Police say drug dealers often break into electrical transformer boxes to hide their inventories there, and the practice endangers children who find the ground-level boxes unlocked.
Two children suffered serious electrical burns this week while playing near 13,000-volt electrical transformers they found unlocked at housing projects in Baltimore and Annapolis. Both remained hospitalized today.
The 4 1/2 -foot high, green transformers belong to the local housing authorities, and normally are secured by padlocks.
But residents say the locks often are tampered with, leaving the transformers accessible.
Sgt. Keith Tiedemann, of the Baltimore Police Stop Squad, which fights drug crimes in public housing projects, said detectives began seeing city dealers using the transformers for drug storage about six months ago. It's now common practice, he said.
"What they do is take the locks off them, and put their own locks on," Tiedemann said. Sometimes they get access to master keys and duplicate them.
"Usually they lock them back up again and keep somebody close by to watch them," he said. But, if the dealer loses his key and has to break in again, or if the drugs are moved or stolen, the boxes may be left open.
"We try to let them know we know about the boxes, so they'll move it [the drugs] out," Tiedemann said. "I hope it's a trend and they'll just stop doing it."
Eight-year-old Terrence Tolbert, of the 1300 block of Tyler Ave., Annapolis, remained in critical condition today with severe burns he suffered about 6:20 p.m. Tuesday after he crawled into an open transformer in the Robinwood project in Annapolis to retrieve a stick he was playing with.
The Tolbert boy was burned on his face, left hand and right shoulder. He was admitted to Children's Hospital National Medical Center in Washington.
That incident followed a similar one Monday afternoon in Baltimore, at the Hollander Ridge Apartments project, Pulaski Highway and Moravia Road.
Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Baltimore Housing Authority, said Frank West, 8, suffered burns on his arm from a 13,000-volt transformer box while he was playing hide-and-seek at 4:30 p.m. Monday.
The West boy was listed today in fair condition at Francis Scott Key Medical Center.
Toohey said the box is "normally padlocked. . . . We're trying to figure out how he got into it."
Toohey said the boy's mother, Shirley Davenport, told housing authorities her son had been hiding behind the transformer box, when he reached to pull himself up and received a shock.
Harold S. Greene, executive director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, said yesterday the transformer box at Robinwood, which houses electrical and timing equipment for streetlights in the area, was last locked and secured at 8 p.m. April 19 after routine maintenance. Its locks were broken sometime between then and Tuesday night's incident.
Defeating the padlocks, he said, "required a person with more than the ability of an 8-year-old boy."
Greene said the housing authority is in consultation with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which sold the box to the authority, for ideas on how to decrease its vulnerability to break-ins, Greene said.
"We will be certainly be monitoring all these boxes very carefully from this point on," Greene said.
Greene said the injury of the Tolbert boy was the first such injury at a public housing project in Annapolis since 1980, when a 14-year-old youth was critically burned and two companions were injured at the same Robinwood transformer when they found a broken lock and opened the lid.
Art Slusark, a spokesman for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said the transformers are housing authority property. Such devices are common in housing developments and industrial sites.
Sgt. Tiedemann said city drug dealers once used project mailboxes to store their drugs. "But they weren't waking up in time" and the mailman, or postal inspectors would sometimes get there first. The mailboxes also were "too easy to break into."
The city tries to remove the dealers' locks when they're found and re-secure the boxes. "But, as fast as they can replace them, they [the dealers] are just redoing it," he said.