Fears of violence strain blood-stained block

Fear is as fresh as the stubborn blood stains on the street in the 900 block of Bennett Place. Three men have been killed this year on this short stretch of three-story row homes, two within seven days of each other last month.

Parents lock their children inside and few residents will talk about the violence, worried they could be next if they say the wrong thing.


Resolved to stabilize the block, police pulled four metal gates across the street's mouth to restrict access and posted an officer there around the clock with orders never to leave unless a colleague radios for help nearby. They parked a mobile command center at the corner — still there as of Sunday.

Across the city, police doubled and tripled patrols in response to more than 40 shootings and 15 homicides in Baltimore in the last 10 days of June. People say they feel safer with more foot patrols pounding the sidewalks. But many at Bennett Place hold their breath for when things return to normal and police remove the gates and reopen the block.


"I've never seen death like this in my life," said Chanae Temple, who lives there. "After the police came, it was a breath of fresh air. They can stay here forever as far as I'm concerned. I'm wondering: Are they going to stay for a while?"

One night last week, Temple said, a friend dropped her off at the top of the block after a barbecue and an officer walked her to her front steps. She was thankful but said she constantly worries about the safety of her three children.

"I feel like a prisoner, a goddamn target dodging bullets, and it's not stopping," Temple said. "It's terrible. It's summertime and the kids want to be out here running around, but you don't want to let them out because you don't know where it's coming from."

While police battle violence, the powers of ruin and rebuilding wage war on her block, which stretches about a football field's length west from North Fremont Avenue to North Schroeder Street. About 20 of its almost 50 homes are boarded up while at least four show signs that they're in the midst of reconstruction.

A vacant rowhouse with open windows and an exposed floor of crooked wooden beams abuts a home with a clean faux brick facade and bright green awnings. Across the street, an occupied house with a red door and blinds pulled down shares walls with a vacant dwelling with "Dope Sick" scrawled on plywood nailed over a window.

Nearby, a trash can overflowed and a black cat sniffed at a bag of raw hamburger meat. Sitting on the brick steps of her row house, Temple pointed to a pink wrapper on the sidewalk and said it would never have escaped her neighbor, Maurice Taylor.

Taylor, 37, one of the block's homicide victims, was gunned down on June 23. While he had a record of drug convictions, he also was known to wheel a trash can up and down the block daily, picking up litter and reminding residents, "Y'all keep the block clean," Temple said. Her 3-year-old son still wonders about the man who bought him ice cream from the corner store, asking, "Where my yo at?"

On Friday, hundreds of mostly African-American men, tired of the murders, marched along North Avenue during a "300 Man March" and vowed to take back Baltimore's streets. The people of Bennett Place heard similar messages during a vigil for Taylor about two weeks ago.


Candle wax surrounds liquor bottles on a vacant house's stoop where a shrine remains in his honor. A rain-rumpled Bible is turned to Psalm 78, and a plywood board has been turned into a neighborhood sympathy card. "All kids miss him," says one message. "The block will never be the same," says another.

Leaning against the steps, a yellow broom and rusted shovel rest, symbolizing his cleanups.

Doors away, a man chewing on a toothpick talked about how much Taylor, who was nicknamed "Ill Rock," meant to the neighborhood. But before residents could finish mourning his death, he said, Joshua Billingsley, 26, was fatally shot in the head just after 5 a.m. on June 28.

The man, who declined to give his name out of fear, said he cannot forget waking up to see the victim lying in the street, his blood pouring down the curb.

"Right there. That's blood you're looking at," he said, pointing. "I wonder, when police move, is it going to go back to the same thing?"

Baltimore police Maj. Robert Smith, who commands the Western District, said crime trends will dictate when he pulls the mobile command center and officer from the block.


"It helps stabilize the area," he said, "and lets the citizens know on the 900 block of Bennett Place we are present and we do care."

Smith and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts have made multiple visits to the block since the latest homicide. On one of his visits, Batts said, he and his top commanders were angered that they didn't prevent Billingsley's death. It's a "known location" with a history of frequent violence, Batts said.

A search through newspaper archives shows the block has a lengthy history of murders, police shootings, cellphone and jewelry robberies, addresses for violent suspects, armed robberies and at least one shooting of a teenager. It lies on the border of two police districts, Smith said, something drug dealers favor so they can move a block over when one district's detectives are becoming too familiar with them.

The block also lies in one of the city's poorest areas. According to a 2010 Baltimore City Health Department survey, almost 56 percent of the households in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods subsist on a median income of less than $25,000, compared with 33 percent citywide.

The neighborhood has a 21 percent unemployment rate, almost double that of the city overall. Homicide is the neighborhood's sixth-leading cause of death, just above diabetes. Shootings, police said, often stem from drug disputes. Gang members also are claiming territory and extorting or robbing drug dealers. Residents told police a group of gang members was trying to pull in Billingsley, Batts said.

On one corner of the block, Chris Akpala operates the UAC Food Mart, a convenience store shielded behind protective plexiglass that customers can only stare at from a lobby. All transactions are made through revolving slots.


Nearly 20 video cameras monitor the store, capturing images that Akpala warns others he'll print out and pass to police if anyone tries to rob him or his customers or fires a gun in or near the store.

"I always tell them, if you shoot here," he said, "I will turn it into police. I will go to court. I'm not scared. My cameras are here. They have to stay away from the camera."

Images from his cameras of people "Wanted for Murder" or "Wanted for Violent Crime" hang on the store's walls. In 2003, he said, a man tried to rob him and hit his head with the butt of a gun, necessitating two stitches and a root canal. Akpala fought back, he said, and subdued the man until police arrived.

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He called the neighborhood's residents good people. "Most problems come from outside," he said.

That's what police believe, posting 26-year veteran George Smith in a patrol car at the top of the block. Smith said he has seen no trouble on his shifts, during which he sometimes walks up and down Bennett Place talking to residents and re-lighting candles on shrines.

"They're human beings," he said.


As he stood outside the gate last week, he peered out over the street where a handful of renters laughed and chatted when a revelation struck him.

"You know what this is?" he asked. "A gated community."