Death of 68-lb. angel shocked entire city

January 11, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

On those rare nights when city streets are quiet, and he has time to think, Detective Tom Pellegrini drags a large cardboard box from beneath his desk and meticulously picks through it.

It is a box filled with terror, of stark police photographs and related evidence detailing the murder of a child. The detective works slowly. The box weighs nearly 75 pounds.

The child weighed only 68 pounds.

LaTanya Wallace would have been 14 years old next Wednesday, and Pellegrini knows how best to pay homage to the bright-eyed little girl from West Baltimore: He wants to arrest her killer.

But that may never happen. LaTanya was slain nearly three years ago, and her murder continues to confound police.

One item in the box always stops Pellegrini. It is the girl's cheery school portrait, taken in fifth grade, several months before she was sexually assaulted, strangled and stabbed repeatedly.

The homicide detective stares long and hard at the photograph of the girl whose violent death incensed a city. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attended her funeral. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski called LaTanya "the angel of Reservoir Hill."

In time, the city forgot. The detective did not.

"I had hoped for an arrest, as a testimony to her name," says Pellegrini.

"I still go to sleep thinking about this case."


LaTanya Wallace vanished on a cold, dreary Tuesday afternoon in February 1988 after leaving the Park Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Library. Her body, fully clothed, was found two days later in the back yard of a house in the 700 block of Newington Ave., four blocks from her home and a few hundred yards from the library.

Her body had been carefully placed atop her red raincoat and placed near the back door of a church deacon's home, where it was discovered at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 4. The girl's blue book bag had been set neatly to one side.

Detectives believe LaTanya, an honor student who loved to read, was assaulted and slain somewhere nearby, and that the murderer carried her body down an alley to the back yard at night.

There also is evidence that the girl knew her killer and may even have gone to meet him after leaving the library, says Pellegrini, who led the investigation.

"I think this little girl fell into a trap," says the detective.

Police have one suspect, but they never have been able to place this man with the victim that day.

LaTanya lived with her family in an apartment in the 700 block of Druid Park Lake Drive, but the library was like her second home. On Feb. 2, she arrived home from school shortly after 3 p.m. and told her mother she was going to the library to complete a book report.

A cautious child, LaTanya usually walked the five blocks with a girlfriend. This particular afternoon, her friend couldn't go, so she asked a 10-year-old boy she knew to accompany her.

They walked down tree-lined Park Avenue, past the First Emmanuel Baptist Church where, two days earlier, LaTanya had proudly read the 23rd Psalm aloud in Sunday School.

Her funeral service would be held in the same church.

The young chaperon left the girl outside the rambling old Reservoir Hill Multi-Purpose Center, which houses the library, a day-care center and a mayor's resource center.


The librarian knew the girl well: She visited several times a week and often stayed for an hour. Normally, LaTanya began by playing "teacher" for a group of excited youngsters who would immediately surround her.

This day, however, she veered from her usual routine and seemed in a hurry. She returned several books and immediately selected four more. When the librarian mentioned that one of these books was identical to one the girl had just returned,

LaTanya pushed the entire pile aside and grabbed four new books, all side by side on the same shelf.

She then gathered her things in her book bag and departed after only 15 minutes.

The librarian assumed the girl had gone home. Ten minutes later, however, the woman observed LaTanya still standing outside the library's main entrance.

The next time she looked, LaTanya was gone.

Police have found no one who saw her alive again.

The detective believes the decision she made in that doorway probably cost LaTanya Wallace her life.

"Something took place in that girl's mind, while she was in the library, where she contemplated a rendezvous," Pellegrini suggests. That would explain her puzzling disappearance, he says.

"There was no forceable abduction, no screams. And who's going to notice a little girl in a raincoat with a book bag walking down the street on a darkening, drizzly evening?"


Police found no bruises on the girl's body, and nothing beneath her fingernails to signify a struggle. LaTanya had taken karate lessons, the detective says: If attacked, "she would have fought like a wildcat."

And, although she had been sexually assaulted, detectives observed that the girl had been fully clothed when she was stabbed.

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