A 29-year-old welfare worker was stabbed to death in the crowded reception room of a West Baltimore social services office yesterday after an unemployed man who was said to have a history of mental problems angrily complained that he was being denied food stamps.
Screams for help from other clients at the Rosemont office brought an armed security guard rushing to the third-floor reception room as the man allegedly plunged an 8-inch butcher knife into the chest of the caseworker, the police said.
The guard ordered the suspect to drop the weapon, enabling a mortally injured Tanja Brown-O'Neal to crawl away from her attacker. Then, with the suspect still gripping the knife, the guard shot him once in the left shoulder and wrestled him to the floor, police said.
"When I finally got through, he was still stabbing on the lady," said Manuel V. Johnson, the security guard who attempted to come to Ms.Brown-O'Neal's rescue. "If I had gotten there 10 seconds earlier, I would have saved a lot of grief. When I heard the screaming, I was 75 feet away. When I got there, everything was over. I didn't take any chances, so I shot him."
Police said Ms. Brown-O'Neal was conscious and talking to co-workers after the attack, but she died 20 minutes after arriving at University Hospital. One of the four knife blows penetrated her heart, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The 34-year-old suspect also was taken to University Hospital, where he was listed in good condition last night and was under police guard. The suspect was identified by police and other law enforcement agencies as Johnson A. Thomas, who also goes by the name Arnold Bates and is referred to as Arnold by his family.
The unemployed suspect has scratched out a living selling junk, including cans he collects in a shopping cart, family members said. He lives in the back yard of his family's home in the 1900 block of West Fayette Street, using an overstuffed chair for a bed.
Ms. Brown-O'Neal, the mother of a pre-schooler, is the first employee of the Baltimore Department of Social Services to die "in the line of duty," said Shirley Marcus, director of the city agency. "This is a sad day," she said.
Yesterday wasn't the first time that Mr. Thomas had sought help from the Rosemont welfare office. And, it wasn't the first time he had met Ms. Brown-O'Neal.
A month ago, Mr. Thomas went to the office to apply for food stamps, said a department official who asked not to be identified. The request was handled by Ms. Brown-O'Neal, who told Mr. Thomas that he would have to return with more documentation to prove his eligibility.
The department official said that the suspect returned to the center yesterday and spoke to another social worker, who repeated that he could not get food stamps without the documentation. When he appeared dissatisfied with that answer, the suspect apparently was referred to Ms. Brown-O'Neal, who was seated behind a 6-foot-high partition.
Police said that the suspect began arguing with Ms. Brown-O'Neal, then pulled a knife from his sock or shoe and began stabbing her.
Other clients in the reception room began screaming for help, and one of two armed guards who patrol the building responded.
Mr. Johnson, a 32-year-old employee of the Watkins Security Agency, was standing in the front of the reception area, which contained more than 10 other clients, when he first heard people screaming, "He's got a knife. He's got a knife. He's going to kill her." He ran the 75 feet to the cubicle in the rear of the room where Ms. Brown-O'Neal was cornered with her attacker.
"I told him once to drop it. . . . Before he could get close enough to me, I shot him," Mr. Johnson said.
The security guard said that he ordered the man up against the wall and that he obeyed meekly. "He didn't sound like someone who just stabbed her. He was apologetic. He said, 'I hope I didn't hurt her. I hope I didn't kill her,' " Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson, who has been a guard at the Rosemont office for a year, said that the suspect had visited the center before and was there as recently as Monday, when he showed up outside with a pushcart containing junk, but that he had never caused any trouble there.
After the attack, department officials sent the Rosemont office's remaining 69 employees home, closed the office and directed clients to other welfare offices. The office is in the city's Rosemont Multi-Purpose Center, which also houses a neighborhood mayor's station and a senior-citizens program. They remained open.
Social services officials could provide little information about Ms. Brown-O'Neal yesterday. She was transferred to the Rosemont office about a year ago to help alleviate staff shortages there, a co-worker said.
A neighbor of Ms. Brown-O'Neal's remembered her as a "quiet but friendly" person.
"She has a little boy, maybe 3, 4 years old, and I would see them when I leave for work in the morning," said Kenneth Green, a 25-year-old correctional officer who lived upstairs from Ms. O'Neal in the 2200 block of Eutaw Place. "She looked like a happy person."
Mr. Thomas has used a series of aliases including "God," has been in trouble with the law in the past and has had mental problems for the past 10 years, said his sister, Harriet Penny. Other family members said that Mr. Thomas had used PCP and cocaine.
The suspect was released Jan. 20 from the state prison system, where he had served 15 months for larceny and assault, said Susan G. Kaskie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Parole and Probation. She said he was listed in prison records as Johnson A. Thomas.