In-custody death brings anger with police in East Baltimore

In a filthy East Baltimore lot used as a shortcut and as a place to buy heroin, community leaders and relatives of a man who died in police custody railed against the police Tuesday and called for justice in the case.

Anthony Anderson, 46, died in this lot Friday night during a routine drug arrest. Police say the circumstances remain under investigation, but people who say they witnessed his death — including his family members — believe he died from injuries sustained while being arrested.

Police initially said Anderson may have choked after trying to swallow pills in his possession. They revised their account Monday, saying the cause of death was unclear pending a full autopsy. Officials acknowledged that he had injuries, including at least one broken bone, but have not said what caused them.

The investigation could take weeks, and police asked for patience as they await a toxicology report and homicide detectives interview witnesses as part of a criminal investigation, which is standard with any in-custody death.

But an account that describes Anderson being manhandled by police has whipped through the neighborhood, and those who have had encounters with police say it fits into their perception of overly aggressive drug police they refer to as "knockers."

Activists leading the rally Tuesday — the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon and Sharon Black, who represents All People's Congress — said they want to use the incident to step up their ongoing protests against what they say is police brutality and corruption.

They've called for residents across the city to attend Anderson's funeral and march through the streets afterward. Small children held signs that read "Jail Killer Police."

"We are Anthony Anderson!" Witherspoon bellowed. "Anybody who wants to tell us it isn't murder is a liar!"

Eastern District Maj. Melvin Russell, a pastor who has a reputation for his strong rapport with the community, was among several police officials who attended the rally and spoke privately with the family.

Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who represents the family, later spoke directly to Russell as a crowd of about 80 people stood by and dozens more watched from afar. Gordon told the commander that any further discussions with the family would "have to get through him."

"Something has to be done. I'm sure you're sick of it," he said. "I can see it in your eyes."

Robert F. Cherry, the president of the city police union and a former homicide detective, said he had been briefed on the case and was "confident the investigation will show they did not violate any criminal statutes." He said cases involving police are investigated far more aggressively than others due to the intense attention and that the truth would come out.

"This is a tragic incident. Someone's life was lost, but you have to let the investigation take place," Cherry said. "Last time I checked, plenty of our cops have been indicted when it's found they did something wrong."

Neither he nor the agency would identify the officers involved, but Cherry said the union was prepared to defend them.

The case will be an early test for Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who was sworn in Tuesday, pending City Council confirmation hearings next month. In addition to Anderson's death, the city has seen 22 people killed in the month of September, and killings are now 5 percent ahead of last year's pace.

In this corner of East Baltimore, distrust of police runs high.

Even as the activists and Anderson's family prepared to hold the rally, an ambulance drove past to a shooting two blocks away in the 1400 block of N. Milton Ave. A woman approached a reporter as the helicopters swirled overhead, claiming that police had shot someone.

They had not, according to police at the scene. But the rumor had legs, as others could be overheard discussing it. "This is a war zone," one man blurted out.

Police later said the shooting injured a 23-year-old man, who was also slashed by an assailant.

Officers responded to shots fired about 2:30 p.m. and found the victim lying on the sidewalk. He had been shot in the back and had sustained lacerations to his face and forehead. He was conscious but could not move and is being treated at an area hospital, police said.

Witness accounts of Anderson's death vary, and police are trying to sort fact from fiction.

Family members and others who claim they saw the incident say he was leaving the OK Liquor Store on East Biddle street when they observed plainclothes officers run up behind him and slam him to the ground. They say he went limp, and believe he already was dead when an ambulance picked him up.

In a particularly dramatic recounting, Gordon claimed that Anderson was raised in the air "as high as a basketball hoop" and thrown to the ground. Gordon said a crumpled and dying Anderson turned to his mother and said, "God has taken me now. My work here is done. Take care of my family."

Jennifer Cheese, 45, who passed through the vacant lot before the rally, said she saw officers grab Anderson from the back and "tussle with him a little bit." She said they handcuffed him and sat him upright, but that he was slumped over and unresponsive.

"They slammed him, but it wasn't on his head," said Cheese, who said she knew Anderson through a drug treatment program. "They're doing their job, but they took it over the top. That's too much aggression for one pill."

Quintin Harris, 53, who said he saw the incident and had given a statement to police, said Anderson was lifted off the ground, though not as high as Gordon's assessment, and then kicked. "It was messed up," Harris said.

The intersection at Biddle and Montford is often lively, with groups of people congregating on nearby front steps. The overgrown lot where Anderson died is thick with discarded liquor bottles. A woman who did not want to give her name due to safety concerns, said that the area is a known spot for buying heroin. Up the street, she said, is where "ready" — street slang for cocaine — is peddled.

Almost everyone lingering in the area said they had been victims of police brutality.

"They don't have no respect for nobody," said John Melton, 42. "They can do or say whatever they want."

A man who identified himself as Anderson's brother-in-law recalled Anderson's last moments alive. That morning, he said Anderson had visited his mother, and was delighted when a relative gave him a peach to eat. Later, he took his 2-year-old granddaughter to get ice cream.

Anderson struggled with drugs for years, according to those who knew him. Gordon said his drug use was intermittent, but relatives said that was irrelevant.

His children, Anthony Jr., 25, Yvonne, 24, and Jean, 21, said he was a good father who visited them at their grandmother's house every morning. They lost their mother 14 years ago, Jean Anderson said.

"He might use, but he don't sell them," Anthony Jr. said. "That doesn't give them no right to kill an individual."

Anderson's mother, Edith Fletcher, sat on a folding chair and sobbed through the rally, as Gordon called the case "one of the most egregious murders we've had in Baltimore City to date."

"I didn't want to come out here. I can see him laying there," Fletcher, 67, told a reporter, then turned to a daughter.

"I want to go, but they won't let me. Can I leave? Please take me in the house."

An earlier version of this story misidentified Anderson's mother. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.