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Crime

Crime Scenes: Four in graffiti spree convicted, fined

The residents of Oakenshawe awoke Oct. 28 to discover their historic North Baltimore neighborhood of Colonial-style rowhouses under attack.

A bright orange squiggly line ran from bumper to bumper along the side of a pickup truck. The words "Drugs Not Hugs" was scrawled across a double garage door. A swastika had been painted on a window screen. Even a pumpkin had been defaced.

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In all, 30 houses and eight vehicles had been vandalized.

Or decorated, depending on your point of view.

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By the time homeowners emerged to discover the damage — and spent the rest of their workday buying cleaning supplies and organizing a community cleanup — police had arrested two 19-year-olds and two 20-year-olds.

They pleaded guilty last week. Each was placed on probation for one year, and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and pay $456.50 — a total of $1,826 — to each of six victims who followed up with authorities.

For the Baltimore state's attorney's office, it was a successful case by a new environmental crimes unit whose attorneys, as part of a "community prosecutors approach," scoured the neighborhood to broaden the complaint and find new victims

Authorities described the spray-painting rampage as the largest since 2006, when Kenneth Ellis, known as "Oricl," caused thousands of dollars in damage by defacing light poles and buildings from Baltimore to Washington.

Ellis proclaimed himself an artist and was at the forefront of a subculture of "taggers" with their own rules and lingo. In contrast, the four suspects busted in Oakenshawe, said city prosecutor Jason Hessler, "were four kids who were bored."

That doesn't make much different to homeowners, some of whom spent more than $600 to repair damaged property that included a Mercedes, a Prius, a canoe, a mailbox and a fence. The marauders' palette of choice was garage doors — they marred 19 of them.

The community association filed a victim-impact statement with the court, quoting residents — "I've been violated," and "this incident jolted us," and "they should be given the maximum penalty" — and noting that the crime violated a quiet neighborhood's sense of order.

"Beyond the physical damage," the association wrote to the court, "we feel an increased insecurity about the safety of the neighborhood and our city."

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While this was more than your typical graffiti-style vandalism, it is the type of crime that many all over the city feel is too often ignored by police and prosecutors overwhelmed by shootings and other violence.

"This was an all-out attack on the neighborhood," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the community. "We just can't have that. We can't tolerate that."

From the start, police had their suspects nearly caught in the act.

Responding to a 911 call from a resident who heard noise the night of the destruction, the officers found the four people on East University Parkway. One cop saw one young man "place several spray cans behind him."

All four admitted, according to police charging documents, "to destroying property throughout the area."

Police at first charged the four with only three counts each of malicious destruction of property. But a newly formed prosecution team that works for the city's Housing Department, called the Code Enforcement Special Investigation Unit, quickly took notice and took the case.

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Detectives scoured Oakenshawe's streets and back alleys and discovered not three but nearly 40 damaged properties. Prosecutors dropped the initial charges against the four defendants and recharged them with new crimes using new evidence.

These suspects would not get lost in the system.

"This was a community prosecution approach," said Hessler, the chief prosecutor in charge of environmental crimes and code enforcement. "We sent out letters and contacted the community association trying to get as many affected people to come forward and provide information on damages."

As the case progressed, residents e-mailed each other, and Clarke followed up with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. The end came May 13 in a Baltimore courtroom, when Cameron Price, 20, Cory Anderson, 19, Lila Albano, 20, and Heather Byrd, 19, each pleaded guilty to five counts of destruction of property.

I couldn't reach three of the suspects, all of whom are students at Baltimore City Community College. Anderson's grandmother told me he doesn't live with her anymore, and a friend said he had gone to Virginia to work in construction to pay the fine.

Albano, who lives in Rosedale, said two in the group live off Greenmount Avenue near Oakenshawe. That night, they were at one of those homes when they decided to walk to a store for snacks. At least one brought along spray paint.

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"We were all sober," Albano said in a telephone interview. The visual arts major said she has no idea what caused them to spray-paint property. "We weren't really thinking," she said, adding, "My mom was really upset. She told me that's what I get for hanging out with those people."

Albano said she doesn't recall anyone painting a swastika and insisted there was graffiti on some buildings before they showed up. She has not talked with any Oakenshawe residents, telling me, "I'm kind of scared to."

She said she's been allowed to complete her community service at her mother's church because she is six months' pregnant. Albano told me she's done with "stupid stuff," noting, "I'm having a daughter. I need to grow up."

Sue Counselman, co-president of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association, declined to comment.

Hessler's team usually targets illegal dumping and housing issues. Rarely does vandalism become so serious that it grabs his attention. But this one did. Every resident in every neighborhood tires of the nuisance crimes and wants cops to race to their homes not just for people shot but also for trash cans being stolen.

The "Oct. 28th incident," as it's come to be known in Oakenshawe, certainly is well beyond the category of "nuisance crime," but it's still refreshing to see that this kind of crime still matters. The next step will be to see if the four young men and women live up their promise in court, pay their fines and give back to the community they damaged that one night last fall.


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