A Baltimore Circuit Court judge, who accepted guilty pleas from two members of the Guardian Angels charged with assault, has compared the self-styled crime-fighting group to the Ku Klux Klan.
An angry Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Angels, said he is thinking about pulling the Angels out of Baltimore. "We may have to leave," he said. It would be the second time the unarmed "safety patrols" left Baltimore amid controversy.
Two Guardian Angels and two former members pleaded guilty to charges of assault and false imprisonment yesterday, the third day of their trial before Judge David B. Mitchell.
"Guardian Angels -- that is a misnomer," Mitchell said. "Society must control every organization that seeks to control law and order.
"It is not up to you to decide when you will and where you will not abide by the law."
When Mitchell called the Angels "little boys dressed up like soldiers," one of the group's leaders, clad in an Angel T-shirt and red beret, marched out of the courtroom.
"In my mind, to this judge, I see no difference between what this organization is and the Ku Klux Klan," Mitchell continued. "If you're supposed to be my Guardian Angel, then I'll go in the other direction."
In an interview, Mitchell called the Angels a paramilitary organization that "operates out of fear and terror."
Sliwa said he may pull out the 15 Angels on patrol in crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhoods because of continuing "hostilities" against them by city officials.
"We cannot operate in Baltimore, where we are seen as the criminals," Sliwa said from New York. "The judge obviously needs to get mugged. Then he would welcome the sight of the red berets.
"This judge is talking from his ivory tower and not from the streets of Baltimore, where people have rolled out the red carpet for us," he said.
The charges against the Angels on trial this week stemmed from the July 24 "citizen's arrest" of James Lewis, 25, who received 40 stitches to close cuts sustained during the incident.
The Angels said Lewis was sniffing glue in the 300 block of S. Bruce St. -- in the same block as the Angels headquarters -- when they pounced on him. But police did not find a bag with glue, prosecutor Barry Watson said, and Lewis was not charged.
The Angels who pleaded guilty yesterday were Anthony "Metalhead" Smith, 19, of South Bruce Street, and David "Magazine" Ford, 24, of Greenwood Road.
The former Angels were Phillip Chance, 23, of West Franklin Street, and Kenneth Pettis, 25, of New York City.
Ford, Pettis and Smith received probation before judgment, meaning they will not have a criminal record if they complete three years of supervised probation. Chance, who had a previous criminal record, was given a three-year suspended prison sentence and three years' probation. They faced maximum prison sentences of 20 years. The judge also ordered the defendants to "get a job that pays."
Smith today said that prosecutors had no reason to charge any of the Angels with anything.
"We are innocent of doing anything," said Smith, a Guardian Angel for 19 months. "They had no right to take action against us."
Smith said he will continue to be a Guardian Angel, but will not be able to act like other members in making citizens' arrests. "I've got a rope around my hands now. Everything I do they will say it's wrong."
Herbert Vereen, the father of James Lewis, agrees with the court action.
"I think the judge did the right thing," he said. "I don't think jail will help them. They're still young kids. Most of them don't know what they're doing."
The Angels, founded in New York City in 1979, came to Baltimore in 1982 but left two years later after they were evicted from a city-owned building. When they returned to Baltimore last year, they were greeted by reports that the Angels left a huge telephone bill behind in 1984 and the city had to foot the bill.
Some Guardian Angels members say it will be harder to patrol now under the intensified scrutiny of their organization. However, most vow to keep the Baltimore headquarters open.
"It's important for the city for us to be here," said one Angel who asked not to be identified. "We're an added step of security. We're places that other security is not."
Bill "Rafael" Sensabaugh, 19, a Guardian Angel for four months, said the Angels have a lot of backers.
"I want to stay and do my patrols. So does everybody else. With the public, though, it's 50-50. Some want us to stay and some want us to go."