Baltimore homicide detectives investigating Wednesday's drive-by slayings of two businessmen in Southeast Baltimore met yesterday for more than an hour with federal narcotics officials interested in the activities of one victim, law enforcement sources confirmed.
Those sources said information about the business activities of John R. Shotto, a 52-year-old shipping and storage entrepreneur, had surfaced in an ongoing probe by federal drug enforcement agents. However, those sources cautioned that Mr. Shotto was a "secondary figure" in the federal investigation, rather than a primary target.
City detectives nonetheless met with federal officials for more than an hour at the U.S. Attorney's Office yesterday, after which both groups declined to discuss the substance of those meetings in any detail.
"I really can't say anything," said Detective Christopher Graul, the primary investigator in the double slaying. "You should talk to the U.S. attorney's office."
Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the case.
But detectives confirmed yesterday that they believe Mr. Shotto, a Bel Air resident whose shipping company filed for bankruptcy last year, was the intended target of the two assassins.
The two businessmen were in a parking lot at the Maritime Center at the Point Breeze industrial park when a General Motors-model car drew alongside them and a man inside fired at least two shots before pulling away.
The victims fell within a few feet of each other, their car keys at their sides.
Detectives believe the second victim, 38-year-old Raymond Nicholson Jr. of Prince George's County, was killed merely because he was with Mr. Shotto. Mr. Nicholson, a 19-year employee of the Hechinger Co. hardware chain, had attended a business meeting at the offices of a Southeast Baltimore warehousing firm in the 2200 block of Broening Highway and was leaving with Mr. Shotto when the 6 p.m. ambush occurred.
"We think now that he was a victim of circumstance," Detective Graul said.
John W. Hechinger Jr., the chain's president and chief executive officer, said Mr. Nicholson, a father of three young children who had worked his way from warehouseman to vice president of distribution, was in Baltimore to discuss a storage agreement with Mr. Shotto's warehousing company.
"It was nothing out of the ordinary. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time," Mr. Hechinger said. "We're deeply shocked. It was a terrible tragedy. He was a highly respected associate . . . a great human being who was loved by everyone."
Mr. Shotto died of a gunshot wound to the temple at the scene. Mr. Nicholson, wounded once in the back, was rushed by ambulance to Francis Scott Key Medical Center, where he underwent emergency surgery. He was pronounced dead at 8:32 p.m. Wednesday.
Federal law enforcement sources said that while they remain interested in some of Mr. Shotto's business activities, the motive for the slaying was in no way clear to them.
"It could have something to do with possible illegal activity in which there was federal interest, or it could be motivated by other business dealings in which the government has no interest at all," said one source close to the investigation. "We just don't know."
Mr. Shotto had been involved in a number of shipping, warehousing and other port-related businesses that ran into financial difficulties in recent years.
"We are finding out that he was not well-liked by a lot of people," said one police source. "It looks like a hit. Whether it was professional or not, we don't know."
Associates of Mr. Shotto said they believe his slaying may have occurred because he owed a great deal of money after his steamship company, the Meridian Ship Agency Inc., collapsed in August 1990.
According to its initial filing, Meridian owed about $2.21 million to more than 80 creditors ranging from large shipping companies to Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. Meridian said it had only about $200,000 in assets.
Baltimore detectives said they had no immediate reason to believe the slaying was motivated by any illegal activity on Mr. Shotto's part. The variety of the victim's business ventures left them with a variety of possible motives, they said.
"We're just getting into that," Detective Graul said.
Detectives had no suspects last night, but based on information culled from witnesses to the ambush, they are looking for two white men last seen in a late-model, rust-colored GM car. Officers were scouring the area of the Broening Highway industrial park last night in the belief that the car was abandoned by the assassins after the slayings.
The gunman fired two, possibly three, shots from the passenger side of the car about 15 feet from the victims. He was described by witnesses as a white man in his 50s with gray-blond hair that was bushy at the ears.
There was no robbery attempt and no communication between assailants and victims. Based on ballistics and the absence of spent shells at the shooting scene, police believe the weapon was a large-caliber revolver.
The Hechinger's hardware company has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect in Mr. Nicholson's death, and anyone with information is urged to the Metro Crimestoppers tip line at 276-8888.