City firebombing laid to drug dispute Retaliation trend alarms authorities

January 15, 1991|By Roger Twigg

The firebombing of an East 29th Street row house yesterday became the latest example of a violent new turn taken in the Baltimore narcotics trade -- the use of Molotov cocktails to settle a drug dispute.

The police said that nine people -- including six children -- were asleep in a house in the 1600 block of East 29th Street when a man who had blamed a resident of the house for having lost some drugs threw a firebomb through a front window at 3 a.m.

The two-story brick row house was destroyed and three adjacent houses were damaged, officials said. There were no injuries.

Fire officials and arson investigators said a firebombing in the middle of the night is being used more and more as a means of retaliation in drug deals gone bad. Last year, the Baltimore police said, there were nine such cases.

Deputy Chief Bob Thomas of the state fire marshal's office said that firebombing in drug disputes "is a significant problem in the state," especially in the Washington suburbs of Maryland, which gets the spillover of many of the district's drug wars.

Deputy Chief Thomas said, for instance, that in the first six months of last year, about half of the 1,000 arsons reported in Maryland involved either drugs or organized crime.

Many of the drug-related arsons are attempts at intimidation or retaliation, but there are also instances, Deputy Chief Thomas said, where fires have been caused by free-basing of cocaine. Those, too, are classified as drug fires.

State fire officials said the problem began showing up in the mid-1980s, and last year they began keeping track of it for the first time.

Baltimore recently sent an arson investigator to attend classes at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, where drug-related arsons have now become part of the studies.

But according to city police, the problem in Baltimore is not considered to be nearly as serious as firebombing problems in New York, Washington, Miami and Los Angeles, investigators said.

According to Capt. Calvin Johnson, a Fire Department spokesman, Bennett Haskins, one of the residents of the house, told investigators that a man with whom he was acquainted but whose name he did not know gave him some cocaine to keep for him while the man served a prison sentence. When the man was released, he came to the East 29th Street house to collect his drugs, but Mr. Haskins said that he had thrown the cocaine away because it was illegal.

Captain Johnson said the man just released from prison firebombed the house in retaliation. First, the arsonist broke the first-floor window by throwing a brick through it, then followed with the lighted bottle of flammable liquid.

Chief Johnson said one of the residents was awakened by the sound of the breaking glass and was able to go through the house to rouse the others. All escaped uninjured.

The arsonist attempted to set fire to the same building Friday, Captain Johnson said, but apparently miscounted the number of buildings from the rear of the row houses and sent two Molotov cocktails smashing against a neighbor's house. There was little damage from that fire.

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