the pictures — [maybe] they want you to go do something," she says. "You never know. It makes me think."

Without a resolution to her son's case, Holland tries to stay focused and positive. In addition to her son's murder, in the past year, Isaac's father died from complications of alcoholism, and a longtime friend had a stroke last month, sending him to the hospital. As she fidgets about her home, Holland has the air of a woman trying to keep it together.

Part of that involves playing the lottery. When Isaac was young, Holland said, she sold crack cocaine to help raise him and his siblings. But her mother warned her that selling drugs would land her in jail, and then what would happen to the kids? Play the lottery, she suggested.

She remembers her first win: playing a jumbled version of a number she'd seen earlier in the day, she hit for $580. On her next try, she hit for $1,600. She took the kids to Mondawmin Mall to get new clothes. This was perhaps more than beginner's luck, she thought. She bought numerology books and now studies them to help her better predict the numbers. She plays twice a day.

Her best bet is the corner store at Greenmount and 25th Street, where she visits clutching more than a dozen numbers scratched out on a piece of paper.

Sometimes she sells the numbers, or gives people suggestions — spreading her luck to others. And now she's looking for someone to send a bit of good fortune her way and help find her son's killer.

Anyone with information on Jerry Isaac's murder, or any of the hundreds of open cases in the city, is asked to call detectives at 410-396-2100.