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Compared to Charles Village stabbing, little outrage for man shot in chair

Late Thursday morning, the green plastic lawn chair kept its vigil in front of a Formstone rowhouse on East Lafayette Avenue.

Cops had taken down the yellow crime scene tape. The coroner had taken away the body. But the chair where the young man had been found slumped over with a bullet in his head remained, long into the humid day.

A splotch of blood marred the seat.

Neighbors shook their heads when asked if they knew the victim. They shrugged their shoulders when asked why nobody had taken away the chair.

"Probably because it don't belong to no one," said Cathy Conwell, a 60-year-old nurse who has lived on the Baltimore block a dozen years.

Eight blocks to the north, a makeshift memorial rose on blood-stained St. Paul Street, the spot in Charles Village where Johns Hopkins research assistant Stephen Pitcairn was robbed and stabbed as he walked home from Penn Station on Sunday night after a weekend in New York.

Days later, city leaders and neighbors crowded the street and voiced their anger over the crime and their disgust over what many feel is a lenient judicial system that repeatedly gave a pass in previous arrests to the suspects.

It was a callous murder of a young man with promise in a random attack in an increasingly upscale neighborhood, by a couple who police said boasted about "hunting to rob" people and then bragged about having "hurt" a "white boy."

It was a volatile mix that injected race into an already horrific crime. It fed on everyone's worst fears and emotions, and unfortunately confirmed nearly every cynical stereotype that people harbor about a city considered more than dangerous and beyond redemption.

It demanded outrage.

But over at the killing scene on East Lafayette, there was no memorial, no gathering of officials, just the empty chair.

It remained there hours after the shooting at 12:30 a.m. And through the morning. And into the late afternoon. Finally, before dusk, someone rinsed off the blood.

The chair remained.

Old-timers still call the community Greenmount West, the name that's stamped on the city tax map. Newcomers have embraced the rebranding efforts of city leaders, developers and Realtors. They call the community Station North.

The promise is a new, vibrant, eclectic arts district to transform a decapitated sliver of the city into a safe, livable bridge between Mount Vernon and Mid-Town Belvedere south of North Avenue and Charles Village and the Johns Hopkins University campus north of North Avenue.

It's a laudable and necessary step toward revitalizing a broken urban neighborhood.

It is this very stretch that Pitcairn traversed as he walked from Penn Station to Charles Village in the minutes before he was killed. His precise route is unclear, but he had to cross Lafayette Avenue one or two blocks west of Thursday's shooting. He made it safely through Station North, only to be killed within the confines of his own neighborhood, four blocks from his house.

Station North covers a wide area, and East Lafayette Avenue is on the fringe. The block changes as quickly as do some city neighborhoods. Walk right onto Lafayette off North Calvert Street and you're met with an abandoned building with trash piled in stairwells and a sign promoting a public auction next month.

But both sides of the street are also lined with newly renovated, three-story, red-brick rowhouses with central air and fresh flowers planted in the window boxes. Walk further east and you encounter an abandoned lot with the usual tangle of weeds and debris, followed by older rowhouses that have yet to be refurbished. There is a corner liquor store at Lafayette and Guilford.

The block appears divided, with new houses and new occupants on one end and old houses and older occupants on the other. The man who was killed in the lawn chair was shot in the older half, where Cathy Conwell and her neighbor Dave Canty live.

Canty is an 87-year-old retired maintenance worker for Montgomery Ward who moved to this stretch of East Lafayette Avenue in 1952, back when the neighborhood had only one name, back when it was a good place to live and raise children.

"I've seen a lot of changes," Canty told me.

"But now, they're building these houses nice," he said.

Conwell chimed in: "I love this neighborhood. I've been here 12 years, and I've only seen it get better. It's getting nice. They've fixed all these places up, and people are moving in."

What kind of people?

She answered: "People with jobs."

Neither cared whether the area is called Greenmount West or Station North. In contrast to Charles Village residents to the north, Conwell and Canty said they felt safe, though they find the liquor store attracts rowdy misfits and thugs.

But Thursday's shooting wasn't the neighborhood's only recent violent act. Five days earlier, on July 24, Justin Kendrick was fatally stabbed inside a house in the 300 block of Lafayette Avenue, a block east of where Canty and Conwell live.

Police sources said the man who was shot in the chair was a witness in the stabbing of the man in the house and that he had spoken with detectives. Police were investigating whether he was shot because he cooperated.

The victims in Station North have drug convictions in their past. Newer residents to Station North, reluctant to give their names, describe the area as riddled with drugs. They lament the attention given to the stabbing in Charles Village, saying they, too, invested in the city's future and deserve secure homes.

The stabbing of the Hopkins researcher sparked outrage in part because one of the men charged had been arrested in April and accused of robbing a gas station attendant, but prosecutors in State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's office dropped the case when the victim refused to cooperate, saying he was scared of the suspect's gang ties.

That set off a fierce debate. Jessamy's challenger in the Democratic primary, Gregg Bernstein, said more could have been done to press the case, even without the victim's help. The first primary challenger to Jessamy in eight years, Bernstein charged that Jessamy "gave up on the safety of Baltimore and its residents."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III screams until he is hoarse about how he will accept blame when blame is rightfully that of his police force, but he wants others — judges, probation officers, juveniles, teacher, parents — to accept responsibility as well.

The list seems endless, but at the end of the day, it's Bealefeld standing alone at the podium, facing angry citizens demanding that he do something about crime. He's not the first city police chief to feel this way.

At the rally on St. Paul Street, Bealefeld angrily denounced the repeated failures of the justice system. Jessamy attended the rally but didn't step up to the microphone.

There was no rally for the man in the chair on East Lafayette Avenue.

No one spoke for the man in the chair.

No memorial rose on the asphalt.

Only the chair remained — detritus — the marker of death.

Stephen Pitcairn was killed for his wallet. Justin Kendrick was killed during an argument. Detectives think Emmanuel Thomas was killed for talking to the cops.

That deserves some outrage as well.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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