Accused killer's problems ignored,kin say A little of the city died with Tanja

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

June 20, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

"Dies the victim, dies the city." -- Jimmy Breslin

*

Tuesday dawned cold and gray.

Rain fell on the city.

And fell.

And kept on falling.

This was Tanja Brown-O'Neal's last day alive.

Tanja was an intake case worker at the Rosemont office of the Department of Social Services. She was 29 years old. She had a husband and a little boy. She lived with her family in a townhouse apartment on a quiet street on Reservoir Hill.

On her last day she wore a beige skirt and a red, sleeveless blouse. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail.

A co-worker stopped her in the hall and told her she was looking especially attractive. Tanja smiled. (Her colleagues remembered yesterday that she had had a nice smile, that she was always smiling.)

At some point afterward, though, Tanja told a girlfriend that she felt something terrible was about to happen.

"But that's not unusual," said one welfare worker grimly. "You often come to this place thinking that today is not going to be one of your better days."

Shortly after 9:20 a.m. something terrible happened.

Tanja was mortally wounded -- stabbed repeatedly in the chest by a client, who began shouting that he wanted his food stamps, and then pulled an 8-inch butcher's knife from his shoe.

The crowded reception room erupted into a cacophony of screams. Tanja, bleeding heavily, fell to her hands and knees, and tried to crawl away. A security guard shot the man in the shoulder.

Police say Tanja died two hours later at University Hospital.

Dies the victim, dies the city.

What was she like?

"She was always very attractive," remembered one co-worker. "Slim, always well-dressed. She was what you call a nice girl."

"She had a bubbly personality," remembered another. "She liked to talk about her little boy, Marcus, and about her man. It was 'my man, this' and 'my man, that.' And I remember she was very active in the AKAs [the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority].

"One day, she even brought her little boy in so we could meet him," she continued. "And it was so funny because he looked just like her. He was a sweet little boy."

"She got along very well with the clients," said a third. "All day today [Wednesday] clients have been calling here, saying how sorry they were that it had to be her."

Tanja's colleagues were standing in a small group in the hallway just outside the reception room where the stabbing occurred. They looked grim. Haggard.

They asked that their names not be used because they had been ordered not to talk to the press. But they were just as anxious that the city realize that a real person had died, that Baltimore has been cheapened by the loss.

"Either we talk about her," said one worker, "or we keep it bottled up inside.

"A lot of people saw her wheeled out," he continued, "her wounds all exposed. People were very . . . very . . ." he shrugged then, at a loss for words.

The DSS offices at Rosemont are on the third floor of what used to be a nurses' dormitory for the old Lutheran Hospital.

To get to the reception room, you go down a narrow, dim corridor, and turn left at the guard's desk. You enter a room filled with rows of molded-plastic chairs. The carpet on the floor is orange.

Business went on as usual yesterday, although many workers, especially those who actually witnessed the incident, stayed bTC home. Volunteer workers from other offices filled in. The state brought in counselors to help Tanja's colleagues deal with their emotions. The atmosphere was heavy with grief.

"All kinds of things happen here," said one social worker. "You get shouted at and threatened everyday. People come in desperate. With an attitude. They don't care what they do."

"We're always looked at as the bad guys," said another. "We're understaffed. Underpaid. They froze our pay and then took away our step increases. Now they're talking about making us work a longer workweek. Our caseload keeps getting overloaded. So it's very stressful and the clients blame us. Why do we have to work like this?"

At about this point a supervisor came out and broke up the group. He apologized, but said they had been given orders not to talk about Tanja. He looked as haggard as the others, wrung dry by sorrow.

"It has been a terrible, terrible day," he said.

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