Video vigilante wages war on drugs

April 28, 1991|By Randi Henderson

In sharp focus and living color, William E. Roberts Sr. captures the action of his neighborhood on videotape.

11:34 a.m. 4-14-91: A young man in a red plaid shirt walks up the alley behind the 2000 block of Walbrook Avenue. Waiting at the corner is a young man in an orange jacket who raises his hand in greeting. Red plaid shirt walks by, barely pausing as he slips his hand into orange jacket's pocket, then keeps on going.

From his back window or front step, prudently clad in a bulletproof vest, Mr. Roberts commands a video-eye view of the world around him.

4:55 p.m. 4-14-91: A young man walks up the same alley, stoops down at the corner of a building and leaves a small package on the ground. 4:59 p.m. Another young man walks by the same corner, bends down, appears to pick something up, keeps on walking.

Drug trafficking is what he says he has been witnessing for years and now records on videotape. Never a person to remain detached from the activity around him, Mr. Roberts -- former cabdriver, stevedore, bellhop, insurance salesman and perennial losing candidate for public office -- is now proud to consider himself a video vigilante.

He has plunged wholeheartedly into the drug war with a weapon whose potency, he feels, cannot be overestimated.

"They're not afraid of guns," he said of people involved in the drug trade.

"They're afraid of cameras. I can step out and point that camera at the corner and it'll clear the corner if they see me."

Standing on the white marble steps in front of the Walbrook Avenue home he has lived in since 1947, one flashing blue light above the front door, another in the window where a sign proclaiming "Stop Drugs" is displayed, Mr. Roberts puts the issue in stark us-or-them terms.

"This is Roberts' last stand," he said simply. "I've got to fight it. I'm 64 years old, this is the only home I've ever owned. Where else could I go? What else could I do?"

He added, "For me, the best defense is a good offense."

The father of seven living children, Mr. Roberts has a personal stake in the drug problem.

One of his children died of drug-related health problems several years ago and another is a drug abuser, he said.

Mr. Roberts said he first became aware of the power of a camera years ago when he was driving a cab, packing two guns and discovered that a 35mm camera around his neck had as much a deterrent effect on potential troublemakers as the firearms.

For at least two years he has been videotaping neighborhood activity, including close-ups of license plates on cars that he suspects are involved in illegal activity.

But when he tried over the past two years to interest police in his tapes, he said he was told "to get lost. I could never get an audience with anyone in authority."

Attitudes have changed considerably, he said, since early March when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was broadcast nationally.

Suddenly amateur videotaping acquired a new cachet and when Mr. Roberts gave a tape he made April 13 of several hours' worth of activity in his west Baltimore neighborhood to police, he found them receptive.

"It's a nice idea and it's certainly a way to get the community involved," said Capt. Barton L. Beauchamp, assistant district commander of the Western District.

"Quite frankly, it has helped. We have been able to use his information, coupled with other information, to make some significant seizures."

"With the proper foundation, conceivably material like this could be admissible as evidence," said Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.

Many of the scenes that Mr. Roberts taped from his back window on April 13 and 14 are suggestive of drug activity, although not conclusive. As evidence of drug-related transactions, he points to continuous back-and-forth traffic from one particular backyard and people loitering nearby in the alley until a brief encounter with the person going back and forth.

Captain Beauchamp said he has little trouble believing that the activity could be drug-related. "There is a significant amount of drug activity in that neighborhood," he said, citing cocaine and crack as the most prevalent drugs.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the worst, I'd give it a 6.5. Two blocks down, on Pulaski and North, there was a quadruple shooting a couple weeks ago that was clearly drug-related."

Captain Beauchamp also warned that -- bulletproof vest notwithstanding -- Mr. Roberts' activities could be quite dangerous.

"Let's not mince words," Captain Beauchamp said. "He has really ticked off some people in that neighborhood that I wouldn't want mad at me." Mr. Roberts, who is now retired and working on a novel, has gained considerable prominence in the neighborhood through the years with his political campaigns.

Since 1959 he has run for City Council, City Council president, mayor, governor and House of Delegates. "He's known as an eccentric," said Captain Beauchamp, "and anyone who took him off, the community would get him if we didn't get him first."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.