Gunfire punctuates children's play, stirring mother's outrage

April 08, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

Jamel Broadway is pretending he's Joe Montana leading the San Francisco 49ers to a close Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos.

As he and a group of his buddies huddle in the courtyard outside his home, Jamel orders a teammate to go down the grass for a long pass.

Suddenly, gunfire erupts down the street.

The kids drop to the ground and look around nervously to see if anyone has been hit. No one has.

As they watch two men sprint from the playground, Jamel and his friends pick themselves up, dust the grass off their shirts and resume their game.

For Rose Fletcher and her three children -- Jamel and histwo sisters, 9-year-old Ebony Williams and 4-year-old Nakia Williams -- violence has become so routine that the sound of gunfire or the sight of a dead body no longer shocks them.

They have seen several people killed on the grounds of the George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex.

They have seen apartments raided by police narcotics squads and children abused by parents strung out on drugs.

Yet the violence outrages Rose -- who has lived at Murphy Homes since she was 2 -- as it does most of her neighbors. Together, they talk often of the crimes. They read about them in the newspapers -- often finding the names of people they know in the stories.

But with outsiders -- especially the police -- they don't say a word.

"I don't say anything because someone could bust in my house and hurt me and my children," Rose says. "I want to go when it's mytime, not when someone else decides to send me.

"I don't want to have to worry about my kids playing outside."

But Rose does worry. She makes sure her children do not wander far from her front door. She never allows any drugs into her home. And if she leaves her children at home alone, she orders them -- sometimes with threats -- not to open the door for anyone.

Law enforcement authorities say the number of crimes committed in major cities is three to four times greater than is reported to the police. In public housing, the number is far greater because residents are afraid of retaliation by criminals and don't trust the police to help.

Baltimore's four family public housing high-rise complexes -- Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts -- are notorious for drug-related crimes. The police say about 90 percent of all arrests made in those developments are for drug-related crimes -- ranging from drug distribution to robbing someone for drug money. Four out of five of those arrested at public housing projects do not live in them.

The police say that people living in Murphy Homes are no more vulnerable to violent crimes such as murder or rape than any other resident of Baltimore. Rather, public housing residents are more likely to be victims of what are called "predatory crimes" -- such as assaults on the elderly or burglaries of their homes, domestic violence, vandalism or extortion.

Most of the residents are either young single mothers or single seniors -- easy prey for drug dealers and thieves.

Rose is one of the lucky ones. She has never been robbed, mugged, assaulted, shot at or threatened.

"I know who to stay away from and I mind my own business," she said. "And I don't trust anyone but me. The only thing that means anything to people is money. They want cars and nice clothes, and the fastest way to get it is by selling drugs."

"And they'll kill you if you try to stand in their way."

On a blustery night a year ago, Rose and the three children went to visit her younger sister, Tammy Fletcher, who also lives in the Murphy Homes.

Despite the chill, the children went to play on the balcony overlooking the playground while Rose and her sister shared a beer and talked inside.

Suddenly, Jamel screamed.

"Mommy, they're shooting out here. I think someone got shot."

Indeed, someone had been. When the police arrived moments later, they found the body of a 30-year-old man who, investigators later determined, was killed because he had taken $22 from a friend to buy drugs but had never delivered the goods.

Rose recognized the man and in fact had run into him in the elevator the day before.

The police said someone walked up to the victim on a playground 150 yards from Rose's front door and shot him once in the chest. The victim died on the spot.

Many of the hundreds of Murphy Homes residents who came out of their houses to watch the police cordon off the scene of the crime and do their work knew who the victim was and where he lived. Some had even seen the shooting. But nobody stepped forward to volunteer information.

"This happens all the time out here [in public housing]," said Detective Mark Tomlin, standing in the midst of the crowd. "Here we have 800 people standing from the rafters and gathered on the street, but no one says they saw anything. I bet at least 20 people out there know who did the shooting. But not one will come forward."

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