Shootout victim's neighbors mobilize for change Rosemont's efforts honor slain 6-year-old.

August 09, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Bernadette Devone remembers hearing the gunshots, perhaps eight or 10 of them. She remembers seeing people running, and then seeing people standing over the body of the little girl.

It was one month ago. Six-year-old Tiffany Smith died after she was struck in the head by a stray bullet from a savage shootout. She had been playing with a doll on the sidewalk in the 1800 block of N. Rosedale St. near North Avenue.

The photograph of Tiffany in pigtails that appeared in newspapers and on TV became a symbol of senseless violence seemingly out of control in the city.

Bernadette Devone vowed that Tiffany Smith will not have died in vain.

In the month since the shooting, Devone has organized her Rosemont neighbors into an aggressive force that has commanded an audience with the mayor -- and gotten one -- and laid out a multifaceted plan for making their community not only safe for law-abiding people, but also flourishing for little girls such as Tiffany.

The culmination of Devone's efforts comes tonight at a community meeting to be attended by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, City Council members from the 4th District, heads of various city departments and police officials from the Southwestern District.

It begins at 7 o'clock in the basement of the Rosedale Terrace Apartments at 1801 N. Rosedale St., directly across from where Tiffany was shot. The organizers hope the meeting builds support from the community and City Hall.

Devone has been the driving force behind the newly formed Rosemont Community Task Force, but several neighbors offered their early support, including relatives of Tiffany Smith.

Devone summoned neighbors to her apartment Tuesday night to discuss a private meeting the next day with Schmoke in his office. Of the 17 people who gathered at Devone's, 10 were related to Tiffany.

Her mother, Charlene Miller, and father, Troy Smith, were there. TC They are quiet around reporters, but Cecelia Rideout, Tiffany's aunt, said the family appreciates Devone's tireless work. She said the family hopes no more Tiffany Smiths are shot down on the streets of Baltimore.

Devone, 32, is a professional organizer. She lives at Rosedale Terrace Apartments and works for the Maryland Low Income Housing Information Service.

Part of her job is organizing tenants' associations. That is what she did, more or less, with her neighbors after Tiffany's death.

"Tiffany's death was the catalyst that prompted more people to come forward, particularly in the person of Bernadette Devone," says Leslie Howard, past president of the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations, the umbrella group in the area. "The circumstances were so outrageous that people were sincerely motivated to make a change."

On that night one month ago, two gunmen faced off at opposite ends of the 1800 block of N. Rosedale Street. It was 10:40 o'clock. Many people, including children, were on the street.

The gunmen opened fire with handguns, at least one of which was a semiautomatic. They hit only Tiffany Smith. The shooters fled.

The next day Guy Bernard Wilson of Severna Park in Anne Arundel County turned himself in to city police. He was charged with murdering Tiffany. Wilson is being held without bail at City Jail.

City police spokesman Dennis Hill said this week that police still don't know the identity of the second gunman. But the case will be solved, Hill said; it's just a matter of time until the man's name surfaces, he said.

Nor do the police know what sparked the shootout, Hill said. They initially believed it was drug-related. The area is known for drug dealing and violence.

But all they know now, Hill said, is that one man didn't appreciate the other's presence in the neighborhood.

"That really brought things into focus for us," Devone said. "We can't be having our children killed on the streets like that."

The Rosemont Community Task Force plans to form a street patrol and block-watch program, to organize a cleanup day and to hold a softball game between residents and police.

It plans to work with city officials to renovate vacant buildings and provide recreation for children, and with social-service agencies to bring practical programs into the community.

Devone would even like to see the city send professional organizers, such as herself, into troubled neighborhoods to help residents reclaim their streets.

Finally, the task force has a petition containing about 300 signatures asking the City Council to designate the block where Tiffany died as "Tiffany Square."

"I know from talking to people who live around here, especially older people, that they're afraid," says Leon Hudnall, a member of the task force and the maintenance man at the Rosedale Terrace Apartments. "In some cases, their own sons are selling drugs at home, and they're afraid to turn them in."

But already, as word of the task force has spread, some dealers have vanished, and the streets are quieter. And the residents say this is just the beginning.

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