Baltimorean's life creates arresting legend

April 14, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

The door to Court Room 6 opens and a slight, narrow-eye man shuffles in. His polyester pants and tie are a deep shade of forest green. The brown suede elbow patches on his beige corduroy jacket complement the two-toned shoes. His woolly black hair still holds the shape of the Orioles baseball cap he clasps in his hand.

In Baltimore's District Court, Alphonso "Pickles" Salter is the stuff of which legends are made.

"Everybody knows Pickles. He's been arrested more than anybody in the state," says Lonnie P. Ferguson, the chief clerk.

"Is he still alive?" asks Thomas R. Kane, a former city prosecutor who faced Mr. Salter on numerous occasions in the court at the Central District police station. "He's got a record that is so long at this point that now when they arrest him they won't even run it because it ties up everything for so long and they can't get anything done."

"You could wallpaper your kitchen with it," said District Judge H. Gary Bass.

If unfolded, a computer printout detailing Alphonso Salter's criminal history would stretch more than half the length of a football field: a neat, trim 61 yards that lists 303 arrests, 22 addresses, a dozen aliases, 10 Social Security numbers and two birth dates for the 55-year-old Baltimorean who has a fondness for cheap wine and a habit of disturbing the peace.

While no one can say for certain that Mr. Salter has chalked up a record number of arrests (a matter state officials consider not of the public's concern), courthouse regulars perpetuate the lore nonetheless.

The paper on Mr. Salter chronicles 18 years of scrapes with the cops who have arrested him for sleeping on park benches, directingtraffic in the middle of a busy street, sparring with police, drinking in an alley and exhibiting other behavior deemed unseemly.

And it doesn't include Mr. Salter's early run-ins with the law that predate the creation of the District Court in 1970, a career that Pickles says stretches to the mid 1950s. Nor does it contain Mr. Salter's court appearances since 1988.

Yet people who know him, like the Rev. Jim Martin, the chaplain at the Baltimore City Jail who has counseled Mr. Salter and discussed Scripture with him for nearly 17 years, say that "people like Pickles are not of the criminal mind" rather someone "who by chance is a victim of circumstance."

By his own account, Mr. Salter is a victim of too much drink.

"I've been in court numerous times. Not for nothing bad or detrimental. But for intoxication. I will curse. I will curse," says Mr. Salter, who makes his home wherever he can. "But I won't hurt nobody."

He is savvy enough to know the benefit of not appearing before the same judge twice.

"They tighten up on you," says Mr. Salter, "30 days, 60 days, 90 days."

Nonetheless, Baltimore judges have sentenced Mr. Salter to at least 1,845 days in the City Jail or slightly more than five years, according to court records.

And then there were the times, in the early 1970s, when he was delivered to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment and the four months he served in the state prison system, back in 1983, for a theft convic-tion.

But in the halls of the city's courthouses and behind the jailhouse walls, Mr. Salter is remembered fondly for more than the length of his rap sheet.

"He was an extremely alert, intelligent human being," says Rei Spinnicchio, a retired city court commissioner. "He knew geography. He knew gemstones. You could discuss pretty much anything with Alphonse. He had the most beautiful printing."

"He's very articulate when he gets into court. He could be a lawyer," says Officer Paul Boone Sr., a Central District policeman who has known Pickles since 1967. "The last time I saw him was up at St. Paul and North. I had to take him off a bus. If you drive a bus, he's the kind of guy who likes to lean over your shoulder and help you. Public Nuisance No. 1."

"He refers to me not as judge but as burgermeister," says District Judge Robert J. Gerstung. "He'll write occasionally, to explain where he was and what he was doing and how the system was working."

But the legend himself wonders what all the fuss is about.

"They exaggerating," Mr. Salter says of his especially long record, after a recent court appearance on yet another disorderly conduct charge, this one for cussing out a police officer at a Chinese carryout on Park Heights Avenue one December night.

"Every time I been to jail, I seen [the same] guys . . . there too,"

he says, referring to the accused thieves, drug dealers and other suspected criminals he bunks with at the City Jail.

And, in the past 20 years, Mr. Salter has become as well-known inside the jail as outside.

"He's not rude. He's not disrespectful to people," recalls Calma Harley, a counselor at the City Jail. "He will sit and talk to anything. He would assist anyone. He walks all the time with a New Testament book. He says he would not have lasted this long if he did not believe in Christ. Whether he's drunk or sober, he carries a New Testament."

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