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After 43 years, inmate's death brings victim's daughter relief

Sam Shapiro with Permanent Campaign Headquarters sign on Cathedral Street.
Sam Shapiro with Permanent Campaign Headquarters sign on Cathedral Street. (Walter M. McCardell / Baltimore Sun)

Douglas Scott Arey went into a Maryland prison in 1974 and, despite decades of appeals and petitions and hearings, all protesting his innocence, he never got out. He went behind the walls when he was 24. He died on Easter Sunday at the age of 67.

Arey was convicted of killing Sam Shapiro, at the time one of Baltimore's most eccentric and civic-minded citizens, a businessman and chutzpah-rich Republican whose campaigns for mayor and for Congress garnered him far more laughs than votes. We could use such a mensch in this town today.

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Shapiro once told The Sun that Baltimore needed "friviolity," and he frequently attempted to supply it. Reporters called him a "gadfly," which is a newspaper euphemism for a disturber of the peace, someone who, with lots of flair and some degree of legal standing, relishes upsetting the status quo. Shapiro filed suit to stop the city's sale of the land for what became Baltimore-Washington International Airport, contending that the price was too low. He was proved correct.

He was 43 at the time of his death, married with five children. I've known one of his three daughters for a long time: Donna Beth Joy Shapiro. I've heard her speak of her father's murder from time to time and describe its devastating effects on her family. I've listened. I've let her vent. I've never known what to say.

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Donna Shapiro was in the eighth grade when her father was murdered — shot in the chest, his body stuffed into a steamer trunk, and the trunk dumped into a ravine near an interstate highway in north-central Pennsylvania. Arey, a former employee of his, had killed a man who brought fun and giddy joy to everything he did, whether it was operating parking lots in midtown or dedicating municipal fountains or throwing a testimonial for himself. Sam Shapiro once ran a "Polish sausage campaign" for mayor, staging a 50-cents-per-plate fundraiser at Polock Johnny's on The Block.

His brutal death came as Donna Shapiro and her sister Mindy prepared for their bat mitzvahs, and as their brother, Allan, prepared to be married. It was the horrible spring of 1973, "black ribbons pinned to our fancy white dresses."

Over the past 30 years or so, I received letters from Arey — he was a prolific writer of long letters and a self-educated jailhouse lawyer — but I never engaged in any substantive correspondence with him. (Frankly, too many letters, not enough time, and I gave my attention to other inmates' more credible claims of innocence.)

Until I learned of Arey's death this week, I never mentioned his name in Donna Shapiro's presence.

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He died of natural causes, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He had been in prison for 42 consecutive years. He was, among lifers, probably one of the best known of Maryland's long-serving inmates, in part because of his study of the law and his willingness to take up cases and write letters and legal petitions.

Arey maintained that he was innocent, and he had several petitions pending in Baltimore Circuit Court at the time of his death, according to Becky Feldman, chief of the post-conviction division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

"I have come to know Mr. Arey very well over the past 10 years," Feldman said. "He was very well respected in the lifer prison community and spent his years in prison educating himself, educating others about the law, and helping other inmates with their cases."

Mikita Brottman, a professor in humanistic studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art, got to know Arey from a book club she organized at the Maryland Correctional Institute at Jessup. She has written a book, "The Maximum Security Book Club," to be published in June by HarperCollins.

"I knew him as a very enthusiastic, interested reader," Brottman said of Arey. "He was a central part of the book club. He was smart and articulate. He loved Orwell, in particular, and Hemingway and Steinbeck."

Donna Shapiro sneers at such comments. She's heard similar characterizations before — at numerous parole hearings, where relatives of the victims are seen but not heard. She listened to character witnesses speak for Arey during his unsuccessful efforts to have his life sentence modified.

Sam Shapiro's daughter never doubted Arey's guilt. When she received a phone call on Monday with news of his death, her reaction was partly scorn, some bitterness, but mostly, after 43 years, relief that Arey was finally gone.

"While I will always harbor some anger," she said, "I choose to focus on being grateful that what happened helped shape me into a creative, resilient, resourceful and empathetic person."

On Monday night, Light City Baltimore illuminated the Inner Harbor and hundreds of people gathered there for the new festival, Donna Beth Joy Shapiro among them. It was the kind of event her father would have loved.

"It turned into one of my favorite nights of all time," she said. "I wish my parents could have seen it."

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